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

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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.

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  1. A useful way of focusing attention on one more general philosophical issue in connection with the inefficacy objection is by imagining a scenario in which factory farmers produce more and more animals and increase waste in the supply chains, thereby undermining any possible effect that a single individual’s consumption could have—perhaps, it could be imagined, to undermine the ethical objections to their products in a utilitarian society. If factory farmers adopted such a strategy, then even if the empirical assumptions of the inefficacy objection were mistaken in the actual world, nonetheless factory farmers could in this scenario succeed in making it unobjectionable on act utilitarian grounds to consume their products—here by simply by intentionally inflicting even more suffering and acting in a way that is even more evil than their actual behavior. If this implication of act utilitarianism is implausible, it highlights the philosophical challenge of explaining what individuals have reasons to do under conditions of inefficacy. For these reasons, at least this philosophical issue raised by the inefficacy objection is independent of the actual empirical facts.

  2. For example, Tom Regan claims that “Since [animal agribusiness] routinely violates the rights of these animals…it is wrong to purchase its products” (Regan 2004, p. 351). Tristram McPherson’s view in McPherson (2015) is similar to Regan’s but is more clearly and fully developed, and in particular provides a proposal for how to analyze the relevant notion of complicity in/benefiting from wrongdoing.

  3. See Budolfson (unpublished a).

  4. Here I assume an intuitive distinction between traditional consequentialism and other views such as rights-based deontology that could (arguably) be expressed using the conceptual structure of consequentialism, but that would thereby be forced to endorse a theory of the good that is disunified, or at least of a kind never encountered in consequentialist theories until the late twentieth century, such as theories of the good that imply that there is something especially bad about performing particular types of acts oneself, etc. For discussion of the possibility of ‘consequentializing’ views such as Kantian ethics in this way, see Dreier (2011) and Portmore (2011).

  5. For a presentation of the Transplant Case, see Thomson (1985).

  6. Kagan (2011, p. 108).

  7. See the passage quoted immediately below from Norcross (2004, pp. 232–233). Compare also Singer (1980, pp. 335–336): “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”. Compare also Kagan (2011, p. 124): “…we know that there is some triggering number, T (more or less), such that every Tth purchase (more or less) triggers the order of another T chickens (more or less). I don’t have any idea what that number is, but I do know that whatever it is, I have a 1 in T chance (more or less) of triggering the suffering of another T chickens (more or less). And so in terms of chicken suffering, my act of purchasing a chicken still has an expected disutility equivalent to one chicken’s suffering. And since, by hypothesis, this is greater than the pleasure I will get from eating the chicken, the net expected utility of my purchase remains negative. As I walk to the butcher counter, then, not only don’t I know whether my act will have bad results, I don’t even know what the chances are that my act is a triggering act. But I do know, for all that, that the net expected results of my act are bad. So I should not buy a chicken”. Compare also Gibbard (1990 [1971], pp. 26–27): “I do not accept that in cases of diffuse benefits, act-utilitarianism prescribes non-cooperation… [For example,] the net value of what n gas cheats accomplish is the sum of the values of n effects individual gas cheats could have. It is the sum of the net benefits from one gas cheat in a world with no other, the net benefit from one gas cheat in a world with two others, and so on up to a world with n-1 others. If the effect of n gas cheats is calamitous, at least one of these net benefits from an individual gas cheat must be negative. Hence it is possible for an individual to produce a bad result by helping to strain the gas system, no matter how uncertain and diffuse that result may be. If the system is likely to be under strain even with everyone cooperating, an act-utilitarian will cooperate. He will calculate the average expectable net benefit from an act of gas-cheating by dividing the likely effect of a large number of gas cheats by n”. Compare also Brandt (1959, pp. 389–390). Compare also Parfit (1984, pp. 73–75), who offers analogous reasoning about voting, but does not offer any clear guidance as to the intended generalizability of the reasoning.

  8. Norcross (2004, pp. 232–233). See also Singer (1980, pp. 325–337), and Kagan (2011, p. 124), both quoted in the preceding footnote.

  9. In particular, the ‘expected effect’ of an action in this sense is the expectation associated with that action, based on the sum of: all of the values of all of the possible outcomes of that action weighted by their probability conditional on that action.

  10. If necessary, suppose (to make the case straightforward) that because Richard is very busy, he only produces the paper T-shirts at the beginning of each month, and because the T-shirts are made out of very thin paper, the entire stock disintegrates after one month, and so there is no inventory carry-over from month to month, etc.

