In an earlier post on what I called “non-compassionate omnivorism”—which generated a very productive and surprisingly civil exchange of ideas—two issues arose that I believe merit further attention. And since neither of these issues is essentially tied to the debate about the moral acceptability of various forms of meat eating, I thought both issues should get their own post. Indeed, the issues are just as relevant to war, genocide, global warming, sweat shop labor, and a myriad of other applied ethical problems as they are to meat eating.
The first has to do with what it means to comply with or contribute to some practice x. Presumably, contributions can be either direct or indirect. And if some practice x is immoral, it is likely the case that I am more responsible for directly contributing to it than I am for indirectly contributing to it. But what sort of cognitive and connative conditions must be satisfied in order for someone to be morally culpable for complying with or contributing to x—whether directly or indirectly? Indeed, what’s going to count as a contribution at all? This issue is nicely captured by what one of the participants in the earlier comment thread (Derek Bowman) called the “transitivity of contribution.” For instance, I give my money to S, who turns around and contributes the money to some immoral cause or practice x. If I know (or at least believe) S will contribute money to x, and I know (or at least believe) x is immoral, have I complied with or contributed to x? If so, am I at least partially responsible for the continuance of x? Even if we answer this question in the affirmative, am I at least less responsible for the continuance of x than I would have been had I contributed my money to x directly? What if I did not know (or believe) that S would contribute money to x? Am I still partially responsible? What are the nuanced differences between complying with x, contributing to x, and enabling x?
Thinking about these issues led some of the participants in the earlier comment thread to the following type of understandably pessimistic conclusion:
What I am arguing here is that the possibility of acting consistently moral is nearly impossible given the interconnected and ubiquitous consumer culture that not only drives Big Agro, but also Big Oil and Big (insert industry here). It is the inescapibility of this fact that leads many into quiet acquiescence and resigned fatalism, because one's activity of consumption must either directly or indirectly support a morally objectionable activity in the form of malfeascent corporations (Jem).
This leads to the second issue I wanted to discuss—namely, the “one person doesn’t (or can’t) make a difference” argument. Consider, for instance, the following comment:
Because of the scale of factory farming operations, it is implausible that their methods or level of production are sensitive to the purchases of any individual consumer or relatively small group of consumers. If I started eating factory farmed meat today (I’ve been vegetarian for a few years now), it is unlikely that a single additional animal will be raised and killed in factory farms as a result. Similarly, if someone else stops eating such meat, it is unlikely to spare even a single animal from such a fate (Derek Bowman).
This is a line of reasoning that came up a lot in the earlier comment thread. And while most participants in the thread intuitively grasped that surely something must be wrong with the argument—since it seems to lead to the sort of myopic moral malaise Singer discusses in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”—spelling out precisely what this is has proven to be surprisingly difficult.
One of the more interesting responses to the “one person doesn’t (or can’t) make a difference" argument, was the following by Eddy Nahmias:
Here's one way to put things. Suppose there are two groups, A and B, differentiated by the way they behave regarding some practice (e.g., purchasing factory-farmed meat). And suppose the respective behaviors of the two groups, as groups, has an aggregate effect that is morally significant (e.g., reducing factory farming or not). Then, this principle seems right to me: one has an obligation to behave in accord with the group whose behavior produces the moral effect one believes is right, *even if* one does not know whether one's own (relevant) behavior contributes to bringing about this effect (perhaps even if one knows it does not contribute?).
This brings us full circle to the earlier issue involving complicity and contribution. In any event, I am curious to hear what the readers think about these issues as they pertain to other applied ethical problems. I also welcome references to articles and books that talk about what it means to comply with, contribute to, or enable immoral practices.
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