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the causal impotence objection

One interesting thing about the causal impotence objection to ethical vegetarianism is that, so far as I can tell, almost no ordinary person subscribes to it. (Roughly, the causal impotence objection notes that while the meat industry is sensitive to large fluctuations in demand, it’s not sensitive to the sort of fluctuation in demand that results from a single individual going vegetarian.) That is to say, almost everyone agrees that if it is wrong to needlessly kill animals for food, then it is wrong for them to eat the flesh of animals that have been needlessly killed for food. I suppose this must be because most people don’t think about such issues with a consequentialist vocabulary, and you’ll only really be inclined to find this conditional worrisome if you do. I’m personally satisfied that the conditional is true, as it seems sufficiently analogous to conditionals like “if it’s wrong to needlessly kill dogs for their hides, it’s wrong to wear dog-hide shoes”, but we might want a stronger justification than an analogy.

Here’s a slightly suspicious way of getting around causal impotence. Let φ = animals are needlessly killed for food, ψ = you eat the flesh of animals that have been needlessly killed for food.

  1. O(~φ)
  2. ~φ → ~ψ
  3. O(~ψ)

(3) follows from (1) and (2) in SDL. Consequentialists who care about the suffering of sentient creatures should accept (1), and everyone should accept (2). So such consequentialists who also deny (3) are committed to rejecting the move from (1) and (2) to (3). This means rejecting either modus ponens, or one of the following axioms of SDL:

A1. If p, then O(p)

A2. If O(p → q), then O(p) → O(q)

This is slightly interesting. Take it for granted that going vegetarian is causally impotent. Then lots of consequentialist normative theories will say that going vegetarian is not obligatory, though they will say that it is obligatory that animals not be needlessly killed for food. The normative theory and SDL appear to conflict. (If I had to guess, someone who denies (3) would probably want to reject (A2), since it seems to be doing the most work in generating the controversial missing premise.)

That’s kind of embarrassing, but I don’t think it’s the only (or the correct) way to respond to the argument. Rather, I think you ought to say that accepting (3) doesn’t commit you to accepting that there’s an obligation to go vegetarian. It just commits you to accepting some sort of obligation to falsify ψ. As it turns out, there are a number of ways to falsify ψ. One is going vegetarian. Another is making it the case that animals are not needlessly killed for food. When there are two ways of satisfying an obligation, you should choose the one that your normative theory sanctions — from a consequentialist point of view, the one that is causally efficacious in promoting value and minimizing disvalue. That’s not going vegetarian, if going vegetarian is in fact causally impotent.

Categories: Ethics, Philosophy.

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9 Responses

  1. almost everyone agrees that if it is wrong to needlessly kill animals for food, then it is wrong for them to eat the flesh of animals that have been needlessly killed for food.

    I’m not sure who thinks that. Why would it be wrong to eat animals that have been needlessly killed for food? The counterexamples are too easy. Suppose there are two animals and I have to kill one to keep myself alive. No matter which I kill, it was needless: I might have killed the other. But it is difficult to find an animal defender who doesn’t agree that you can go carnivore (within limits) to keep yourself alive.
    I think the larger moral sentiment is that vegetarianism is required in order not to support, even symbolically, industries like factory farming.

    I heard indirectly (a few years back) through Don Hubin that Allan Gibbard had an interesting (but still offhand) decision-theoretic reply to the impotence objection: he suggested that the chances that your particular order at a restaurant would bring about the large re-ordering of chickens, etc., was very low. But the disvalue of the the large order is sufficiently high that you should not risk being that person.

  2. hi mike,

    i could kill bambi or bambi’s mom and i have to kill one. so i kill bambi’s mom. i think there’s a still a clear sense in which i had to kill bambi’s mom. if i hadn’t, i would have starved! (you might be suspicious about this counterfactual, but a true reading is quite available.) so it wasn’t needless, on the sense of “needless” that i’m using.

    i say something about something like the decision-theoretic reply in the post above this one. it’s interesting that allan would make that argument. he’s definitely a meat-eater now ;)

  3. Nate,

    I can’t follow the bambi example. Why couldn’t I have eaten bambi instead? Since I’m sure I could have, I needn’t have eaten bambi’s mom. On the other hand, if you mean, I had to eat something (B or mom-B) to stay alive, and in that sense I had to eat B-mom, it won’t serve your other purposes. I could say, I had to eat something, the chicken in the restaurant OR some vege meal OR some veal Or . . .Or, etc. I ate the chicken, and in this (bambi) sense, it was necessary that I ate it.

    On the Norcross paper, Kvanvig mentioned this to me. It makes me crazy, since Mark Bernstein and I published that very argument (and, as I said and note in the paper, the essence of it is due to Gibbard and Hubin) in ‘Opportunistic Carnivorism’, Journal of Applied Philosophy (2000)

  4. mike,

    i get the intuition that i didn’t need to eat bambi’s mom. but i also get the intuition that, yeah, i did need to. if i hadn’t eaten her, i’d have starved. in all the relevant possibilities where i demurred, i ended up eating nothing at all. so none of the relevant possibilities where i ended up living are possibilities where i demurred. all the relevant possibilities where where my survival needs were met are possibilities where i ate bambi’s mom. so, in view of my needs, i had to eat her. your modal and my modal are quantifying over different sets of possibilities is all.

    i’ll add a cite to my other post to reflect what you said here.

  5. Really nice Nate. I think your conclusion is exactly the right way to respond for the consequentialist who buys the causal impotence argument.

  6. “One interesting thing about the causal impotence objection to ethical vegetarianism is that, so far as I can tell, almost no ordinary person subscribes to it.”

    You’ve obviously never asked me why I eat meat. Mmmm meat.

    This isn’t really to say that I think the objection provides the (or even an) unassailable way out of ethical vegetarianism; it’s just that it’s usually an effective conversation-ender when somebody asks me why I’m not one.

  7. For what it’s worth, my response to the claim of causal impotence has always been the one attributed to Gibbard above — each vegetarian act is a lottery ticket, and as the odds get worse, the jackpot gets bigger.

    And I’m thinking that I’d probably respond to Jon by saying, “Mmmm you.”



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...]  Nate Charlow has a nice discussion of the causal impotence objection to ethical vegetarianism in this post with a follow-up discussion here.  The gist of his post is that there is a straighforward [...]