Veganism and Futility

I’m so excited to welcome a new contributor, Eliot Michelson – a Ph.D. Candidate at UCLA who delves deep into the ethics of veganism and presents some very challenging worries. This is the first in a series of posts that Michaelson will contribute on this topic, and I hope you’ll stick with us and share you thoughts below as his questions lead us toward a more comprehensive understanding of our own beliefs and behaviors and refine the ethical arguments for veganism.

- Joshua Katcher, Editor

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I’m an academic philosopher by training and I’m going to try to offer an honest assessment of some of the more interesting, non-trivial philosophical issues surrounding the ethics of veganism. This will be the first in a series of posts on this topic. I’m going to do this one of the ways that philosophers sometimes tend to – by first offering reasons to doubt that one ought to be vegan. To be clear, I’ve been vegan for over ten years now, so that’s where my personal sympathies lie. But, as a professional philosopher, I will do my best here to divorce myself from such sympathies. My aim, ultimately, is to refine the ethical arguments for veganism by subjecting them to repeated scrutiny and then building them up once more. I’ll also do my best to keep this as accessible and jargon-free as possible (no promises, but thankfully Joshua has agreed to do some editing). As a result of the approach I’m taking, it may be that my posts serve only to piss off or confuse vegans and to disappoint academic philosophers. I hope not, but feel free to write me and express your disappointment or praise if you feel strongly about it.

So, today I’m going to introduce a worry I’ve recently started to have about justifications for veganism. In http://2.bp.blogspot.com/--OlUqv5DYvQ/T_sEiqg7T7I/AAAAAAAACLk/iNew_FlUWX4/s1600/confused.jpgsubsequent posts, I will offer some tentative responses to the worry. Before we get to the worry itself, however, let’s put some background on the table: throughout these posts, I’m going to take it as a given that the world would be a better place without animal suffering and death for food production.  I take it that this, perhaps in conjunction with other considerations, means that there is some sense in which we, collectively, shouldn’t eat animals.  I take it that a number of good arguments can be given for this: many (and perhaps most, or even all) of the animals we eat have various features (feeling pain, being conscious, developing loving attachments to conspecifics, etc.) that plausibly confer on them some degree of moral status. That moral status means that they have some claims on us, including a claim not to be harmed by us. Additionally, the way that we currently cultivate animals for food does massive damage to the environment (methane production, overgrazing, intensive water use, etc.) and also involves an unacceptably high human cost (repetitive stress injuries, and just flat-out injuries — often rather grisly — being commonplace in U.S. slaughterhouses), both of which I take to be very bad. For the time-being, I’m going to take the case here to be clear: we, collectively, shouldn’t eat animals. The question I’m going to explore below is whether this means that we, individually, should refrain from eating meat. The worry I’m interested in suggests that the answer is ‘no’.

In order to introduce the worry I have about justifications for veganism, it will help to first consider an analogous, but slightly simpler, case — one involving voting. There is a classic, and somewhat well-known philosophical problem that arises out of voting behavior, and which generally goes by the name `the paradox of voting’. It runs as follows: hopefully, you feel some compulsion to vote (you should!). Yet any individual election in which you have ever voted, and any election in which you ever will vote, is highly unlikely to have been decided by just a single vote. That means, in effect, that your vote was useless. What’s more, you could have done something else with your time instead of voting — something that might not have been useless. You could have exercised, or volunteered, or taken your dog for a walk. But since your voting was useless, wouldn’t doing any of those have actually been better than voting? Of course, if everyone were to follow this line of reasoning, the result would be very, very bad. That is why this is a hard philosophical problem — the reasoning looks good, but all of us following through on it consistently would lead to an unacceptable outcome.

Let’s call the analogue of the paradox of voting, applied to veganism, the `futility worry’. The futility worry basically tries to drive a wedge between the way that we, collectively, ought to treat animals and the way that we, individually, ought to eat. In slightly more detail, the worry is that individual decisions not to eat meat have no real effect in reducing overall animal suffering and death. In other words, such decisions are futile. If that’s right, then, given this futility, we might worry that there’s no real reason to refrain from eating meat. Our strongest ethical reason for such restraint must be a concern for animal welfare. But if any particular decision to eat meat won’t affect this, then why shouldn’t we go ahead and eat meat?

So much for the sketch of the futility worry. Why though should we take it seriously? Well, suppose that one is currently a meat eater. One could then opt to stop eating meat. But this won’t have any effect on the current state of things. Some number of animals have already been killed to supply the grocery stores, restaurants, etc. that one might frequent. Those animals are dead, and your decision to purchase meat now will have no effect on how many animals have already been killed. Therefore, if your decision not to purchase meat is to have any direct effect on animal welfare, that effect must run by way of your sending a signal to meat producers that fewer pieces of meat — and, thus, fewer animal deaths — will be required in the future. (Decisions not to eat meat might have some indirect effects on animal welfare as well — such as contributing to a social environment where beating animals is generally considered unacceptable — but I assume that ethical vegans and vegetarians generally hope their actions will result in fewer animal deaths more or less directly, by signaling the meat production industry.) Such signaling, by way of making purchases or refraining from doing so, is often called `economic signaling’. The futility can thus be summed up as follows: we have good reason to believe that, with regard to animal welfare, such economic signaling will be highly ineffective. And if such signaling is ineffective, we have no obligation to be vegan or vegetarian.

…if your decision not to purchase meat is to have any direct effect on animal welfare, that effect must run by way of your sending a signal to meat producers that fewer pieces of meat — and, thus, fewer animal deaths — will be required in the future.

But why should we take it that such signaling is ineffective? The basic problem is that meat eaters nowadays tend to buy their meat from a variety of sources — different grocery stores, a variety of different restaurants. This is no longer a world where meat is mostly bought at a local butcher. What this means is that when a meat eater stops eating meat, the economic signal accompanying this choice is `spread thin’ across this rather large number of meat-providing establishments. One more steak sold or unsold at a restaurant or grocer, the worry goes, is highly unlikely to influence that establishment’s purchasing behavior. Likewise, one case more or one case less of meat shipped to a particular restaurant or grocer may well have no effect on overall killing (remember, like most parts of our modern economy, there is a fair bit of waste in the meat-production system; some percentage of meat produced is always thrown away). Conversely, if one is currently a vegan or vegetarian and were to start eating meat, the economic signal generated would be extraordinarily weak relative to any particular grocery or restaurant. This decision would, in all likelihood, lead to no increase in actual meat production. But if we suppose that one of the main goals (and perhaps the goal) of being vegan or vegetarian is to reduce overall animal death for meat consumption, then we have reason to worry that the decision to not purchase meat is ill-aligned with achieving this goal. The most direct route to reduced animal death (having to do with eating habits, at least) goes via economic signaling, but the choice to abstain from meat should be expected to have little to no actual impact on the total number of animal deaths in the world — so weak is the actual signal here. But if we have reason to think any particular one of us choosing to abstain from eating meat will not result in fewer animal deaths overall, then it seems that we (individually) have no reason to refrain from eating meat.

Let me pause briefly to reinforce this worry about economic signaling. Whether or not there is a genuine worry here depends, of course, on how restaurants and grocery stores actually act. I’m no expert on this, but it seems reasonable to think that, typically, restaurants and grocery stores attempt to keep slightly more meat in stock then they expect to sell — so as to minimize both waste and angry customers (friends tell me that, in grocery stores at least, the amount of meat thrown away is actually more on the order of 30% or so). If that’s right, then one steak more or less sold is unlikely to tip the balance in any particular situation and lead a store or restaurant to order more or less meat in the future. Of course, in contrast to voting, it’s plausible that one might occasionally tip the balance. We’ll consider whether or not this offers an adequate response to the worry in a later post. For the time being, let’s grant the proponent of the futility worry that if one only has a very, very small chance of actually reducing overall animal death by abstaining from eating meat, then this turns out to be a much less significant ethical decision than most vegetarians and vegans have wanted to think.

Okay, so if you’re like me and a committed vegan, you might be thinking right now: shoot, that’s depressing. But maybe something went wrong in our reasoning above.

Okay, so if you’re like me and a committed vegan, you might be thinking right now: shoot, that’s depressing.  But maybe something went wrong in our reasoning above.  Maybe indeed.  In my next few posts, I’ll explore several possibilities for what I think may have gone wrong (I’ve already gestured at one of these).  Before wrapping this up though, I want to explore a possible response that I wouldn’t put much stock in: call this the `active involvement response’.  According to the active involvement response, the proper ethical aim of veganism (that is, whatever beliefs one might have about the healthiness of veganism — I’m no expert there) is not to reduce overall animal suffering and death, but rather to bear no direct personal responsibility for that animal suffering and death.  This sort of motivation for veganism doesn’t obviously fall prey to the futility worry, but it does suffer from some other serious deficiencies.  In particular, it seems to rest on a rather strange understanding of why we ought to act in one or another way.  Typically, if I am concerned with not being responsible for something bad happening to something, that’s because I think that that something is valuable.  Think about the way you value your close friends: it’s not just that you want to make sure that you don’t harm them personally.  Rather, you want for them not to be harmed, period.  Why?  Because they are valuable to you.  A concern with animal welfare that extends to only your own personal choices seems, well, strange.

Think about the way you value your close friends: it’s not just that you want to make sure that you don’t harm them personally.  Rather, you want for them not to be harmed, period.  Why?  Because they are valuable to you.  A concern with animal welfare that extends to only your own personal choices seems, well, strange.

What’s more, it’s not clear that the active involvement response actually does avoid the futility worry.  The problem, once more, is that any animals you decide to eat today have already been killed.  Nothing you do now is going to have any effect on that.  So it’s not clear how, in choosing to eat a steak now, you bear any personal responsibility for the death of the cow that you are now eating.  After all, the cow was already dead when you decided to order the steak.  If that’s right, then the active involvement response really is a non-starter; even with its strange view of value, it won’t serve to motivate veganism.

To summarize then, I think that the futility worry should be a fairly significant one for committed ethical vegans and vegetarians. It’s not clear that our individual choices actually make any animals’ lives better, at least in and of themselves. That said, I think that there are other good reasons to be vegan or vegetarian — and not ones having to do with the health benefits of not eating meat. Again, I would claim no expertise with regard to those, and if those are the only reasons we have for not eating meat, I will be severely disappointed. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s the case. In coming weeks, I’ll explore what I take to be some more promising responses to the futility worry.

(While footnotes seem to me out of place in a blog post, it is worth noting that the `futility worry’ as discussed here is an analogue of another futility worry, regarding carbon emissions, introduced recently in a Ph.D. thesis by Mark Budolfson. Budolfson’s discussion is also very much the genesis of many of my own thoughts on this subject.)

Written by Eliot Michaelson, PhD Candidate

Eliot Michaelson is a Ph.D. Candidate in philosophy at UCLA. He works primarily on philosophy of language. He has also put many long, hard hours into perfecting the vegan chocolate chip cookie, and believes that he is close.


