You might think buying cage-free eggs is in the best interest of chickens, especially if it forces battery farmers to change their practices. The total abolition of caged poultry farms would be seen as a major moral victory; at least for the chickens. But what do the chickens think?
As a philosophy professor who’s worked on food issues for my entire career, I’ve come to believe that questions of animal welfare are more complicated than they seem at first glance. It’s not a clear choice which of the possible living conditions for egg-laying hens – furnished cages, cage-free systems, free-range setups – serve them the best.
At one far end of the spectrum are those who say nonhumans cannot be regarded as proper subjects of moral concern. Some hold this on the basis of divine revelation – the other animals were put here for humankind to use as they see fit – while others deny that animals have the kind of subjectivity or experience that could give rise to a moral duty or obligation on our part. The 16th-century philosopher Rene Descartes likened animals to machines.
Eggs occupy a theoretically ambiguous place on this spectrum, as it is possible to produce them without killing any chickens. Nevertheless modern egg production does involve killing chickens. First, virtually all male chicks are destroyed within a few moments of hatching (though the egg industry is looking into technologies that determine the sex of fertilized eggs rather than waiting for chicks to hatch).
And egg producers will not bear the expense of continuing to feed hens after they have gotten too old to lay eggs. When the rate of lay declines, henhouses are “depopulated,” meaning birds are removed and killed. As such, those who occupy the ethical vegetarian end of the animal ethics spectrum are no more supportive of the egg industry than they are of beef or pork production.