Food Ethics

, Volume 2, Issue 2–3, pp 93–110 | Cite as

Against Inefficacy Objections: the Real Economic Impact of Individual Consumer Choices on Animal Agriculture

  • Steven McMullenEmail author
  • Matthew C. Halteman
Research Article


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.


Causal 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.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hope CollegeHollandUSA
  2. 2.Calvin CollegeGrand RapidsUSA

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