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  • satelliterobot

    I admittedly haven’t read much on the futility argument, but I’ll have a go at responding…We are morally obligated to vote because we have no way of knowing ahead of time if our vote will be the deciding one. I think the situation is similar with meat consumption. I think you’re right enough that meat suppliers will not change their orders based on the 0.00001% decrease in demand that will follow from your decision to not buy meat on a given occasion. However, I also think meat suppliers likely do alter their orders when a certain critical mass is reached – i.e. if they go from throwing out 30% of their meat stock to 35%. You have no way of knowing if any given purchase you make will be part of the critical mass that will cause the meat supplier to increase or decrease their order. So while eating meat does not guarantee increased harm, we remain obligated to avoid it because of its unknown potential (even if minute) to increase harm. Note: just responding to the basic futility argument here, not addressing the goodness or badness of any other pro-vegan arguments. Also was too lazy to read the other comments, so apologies for redundancy. Thanks for writing this Eliot – I’ll be sure to read future contributions!

  • Guest

    Thanks a lot for the post, Eliot, this is a great read.

    I have a couple of thoughts, with a couple of caveats to go with them:

    (1) Apologies if I’m repeating or glossing over issues that have already been discussed below, I haven’t read every single comment; (2) I’ve tried not to jump the gun on some of your future posts — some of the below thoughts border on (well shoot, maybe they just are) responses to he futility issue, so I hope that’s alright.

    1. I think that what your quasi-footnote points to (about the futility argument’s iteration in terms of carbon emissions) is that the futility worry is transferable to just about any walk of life. In fact, it’s very difficult to think of decisions we make, even on a local, day-to-day basis, that are not subject to this worry. Am I to only change my behavior if I can directly see, from a first-person perspective, the difference my shift will make? This seems impractical. Your analysis about how today’s grocers are different from the days when people would buy their meat from a local butcher makes me wonder if even the local butcher scenario would get us out of the futility worry. Or, indeed, would any scenario avoid this pitfall, apart from individual consumers buying meat or animal products directly from the farms/ individuals who raised the animals themselves?

    The implication is that if there’s no non-arbitrary way of saying how long or complex a chain of events has to be before it qualifies for the futility concern, maybe this is grounds for ignoring the concern altogether in the vast majority of instances. (E.g. It still must be reasonable to say that calling Californians at random and telling them to vote for Obama [or Texas and Romney] would be a futile exercise in influencing the 2012 presidential election. The risk of changing the outcome with this strategy is virtually 0%, and we know this because we can discern the structure of the electoral college. The point being, at least veganism has some kind of risk of changing the system because it usually models a set of values for others to adopt, e.g., and its efficacy isn’t structurally precluded by the system, only minimized.)

    2. I think it may be important to note that the ethical paradigm through which one views the futility problem makes a huge difference. You’ve posed the problem (at least most directly) for the act utilitarian who is generically concerned about maximizing good outcomes — but I’m not sure if adherents to other ethical viewpoints couldn’t just (more or less) fiat the futility concern away by virtue of the structure of their moral theory. For example, a rule utilitarian might simply not care about the futility worry because it’s not about the specific act of not buying animal products, and the good or bad that this act creates. Instead, it’s the net goodness (or badness) that would come about from society following the rule of not buying animal products (and surely everyone changing their habits would be a sufficient signal!).

    Also, might a deontologist, virtue ethicist, etc. have different ways of framing the futility worry, if indeed it would be a worry for them at all? If you’re just speaking to act utilitarianism, that makes sense, I just wanted to raise the ethical framework point.

    • Eliot Michaelson

      Hi DMcNeil,

      I’ll reply to each of your two worries separately:

      1. I disagree that this worry is as widely applicable as you seem to think. All sorts of interpersonal interactions certainly won’t be subject to the worry. So, for example, if my friend Sarah and I are getting coffee and I have forgotten my wallet, she can either lend me some cash, or she can choose not to. That choice has pretty direct effects on my well-being, and potentially serious ones depending on how early in the morning it is. I don’t think there’s any version of the futility worry we’re going to be able to run on this case; Sarah really has a choice about how to treat me, and that choice will have a pretty direct effect on my life.

      Now, I do agree that the worry is generalizable to many of our interactions with the large (and even medium) scale social and economic systems of which we are a part, but over which we, individually, can exert little or no control. That’s right. So, carbon emissions, labor standards, voting — these are all going to be subject to a version of the futility worry. There are different lessons we could try to draw from this, but one might be that complicity with bad systems is trickier than many of us might initially have thought. The true nastiness of a bad system is, possibly, that it offers you very little in the way of options for opting out. It’s not clear to me that this is an objection to the worry, however, so much as it is a reason to think that the modern human condition is one where it is very, very difficult to have a positive impact in the way that many of us would like to think we do. All the more reason to think about how we might go about changing that, systemically.

      As to your last point about veganism at least having the potential to incite change: I’m sympathetic to this idea, but I have worries about it as well. Here’s one: I doubt that we (as vegans) will ever be rhetorically effective enough to get more than, say, 5% of the population to stop eating meat. The habits are just too ingrained. (I’d love to be wrong about this by the way.) But, if we were to view this as a political problem, rather than as an individual one, it’s possible that there are strategies that we could undertake that would have a larger impact on meat consumption. Carbon pricing, for instance, would make meat far more expensive. That should, as far as we know, reduce consumption. Possibly even quite dramatically. What’s more, a wide array of people are in favor of a carbon tax — far more than are vegetarian. Sane water pricing in certain areas would have similar effects. Or an end to subsidies to the meat industry. My worry is that because we tend to think of eating meat as an individual choice, we actually undermine our political will with regard to making the sorts of large-scale political changes that would actually increase animal welfare in a significant sense. So there’s at least the sketch of an argument for why it’s not clear that the example-setting effects of veganism are as important as many of us (myself included, often times) tend to think.

      2. I hope I was careful not to frame this in terms of act utilitarianism! And I don’t think I did. Rather, I did frame the problem as one of animal suffering and causal connections to that, which makes sense within a broadly consequentialist framework. But I certainly don’t mean to endorse that happiness (or, worse yet, utils) are the relevant measure of the goodness or badness of the world. I don’t know what the best measure is; I am fairly sure, however, that by whatever measure of consequences we want to apply, animal suffering and death is going to rank pretty high in terms of badness.

      That said, you are right that I didn’t address what we might call ‘rule-consequentialists’. Rule-consequentialists are going to be concerned with setting forth the best rules to maximize good consequences and minimize bad ones, whatever those are. And, again, we’ll just agree that animal suffering and death (maybe, particularly when carried brought about intentionally by us) is very bad, so veganism might be one such rule. The problem is that rule-consequentialists face a broad problem explaining why consequence-neutral cheating is bad. They’re right in thinking that if everyone cheated then things would be worse. But, again, we’re interested here in the practical question of “Why is it bad for me to cheat here and now?” And if the cheating is consequence-neutral (as I’ve already argued it is), then the rule-consequentialist needs an answer to that question in all earnestness. Now, rule- consequentialists have tried to develop answers to this sort of question. But I’ll just put my cards on the table and say that I’ve never found any of them very convincing. If you want to float one that you find particularly satisfying, be my guest. Perhaps I just haven’t seen the right way of shoring up the argument yet. But I’m doubtful. The problem is that the justification of the rules is grounded in their effects on the overall state of the world, but here we’ve already granted that the relevant cheating is neutral with respect to that world-state.

      Now, it’s true that Kantians and virtue theorists are a whole different can of worms. I’m going to punt on Kantians, since that’s going to be the topic of my next post (coming soon, I swear!). And I’ll end up talking at greater length about virtue theorists down the line as well. For now, I’m just going to settle for a blatant intuition pump: look, I became a vegetarian, and then a vegan, not because I wanted to be a part of some social movement or because I wanted to inspire others, but because I wanted to cause less animal death and suffering! If my justification for not eating meat starts to run completely independently of my thinking that I might have some effect on the actual bad things that are happening to animals around me, doesn’t that seem a bit odd? It certainly does to me.

      Now, that’s not to say that we should actually dismiss either of these positions that quickly, but I do think it’s a real worry. And, as I said, I’m going to spend some subsequent posts thinking about these types of arguments for veganism, and their relationship to the futility worry, in more detail. So, for now, I’m going to leave things at that.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • DMcNeil

        Thank you for replying in such detail, Eliot (your coffee-enabling friend tells me things are awfully busy; I really do appreciate your time).

        1) Re: universalizing the futility worry. I agree that individual-to-individual actions can clearly have direct consequences, of course. But if every individual-to-institution action (or at least, lots of them, per the examples you give) leads to a situation where we can never be sure if we’re positively influencing outcomes, my point is just that we have another option besides reevaluating our actions and why we act. We could also evaluate whether the worry is really a meaningful one that should direct or alter our choices related to those individual-to-institution choices.

        Here’s an example that might make the point more clear: Ohio is statistically far and away the most likely state to decide the 2012 presidential race. Despite this fact, millions of voters from other states–many of whose electoral votes are a forgone conclusion, by all predictions–are going to vote in their respective states on this coming Tuesday. It’s a clear example of the futility worry for these voters, one which builds on the straightforward instance of the futility worry in a popular vote election–for these voters, it’s not just that they might not be the one decisive vote, it’s that the nature of the electoral college structurally renders their vote virtually meaningless, even if they do beat the astronomical odds and cast the decisive ballot in their state.

        What are we to say to these non-Ohioans? I think they have a similar choice that the vegan has in her version of the utility worry. The voters have been structurally precluded from influencing an outcome; so too has the vegan by things like grocery stores buying excess meat. In both cases, signaling is (almost certainly) precluded. And my point here is simply that I don’t think it suffices to say that the only good thing we can really do is make some systemic change (e.g. abolish the electoral college) happen. Though people in those non-Ohio states might wish the system were different, pragmatically there’s really nothing they can do about it, probably in their lifetime. But this “tricky” situation doesn’t mean they should stop voting, right?

        So I guess I should backtrack from saying that the futility worry is worthless- it tells us, in eating habits as in voting, that broad systemic change would be the ideal outcome. But since that kind of institutional change will take such a long time, my concern is that the futility worry isn’t telling us anything meaningful/ practical about individual-to-institution choices. Sure, political change will have more effect than just you or I being vegan. But that’s always a given. With individual choices, there’s still *some* chance of signaling; there’s still *some* chance of influencing the outcome of the election (however terribly slim in both cases), so people should still vote and be vegans. If it’s consequences you’re concerned about, and you believe that being a vegan offers a greater chance than random action X of reducing harmful practices, that’s reason enough even if more broad institutional change would be be better, isn’t it?

        2) Fair enough, I shouldn’t pigeonhole you into counting utils all day. Broad consequentialism it is. But my larger point is just that the futility worry is not even going to appear on the horizon for many (probably even most, or all!) rule consequentialists, Kantians (I don’t think Koorsgaard’s account of a Kantian basis for respecting animals would care one bit about economic signaling), and virtue ethicists. The strength of the futility worry’s point is entirely dependent on our ethical framework, and not all paradigms care about consequences in the way that you do, even if you’re not counting utils. It’s simple enough to say that everyone must care about the consequences of their actions to some extent, but I think that’s just too much of a cop out for why non-consequentialists would give the futility worry the same importance. (Although I certainly agree that the futility worry still has intuitive pull for a lot of people, I think that’s because those intuitions are already consequentialist for many people. So hey, maybe this objection has no practical implication.)

