Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 7, pp 1711–1724 | Cite as

The inefficacy objection to consequentialism and the problem with the expected consequences response

  • Mark Bryant BudolfsonEmail author


Collective action problems lie behind many core issues in ethics and social philosophy—for example, whether an individual is required to vote, whether it is wrong to consume products that are produced in morally objectionable ways, and many others. In these cases, it matters greatly what we together do, but yet a single individual’s ‘non-cooperative’ choice seems to make no difference to the outcome and also seems to involve no violation of anyone’s rights. Here it is argued that—contrary to influential arguments by Peter Singer, Alastair Norcross, Shelly Kagan, Derek Parfit, and Allan Gibbard—an appeal to the expected consequences of acts cannot deliver plausible verdicts on many of these cases, because individuals often have a probability of making a difference that is sufficiently small to ensure that ‘non-cooperation’ is the option with the greatest expected value, even when consequentialists themselves agree that ‘cooperation’ is required. In addition, an influential argument by Singer, Norcross, and Kagan is shown to be unsound for the claim that in the collective action situations at issue, the expected effect of one individual’s action equals the average effect of everyone’s similar actions. These results have general implications for normative theory, because they undermine the sort of consequentialist explanation of collective action cases that is initially attractive from many theoretical points of view, consequentialist and otherwise.


Consequentialism Normative ethics Peter Singer Alastair Norcross Shelly Kagan Derek Parfit Allan Gibbard Inefficacy Vegetarianism Consumer ethics Ethics of consumption Voting 



Thanks to an anonymous reviewer, and Chrisoula Andreou, Derek Baker, Alexander Berger, Heather Berginc, Brian Berkey, Tom Blackson, Ted Borer, Cheshire Calhoun, Richard Yetter Chappell, Stew Cohen, Christian Coons, Terence Cuneo, John Devlin, Tyler Doggett, Jamie Dreier, David Faraci, Brian Fiala, Chris Griffin, Liz Harman, Travis Hoffman, Ryan Jenkins, Victor Kumar, Melissa Lane, RJ Leland, Alex Levitov, Jonathan Levy, Hallie Liberto, Eden Lin, Zi Lin, Joel MacClellan, Sarah McGrath, Tristram McPherson, Nathan Meyer, Eliot Michaelson, Julia Nefsky, Alastair Norcross, Howard Nye, Govind Persad, David Plunkett, Joe Rachiele, Rob Reich, Ryan Robinson, Julie Rose, Gideon Rosen, George Rudebusch, Carolina Sartorio, Debra Satz, Dave Schmidtz, Dan Shahar, Liam Shields, Daniel Silvermint, Peter Singer, Michael Smith, Patrick Taylor Smith, Dean Spears, John Thrasher, Ian Vandeventer, Chad Van Schoelandt, Alan Wertheimer, Jane Willenbring, Jack Woods, and audiences at the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division, the University of Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, Bowling Green, and the Colorado State University Animal Ethics Conference for helpful discussions. I am especially indebted to conversations with Harman, McPherson, Michaelson, Plunkett, Reich, and Rosen, and to McPherson’s arguments in his paper “Why I am a vegan”, which greatly influenced my thinking about these issues. For further illuminating discussion of these issues, see Michaelson’s series of posts on veganism and ethics in The Discerning Brute, beginning with “Veganism and Futility”, as well as related papers by Harman, Lane, McPherson, Michaelson, and Nefsky.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Woodrow Wilson School and University Center for Human ValuesPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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