Against Inefficacy Objections: the Real Economic Impact of Individual Consumer Choices on Animal Agriculture
When consumers choose to abstain from purchasing meat, they face some uncertainty about whether their decisions will have an impact on the number of animals raised and killed. Consequentialists have argued that this uncertainty should not dissuade consumers from a vegetarian diet because the “expected” impact, or average impact, will be predictable. Recently, however, critics have argued that the expected marginal impact of a consumer change is likely to be much smaller or more radically unpredictable than previously thought. This objection to the consequentialist case for vegetarianism is known as the “causal inefficacy” (or “causal impotence”) objection. In this paper, we argue that the inefficacy objection fails. First, we summarize the contours of the objection and the standard “expected impact” response to it. Second, we examine and rebut two contemporary attempts (by Mark Budolfson and Ted Warfield) to defeat the expected impact reply through alleged demonstrations of the inefficacy of abstaining from meat consumption. Third, we argue that there are good reasons to believe that single individual consumers—not just consumers in aggregate—really do make a positive difference when they choose to abstain from meat consumption. Our case rests on three economic observations: (i) animal producers operate in a highly competitive environment, (ii) complex supply chains efficiently communicate some information about product demand, and (iii) consumers of plant-based meat alternatives have positive consumption spillover effects on other consumers.
KeywordsCausal inefficacy Causal impotence Expected impact Animal ethics Vegetarian Vegan Economics Animal agriculture
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.
- Albanese, A. 2015. Vertical integration contracts in agriculture: Fair trade and efficiency of the food chain. In Envisioning a future without food waste and food poverty, 87–94. Wageningen Academic Publishers. https://doi.org/10.3920/978-90-8686-820-9_9.
- Alston, Julian M., and Abigail Okrent. 2012. The Demand for Disaggregated Food-Away-From-Home and Food-at-Hope Products in the United States. In Economic Research Report ERR-139. Washington D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service.Google Scholar
- Bivens, Josh. 2015. The decline in labor’s share of corporate income since 2000 means $535 billion less for workers. In Economic Policy Institute.Google Scholar
- Budolfson, Mark Bryant. 2015. Is it wrong to eat meat from factory farms? If so, why? In The moral complexities of eating meat, ed. Bob Fischer and Ben Bramble. Oxford. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Budolfson, Mark Bryant. 2017. The inefficacy objection to deontology: What it is, why it is important, and the new type of deontological reason needed to reply to it. Unpublished Manuscript.Google Scholar
- Budolfson, Mark Bryant. 2018. The inefficacy objection to consequentialism and the problem with the expected consequences response. Philosophical Studies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-1087-6.
- Damodaran, Aswath. 2018. Operating and net margins by sector.Google Scholar
- Frey, R.G. 1985. Rights, killing and suffering: Moral vegetarianism and applied ethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
- Harish. 2014. "The forgotten mothers of the chickens we eat". Counting Animals: A place for people who love animals and numbers. http://www.countinganimals.com/the-forgotten-mothers-of-chickens-we-eat/. Accessed 8 July 2014.