        As for specific problems with the framework of rule consequentialism itself, I think there are a couple ways of dealing with your worry (I’m not well-versed in this stuff though so feel free to blow these arguments off, honestly).
        (1) Yes, the rule consequentialist needs to say why the specific act of consequence-neutral cheating is bad, not cheating in general. So it looks like we can’t reject intuitively unethical things with RC. But actually, I think this kind of situation is exactly one of the strengths of RC! Because if we made it a rule that everyone could cheat in that exact situation, it would no longer be consequence neutral. Now I know the alarm bells are probably going off for me cheating on the thought experiment, but I don’t think I am. The whole point of consequence universalization (asking what the outcome would be if everyone did X action in Y situation) is that unlike when you just look at consequences of specific actions, you get to ask what would happen when something new is introduced–the fact that *everyone* in the *same* situation follows that rule. And when we ask that question, I don’t think the focus is on universalizing the consequences of that first action–that seems backwards. I think the focus is on looking at what would happen if everyone did the action first, and then looking at the consequences of *that* (the situation where everyone does the action). And if this is our paradigm for evaluating whether the cheating in that specific situation is bad, I think RC will reject the cheating every time (an advantage over the act consequentialist, who would look at the one neutral instance, isolate it, and condone it in).

        (2) If the cheating is really truly consequence neutral, I’m actually not totally sure why we want an ethical theory that rejects it. I’m not endorsing cheating here, because I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a case of cheating (or any action, for that matter) that is actually, truly, consequence neutral. So even if I am wrong in #1 and you’re right that RC universalizes consequences of specific acts and not actions themselves, it’s unclear to me why this is such a huge problem. Maybe once in a blue moon, someone gets to blatantly plagiarize their entire animal ethics midterm essay, or take off from work early, etc. But doesn’t this being an abhorrent outcome presume that you’re operating under some other framework (virtue ethics comes to mind) that could have its own set of potentially bigger problems? And, if you think that everyone should be concerned about the consequences of their actions in some respect no matter what specific ethic they subscribe to (as you hint at in pumping the ol’ intuition), isn’t this problem non-unique to RC? In other words, if all of ethics is in some sense consequentially based, which ethical theory do you have in mind that would reject consequence-neutral cheating?

        Thanks again! Looking forward to future posts.

        • Eliot Michaelson

          Okay, cool. I’m going to take these in turn again.

          (1) As I understand your point, it’s basically this: the futility worry plausibly applies to a huge range of things in our daily lives — eating animals, driving cars, voting, flying, buying manufactured goods, etc. And, in each of these cases, it seems to suggest that maybe it’s permissible to do the things that many of us, intuitively, think are bad: failing to vote, driving a lot, eating meat, etc. You take it that this is just a reductio ad absurdum of the worry: it entails such absurd consequences that it must be wrong!

          The problem with this style of argument is that we need to be really, really confident that these consequences are absurd if we’re going to dismiss the futility worry on the basis of them. I’m not convinced. You raise the case of voters outside of Ohio (or, we might say, other swing states). Now, leaving aside the issue of local elections and measures and what not, which might conceivably pass by just a handful of votes, you’re right. My vote for Obama in California is futile. I know that it won’t matter. Should I in fact go and vote? Well, plausibly, that depends on what else I might be doing with my time. Given work commitments, I was unable to do this, but if my schedule had been more flexible, I would have driven to Nevada (a potentially important swing state) to canvass for Obama. As it happens, I would have actually voted early had I decided to do this. But it’s pretty clear to me that, if the choice were between voting or going to Nevada and canvass for Obama, the latter is what one really ought to do. So, I think you present a false dichotomy here.

          Still, maybe you’re much more confident that I should vote and not go to Nevada than I myself am. But I think that, plausibly, you shouldn’t be. Nor should you be confident that you, as an individual, shouldn’t drive if your driving means that you’ll be able to go canvass a wider geographical range for Obama than if you were, say, to walk. So, I don’t think that the relevant contrast is: either vote or bring about large-scale social change. Rather, the question we need to face is: is the thing that seems like the obvious way to resist a bad system (voting for the slightly better candidate, not eating meat, not driving, etc.) actually the most effective way to resist that system? Obviousness, I take it, is very often a bad guide to truth. So the fact that the futility worry makes us doubt that these obvious responses are all they’re cracked up to be should, I think, make us start to ask ourselves how we might do better — not doubt the worry itself. That said, there might really be good reasons to think that there are flaws in the structure of the worry. But you don’t point to any. You just say “Look, according to this worry, you also shouldn’t vote.” But that’s not absurd at all. Nate Silver will tell you that if you really care about this election, and you live in California, you should drive to Nevada and go door to door for Obama, or dive Democrats to the polls there. Voting might seem like the obvious thing to do to make things marginally better (or, at least, to keep them from deteriorating as rapidly). But it’s not at all clear that’s right. And thinking that it’s just a choice between voting and not voting may be keeping us from attending to the relevant alternatives.

          As it happens, having now thought about this for a while, I’m now more confident that our credence that any choice we make not to eat meat is going to increase animal welfare should be basically 0 than I am that we should actually vote, or drive less, or fly less. So I find this line of argument totally unpersuasive.

          (2) First off, just to be clear: I’m not a consequentialist. I think that a problem that consequentialists face, typically called “the aggregation problem”, is totally insurmountable. That said, I also think that if your ethical theory isn’t at least somewhat attuned to the consequences it brings with it, then something has gone very wrong. It would be very strange, I take it, to knowingly endorse an ethical theory that would lead to really terrible ethical consequences.

          That out of the way, on to your various points. First, I think you’re wrong about Kantians. But I’m going to leave that to my next full post. With regard to virtue ethicists, things probably going to be trickier. I have yet to fully work that one out. I will note, briefly, that I’m generally skeptical that non-circular, non-Kantian or non-consequentialist arguments can be given for the claim that X is a virtue. But, like I said, I’m still working through the details of this, so I’m going to punt on this until a later post.

          So, on to rule consequentialism.

          (i) One thing we need to distinguish is whether rule consequentialism is being offered as a practical theory or as an ideal theory. I think it’s far more plausible as the latter. If it’s being offered as the former, as a theory of how we should act given that the way then the world actually is, then, if we’re strict about them, the rules it yields are unlikely to line up properly with the way that everyone else in the world is acting. So, consider the rule: drive on the right side of the road. Suppose that, for some reason, it actually turns out to be safer for everyone to drive on the right side of the road as opposed to the left. The rule consequentialist should thus endorse driving on the right as a universal rule. But now consider taking a trip to England, where everyone around you is violating this rule. According to your strict version of rule consequentialism, you should still drive on the right side of the road, regardless of what everyone else is doing. Why? Because it would be optimal for everyone to do that (and because if we allow even one person to cheat, then we won’t achieve the optimal state). But, seriously, everyone’s already driving on the left side of the road. You clearly should too! The consequences of not doing so are going to be very unpleasant.

          What this illustrates is that rule consequentialism, at least without substantial modification, really isn’t well-suited to being a theory of practical action. Yes, it can say that no one should cheat, because if we generalize on cheating cases then no one really has to act as they should. But rule consequentialism generates its rules about how you should act by supposing that everyone is going to act according to those rules too. The problem with that is that, in the real world, most people aren’t going to act according to those rules. So, given that, the question we need to ask is: should you still act as though everyone else is following the rules, even though they’re not? I think that we shouldn’t, since doing so will lead to some rather bad consequences (as illustrated above). The problem is that rule consequentialism isn’t typically the right sort of theory to be sensitive to the way the world actually is. But since the rules it generates are supposed to be justified by appeal to the consequences they lead to, then, if this is supposed to be a practical theory, we need to ask what sorts of consequences the lead to when embedded in the actual world, not an idealized one. On that count, rule consequentialism looks to be in a bad spot. It’s going to lead to patently non-optimal outcomes when we don’t allow deviations from the rules to account for the way the world actually is, as opposed to how an idealized version of it would look.

          All this is to say that rule consequentialism might provide us with a nice theory of how the world ideally should be (I don’t think it actually does, but that’s another story). The futility worry is a worry about how we should act given that the world is as it is, and given that we have limited abilities to get others to act in the ways we’d like them to. In that respect, the fair question is, therefore, not “What rules should I follow given that everyone else will follow them too?”, but rather “What rules should I follow given that everyone else is going to act as they do?”. At this point, the futility worry comes right back in: since the rule for you “don’t eat meat” seems to offer no advantages in terms of outcomes over the rule for you “it’s okay to eat meat,” we don’t seem to have any good rule consequentialist reason for preferring one of these rules over the other. Rule consequentialism should be indifferent between them.

          (ii) If the futility worry is right, then eating meat is consequence neutral, at least with respect to anything that might result from the economic signal that it sends. So, given that I care about motivating vegetarianism, I take this worry pretty seriously.

          Cheers,
          Eliot

  • DMcNeil

    Thanks a lot for the post, Eliot, this is a great read.

    I have a couple of thoughts, with a couple of caveats to go with them:

    (1) Apologies if I’m repeating or glossing over issues that have already been discussed below, I haven’t read every single comment; (2) I’ve tried not to jump the gun on some of your future posts — some of the below thoughts border on (well shoot, maybe they just are) responses to he futility issue, so I hope that’s alright.

    1. I think that what your quasi-footnote points to (about the futility argument’s iteration in terms of carbon emissions) is that the futility worry is transferable to just about any walk of life. In fact, it’s very difficult to think of decisions we make, even on a local, day-to-day basis, that are not subject to this worry. Am I to only change my behavior if I can directly see, from a first-person perspective, the difference my shift will make? This seems impractical. Your analysis about how today’s grocers are different from the days when people would buy their meat from a local butcher makes me wonder if even the local butcher scenario would get us out of the futility worry. Or, indeed, would any scenario avoid this pitfall, apart from individual consumers buying meat or animal products directly from the farms/ individuals who raised the animals themselves?

    The implication is that if there’s no non-arbitrary way of saying how long or complex a chain of events has to be before it qualifies for the futility concern, maybe this is grounds for ignoring the concern altogether in the vast majority of instances. (E.g. It still must be reasonable to say that calling Californians at random and telling them to vote for Obama [or Texas and Romney] would be a futile exercise in influencing the 2012 presidential election. The risk of changing the outcome with this strategy is virtually 0%, and we know this because we can discern the structure of the electoral college. The point being, at least veganism has some kind of risk of changing the system because it usually models a set of values for others to adopt, e.g., and its efficacy isn’t structurally precluded by the system, only minimized.)

    2. I think it may be important to note that the ethical paradigm through which one views the futility problem makes a huge difference. You’ve posed the problem (at least most directly) for the act utilitarian who is generically concerned about maximizing good outcomes — but I’m not sure if adherents to other ethical viewpoints couldn’t just (more or less) fiat the futility concern away by virtue of the structure of their moral theory. For example, a rule utilitarian might simply not care about the futility worry because it’s not about the specific act of not buying animal products, and the good or bad that this act creates. Instead, it’s the net goodness (or badness) that would come about from society following the rule of not buying animal products (and surely everyone changing their habits would be a sufficient signal!).

