Religion & Liberty Online

There is no moral difference between eating Chick-fil-A and a McChicken

I am grateful to Fr. Ben Johnson for his thoughtful response to my recent post, “The social responsibility of Chick-fil-A is to make delicious sandwiches.” He adds some extra nuance, but I still stand my ground.

Fr. Ben begins with an objection I’ve heard several times now:

Friedman rightly notes that a CEO who funds a charity with the profits of a publicly held corporation spends the firm’s money, not his own. However, Chick-fil-A is a privately owned business, founded by Truett Cathy and owned by the Cathy family. The company represents their private wealth, and the family members presumably agree to these philanthropic actions, even if they reduce their individual profits. Thus, CEO Dan Cathy is not spending anyone else’s money; he is spending his own. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (St. Matthew 20:15).

This is certainly true. However, the point of the parable referenced is not to affirm absolute property rights. Many of Christ’s parables, in fact, highlight our position vis-a-vis our property as stewards of that which ultimately belongs to God (no doubt a view that the Cathy family shares). So questioning whether using one’s business to donate to charity — in this case affirming and projecting an image of one’s business as a “Christian” business — may still admit criticism.

Fr. Ben does note, however, that Friedman and I were not solely concerned with shareholders. As that aspect of Friedman’s argument doesn’t apply, these comments are more to the point. Regarding employees, he writes,

If an employer pays his employees less than their productivity could earn elsewhere, they will seek out a new employer…. The loss of the most productive employees will be borne by the employer. In any event, the CEO is not spending something that, by right, belongs to anyone else.

That’s fair, I suppose. Market incentives reward business that treat their employees best with the best employees.

As for customers, however, Fr. Ben writes,

That leaves the potentially higher cost charitable giving imposes on consumers. Materially, the amount of Chick-fil-A’s giving represents such a small percentage of its profits that prices are not likely affected. Competition assures that if the chain raises its prices too high, customers will patronize another store. Theoretically, corporate charity could impose a higher cost on the segment of Chick-fil-A customers who just want a delicious sandwich and can’t get the monkey off their back at any other restaurant (although it burdens them no more than if the Cathy family priced in a profit margin large enough to give privately).

This leads us to the elephant in the chicken restaurant: Many of its customers gladly pay a higher price, because they see eating at Chick-fil-A as a means of self-expression and charity-by-proxy.

Regarding the material cost, it may be minimal, but people say the same thing about all sorts of things I object to all the time. I object to sales taxes out of principle, for example. It may only be pennies on the dollar, but it is ultimately a regressive tax as it does not consider income, cost of living, and so on. A few pennies to some is “a few pennies!” to others. And minimal material costs are only minimal moral costs from a purely utilitarian perspective. Yes, customers can eat somewhere else if they like. The market, again, rewards and punishes, but in this case the owners were taking advantage of a market incentive.

Now perhaps some people factor all that in. When they eat at Chick-fil-A, they do so not just because they make delicious sandwiches, offer a clean and family-friendly dining area, treat their employees well, and so on, but also because they want to support traditional marriage. Here is where I think Fr. Ben and I ultimately agree.

a large segment of American Christians identify with, and eat at, Chick-fil-A precisely because its owners’ Southern Baptist beliefs find expression in their charitable donations. They are willing to pay more, because they see the brand as an extension of their own beliefs; by buying a sandwich, they are funding the causes the Cathys finance. The ability to express traditional Christian moral views, which are condemned by most organs of the culture, satisfies a felt consumer need which, if Chick-fil-A did not satisfy, another restaurant might.

Fr. Ben notes that Friedman acknowledges that responding to such market incentives is in business’s self-interest, but he stops short on the quote. Friedman goes on to say, “At the same time, I can express admiration for those individual proprietors or owners of closely held corporations or stockholders of more broadly held corporations who disdain such tactics as approaching fraud.”

To say that Friedman understands why companies do it is not the same as approving of it. At the least, it isn’t for me. As I wrote, “I get it. It makes sense. But I too admire those ‘who disdain such tactics as approaching fraud.'”

Why? Put simply, it obscures the good that business does. As Friedman put it,

In the present climate of opinion, with its widespread aversion to “capitalism,” “profits,” the “soulless corporation” and so on, this is one way for a corporation to generate goodwill as a by-product of expenditures that are entirely justified on its own self-interest.

His point, and mine, is that giving in to this pressure only perpetuates, rather than dispels, the false idea that a “good business” is one that does something more or other than the good that business as business does.

Businesses create jobs and wealth. They provide for people’s wants and needs. So long as they do so lawfully, ethically, and morally, that good is laudable in itself.

Chick-fil-A is a hard case. It is a hard case because the Cathy family didn’t ask for the attention they got. They didn’t ask to be labeled a bulwark of traditional Christian values, marriage in particular. They were minding their own business (literally), trying to follow their conscience regarding things like being closed on Sunday, when suddenly they found themselves in the middle of a highly politicized debate. Since that time, however, they have greatly benefited from that image, and it has become something for many — as many others have pointed out — from which Chick-fil-A’s charitable giving cannot be separated. Needless to say, this association was entirely avoidable. Had they not donated to anyone, the matter would revolve around the merits of Chick-fil-A alone.

Thus, Chick-fil-A went from being known as a business that tries to follow its values in the way it treats its employees (as being closed on Sunday allows them to have a day off, presumably to attend church if they are Christians) to being something more than all that, something political or, at least, politicized.

So I object to the Cathy family (or any other, for that matter) using their business, no matter what the market or tax incentives, to support any charity. Once one decides to use one’s business to support one’s favored causes — whether conservative, progressive, or otherwise — it is not hard to slip, rather, into using one’s favored causes to support one’s business. Furthermore, there are several alternative models for businesses partnering with causes the owners’ support, but that is a topic for another post. Directly using a for-profit business as a vehicle for philanthropy perpetuates the mistaken idea — a dangerously popular idea in our current political climate — that just being a good business isn’t good enough. I object to the perception, a perception that they in part cultivated, that eating a Chick-fil-A sandwich is somehow more virtuous than eating a McChicken. As Fr. Ben rightly put it, “Instead of the virtue signaling that conspicuous consumption allows in a woke capitalist culture, individuals can multiply their influence by giving directly to any cause they choose.”

To vest one’s consumption habits with such moral value is the very definition of consumerism. Eating at Chick-fil-A was no substitute for contributing to your own church or donating or volunteering to an organization that helps the homeless just because Chick-fil-A used to give to the Salvation Army.

Actually, to get an idea of how twisted this became for some people, what those people really seemed to think was that they were supporting traditional marriage because they bought a chicken sandwich at a restaurant that donated to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which does not perform weddings, marriage counseling, apologetics, or anything of the sort. The organization seeks to minister to Christian coaches and athletes (as the name implies), and it has simply been associated with the “culture war” debate due to its hiring practices.

At the end of the day, for me, if the Cathy family wants to support such a cause or any other, they should do so out of their income and leave their business out of it. More importantly, so should everyone else.

Image credit: McDonald’s McChicken by Jumping Cheese at the English language Wikipedia.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.