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Act-Consequentialism and the Problem of Causal Impotence

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  1. The example comes from Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong & Richard Howarth (eds.), Perspectives on Climate Change, Emerald Group Publishers (2005), p. 221–253.

  2. The term “on the hook” is borrowed from Felix Pinkert, “What If I Cannot Make a Difference (and Know it),” Ethics v. 125 #4 (July 2015), p. 971-998. Here we ignore issues involved in parsing rightness/wrongness, moral responsibility and blameworthiness, since the varieties of consequentialism we are dealing with links each to production of consequences of a certain kind. Our argument is that in the kinds of collective action causal impotence cases we are considering, no such link can be established. See note 21 infra.

  3. For some interesting arguments on this front see Clayton Littlejohn, “Potency and Permissibility” in Ben Bramble and Bob Fisher (eds.), The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat, Oxford University Press (2015), p. 99-117, Mark Bryant Budolfson, “The Inefficacy Objection to Consequentialism and the Problem with the Expected Consequences Response,” Philosophical Studies v. 176 #7 (July 2019), pp. 1711-1724, Jeremy R. Garrett, “Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism, and Human Health: A Response to the Causal Impotence Objection,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, v. 24 #3 (2007), pp. 223-237, and Steven McMullen & Matthew C. Halteman, “Against Inefficacy Objections: The Real Economic Impact of Individual Consumer Choices on Animal Agriculture,” Food Ethics v. 2 issue 2-3 (May 2019), pp. 93-110. While all of these make thought provoking arguments (some favorable to our position, some not), they will not be the central focus of this essay—though we do note where there may be relevant contact between our paper and issues discussed in these papers.

  4. Shelly Kagan, “Do I Make a Difference?,” Philosophy & Public Affairs v. 39 #2 (Spring 2011), pp. 105-141.

  5. For a criticism of Kagan’s argument denying that there are any imperceptibility cases, see Julia Nefsky, “Consequentialism and the Problem of Collective Harm,” Philosophy and Public Affairs v.39 #4 (Fall 2011) pp. 364-395.

  6. Kagan also considers environmental harms caused by polluters and the loss of food resources due to over fishing. We take these cases to be structurally similar enough to the case of purchasing chicken that we will not discuss them here. While we also believe that our argument would also apply in the case of harms caused by global poverty (and, e.g., buying luxury items), in the interest of brevity we will not directly address that issue.

  7. Perhaps if that chicken or rooster lived in truly free-range conditions and were killed painlessly, after a (for a chicken) long, fulfilling life, even that might not be true. But we assume, as Kagan does, that the chicken in question was produced in common “factory farming” conditions, so that the chicken’s suffering outweighs whatever pleasure one might derive from consuming it.

  8. Assuming, of course, that such decisions are made at the end of a business day. We might even imagine an opportunistic chicken purchaser who lurks around the shop as closing time approaches, calculates whether his will be the triggering purchase, and steps in line when and only when the calculation reveals that his would not be a triggering purchase.

  9. Budolfson makes a similar point when he argues that there is sufficient waste or slack in an economic system and that this serves as a buffer that prevents one individual’s behavior from making a difference (in Mark Bryant Budolfson, “Is It Wrong to Eat Meat from Factory Farms? If So, Why?” in Ben Bramble & Bob Fisher (eds.), The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat, Oxford University Press (2015), pp. 80-98).

  10. Littlejohn (op. cit.) argues for a similar triggering-type objection to purchasing meat, but he makes no such concession. He writes, “As a matter of luck you aren’t part of a unit that worked together to kill off 1000 chicken. . . .If you think you are under an obligation not to impose risk, this just shows that your actions didn’t harm, not that you didn’t commit a wrong. Compare this case to the case where you play a round of Russian roulette and live to tell the tale. No harm came from what you did, but you shouldn’t have done it” (p.20). Be that as it may, if it was wrong to do so, it’s hard to see how the actual-consequence act-consequentialist can make that case. Littlejohn’s view also raises interesting questions about acceptable and unacceptable risks that will be difficult for the expected utilitarian to sort out correctly. See the “going for coffee” example infra.