    Also, might a deontologist, virtue ethicist, etc. have different ways of framing the futility worry, if indeed it would be a worry for them at all? If you’re just speaking to act utilitarianism, that makes sense, I just wanted to raise the ethical framework point.

    • DMcNeil

      Oops, sorry for the double post, ignore the identical “Guest” post.

  • Jacob Denz

    Hi! I enjoyed reading this post, I just have a small thought. It seems to me that there is an important disanalogy between the futility concern about voting and the futility concern about following a vegan diet. In the case of the former, as you mentioned in the post, I can do something else with the time I would have spent voting, and that something else could have value in its own right. That value may be negligible, but, at least from a certain standpoint, it is unlikely to appear as negligible as the negligible impact of my vote. This is because I have a resource (time) that I can allocate in different ways. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts Michael about whether something analogous can be said about veganism–whether I can do, or not do, “something else” instead of being vegan that might turn out to be more valuable. It is not impossible to imagine such an argument–if, for example, my calories will be more expensive if I follow a vegan diet, I might choose to follow the cheaper non-vegan diet and use the money I saved to further some worthy goal. (I might even donate it to an animal welfare organization!) Barring any such somewhat contrived scenario, however, that is, barring an “opportunity cost” to following a vegan diet conceived in this way, it does not seem clear to me that futility concerns actually constitute a compelling argument against the rationality of following a vegan diet. At most, they suggest that some intuitively strong arguments in favor of following a vegan diet may be weaker, even much weaker, than they appear. This would certainly be good for us to know as vegans, but it doesn’t seem like an obvious reason to question the appropriateness of our continuing to be vegan. Vegan diets are very often presented, and I think rightly, as having some possible benefits for animals, environmental issues such as global warming, issues of hunger and human rights, and one’s own physical health (it is not clear to me that the latter is somehow morally irrelevant or always in a different category from the others). Thus it is disingenuous, I think, or at the very least suspiciously hasty for meat-eaters to argue against veganism by citing futility concerns, as if raising a set of doubts about one way in which veganism might have positive benefits immediately lets them off the hook.
    More generally, I do think that people who choose to follow a vegan diet within a contemporary US context are participating in a social movement, however little they may consider themselves activists. Using the label “vegan” to describe oneself can at the very least provoke some serious reflection about these issues, and I would argue that this goal is worthwhile in itself (because I think reflection about important issues is worthwhile) and not only as a means to an end.
    Successful social movements look to achieve long-term goals by creating a shift in cultural expectations or norms. I have always assumed that the primary impact of my boycotting meat or any other product would be symbolic, but it is very plausible to me that this symbolic value will in the long run turn out to matter far more than any direct change in demand from my not eating this or that steak. This is why I think it matters that there is such a thing as “vegan”–it is not a personal idiosyncracy but a widespread and self-conscious social movement. In a perhaps not too distant category from these futility concerns are arguments of the “if x, why not y” type, e.g. “If you are going to boycott South Africa/Israel/x company, why not also boycott every other country/company in which reprehensible things occur?” To me, the best answer would have to do with the existence of a conscious and well-organized social movement. In making a specific consumer choice in these cases, one is aligning oneself with a movement that may indeed have a tremendous impact taken as a whole. The point is not simply that people are adding their small effects together–rather, what I am suggesting is that to identify oneself with a social movement is to do something different from simply making a decision based on an individual cost-benefit analysis. From this perspective, it strikes me that there may be something myopic or petty about fretting whether one fewer cow has been raised on a factory farm this year because I didn’t eat beef. I submit that while it may be possible to gauge direct economic impact on the market, it is much harder to know what sorts of long-term effects my adopting a vegan diet will have on others who interact with me–even if I never “proselytize,” even if I never notice a change. This difficulty of knowing or predicting the consequences of my actions means that in the case of a social movement, a wager is required–if this were a less analytic setting, I would be tempted to say, a performative act which must borrow its provisional justification from the future it seeks to ground. Whatever. In any event Michael I’m really excited to see what sorts of solutions you propose!

    • Eliot Michaelson

      Hi Jacob,

      Apologies for the slow reply. You make some interesting points here. Let me try to deal with them in order.

      First, you suggest that there might be a relevant disanalogy between voting and not eating meat. There certainly are plenty of disanalogies between these two issues — that much is clear. I suggested that, with voting, one might do something else, something valuable with one’s time. With not eating meat, one still has to eat. So no time is gained. Plausibly, so long as one is mostly cooking for oneself, it’s also cheaper to be a vegan (maybe not, but it certainly could be if one were determined). So probably no gain there from eating meat either.

      However, this disanalogy is really a distraction. While I pointed out that, if voting is futile, one could presumably do something better with one’s time, if voting is futile, then it would seem to be permissible not to vote regardless of what you’re going to do with your time. Perhaps you’re just going to sit around and watch TV. That’s the relevant analogy for the futility worry regarding vegetarianism. The question is whether it’s impermissible to eat meat. The futility worry is a reason to think that it’s not. The futility worry with regard to voting is a worry about the impermissibility of not voting. Since voting is something that we do with our time, and since we can do valuable things with our time as well, we can ramp up that worry by saying: hey look, if you don’t vote, you can actually do something cool with your time! So, if we think it’s futile to vote, we should probably think that you really should go do something better with your time. If the futility worry is right and it’s okay to eat meat in any particular instance, that doesn’t mean that you should eat meat. It just means that it’s permissible, just like eating broccoli is permissible. If there were something else that we could eat that’s really cool to eat, aside from either meat or vegetables, grains, legumes, etc., then we’d be able to draw a tighter analogy in the respect that you point to. As it happens, if it’s okay to eat meat, then it’s simply morally permissible to eat whatever you want. That doesn’t mean that it’s praiseworthy to eat one thing or another. So, the fact that we can’t draw out the analogy along these lines shouldn’t worry us in particular. It’s the futility to permissibility part of the argument that we’re interested in, and there these seem to be perfectly analogous cases.

      Second, you suggest that being vegan is being part of a social movement in the states. I think you’re trading on an ambiguity here: one can ‘be vegan’ in a sense simply by eating a certain way; or one can ‘be vegan’ by taking this to be part of one’s identity. When I’m asking about whether there are good moral reasons to not buy meat, I’m only concerned with veganism or vegetarianism in the first sense. The second sense, notice, is detachable. If the good that I do by ‘being vegan’ has to do with socializing with certain people, organizing petitions, going to marches, donating money to certain organizations, etc., I can do all that while still eating meat. I can even call myself a vegan; if I buy all my meat on the sly and am reasonably clever, it’s not like anyone’s going to figure this out. So, I’m not convinced that the social-movement aspect of ‘being vegan’ gives us any actual reason not to buy meat. It might give us reason to organize our social and political lives in certain ways. But, even there, we would need to have some serious reason for thinking that this movement is actually affecting meaningful long-term changes for the better with regard to animal welfare. That might be the case, but I also think there’s some serious reasons to doubt that. I’ll get into those in some future posts.

      Eliot

  • Eliot Michaelson

    I’m glad to see that my post has prompted so much interesting discussion. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to keep on top of this as it unfolded; unfortunately, my teaching schedule got the better of me. I’m going to respond to what I took to be the most pressing concerns, and mention where a few of the comments anticipate where I’ll be going in future posts. I’ll respond to individual posts below rather than making this one long post. But I did want to say, first off, thanks to everyone for the thoughts.

  • Brad Silk

    This is a great first post in what hopes to be a string of great philosophical debates on veganism. It makes sense as the first post, because it seems to be the first mental-hurtle all vegans have to surpass to make the shift into such a diet. And, as you mention, there will continue to be this internal debate. The only sure way anyone will stay vegan is that they have the moral/ethical base.

    Can not recall where I know this story from, but it seems relevant here:
    Two people are approached by a beggar while walking down the street. One of them gives the last bit of change from his pocket to the beggar and they continue walking, his friend turns time and says, “You know they do this as a profession. You probably needed that money more than he.” In reply, the gentleman says, “Maybe so, but better on his conscience than mine.”

    There is more many of us can do; we can advocate until our throats are soar and flier the subway. But being vegan, at least we are not conscience participants in the murder and trade of innocents.

    • Eliot Michaelson

      Hi Brad,
      You and TheEthicalMan both raise the following idea: maybe we should be concerned with the fact that our conscience is clean as vegans, because we’re not participating in the murder of animals. Or, as TheEthicalMan puts it, we, in contrast to meat eaters, might hope to be non-evil. To be blunt, I find this sort of attitude both exasperating and dangerous. Branding sub-groups as `evil’ has a long history, and it ain’t pretty (these were TheEthicalMan’s words, not yours, granted). But the obsession with a clean conscience also strikes me as, well, profoundly strange. What I care about is fewer animals being tortured and killed. I want to understand what actions I can undertake, as an individual, to further this end. Turning inward and professing my ‘clean hands’ is just to give up on this problem. Plus, it’s basically impossible.

      We live in a morally complicated world, and whether or not we buy meat, we are a part of a system that produces large amounts of it as a central part of what it does. We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking we get a free pass just because we opt out of that system in a partial way. If one were to go completely off-grid, perhaps one might have some claim to purity. But then one would have little chance of changing that system for the better, which strikes me as the more important goal. So, Brad and TheEthicalMan, I’m going to call this response out for what it is: a cop out. Not only do you offer no explanation of why exactly we get to be the ones with clean hands, you offer no substantive defense of this as the goal. And this simply shouldn’t be the goal. We need to figure out how we, as individuals, can make this world a less terrible place for animals. Thinking that any of us gets to have a clean conscience, or declare ourselves non-evil, when we’re living in a country that produces over 26 billion pounds of beef a year is, well, laughable (it’s also worth stressing that our tax dollars go to subsidize this production — so if you pay taxes, you help to fund this, even if you don’t buy meat). We are stuck in what Primo Levi called `the gray zone’, not in the land of ethical black and white. Vegans too need to get used to that, and to figure out why we should still be vegans despite that. I suspect that the best answers to this are going to reveal that, perhaps aside from the ladies who wrote Skinny Bitch, most of us really aren’t doing our part after all.

      • Brad Silk

        There are issues with voting, as you put forth in your article, however, we can vote vegan/ethical. We can attempt to find politicians who are vegan, like Dennis Kucinich, or who want to elevate the ethical treatment of all animals. Being born into a country with some of the worst factory farms and legislation that allows it does not make my hands dirty. We can’t be held accountable for others actions.

        But more importantly, it is not others who determine whether your hands are clean, it is only you. I maintain a animally cruel-free life as best I can. To me, this means my hands are clean of that specific nature. Occasionally there are moments of weakness or gray areas that I fall into, but strive for better quality for all life.
        Opting-out as a means of keeping our hands clean is not a cop-out. It is not the end point either, to truly help we must take action, not just inaction. Still, abstaining is a great start to living ethically.

