Happy chickens?

In: Uncategorized

27 Jan 2009

What is a happy chicken?

The question occurred to me while watching the awful television documentary by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a British celebrity chef, on Chickens, Hugh & Tesco Too. I won’t discuss the programme in general except to say it featured the Old Etonian campaigning against supermarkets selling cheap chicken. What struck me most was the several references he made to happy chickens.

You could argue that it was just a figure of speech but I think there is more to it than that. The idea of happiness has been hugely dumbed down in recent years. For Aristotle, writing in the Nicomachean Ethics, it meant an “activity of soul in accordance with virtue”. It meant harnessing the power of reason to attain personal achievements. For the Enlightenment thinkers who drafted the American Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness was part of a broader drive towards human progress. Yet the contemporary advocates of happiness seem to see it simply as individual contentment or perhaps a neurological impulse.

Fearnley-Whittingstall seems to have lowered the standard of debate still further by suggesting that chickens can be happy. This was in line with a broader trend in the programme of discussing animals in almost human terms.

I notice that Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef even more awful than Fearnley-Whittingstall, has his own documentary on Channel 4 on Thursday called Jamie Saves Our Bacon. His goal seems to be to do for pigs what his fellow celebrity did for chickens.

I am not sure what Oliver would make of the famous quote from John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century philosopher, that: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. Mill’s concern was not animal welfare or even human contentment but the nature of our humanity.