  11. Note that this result is not undermined by the observation (often enthusiastically made by consequentialists) that in collective action situations, as the probability of making a difference goes down, the magnitude of the difference that would be made goes up. As the discussion above illustrates, what matters is whether the difference that would be made increases in a way that is relevantly proportional to the decrease in the probability of making a difference—and as the discussion above illustrates, in real world collective action problems it is often empirically unrealistic to think that it does.

  12. For a model of this kind, see Brennan and Lomasky (1993, chapter 4). There is some controversy about whether such a model correctly represents the probability of casting a decisive vote in an election, but part of that controversy arises from the fact that the voters arguably do not have reliable enough information in voting case for such a model to be applicable (namely, information about the anticipated difference in the number of votes cast between the candidates)—but that is not a problem when discussing actual large-scale marketplaces, where investigation of their actual workings typically reveals that inefficiency, noise, etc., will give rise buffers with the high degree of reliability that the current point assumes.

  13. To illustrate this, and to illustrate the more general point about reliable amounts of noise, inefficiency, and other drivers of individual inefficacy in actual supply chains, consider the supply chain for American beef. When ranchers who own their own grazing land decide how many cattle to raise, their decisions are sensitive to their own financial situation, the number of cattle their land can support, the expected price of any additional feed that will be needed, bull semen and other ‘raw materials’ that go into cattle production, and the expected price that the cattle will fetch when they are ultimately sold to feedlots. Of these, small changes in last—the price that cattle will fetch at the feedlot—are of the least importance, because insofar as ranchers judge that capital should be invested in raising cattle rather than other investments, they will tend to raise as many cattle as they can afford to breed and feed within that budget, letting the ultimate extent of their profits fall where it may at the feedlot. Many ranchers also use the nutritional well-being of their herd as a buffer to absorb adverse changes in market conditions, feeding their cattle less and less to whatever point maximizes the new expectation of profits as adverse conditions develop, or even sending the entire herd to premature slaughter if, say, feed prices rise to levels that are unacceptably high. This serves to shift the ranchers’ emphasis in decision making relevant to herd size even further away from the price of beef. As a result, even if an individual’s consumption decisions somehow (implausibly) managed to have a $0.01 effect on the price of cattle at feedlots, the effect on the number of cattle produced would be much smaller than it would have to be in order for the possibility of such a threshold effect to justify equating the expected effect of an individual’s consumption of beef with the average effect of such consumption decisions. At the same time, ranchers who lease grazing land from the government will collectively tend to purchase all of the scarce and independently determined number of grazing permits and raise the maximum number of cattle that are allowed by those permits, because it tends only to make economic sense to hold such permits (rather than sell them to another rancher) if one grazes the maximum number of cattle allowed on the relevant parcels of land. A similar upshot emerges even in a more vertically integrated industry such as the poultry industry, where demand is relatively inelastic, and profits are dependent mostly on the cost of inputs such as feed and fuel. See for example the comments of poultry industry expert Ed Fryar in Ryssdal (2015).

  14. Here and elsewhere for ease of exposition I assume a collective action situation in which there is a natural distinction between a ‘cooperative’ collectively-desirable option and a ‘non-cooperative’ collectively-undesirable option, conditional on being chosen by everyone.

  15. Just as given what we know about how elections work, no one should think that there is a simple a priori argument for equating the expected effect of a single individual’s vote with the average effect of everyone’s votes, so too given what we know about how supply chains work no one should think that the Singer/Norcross/Kagan argument is a sound argument for equating the expected effect of a single consumption decision with the average effect of all such decisions.

  16. Kagan (2011, p. 124). See an earlier footnote for references to Singer, Norcross, and others.

  17. Kagan (2011, pp. 129, 111, 120, 140, and 129). Compare Derek Parfit, “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics” in Parfit (1984), especially pp. 73–86, where Parfit does not claim that such an appeal to expected utility can explain all of the relevant facts about the ethics of collective action. See also Parfit (unpublished). Parfit’s discussion of imperceptible effects cases was inspired by Glover (1975) (see Parfit 1984, fn. 44 p. 511).

  18. For example, see Kagan (2011, p. 124) and the formula Kagan displays on p. 120 regarding the use of 1/n as the probability of decisiveness in the base case of a collective action problem with a single threshold.

  19. Nefsky (2011) claims that Kagan’s argument for (b) is dubious, but she sets aside the task of explaining in detail exactly how the argument for (b) goes wrong, or if some other argument for (b) might succeed.

  20. For some judgments that may have to be revised, and an attempt to make further progress on the ethics of collective action, see Budolfson (unpublished a) and Budolfson (unpublished b)


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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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Correspondence to Mark Bryant Budolfson.

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Budolfson, M.B. The inefficacy objection to consequentialism and the problem with the expected consequences response. Philos Stud 176, 1711–1724 (2019).

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