  • yet another ana phil vegan

    I look forward to reading these posts by Eliot. Let us keep the discussion engaged but civil! I do think the case for animal rights based veganism can answer the puzzle and remains extremely strong. An important part of the answer involves what Ryan mentions. The individual’s ethical choice of becoming vegan and to shape his/her thoughts, actions and habits in line with that ethical conviction lead to many different effects (and signals) in relation to a rich web of others; friends and family, co-workers, local communities, producers of alternative foods, legislators. Many effects are indirect.

    I think one thing should be stressed even more in the initial post. The core puzzle of what Eliot brings up is very general: do I make a difference? That can be asked in many situations where individuals consider consumer boycotting certain items where the causalities are complex. E.g. products made by enslaved children, products with components that harm the environment, fair trade labelled products, voting, participating as a democratic citizen, not stealing from government property, limiting ones water usage during a drought, and so on.

    So this puzzling topic should not be thought of as a special puzzle only for ethical veganism. It is better portrayed as a general puzzle about the effectiveness of individual responsibility that also applies to veganism.

    A recent in depth investigation of the core puzzle can be found in
    KAGAN, S. (2011), Do I Make a Difference?. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 39: 105–141. doi: 10.1111/j.1088-4963.2011.01203.x
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1088-4963.2011.01203.x/abstract
    (It is behind a paywall but there might be pdf copies floating around elsewhere on the internet. Seek and you might find.)

    Kagan uses abstaining from meat purchases as an example in the paper. Eliot might already have read it but if not then it might be of use for the posts to come.

    • Analytic Philosopher #25736485

      Kagan just repeats arguments made by Singer and Parfit many decades ago, and then claims without any real argument that similar consequentialist reasoning will give the right verdict in all collective action cases — which seems clearly false.

      For example, how is Kagan’s reasoning supposed to explain the obvious case of voting? Suppose that there is a really important national election between two candidates, a Nazi and a good person. Suppose that the Nazi is leading in reliable polls, and so the probability that your vote will make a difference is nearly infinitesimal; if that’s right, then even if there is a huge amount at stake, the expected utility of voting rather than staying home and masturbating could be negative (if you doubt this, look at any real article written by real researchers on the expected utility of voting). Nonetheless, any remotely plausible ethical theory must say that you have more moral reason to go out and vote for the good candidate in such a situation than stay at home and masturbate. How are Kagan, Singer, and Parfit going to explain that, since the expected utility considerations favor staying at home?

      I don’t understand why so many people are so in love with lazy consequentialist arguments. According to consequentialism, what you are required to do is maximally sensitive to empirical facts. Why then do consequentialist moral philosophers completely ignore the empirical facts in their arguments for real-world conclusions, and instead talk about fantasy world considerations that have no plausible connection to how the world really works?

      • TheEthicalMan

        It seems like you’re stating, and possibly even conflating, two separate points. On the one hand, you’re saying consequentialism is (a) incapable of explaining why people *should* vote in such a scenario; and on the other, that it’s (b) incapable of explaining why people *do* vote in such a scenario.

        First of all, maybe you aren’t entitled to assume that people should vote in that scenario. But I’ll bite and assume the same. I’ll also assume you aren’t conflating the two issues. (Note that I won’t be proceeding from Kagan’s particular arguments—which I haven’t read and probably won’t because I’ve already spent much too much time here as it is.)
        To point (a), aren’t there “perceived mandate” effects when a candidate wins (i.e. winning in a close race versus a landslide) that can substantively affect the governance the winner then adopts?

        To points (a) and (b), isn’t the relative benefit of the good candidate potentially outperforming the polls (however remote the possibility may be) enough reason to cast your vote?

        To point (b), doesn’t a good individual gain various forms of satisfaction from casting his/her vote for the good candidate (or against the Nazi candidate)?

        Seems to me that any of these explanations for why someone (a) ought to vote and (b) would vote in such a scenario are available to the consequentialist.

        • Analytic Philosopher #25736485

          I agree that your points are relevant. (And I’m interested in explaining what ethical reasons we have, since that is what this entire discussion is about, rather than explaining behavior from a descriptive point of view.)

          Preliminary comment: I of course agree that there are possible elections in which consequentialism gives the correct verdict. In general, everyone agrees that there are cases in which consequentialism gives the right verdict. The key issue is whether we can identify cases in which consequentialism clearly cannot give the right verdict. I claim to have stipulated a realistic case in which it follows that traditional consequentialism clearly cannot give the right verdict. As is usual in such discussions, I intended the details of the case I described to be filled out in the most normal, boring, and charitable-to-the-argument-I-wanted-to-make sort of way. I agree that there may be some possible ways of filling out the details that would result in consequentialism giving the right verdict. But that is beside the point if the charitable way of filling out the details yields a genuine counterexample to consequentialism.

          Regarding the perceived mandate thing: I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I know enough to know that the experts seem to disagree about the importance of mandate effects, including whether they are of much importance at all. Also, if mandate effects are non-linear, then it depends on the shape of the relevant curve and where on the relevant curve you expect to fall what the expected effect on mandate would be of your vote. (Not that you’d disagree with any of this.)

          Regarding your next point: no. the consequentialist reasons you have depend on the expected consequences calculation: if the prob of being decisive is nearly infinitesimal, then even if the value of the good candidate winning is trillions greater than the value of the bad candidate winning, staying home and taking a nap could easily still have greater expected value.

          Regarding you last point, suppose I know that given my psychology, I will feel no better if I vote and the Nazi wins than if I don’t vote and the Nazi wins. That doesn’t seem relevant to what ethical reasons I have, and it doesn’t seem to follow that I am a bad person.

      • yet another ana phil vegan

        Your objection seems to assume that the only consequence of relevance for evaluation of performing (or not) a set of voting thoughts and behaviours is if the agent’s formal vote makes a formal difference to who wins the election. But thoughts and behaviours routinely have complex indirect effects for beings prone to cognitive biases, embedded in social lives and psychologically complex. Consequentialism also counts such consequences.

    • Eliot Michaelson

      yet another ana phil vegan, thanks for pointing out the Kagan article. I have not read it, but I look forward to taking a look. Off the cuff, I agree that there’s a very general worry about the efficacy of individual decisions in a complex social-economic system that’s in the background here. I’m less convinced, as of yet at least, that the details of each sort of case aren’t going to matter in the end. On the contrary, I’m initially inclined to think that what we should say about eating animals and what we should say about buying things that might involve child labor might well fail to parallel each other. Now, there might be broader structural reasons for such differences — well worth investigating — but it seems like we would need to thoroughly investigate individual cases (veganism, fair trade, child labor, etc.) before we’d be in a good position to say. But, as I said, I haven’t read the paper yet — so perhaps Kagan will change my mind.

  • Analytic Philosopher #25736485

    Many philosophers agree with Vadim and TheEthicalMan that there are simple answers to the worry that Eliot raises about futility. For example, many people claim either that (1) each of your acts of consumption *actually has* an effect, despite initial appearances to the contrary, or (2) each of your acts of consumption has *a chance of having* a large effect, and so even if you know that most of your acts will have no effect, you still have strong reasons not to eat meat because you know that there is a serious chance that you could trigger a ‘large threshold effect’ of many additional animals being produced and thus forced to live under inhumane conditions for part of their lives, etc. For the sake of discussion, we might call (1) and (2) ‘simple consequentialist answers’ to Eliot’s worry.

    For example, here is a classic quote from Peter Singer offering an answer of type (2):

    “Perhaps for every 10,000 vegetarians there is one fewer 20,000 bird chicken unit than there would otherwise be. Perhaps not: this is merely an example and I have no idea what the true figure would be; but there must be some point at which the number of vegetarians makes a difference to the size of the poultry industry. There must be a series of thresholds, hidden by the market system of distribution, which determine how many factory farms will be in existence. In this case one more person becoming a vegetarian will make no difference at all, unless that individual, added to the others who are already vegetarians, reduces demand below the threshold level at which a new factory farm would have started up (or an existing one would have remained in production, if the industry is declining). Looking at one’s own decision to be a vegetarian, it may seem frustrating that one cannot be sure that one has saved even a single animal from a miserable life on a factory farm; but from a utilitarian perspective it really makes no difference whether each vegetarian is personally responsible for saving ten chickens a year from this fate, or one vegetarian in 10,000 makes the difference that will save 100,000 birds. Utilitarianism judges actions by their likely consequences, and so it ranks the certainty of saving ten chickens equally with the 1 in 10,000 chance of saving 100,000. As long as I have no idea whether or not my own decision to go vegetarian is the decision that takes the demand for chickens below the threshold, the strength of this reason for being a vegetarian is unaffected.”

    If you think there is a simple consequentialist answer to Eliot’s worry, one issue to mull over is whether you agree with Singer’s argument that the answer is of type (2), or whether you agree with Vadim and TheEthicalMan that it is of type (1), or whether you agree with both. (If you want to explore option (1), you might look at Derek Parfit’s “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics” in his book Reasons and Persons.)

    I disagree with Singer — I do not think that there is a simple consequentialist answer of either type (1) or (2), because I think that supply chains are long and complex and that there is inefficiency throughout in the form of waste and irrationality that creates ‘buffers’ large enough to absorb the miniscule changes in demand and informational signal created by a single individual’s consumption decisions, and thus prevent what a single individual does at one end of the supply chain from having any important likelihood of having an effect on decisions made at the far other end (which is many links in the chain away). Because we know these facts about supply chains, as a single individual I should not expect my animal consumption decisions to have any important effect within the marketplace. I might expect my consumption decisions to have an effect on other people, but even if I convince some other people to become vegetarians by my vegetarian acts, similar reasoning suggests that such a group would not plausibly be large enough to make a difference. (And it is possible that my vegetarian acts could have the opposite effect: If I’m not careful I might alienate others with my self-righteous attitude and thus cause them to adopt a policy of never reducing their consumption of meat and never taking vegetarian arguments seriously — if I’m really obnoxious, I might even contribute to a consensus among most people in society that vegans are radical self-righteous assholes and that no one should ever take anything they say seriously or treat them like admirable human beings, thereby raising the cost for everyone of making vegetarian choices and arguments.)

    I’m not sure I’m right about this. The issues are complicated, and are largely empirical. But it seems fun and productive to discuss them in an honest way, rather than dismissing them with merely a citation of a classic a priori consequentialist argument from Singer or Parfit, as many philosophers do.

    I have talked to a lot of philosophers about these issues, and as far as I can tell about 50% of them strongly agree with Singer, Vadim, and TheEthicalMan that there is a simple consequentialist answer to the worry that Eliot raises. On the other hand, about 50% of them strongly disagree. (Philosophers seem to have one strong opinion or the other here, as in most places. (Too bad more philosophers don’t say things like “You know, that’s a really hard problem that depends on a lot of complicated empirical facts…”)) And interestingly, for what it is worth, about 90% of economists and 100% of ranchers that I’ve talked to think that there is no easy answer to the worry that Eliot raises. (I should also note that almost all of the philosophers who think there is an easy answer are consequentialist moral philosophers, and so a reasonable person might worry that there is some self-serving bias there, because it is an embarrassment to their view if there isn’t an easy answer.) My sample size is maybe around 40 altogether.