- Harman, Elizabeth. 2015. Eating meat as a morally permissible moral mistake. In Philosophy comes to dinner: Arguments about the ethics of eating, ed. Andrew Chignell, Terence Cuneo, and Matthew C. Halteman. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Jones, Robert, and Lori Gruen. 2015. Veganism as an Aspiration. In The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat, ed. Bob Fischer and Ben Bramble. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Lapide, Larry. 2008. How buffers Cain mitigate risk. Supply Chain Management Review: 6–7.Google Scholar
- Lawrence, J.D., J. Mintert, J.D. Anderson, and D.P. Anderson. 2008. Feed grains and livestock: Impacts on meat supplies and prices. Choices : the magazine of food, farm, and resource issues 23: 11–15.Google Scholar
- Lichtenberg, Erik, and David Zilberman. 1986. The welfare economics of Price supports in U.S. Agriculture. The American Economic Review 76: 1135–1141.Google Scholar
- MacDonald, James. 2008. The Economic Organization of U.S. Broiler Production. In Economic Information Bulletin EIB 38. Washington D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service.Google Scholar
- MacDonald, James M., and William D. McBride. 2009. The Transformation of U.S. Livestock Agriculture: Scale, Efficiency, and Risks. In Economic Information Bulletin EIB-43. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture.Google Scholar
- Martin, Michael. 1976. A critique of moral vegetarianism. Reason Papers 3: 13–43.Google Scholar
- Martin, Adrienne. 2015. Factory farming and consumer complicity. In Philosophy comes to dinner: Arguments about the ethics of eating, ed. Andrew Chignell, Terence Cuneo, and Matthew C. Halteman. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Martinez, Steve W. 1999. Vertical coordination in the pork and broiler industries: Implications for pork and chicken products. In Agricultural Economic Report AER777. Washington D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service.Google Scholar
- Martinez, Steve W. 2002. Vertical Coordination of Marketing Systems: Lessons From the Poultry, Egg, and Pork Industries. In Agricultural economic report 807. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.Google Scholar
- McBride, William D., and Nigel Key. 2007. Characteristics and Production Costs of U.S. Hog Farms, 2004. In Economic information bulletin 32. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture.Google Scholar
- McMullen, Steven. 2016a. Animals and the economy. Palgrave macmillan animal ethics series. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
- McMullen, Steven. 2016b. An Ethical Consumer Capitalism. In The Future of Meat Without Animals, ed. Brianne Donaldson and Christopher Carter. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.Google Scholar
- McPherson, Tristam. 2015. Why I am a vegan (and you should be one too). In Philosophy comes to dinner: Arguments about the ethics of eating, ed. Andrew Chignell, Terence Cuneo, and Matthew C. Halteman, 73–91. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- McWilliams, James E. 2010. Just food: Where locavores get it wrong and how we can truly eat responsibly. Reprint ed. New York: Back Bay Books.Google Scholar
- Mena, Carlos, Leon A. Terry, Adrian Williams, and Lisa Ellram. 2014. Causes of waste across multi-tier supply networks: Cases in the UK food sector. International Journal of Production Economics 152. Sustainable Food Supply Chain Management: 144–158. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpe.2014.03.012.
- Nobis, Nathan, and Dan Hooley. 2015. A Moral Argument for Veganism. In Philosophy comes to dinner: Arguments about the ethics of eating, ed. Andrew Chignell, Terence Cuneo, and Matthew C. Halteman, 92–108. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Regmi, Anita, and James L. Seale. 2010. Cross-Price Elasticities of Demand Across 114 Countries. In Technical bulletin TB-1925. Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service.Google Scholar
- Salin, Victoria. 2000. Information technology and cattle-beef supply chains. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 82. https://doi.org/10.1111/0002-9092.00107.
- Singer, Peter. 2009. Animal liberation: The definitive classic of the animal movement. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
- Sumner, D.A., H. Gow, D. Hayes, W. Matthews, B. Norwood, J.T. Rosen-Molina, and W. Thurman. 2011. Economic and market issues on the sustainability of egg production in the United States: Analysis of alternative production systems. Poultry Science 90: 241–250. https://doi.org/10.3382/ps.2010-00822.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- The Pew Environment Group. 2013a. Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America. The Pew Charitable Trusts: Washington D.C.Google Scholar
- The Pew Environment Group. 2013b. The Business of Broilers: Hidden Costs of Putting a Chicken on Every Grill. The Pew Charitable Trusts: Washington D.C.Google Scholar
- Tomek, William G., and Harry M. Kaiser. 2014. Agricultural Product Prices. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
- Warfield, Ted A. 2015. Eating dead animals: Meat eating, meat purchasing, and proving too much. In Philosophy comes to dinner: Arguments about the ethics of eating, ed. Andrew Chignell, Terence Cuneo, and Matthew C. Halteman, 151–162. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar