Is It Ethical To Eat Chick-Fil-A?

Chick-Fil-A has always worn its spiritual and social commitments on its sleeve (or wing). As a recent press-release explains, 
From the day Truett Cathy started the company, he began applying biblically-based principles to managing his business. For example, we believe that closing on Sundays, operating debt-free and devoting a percentage of our profits back to our communities are what make us a stronger company and Chick-fil-A family.
This statement was a response to the ongoing controversy about comments the Chick-Fil-A CEO made about the company’s donations to anti-LGBTQ organizations (which the HuffPost reports as totaling around 2 million dollars in 2010).
Debate about the ethics of Chick-Fil-A patronage has exploded in feminist, LGBT, and queer social media. If they are so actively anti-gay, if they are using the profits they earn from your purchase to support ex-gay “conversion” therapy, Focus on the Family, and the like, should continue to contribute to their profits?
This is a really complicated issue: it involves intertwined political and social problems, and it involves some thorny aesthetics-ethics intersections. The issues can’t be reduced to a simple boycott-or-not question. In fact, choosing to boycott certain retailers or products is often more about feeling a sense of one’s own ethical superiority, and less about affecting concrete change. (Especially in this case, there’s a lot of class-based snobbery about fast food.) No matter what specific retailers or products we abstain from, the alternative options generally aren’t much better—their problems may be different, but they’re still moral problems. Boycott Wal-Mart because of its low wages and discrimination against women, but Target has a history of donating to anti-LGBTQ organizations; boycott H&M because of their use of sweatshop labor and anti-union practices in the US, but American Apparel has some serious labor and sexual harassment issues of its own. Basically, no company, no product is spotless. Spotlessness, ethical innocence should not be the goal—it’s a futile pursuit. The issue is how to sort out the least bad option(s), all the while making concrete steps toward substantive change.
The Chick-Fil-A case is really helpful in explaining how making compromises can actually contribute to real-world progress. Homophobia is not the only moral problem at the company: there are employment justice issues (minimum-wage fast-food workers) that bleed into racial justice issues, there are animal justice issues (battery cages), there are environmental justice issues (what’s their carbon footprint?), the list goes on. As a UNCC WGST student commented on our program’s Facebook page, boycotting the campus Chick-Fil-A might jeopardize the jobs of the people who work at the location—people without college educations, people who need this job, people who have no involvement with decisions about corporate policy (because if they did, their working conditions would probably be a lot better). A boycott effectively says that justice for (often middle-class) LGBTQ students and their allies is more important than justice for the Chick-Fil-A employees. We have to think who gets thrown under the bus—and fast-food line workers are not exactly the most structurally or institutionally privileged bunch.
So rather than see this as an all-or-nothing issue—which the question of boycotting does—why not use this as an opportunity for coalition-building? Why not try to address all (or at least a significant number) of the intertwined justice issues at Chick-Fil-A? Wouldn’t it be more productive, more powerful, and, uh, more ethical, for LGBTQ groups to work with groups like SIEU (Service Industry Employees’ Union), animal rights groups, and environmental groups? It’s a many-pronged problem, and attacking it on all fronts seems like it would be more effective than attacking only one.
Now, I should admit that I’ve never actually purchased anything at a Chick-Fil-A. I haven’t eaten chicken since the Clinton administration (1996ish), and while waffle-cut fries do sound appealing, I usually only get fast-food fries after I’ve been out late dancing, partying, and socializing. Chick-Fil-A isn’t exactly the type of place to be open at 3am on a Sunday morning, so I’ve managed to avoid them, if only circumstantially. And, you know, I buy non-organic dairy, shop at Target, etc. etc. So please don’t mistake me for some paragon of moral purity. Cause I’m not. I’m not here to scold everyone into being as morally virtuous and praiseworthy as I am, because, you know, I’m pretty imperfect. But the point is: everyone is at least a little complicit. This should not excuse our moral/ethical imperfections, but it does mean that the road to better ethical practice is going to be pretty messy and difficult. As my students say, ethics is a dirty business.
But what if you do like Chick-Fil-A? Is it ethical to eat there? Well, yes, if you’re also doing somethingto mitigate the effects of the profits they’re getting from your transaction. That something could be donating to or volunteering with LGBTQ, labor, animal, or environmental organizations, it could be writing local, state, and national legislators about policy issues, it could be educating yourself and others about justice issues and what to do about them. It’s pretty common, and, as I’ve argued here, politically and ethically permissible to aesthetically enjoy something you find politically and/or ethically disgusting. So you can like the taste of Chick-Fil-A and still hate their politics. Like I said: this is knotty and complicated, and defies simple answers.
The important thing is to not get caught up in ideals of moral purity. These frameworks focus so narrowly that they obscure the interconnections among ethical issues. When we think we’ve achieved moral purity (say, by abstaining from Chick-Fil-A), we’re actually unaware of our complicity in other moral problems (e.g., are the labor, animal, and environmental issues any better at Wendys or TGI Friday’s?).