    TheEthicalMan: Are you committed to saying that Peter Singer an example of a philosopher who ‘smart people should not take seriously’, and is a philosopher who “comes across as insecure and ineffectual”? (Because, as noted above, Singer worries about this issue enough to talk about it and write articles about it.) It doesn’t seem like you’d want to be committed to that claim, because Singer is the exact opposite of all of those things, and is arguably the most important philosopher in the world. My point is that it doesn’t make sense to criticize people like Eliot for doing good, careful, honest thinking — although it arguably makes sense not to care about this topic. (But apparently you do — which is good for us because you make really good points!)

    Dikembe: Fewer animals would suffer and die in a world where their flesh is not consumed. Far fewer. Is it “white first-world privilege” to care about the extent to which animals suffer and die for no good reason? Why are you hurling racial insults at a person who is just trying to help us have a clear and honest discussion of *animal ethics* (not exactly a racially charged issue)?

    Some further philosophy notes:

    The quote from Singer is from “Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism”, pp. 335-336.
    Vadim is maybe thinking of Jonathan Glover’s “It Makes No Difference Whether Or Not I Do It”, which Parfit acknowledges as the inspiration for “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics” in Reasons and Persons, where he generously writes “This chapter, especially my later Harmless Torturers [example], derives entirely from the stimulus of this brilliant example [of Glover's]“. Reasons and Persons is one of the greatest philosophy books of all time. Mark Budolfson discusses these issues in a paper you can find online:

    http://www.budolfson.com/papers/BudolfsonFactoryFarms.pdf

    • TheEthicalMan

      Hi Analytic, I’m not committed one way or the other to the idea that other smart people “should not” take sufficiently handwringing philosophers seriously; I simply stated that they tend not to. I’m also not committed one way or the other to the idea that Peter Singer always writes interestingly or that he does so in ways that tend to garner respect from smart non-philosophers. He likely doesn’t all the time, because, naturally, nobody is perfect.

      You’ve said, “It doesn’t make sense to criticize people like Eliot for doing good, careful, honest thinking.” But I do not agree with your assessment of the work here (though of course I don’t question the honesty), and feedback is essential to improvement. I know I would be a less capable thinker if I couldn’t handle insightful assessments of my work by intelligent critics. Especially being in academic Philosophy, I have little doubt that Eliot can handle it as well.

  • Dikembe

    “I’m going to take it as a given that the world would be a better place without animal suffering and death for food production.”

    An easy way to get around your white first-world privilege.

    How do we reconcile the fact that animals die through food production even in a world where their flesh is not consumed?

    • TheEthicalMan

      Dikembe, it isn’t a mark of “privilege” to seek an end to needless animal torture and slaughter. Asserting otherwise, as you have, is about as contorted and unreasoning as it gets.

      To answer your slightly less thoughtless (but still certainly not thoughtful) question about incidental animal deaths that occur as a result of plant-based food production, raising animals for food produces far more incidental animal death than does raising plants for food. This is because it requires several times more land use to raise plants to feed the 50 billion animals raised and slaughtered annually to feed humans than it does for those humans to eat plants directly.

      This is because an animal eating a plant retains generally 10% or less of that plant’s caloric output. So when an animal (say, a human) eats an animal (say, a pig) which was raised on plants, the caloric inefficiency is exponentially greater. A human eating a plant has retained roughly 10% of the plant’s calories; a human eating an animal has retained somewhere around 1% of the plant’s calories. If the plant-based human requires an acre of farmed land to sustain herself, the meat-eating one requires 10 acres of farmed land.

      Of course, the numbers aren’t quite so clean in the real world; the relationship remains the same, however. A vegan diet inherently requires less—much less—plant agriculture than a meat-eating one. Hence meat-eaters cause far more incidental animal deaths than vegans do.

      As a general note, vegans aren’t perfect; we’re simply not-evil. We try to reduce our negative effects on the world. We generally do not allow ourselves the indulgence (and falsehood) of thinking that we cause no suffering whatsoever. But we do draw a line in the sand, and that line is far better than everyone else’s.

  • Ryan

    I think some other posters already touched on why this may not be as much of a worry as the article makes it seem. What I would add is that “veganism” isn’t simply the decision to not eat animal products but it’s also the decision to align oneself with a set of values. This allows people to easily share and spread their beliefs with others, raising awareness of animal cruelty, healthy diets without animal protein, etc. There are many people and cultures that just naturally never (or rarely) eat animal products and don’t define themselves in terms of diet. For these people, sure, their effect is mainly economic but I would argue that anyone making a conscious decision to restrict themselves to veganism is broadcasting a set of beliefs first and sending a message to the meat production industry second.

    • Eliot Michaelson

      Ryan, I agree that being vegan, or at least being vegan for ethical reasons, is indeed not just to adopt a certain way of eating. Those who have no access to animal protein might in some sense count as ‘vegan’, but not in the sense that we tend to be interested in in contexts like this one. What I’m implicitly asking here is: assuming that you are lucky enough to get to choose whether or not to eat animals, which should you choose and why. Some might choose not to eat animals purely for health reasons. I’m not interested in their choice, at least not here. Along with you, I take it that most of us who decide to become vegan in a contemporary American context decide to do that because we find that choice to somehow align with our values, and because we want to make those values clear to the world around us. What I’m interested in exploring here is precisely how we make these values known via our choice, and what effect we should expect that broadcasting to have. I’m uneasy with simply asserting that we do broadcast our values via non-economic routes. How? I, for instance, rarely prosthelytize for veganism. I’m happy to explain to people why I’m vegan if they ask, but I don’t tend to raise it. Typically though, I consider myself vegan because I choose to eat in a particular fashion. Should I be doing more? It seems to me that the answer to that depends on what precisely that doing more might be, and what the expected consequences of that would be.

      I’ll be exploring this in later posts, but just to flag the general issue here: it’s clear that most of us would like to send a message to the world by choosing to be vegans. The question we need to ask is via what route we might actually hope to send that message, and what effects should we expect it to have. I’ve always taken the most direct and effective route to be economic, but clearly I’ve started to doubt that. That puts more weight on the sorts of non-economic signaling you allude to. I want to know exactly what those are and how effective they might be.

  • TheEthicalMan

    Hi Eliot,

    I was a Philosophy major in college, and while I can respect the thought and effort you’ve put in here, I think, somewhat self-deprecatingly, this piece is a great example of why other smart people tend not to take philosophers very seriously (even though Philosophy as a discipline is capable of so much important contribution to the world). Practicing good philosophy doesn’t actually demand that we eggheadedly (sorry!) wring our hands over every possible foundational “worry;” and while lots of philosophers seem to think doing so speaks to some badge-of-honor humility, it really just comes across as insecure and ineffectual. Same goes for the use of constructions like “X seems to achieve Y [even when it's obviously the case, or even though I haven't really done any work to establish this this point],” or “X may or may not produce Y”; the latter construction is especially hard-pressed to constitute a productive premise, since it’s trivially true anyway.

    To the heart of this piece—and I realize that this effort is being structured as a series of posts and, as has been promised, the “worries” raised in this piece will be addressed in subsequent entries—it’s clear that even a lone individual’s reducing his/her meat consumption (a) reduces what future demand would have been had s/he continued to eat meat or (b) usually reduces proceeds for the companies that form the meat supply chain. And always, consuming meat transfers currency back up that supply chain; so even if one were to think an individual’s meat consumption produced no discernible encouragement of greater demand (itself not the same thing as saying or establishing that it produces *no* such encouragement), abstaining from participation isn’t obviously just the same thing, consequentially, as participating, even if we think that not participating doesn’t have a contractional effect compared to what would have obtained sans abstention.

    But it does have a contractional effect, when we leave the confines of overwrought thought experiments. Even if producers aren’t able to recognize a reduction in demand in time to reduce production ahead of the next distribution cycle, an individual is still, however minutely, harming those companies (because they will have produced excess supply which they paid to produce but failed to sell) and/or their retailers (who paid to procure but failed to sell), which itself hurts producers by destabilizing their distribution chain. And of course, organized action (which presumably would have an effect, even given the premising offered in your piece) is composed of the participation of individuals, so temporarily constraining the focus of the argument upon the individual and nothing else is little more than a rhetorical device; it isn’t the crux of a serious argument. Which I’m sure you’ll conclude in a subsequent piece, so maybe I’m just fighting the structure of this thing more than any positions genuinely staked out by you at this point.

    In short, this just seems to raise a lot of hay about a question that has a straightforward if sophisticated answer. The deceptive/distractive effect of limiting the focus to “the individual” reminds me of one of Zeno’s paradoxes, wherein a finite distance is falsely construed as an infinite one simply because finite distances are infinitely divisible; yet of course Achilles wins the race in the real world. I think the contemporary philosopher’s job is not to marvel in the confusion the deceptive construction produces, but rather to explain convincingly and efficiently, leaving room for pith and panache if at all possible (of course), why a finite space’s infinite divisibility doesn’t render it impossible to pass someone in front of you by moving at a faster speed.

    • Kathryn

      Among other things, you don’t seem to understand Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.

      • Chris

        Do you understand calculus?

      • TheEthicalMan

        Thinking I don’t understand a simple construction like that, even after I’ve written it about it in an insightful and explicative way, is a really odd choice on your part.

        Knife to a gun fight, as they say.

    • psychosyntax

      I’ve heard the sort of worry that Elliot insightfully and clearly expounds here cited by actual people–civilians, not philosophers–as THE reason that they continue to eat meat. The fact that you have a reply to the argument doesn’t make his clear statement of it any less important, especially in light of the fact that he will go on to answer it himself–likely in a more eloquent, less grating, and, probably more “sophisticated” way than you have. Your tone strikes me as obnoxious, and your claim that “other smart people tend not to take philosophers very seriously” is patently false, in my experience. In any event, you provide absolutely no argument for it.

      • TheEthicalMan

        Yes, psycho, some non-vegans who seek to rationalize the continuation of their evil habits do so on the basis of futility. But they’re wrong, and it’s clear why they’re wrong; and yet, this piece casts it as a complicated question with few satisfying answers. This piece doesn’t make it more likely for vegans to respond well when they encounter that absurd contention, and sure, you can imply that I ought to just wait for the next three installments or whatever before offering a critique; but that doesn’t acknowledge that it’s an important part of my critique that the very structure of this work contributes to its ineffectiveness.

        You’ve said, “…your claim that ‘other smart people tend not to take philosophers very seriously’ is patently false, in my experience.” If I’m wrong to make the claim I did without providing a supporting argument beyond the assumption that I speak from well-assessed personal experience—which, by the way, includes training as a Philosopher at a top-notch program, along with the countless conversations about the nature of the discipline that such a condition produces—what standing do you have to make your hard counterclaim? Fascinating double-standard, there.

        Anyway, unlike you, I haven’t claimed that personal experience is necessarily insufficient to edify a statement like the one I made (or the one you made to counter it [and then immediately undermined]). From my experience, I know that works like this one reinforce an idea I’ve encountered countless times—that Philosophy is indulgent and unproductive, that it can’t even fulfill its primary purpose of discovering truth, that it’s “useless.” I don’t think it should be controversial to claim that meandering across thousands of words in several installments to make a simple point is an ineffective way of communicating that point.

