Collective Action Problems

Consequentialism holds that the consequences of an act, rather than an act's motive, are the only morally relevant factors. When we want to know whether something was morally good or bad, the consequentialist says to look at the act's effects. For a number of reasons I find consequentialism compelling, but I'm not going to attempt to make that case here. Instead I'm interested in a problem of which lots of people are aware, whether they know about consequentialism or not.

A problem for consequentialists is that lots of acts we want to call immoral (or moral) don't actually produce correspondingly good or bad consequences. Sometimes the effect of our acts is zero. Take vegetarianism. The ethical reason why people choose vegetarianism is that it causes less suffering. There are even attempts to calculate just how many animals an average vegetarian saves, which usually means totalling the number of animals killed and dividing by the human population. (The calculation for the cited article is much more complex, but it's still attempting the same goal.)

The problem with this approach is that our practices aren't that effective. Or, to put it another way, the meat industry isn't fine-tuned enough to decrease the number of animals it tortures and slaughters every time someone becomes vegetarian. When someone buys a chicken from the grocery store, the store doesn't call up a factory farm to prepare another chicken. If we could measure total meat production down to the animal, we would find that for each vegetarian there is no morally relevant difference in the amount of animals produced. There would be no change at all. This is a collective action problem (CAP) because it would be better overall for everyone to be vegetarian, but as individuals we have no compelling reason to switch. We just think we're voting with our dollars when we shop.

As individuals we have almost no purchasing power, and if abstaining from purchasing the chicken makes no morally relevant difference—that is, if we can't point to a specific chicken who's life was saved by our abstention—then consequentialism can't condemn buying it. Even if we think there are other morally relevant factors besides consequences, few deny that consequences play some role in ethics.

But it's not only animal ethicists who need to worry about CAPs. The problem is exactly the same for environmentalists. All sane people agree that climate change is a serious problem, but as average individuals our acts probably make no difference. Whether I drive a Hummer or ride a bicycle the environment isn't going to be damaged by any perceptible amount, so I therefore am not obligated to choose my bicycle. Even if we total all my Hummer driving over my life, the difference will be too small to matter.

Now, philosophers of all stripes have taken on the issue of CAPs, and some have potentially got around them. There might even be arguments to solve the problem so that consequentialists are still obligated to be vegetarian, ride bicycles, and donate money to charity. (Here's the charity CAP: Unless I donate a lot of money, my contribution will make no morally relevant difference. No individual contribution will be enough to incite an international charity such as Oxfam or Unicef to action. Therefore I have no moral reason to contribute.)

But suppose none of these solutions work. Suppose that consequentialists can't conclude that we have morally relevant reasons to refrain from eating meat and polluting. This doesn't mean that there are no ways around CAPs, but instead that our individual acts make no difference. What's the result? One is that we're morally obligated to promote the solutions that have the best chance of working. I'm sympathetic to those who change their lives in major ways because they feel that it's the right thing to do, but the solutions most likely to make a difference in both cases are legal and political rather than personal.

Environmental destruction is only going to be mitigated if laws are passed to institute a significant cost on carbon emissions. This can only be done by governments. The same is true of the treatment of animals. Unless laws are passed, corporations will continue to produce meat as cheaply as possible, and this means torturing animals. There is no chance of convincing enough people to become vegetarian to make a morally relevant difference, but there is hope of convincing people to support laws banning the worst treatment practices of the agriculture industry.

There's an upside to this result. Many people report that they're against the poor treatment of animals, but see no reason to become vegetarian. Animal welfare supporters have been missing the point by focusing on making vegetarian converts. Instead, we should be focusing on changing policies. It has always seemed the least plausible way to make a difference, but it's the method that will make the biggest difference.

This isn't to say that our omnivorous friends are absolved of responsibility. Indeed, now they play an important role. Ask them why they aren't calling politicians to encourage legal reform. Ask yourself why you haven't. Personal lifestyle decisions such as vegetarianism aren't enough. The same is true of the environment. The only possible way to avert climate catastrophe is to effect real, meaningful policy as soon as possible, and that can't be done on a personal level.

Mark Bittman had a powerful opinion article in yesterday's New York Times, in which he makes a similar case for policy activism. Regarding climate change, he makes this worthwhile point:

Unless we quickly put a steep and real price on all carbon emissions, our inaction will doom our not-too-distant descendants. “Really,” says Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, “we need a comprehensive approach to reduce carbon pollution from all sources. What form that takes—caps, taxes, or standards—is far less important than how soon we get it in place.

Regarding where we should direct our action as individuals, he makes a convincing case for increasing political pressure. His article ends as follows:

With knowledge comes responsibility, and with that responsibility must come action. As the earth’s stewards, our individual changes are important, but this is a bigger deal than replacing light bulbs or riding a bike. Let’s make working to turn emissions around a litmus test for every politician who asks for our vote.

Imagine a democracy across space, time and class, where legislative bodies represented not only those living in the world’s low-lying areas but their great-grandchildren—and ours. Or imagine that our elected representatives were proxies for those people. Imagine those representatives determining our current energy policy. Is there any doubt that things would change more rapidly?

Actually, this argument is true even if our lifestyle decisions do make a morally relevant difference. It's empowering to change ourselves, and consistency might demand that we live low-carbon, vegetarian lives. Morality might demand that sort of personal change. However, the real demand—regardless of CAPs—is that we aim for change that will make the greatest difference. Perhaps unfortunately, that requires phone calls and letters, maybe even switching into law. What we drive or eat for dinner isn't enough.