  11. See The Cornucopia Institute, “Factory Farmed Chickens: The Hidden Cost of Cheap Chicken,”

  12. Poultry World reports that Cargill is expanding its poultry exports to Asia because of the expected ~100% growth in that market over the next 25 years

  13. The problem of nonrigid thresholds becomes more stark if we turn away from the case of factory farming and turn to the case of climate change. In the latter, it is simply not the case that one “triggers” climate change. Rather there is a range of problems that within a range of severity that billions contribute to exacerbating. To ask, “might this drive trigger climate change?” is to betray a misunderstanding of the problem.

  14. McMullen and Halteman (op. cit.) argue that producers are much more sensitive to consumer choice than this argument acknowledges. They argue that “competition will always drive the price to the point where the marginal producer is right on the edge of non-participation in the market” (p. 101) and “A drop in demand can easily leave them [the growers] without a contract for a season, or with a delay between shipments of birds” (ibid). But the evidence undermines this view. Given vertical integration in the chicken market, it is the parent company that owns the chickens, the feed, the hatcheries, and so on. Growers merely contract with parent company to raise the chickens until they are at market weight. The decisions regarding how many chickens to grow are being made by global corporations, not the local chicken farmer. According to the PEW Environmental Group “The typical broiler in 2006 came from an operation that produced about 605,000 birds a year, compared with an operation producing 300,000 birds a year in 1987” (The Pew Environmental Group, “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America,” (2011) p. 7).

  15. Michael Huemer touches on a similar point in “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?” Social Theory and Practice v. 29, #2, (April 2003) at 311.

  16. See, e.g., Alastair Norcross’ argument (in Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives,” Philosophy and Public Affairs v. 26, # 2, (Spring, 1997), pp. 135-167) that there is some finite amount of minor headaches that will outweigh the loss of a human life.

  17. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Highway-Rail Grade Crossings Overview”

  18. See also Pinkert (op. cit) at p. 993: “The standard way for consequentialists to deal with limited information is to link rightness to expected consequences,” and Alastair Norcross “Puppies, Pigs and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases,” Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2004), pp. 229-245.

  19. A related issue, which we simply raise but will not pursue in detail, is that associated with the actual-consequence act-consequentialist’s understanding of exactly what counts as the act that is being evaluated on the basis of its consequences. While neither Kagan nor Pinkert do so, there is a tendency to slide from the evaluation of act-tokens (Jones performs act x at some time t) to consideration of adopting policies or long-term commitments. Specifically, it’s one thing to evaluate the consequences of adopting a policy of giving up factory-farmed meat and purchasing a specific ham sandwich for lunch on some specific Friday. Given actual-consequence act-consequentialism, even if I have committed to not eating factory-farmed meat, my decision about whether to order a steak for dinner two weeks later should be evaluated on the basis of the consequences of doing that. For instance, Mc Mullen and Halteman ( op. cit.) argue that being “a devoted vegan or vegetarian” (p. 102) or ” deci[ding] to stop purchasing chickens” might have some effect on animal suffering. And Budolfson (in “The Inefficacy Objection,” op. cit.) refers to the “action” of “giving up chicken” (p. 1715) and “becoming a vegetarian” (p. 1720), but also to “an individual purchase of meat” (p. 1718). By all rights, the locus of evaluation for the actual-consequence act-consequentialist should be the act-token, and the relevance of any prior policy adoption would be at best indirect.