        • Analytic Philosopher #25736485

          You say “it’s clear why they’re wrong”. I raised an objection to what you say is “clear”. What is your reply?

          • TheEthicalMan

            I take it this is the objection you refer to:

            “I think that supply chains are long and complex and that there is inefficiency throughout in the form of waste and irrationality that creates ‘buffers’ large enough to absorb the miniscule changes in demand and informational signal created by a single individual’s consumption decisions, and thus prevent what a single individual does at one end of the supply chain from having any important likelihood of having an effect on decisions made at the far other end (which is many links in the chain away). Because we know these facts about supply chains, as a single individual I should not expect my animal consumption decisions to have any important effect within the marketplace. I might expect my consumption decisions to have an effect on other people, but even if I convince some other people to become vegetarians by my vegetarian acts, similar reasoning suggests that such a group would not plausibly be large enough to make a difference.”

            I think adequate replies are contained in what I’ve already written, but apparently they haven’t come across.

            Instead of trying to convince you of some causal order to economic happenings—which feels a lot like trying to convince you that things in general cause other things in general despite regularly more or less lengthy causal chains and more or less irrational participants in those chains; I think the very fact that you are contending as much about economics renders the particular exercise of convincing you otherwise *truly* futile—I’ll simply skip ahead and point out that I’ve already taken care of the thrust of your point. Consuming animal products—i.e. putting money directly into the animal ag supply chain—absolutely does without a doubt make the involved companies more profitable than they would have been had you abstained. That gives them more capital to pay for operations; weather downturns; invest in expansion; lobby politically; etc. You can say an individual’s participation is a small contribution all you like; abstention from such companies is still a preferable path for the moral, even for those who have weirdly and unproductively—and I say “unproductive” where truth is the goal—decided that the scope of this conversation must be limited to the individual only. It’s a beside-the-point indulgence.

            And it gets even weirder to say things like, “Even if I convince some other people to become vegetarians by my vegetarian acts, similar reasoning suggests that such a group would not plausibly be large enough to make a difference.” In the same sentence that you concede the plausibility of a “difference” by asserting the plausibility of a “not large” difference, you then “suggest” there would be no difference made at all! Not only have you undermined your own point; it’s also true that, even if we cleaned it up to avoid the contradiction, it wouldn’t comport with the real world. I could point to all the real-world examples of how collections of individuals have effected change in the world via economic participation or abstention. Would you care? If you would, I wouldn’t think we’d be having this discussion; you would just take such real world events seriously already, and you would have moved on from this silliness.

            This is really just proving my point about how useless some philosophers, whether professional or amateur, insist on rendering the practice of Philosophy. Reality is what a good Philosopher is after; that involves some willingness to incorporate real-world observation. Yours and Eliot’s skepticism about economic causation is reminiscent of the Humean contemplation about whether or not we’re justified in believing in any degree of any kind of causality in the world. It’s something that is usually discussed in early philosophy courses as an exercise to be discarded once we’ve outgrown it. Hume himself concluded that while taking that “worry” seriously might be a useful thought exercise, it would be absurdly impractical to actually believe it. This is in part because the alternative—that there is no causation, only coincidence—is incredibly absurd as an explanation for the repeatable, predictable phenomena that mark existence as we know it, including that economic decisions, even by individuals, produce real consequences in economic systems.

            • Analytic Philosopher #25736485

              Nice try, but unfortunately insecure name-calling doesn’t constitute an argument. The closest you come to offering an interesting argument is the following:

              “Consuming animal products—i.e. putting money directly into the animal ag
              supply chain—absolutely does without a doubt make the involved
              companies more profitable than they would have been had you abstained.
              That gives them more capital to pay for operations…”

              This is a good idea. But your reasoning here assumes that when a single individual consumes animal products (‘meat’, for short) that makes agribusiness companies more profitable than they otherwise would have been. Maybe that would be clearly true if individuals bought meat directly from agribusiness companies. But most consumers buy meat from restaurants and grocery stores, which are not agribusiness companies. So, my worry is that a single individual’s consumption decisions at restaurants and grocery stores should not be expected to have an effect on the orders that are made many links away in the supply chain between wholesalers and the agribusiness companies. If that’s right, then a single individual cannot expect to have any effect on the profits of the agribusiness companies. (More precisely, my claim is that a single individual cannot expect to have nearly the effect that consequentialists like Singer assume that an individual has.)

              Let me try to give an analogy — this isn’t supposed to be an analogy that tells us what to think about the meat case, but is intended only to illustrate that there is no weird view of causation assumed by my view: suppose that there is a large series of dams on a river system, and that each of the dams has a ‘maximum water level’ mark painted on it; human beings visually monitor the water level and rainfall reports from upstream, and if they judge that water should be released then they release water downstream until, in their human judgment enough water has been released. (This is not an empirical claim about how modern dams actually work — it is only intended to illustrate a point about causation.) Suppose that there is a city at the mouth of the river, many, many dams downstream, and that I am at the headwaters of the river system. Suppose it has been raining a lot and as a result the city far downstream has been flooded as a result of releases from the dams. I am thinking of either dumping the excess one gallon of water I have into the river or else carrying it with me over a ridge and dumping it into a different watershed. Given what I know about the dams and how decisions are made at the dams, and the current flooding situation, should I expect my dumping the water here to have any effect on the flooding in the city far below, even if we assume that flood damage in that city increases with any increase in the amount of water that reaches the city? It is not obvious what to think about this. But if someone thinks that the expected effect of me dumping my gallon of water here is that less than one gallon of additional water will reach the city far below, that does not presuppose a view on which additional water is not the cause of the flooding, or anything like that — and it also seems perfectly consistent with claiming that if I dumped one million gallons of water here, that should be expected to result in one million gallons of water reaching the city far below.

              One idea relevant to the meat case that this does illustrate, though, is: if we know that decisions are made in a particular way, and that a single individual’s action will have no effect on the inputs into those decisions, then we should expect that individual’s actions to have no effect on those decisions.

              I can think of lots of interesting ways of trying to object to all of this — the current point is just that your initial objections seem inadequate, which makes your name-calling seem even more misplaced.

              • TheEthicalMan

                “Nice try, but unfortunately insecure name-calling doesn’t constitute an argument.”

                Where’s the “name-calling?” After all, I didn’t call *you* weird. And what do you mean by “nice try,” the use of which, ironically, distracts from the real issues by implying some sort of disingenuous attempt to distract from the real issues on my part? You’ve got no right to question my honesty or my level of secure-ness, though I perhaps now have reason to question yours. To be clear if it isn’t amidst all the disagreement, I think you (and Eliot) are capable thinkers.

                You said: “Most consumers buy meat from restaurants and grocery stores, which are not agribusiness companies. So, my worry is that a single individual’s consumption decisions at restaurants and grocery stores should not be expected to have an effect on the orders that are made many links away in the supply chain between wholesalers and the agribusiness companies. If that’s right, then a single individual cannot expect to have any effect on the profits of the agribusiness companies. (More precisely, my claim is that a single individual cannot expect to have nearly the effect that consequentialists like Singer assume that an individual has.)”

                You “worry” that consumers don’t affect producers; then you claim, upon condition of the truth of that “worry,” that individuals cannot expect to have an effect to the *degree* that Singer-like consequentialists think s/he will have.

                To which I reply: so what? You’ve presented a conditional. But you haven’t claimed the truth of its antecedent, let alone edified the claim. Hence you aren’t entitled to conclude the consequent; not that that has stopped you from doing so. But then you’ve hedged the consequent by benchmarking what constitutes “having an effect” to what Singer-like consequentialists think, even though it’s irrelevant. So your position really doesn’t even invite a response beyond pointing out its flaws because it doesn’t constitute a coherent argument.

                Still, what follows will have some bearing on it anyway. You’re right that the dams analogy doesn’t “tell us what to think about the meat case.” Speaking to the heart of why you decided to come up with it, I never stated that you actually have a weird view of causation in general; I stated that disbelieving in the sort of economic causation I’m asserting (and which you are denying) is *like* disbelieving in other instances of typical, regular, expected, predictable causation.

                Retailers track their inventory purchasing against their sales; distributors track their inventory purchasing against their sales to retailers; producers track their inventory production against their sales to distributors. Drawing the end of the causal line at the retail level is a sui generis move; in short, it’s, ahem, total crap! :-)

                In other words, what is weird about your view of economic causation is that it’s patently false: producers and distributors do depend on consumers expending resources with exhibitors (retail outlets). It doesn’t require any deep knowledge of economics or business management to know this. Which is why I weep for Philosophy that its practitioners take such a “worry” to the contrary seriously; it not only wastes Philosophers’ time, it also furthers the marginalization of the practice by making us look detached from the workings of the real world.

                So, I’m really out of time for this thread. Thanks for the engagement. I think everything that I want to say has been said, and I’ll leave it to observers to glean responses to any subsequent responses from what I’ve already contributed to the thread. Maybe I’ll respond specifically to the other comment you’ve left re: consequentialism and voting, but then I don’t think I mind leaving that one where it stands.

            • Eliot Michaelson

              Hi TheEthicalMan,
              You’ve said quite a bit here, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to respond to all of it. I will, however, respond to a few of the things you say. Basically, first I’ll address the style issue, then move on to economic causation and signaling.

              Regarding my style (this is a style blog, after all!): while you’re certainly justified in calling me an egghead, your assessment of the substance of my post seems off to me. You seem to think that my hedging indicates that I’m engaging here in some sort of elaborate thought experiment. But that’s wrong. When I say that I am no expert on how restaurants and grocery stores act, I mean just that. I’m no expert. That doesn’t mean that I have no idea how they act. In fact, I suspect I have a pretty decent idea how they act. And I’m more confident still that I understand how they act well enough that any claims I’ve made here are going to be close enough to the truth such that any error here will be irrelevant to the argument at hand. I’m happy to admit that I don’t know if U.S. grocery stores throw away, on average, 30% of their meat. But I’m very confident it’s something close to that. And, even if it’s only 20%, that’s irrelevant to the argument at hand. Perhaps you are right that my intellectual modesty was confusing here. I tend to think having some idea of the limitations of one’s expertise, and making clear, is a good first step towards thinking clearly about a topic. I’d be very happy to hear from readers that something I’ve claimed here about how the meat production industry works is wrong; I like to learn things. But I’d be shocked if it’s wrong in any way that’s relevant to the topic at hand.

              Having clarified that there no thought experiments in the post, I move on to your claim that I rely far too much on constructions like “X seems to achieve Y” or “X may or may not produce Y”. The main problem with this claim is that I never actually use either of these constructions in my post! As such, I’m a bit flummoxed by this complaint. Now, trying to be a bit more charitable to you than you are to me, it seems that your complaint is about claims like: “one case more or one case less of meat shipped to a particular restaurant or grocer may well have no effect on overall killing”. But this claim is clearly made against a background assumption — shared by most consequentialist vegans — that one case less meat shipped means fewer animals killed (or, at the very least, a high likelihood of fewer animals killed)! My point is that the results of one fewer case of meat being shipped are going to depend on any number of background conditions. We’ll get to those in a second in more detail. But, if that’s not your complaint, then you just seem to be complaining about the use of probabilistic language more generally. Unfortunately, we live in an uncertain world — and ethical arguments had better recognize such uncertainty when it’s relevant. So, I’ll take your complaint to be that I didn’t make the contrast with what I take to be the standard background assumptions clear enough. Thanks for letting me know.

