The morality of our actions is clearest when those who are affected by them are powerless to reciprocate or respond. We may be gracious, respectful and kind to those more powerful for many reasons, altruistic or self-centred. It is when our actions cannot be reciprocated that that the morality behind them is truly apparent. In an important passage of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the main female character, Tereza, comes to the view that:
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
If society were to pause to reflect seriously on our attitude towards those who are at our mercy, what would we find? Can we really say that our treatment of defenceless animals is morally right? Through modern factory farming methods we have systematically interfered in the lives of billions of animals in such a fashion as to obliterate any semblance of their natural lives.
Nowhere is our treatment of the powerless displayed as brutally as in the case of battery hens.
Three, four or five hens can be crammed into a wire battery cage each with no more space than an A4 piece of paper. Were an RSPCA inspector to come across a facility housing dogs or cats in such a fashion, they would be confiscated, legal proceedings would commence and the public would be informed of it by the nightly news.
Such conditions prevent every natural behaviour of these birds. Everything about their lives is artificial and cramped. Distressed, frustrated and competing for limited space, they will peck each other. The response has not been to alter the conditions that cause the behaviour but to deform the birds, cutting off much of the top of their beak, causing severe pain and sometimes death from shock.
The life mankind has created for battery hens must certainly be the most miserable, wretched and hellish experienced in the planet’s history. The one measure by which they are valued, their economic worth, has not served them well.
Their muscles weak from lack of movement and their bodies deformed from being forced to constantly stand on the sloping wire floor; these pitiful creatures who will never see sunlight share the smells and sounds with the tens of thousands of other unfortunate hens with which they are warehoused. Their lives are short, brutish and without a modicum of human kindness.
Perhaps the saddest part is that the infliction of such an existence on these birds is not necessary, and was never necessary. This life was devised for them so that their eggs could be taken from them as cheaply as possible. The battery cage system is the result of the evolution of agriculture where profit is the sole determinant. It is the cheapest means of producing eggs taking into account inputs and outputs; the welfare of the animals does not figure into the equation. Were a system devised that produced eggs by a cheaper, but crueller, fashion, it would be surely be implemented.
These small animals couldn’t be more defenceless, and it would truly be hard for mankind to be crueller to them. You don’t have to believe in equality or rights for animals to understand that what is being done to these creatures is wrong. It is a matter of mercy, from us to them in our position of total power, not because they themselves have asked for it - but precisely because they can’t. This act of mercy can take the form of the moment we take in the shopping aisle considering our choices and taking stock of what is done in our name. There can be no doubt that they feel pain, and that every single moment of their pitiful lives is filled with it. And for what? Pocket change.
We have allowed this to happen through a total failure to emphasise with their plight, despite the fact that we are solely responsible for it.
Through good fortune that we can never begin to comprehend, we have been born in the bodies and with the powers of homo sapiens. As humans our record towards other animals is not a good one. Through being endowed with greater mental capacities we are able to subdue, confine and control the rest of the animal kingdom - and we have done it - we have done it comprehensively and at great cost to them.
Refusing to consider whether they feel the consequences of what we do to them in much the same way as we would if we experienced it, in our position of power we have treated these animals without the compassion, imagination or mercy to consider the direct consequences of our actions. Unable to empathise with their lives, with how the world looks through their eyes, we have created, condoned and maintained a life for them that we would never accept for ourselves.
What we have done to each and every individual caged hen is a tragedy, and there are millions of them.