  20. In “What If I Cannot Make a Difference (and Know It)” (op. cit.). We also endorse Pinkert’s observation that despite its prevalence in the literature, characterization of such cases as involving “collective” action wrongly suggests that they involve “collectively or deliberatively cooperative action.” Rather, it is that “the individual actions of those agents happen to bring about the outcome.” Pinkert tentatively suggests that we refer to such cases and involving “mere agglomerations,” (p. 971, note 1) but should that present pronunciation difficulties, we might instead refer to the “cumulative effects” of actions, individually benign, undertaken by discrete agents, whether those be individual humans, corporations or governments.

  21. According to Pinkert, agents “act gratuitously” when their failure to bring about an optimal outcome is not the result of “mitigating circumstances” such as “nonculpable misinformation or lack of information” (p. 976). We address the issue of gratuitous action below.

  22. Here we assume that Pinkert is interested in finding fault among the likes of individual steak eaters and SUV drivers vis a vis animal suffering and climate change. As far as what counts as “finding fault” with agents in such cases, Pinkert states that “My proposal [applies] the idea of modal robustness to moral requirements and hence to moral rightness,” (p. 983, note 27) although we assume it would also extend to (e.g.) responsibility and blameworthiness as well.

  23. For instance, Pinkert admits that the “proof relies on the assumption of modally robust knowledge,” (p. 992) which “breaks down in cases where agents cannot observe others’ behavior when making their choices” (p. 993). As we argue below, in some cases Modally Robust Knowledge does not require observing (at least directly) the behavior of all other relevant agents, but that does not improve the prospects for Pinkert’s proposal.

  24. Thanks to Bill Roche for assistance in sorting out these issues.

  25. See, e.g., Mark Kelman, “Misunderstanding Social Life: A Critique of the Core Premises of Law and Economics,” Journal of Legal Education v. 33, pp. 274-284.

  26. See Richard Galvin and John R. Harris, “Individual Moral Responsibility and the Problem of Climate Change,” Analyse & Kritik v. 36 issue 2 (October 2014), pp. 383-396.

  27. Pinkert’s analysis often seems insensitive to the complexities associated with nonrigid thresholds, (e.g.) his claim that given a suboptimal result, there must be at least one agent who had a potentially cooperative act available but did not perform it (p. 991). If the threshold for the nonoptimal result is nonrigid, that is not so.

  28. Kagan (op. cit.) , e.g., thinks that consequentialists cannot embrace the idea of “collective fault”—see pp. 113-114. Attempts to provide defensible accounts of collective obligation, collective fault and complicity are typically nonconsequentialist in structure. See, inter alia, Simo Kylionen, “Climate Change, No-Harm Principle, and Moral Responsibility of Individual Emittters,” Journal of Applied Philosophy v. 35 issue 4 (Nov. 2018), p. 737-758.

  29. This might also be the case when an agent knows that more than a sufficient number of others will act cooperatively, thus preventing the awful outcome or guaranteeing the optimal one, so my act makes no difference. There, not polluting (e.g.) would be acting suboptimally.

  30. McMullen and Halteman (op. cit.) argue that regarding one’s impotence with respect to voting (given one lives in a state dominated by an opposing party) and one’s impotence with respect to preventing harms associated with factory-farming, since we have good information about the voting preferences of other citizens, but not so with respect to consumption choices, the two cases are disanalogous. They insist that “consumers know little to nothing about the distances to a threshold at their particular retailer, and even less further down the supply chain” (p. 100). We see no reason to share their skepticism. One might have just as good information about their fellow citizens eating habits as their voting habits. If one sees drive-throughs packed with cars, meat-centric restaurants frequently filled, the deli and meat-counters at their grocery stores filled with eager customers, successful restaurants that make no accommodations for vegetarians, and local food festivals dedicated to meat-eating, that counts as very good evidence about how their fellow citizens’ eating habits. Further, once one becomes familiar with the size of modern animal agriculture, one’s knowledge only becomes that much more robust.

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Harris, J.R., Galvin, R. Act-Consequentialism and the Problem of Causal Impotence. J Value Inquiry 55, 87–108 (2021).

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