              Now, on to the more substantive discussion of the background conditions. (Note: this is going to bleed into a discussion of economic causation and signaling, so let me flag that I’m going to cover some ground that Analytic Philosopher #25736485 has also touched on. But I’ll try to do it in a slightly different way, which will hopefully serve to clarify the worry.) Suppose that your particular act of abstention (your first perhaps) tips the scales at your local grocery store. They order one less case of beef parts from their distributor this month. What happens to orders for beefs (what cow carcasses are called in the meat industry) in the future? Well, if another grocery store orders two more cases of beef, nothing. Aggregate demand actually went up. And, remember, at each step in the system (rancher, finisher, slaughterhouse, processor, distributor, grocery) there’s waste expected. Even if all the other grocery stores order the same amount this month, there’s no guarantee that the distributor is going to change their future behavior. First off, they will often be locked into long-term contracts with the processor(s) they deal with. Second, they’re used to fluctuation, and they have to plan in advance for finicky demand. What they don’t want is to be caught short-handed; that may lose them customers. Throwing away 7% of their stock some months and 20% others, so long as they always have a bit more than enough, is just going to be considered a cost of business. Of course, it’s possible that the one case of beef that you happen to prompt your local grocery store not to buy will turn out to be the very case that the processor needed, after being over, say, the 20% waste threshold several months running, to decide to reduce the number of beefs that they order from the slaughterhouse. But given that the processor is likely to be shipping thousands, or even tens of thousands of pounds of beef a week, this possibility is very, very slim. And, note that for this to result in fewer overall cow deaths, we have to continue this up the line from processor, to slaughterhouse, to finisher, to rancher. And then, at each stage, we also need to assume that there isn’t unmet demand at a lower price somewhere else in the market. If there is, then, so long as that price is still high enough for the rancher or slaughterhouse to turn a profit selling not to your market, but to a new market with growing demand (China, for instance), there is going to be no aggregate reduction in future cow-deaths. At best, your action will have led to some of the meat that would have ended up wasted at an American supermarket being shipped to a market where it will fetch a slightly lower price. And notice, this best case scenario is itself extremely far fetched — in addition to not being a particularly good scenario to begin with, at least for those of us who care about animal welfare.

              What we’re dealing with here is basically a noisy channel of communication, and one with several lossy transducers embedded in it (I’ll explain what all this means in a second). That’s the fundamental problem we face. Each of us, as a vegan, wants to broadcast a signal to meat producers: kill fewer animals! We attempt to transmit that signal by refraining from acting in certain ways — namely, buying meat. But noise is introduced into the signal almost immediately: first, demand for meat fluctuates with all sorts of things. It fluctuates with the weather, with what stories happen to be in the news (think `pink slime’), with health trends, etc. On top of that, customers sometimes simply shop at different stores. But stores don’t want to lose customers by being out of stock of some meat item when a customer who happens to shop there sometimes, and sometimes buys that item, decides to buy it. And their margins are such that they can deal with a lot of waste, so long as they think that’s translating into repeat customers. So, in order for us, as individuals, to send the signal we want, stores need to be able to discern our buying habits from other random fluctuations in their system. This isn’t impossible — particularly if you belong to a store’s member rewards program, always eat at home, and always shop at the same store — but it’s very, very difficult. What’s more, even if you succeed in signaling your store that you don’t buy meat, and aren’t just a random fluctuation in their system, what you need is for them to relay that signal on somehow, up the line. This is where the notion of a transducer comes in.

              Transducers convert signals from one type to another. Usually this is from one sort of energy to another (say, a speaker — which converts an electrical signal into sound waves), but the notion is useful here as well. Grocery stores basically convert input — that is, meat buying patterns with regard to individual pieces — into output — orders not for individual pieces of meat, but for cases of a standard weight or set number of pieces. This sort of signal conversion is the work of a transducer. But transducers can have odd effects on signals. In particular, they often lead to the loss of certain parts of the signal. For instance, sometimes electric signals below a certain threshold won’t produce a sound in a particular speaker (this is why speakers often have their frequency range listed — they lose signals above or below those bounds). Likewise, unless a store repeatedly falls above its maximum tolerated waste for meat products, it’s not going to modify its purchasing behavior. So, as we go up from grocery stores to distributors, the store needs a large, sustained signal. Any individual failure to purchase meat, by definition, can’t provide such a signal. And it’s difficult in contemporary circumstances for any individual to provide the sort of sustained signal that would be required to actually effect a grocery store’s purchasing behavior and push a recognizable signal through that transducer and up the line. Then, the distributor serves as another transducer, responsive to a whole array of signals coming into it (that is, orders from all of the various stores, restaurants, etc. that it deals with — all of which will naturally fluctuate over time, and probably quite widely!).

              It is because our individual purchasing behavior gets fed into this noisy, complex system that I am highly doubtful that any of us, as individual vegans, ever has discernible effect on the total number of animals killed in the world. So, to be very clear, it is precisely because I understand how complex economic causation can be in contemporary society that I worry about the effects that our individual choices, as vegans, have on it. Even if we assume away that alternative markets would absorb our reduced demand for meat at a lower prices were we Americans to reduce our consumption, collectively, in any meaningful sense, economic causation works via economic signaling. And the signal that any individual vegan sends is entering into a noisy, lossy system. What’s more, it needs to be properly amplified, via its relation to the various transducers in the system, to ever directly cause a single animal not to be killed. That this might ever happen, over any of our lifetimes as the result of any of our various decisions not to eat meat, would frankly be nothing short of a miracle. And, like Hume, I don’t put much stock in miracles.

              Now, at a certain point in your reply to Analytic Philosopher, you shift to the claim that we, collectively as vegans and vegetarians, do reduce aggregate demand for meat. I would refine that by adding “at a certain price point”, but I grant you the point. But it’s hard to see why this matters to the question at hand: whether I, as an individual, should refrain from eating meat. I’ve in fact already granted a much stronger point: we, collectively, shouldn’t eat meat. And, yes, for us collectively not to eat meat, we as individuals must refrain. But we all know that most others are going to transgress this requirement. They are going to eat meat. So, we collectively aren’t going to do what we should. That’s a given. The question at hand is thus, more precisely: given the imperfect world in which we live, are we individually required not to eat meat just because we collectively shouldn’t? While I certainly grant that it’s natural to think that obligations trickle down from the collective to the individual, the question is why. I’ve argued at some length now that one promising route for vegans to defend this transition — via direct market signaling — won’t work. In later posts, I’ll explore some alternatives.

              Before wrapping this up though, a few other loose ends: TheEthicalMan, you also suggested that perhaps there is another way of signaling via the markets, by hurting a company’s profits. However, a similar set of considerations can be run with regard to this. In order to respond to such behavior, companies need to understand why their profits are being hurt. Is it random fluctuation, or is it reduced demand? One might also think that keeping a certain amount of money from slaughterhouses will slow animal death. But grocers and distributors pay processors and slaughterhouses, not us. And since grocers and distributors expect waste in their systems, there is no reason to think that any individual decision not to buy meat has any effect whatsoever on the profits of slaughterhouses, processors, or ranchers. Again, this isn’t contrary to economic causation; it’s contrary to overly-simplistic models of economic causation. But we’ve known that such models were flawed for quite some time.

      • Eliot Michaelson

        psychosyntax, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who’s heard non-philosophers raise this sort of worry. Thanks for backing me up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.sorge.1 Anthony Sorge

    Really looking forward to the upcoming articles…I’ve been struggling with questions like these for a while, and I’m really excited to see them being aired out this way. Well done!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1510997907 Vadim Liberman

    First, I think it’s great to have these kinds of posts and discussions. I’ve always felt that a lot of vegans don’t fully understand the logic behind veganism or use poor logic to justify their behavior. It’s so awesome that you’re tackling the issue philosophically!

    OK, so re this post, I’m going to weigh in a little.

    1. There’s a difference between one’s effect being spread (however) thin and having no effect all. Once you acknowledge even the slightest consequence of not eating meat, then you open the possibility that it does, indeed, serve as a moral reason to abstain.

    2. On a related note, I forgot the philosopher who conceived this example, which I may not remember totally accurately, but you’ll get my gist. Imagine one day a group of 100 barbarians invades a village of 100 residents to steal food. On this day, each barbarian steals a rice bowl from each villager. Clearly, each individual invader had a huge impact on his respective victim. That night, the barbarians felt badly about their actions (I swear I think a line like that was part of the original parable!). So the next day, the same barbarians stormed another village of 100 people. This time, however, each barbarian stole only 1/100th of the rice from every bowl. Thus, each barbarian claimed that he did not really harm any individual.

    Morally, at least from a consequential perspective (and I believe it is the only valid one ethically), there is no difference between both invasions.

    Anyway, Eliot, I’m really eager to read more of your posts!

    • Eliot Michaelson

      Vadim, the problem I have with your (1) and (2) is that you’re assuming that moral calculus works in a certain sort of manner, and that’s exactly what I’m doubting. It’s true that if there are, say, 10 million vegetarians in the States, we reduce aggregate demand for meat in a substantial way (though, see my response to TheEthicalMan for worries about whether this actually reduces animal death or just lowers the price of meat and leads us to ship it to countries with excess demand for meat at that lower price-point). Suppose this leads to 500,000 fewer cows being killed a year. Do we apportion each particular vegetarian some 1/10 millionth part of this? I don’t think that’s a crazy thing to do, and I take it that’s what you had in mind. But suppose that it’s also the case that if I, as one of those 10 million, decided to eat meat, there would be no increase in the number of cows killed every year. I’m guessing that you would think that we shouldn’t now apportion me part of the cow-death-avoiding goodness that I was previously due. But why? After all, my decision to eat meat didn’t lead to any increase in cow death! The worry I’m running suggests that this is plausibly how the world actually is. If that’s right, then there’s a weird lack of causation between our individual actions and the state of the world we care about (i.e. animal deaths). And if that’s right, then we should be worried about why each of us deserves to be allotted our little slice of the overall vegetarian goodness-pie. Individually, we make absolutely no difference to the morally relevant outcome.

      Note that there is a clear contrast with the villagers here: if a barbarian steals 1/100th of a villager’s rice, the villager is out that amount of rice. That might not make much of a difference to her life, but it is a real difference in the world. In contrast, my deciding to eat meat will, quite plausibly, lead to absolutely no more animal deaths. That means there’s no discernible difference in animal welfare — not even a minor one. That’s the crux of the problem we’re facing here.

      Note also that, structurally, part of what’s going on is that rice can be stolen in little bits, but not animal lives. They’re ‘chunky’ in a way that rice caches aren’t. There’s either going to be significant aggregate demand, leading to another animal being killed, or not. My little part of that, individually, has no morally relevant end effect unless it gets combined with others’ demand, or lack of demand, in the right way. That’s because we can’t sub-divide animal’s lives in the same way we can rice stashes.