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Ethics in Society

A Dilemma of Consumer Responsibility

If you eat meat, are you personally to blame for the evils of factory farming? Richard Corry considers the consequences.

Bob is a good and thoughtful person. He is concerned with the welfare of others, he gives to charity, and he takes an interest in local politics. Bob also enjoys a good steak. One day, while Bob is savouring a particularly good steak at a barbeque, he is approached by his old friend Pete. Now Pete is a vegetarian: one of the annoying proselytizing kind.

“How can you eat that?” asks Pete. “Don’t you know that the industrial production of meat causes immense suffering and death to countless innocent animals?”

Bob, having had this conversation with Pete before, just shrugs.

Pete tries another tack: “Don’t you call yourself an environmentalist? The production of meat consumes many more resources and takes more space than the production of crops and vegetables. It’s also responsible for increased erosion and top-soil loss, and produces huge quantities of methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. By consuming meat you’re directly contributing to the destruction of the environment!”

Bob sighs, finishes his mouthful, turns to Pete, and says: “Look, I know that the treatment of animals in the meat industry is not ideal: many animals do indeed suffer. I’m also aware of the environmental costs of meat production. But what’s the point of me becoming a vegetarian? The industry is just too big. If I stop eating meat, it won’t make a single bit of difference to the industry. Exactly the same number of animals will suffer and die, the same resources will be consumed, the same greenhouse gases will be produced. No one will notice. It won’t make a difference – not a jot. Meanwhile, I enjoy eating meat, and it would be pointless to forgo this pleasure for nothing. Perhaps you could convince me that I should lobby against the poor treatment of animals, possibly even against the industrial production of meat. But I can see no reason at all to stop eating meat while there is a meat industry. At least this way the poor animals have not suffered and died in vain.”

At this point, as usual, Pete gives up and goes for a beer.

Around the corner lives Simon. To all appearances, Simon is a decent, upright member of the community. He is a respected lawyer and a volunteer coach for the local under-18s football team. But Simon hides a dark secret – every now and then he likes to download child pornography from the internet. Unluckily for Simon, the police have infiltrated the file-sharing network to which he belongs, and so he is arrested for possession of child pornography. With the evidence against him rock solid, Simon pleads guilty. During the sentencing hearing, however, Simon argues for leniency.

“Your Honour,” he says, “I appreciate that possession of child pornography is a crime. However, I would like to point out that in my case it was a victimless crime. My actions hurt nobody.”

The judge begs to differ: “The production of child pornography inevitably involves the exploitation of minors. In many cases the children involved are terribly abused, and permanently scarred psychologically. By consuming the products of this industry you are encouraging more production, and hence encouraging further exploitation, and abuse, of children. How can you say that your actions hurt nobody?”

“Your Honour, it is true that the production of child pornography involves the abuse of children, and is indeed a terrible crime. However, I did not produce child pornography. You say that my consumption of child pornography encourages its production, but this is not true. Given the large number of people downloading child pornography around the world, my actions will go completely unnoticed by those who produce it. The same children would have been abused if I had not downloaded child pornography, and the same children will be abused in the future whether or not I download it. Thus my actions cannot be said to have contributed in any way to the harm of anyone.”

The judge is not impressed with Simon’s argument. Indeed she takes the argument as a sign that Simon feels no remorse, and opts for a harsher sentence than she was originally considering.

A Dilemma

Pete’s argument for vegetarianism is typical of many ‘consequentialist’ arguments put forward by some proponents of vegetarianism. Consequentialism is the view that we should judge the morality of actions by their consequences; and in this case the judgement is that the overall consequences of eating meat are bad, and so eating meat is itself bad. For example, in his influential book Animal Liberation (1975), Peter Singer argued that vegetarianism is a moral obligation since by eating meat we contribute to “the continued existence, prosperity, and growth of factory farming and all the other cruel practices used in rearing animals for food.” Similar lines of reasoning lie behind the advocacy of vegetarianism by animal welfare groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Bob’s response to the consequentialist argument for vegetarianism represents a kind of objection sometimes known as the ‘individual impotence’ objection. This objection does not take issue with the premise that the production of meat involves some very bad consequences (suffering, death, environmental degradation, or some such), nor does it argue that these bad consequences are somehow outweighed by any good that comes from the consumption of meat. Rather, the objection points out that an individual’s decision whether or not to eat meat has no noticeable effect on the meat industry. The information the industry uses to estimate demand and set quotas and thus production is simply not sensitive to the choices of one individual. Given this fact, the objection runs, any suffering, death, or environmental degradation that may be caused by the meat industry cannot be seen as a consequence of any one individual’s choice to eat meat. As Peter Wenz first expressed this objection in 1979: “there are thresholds beneath which an alteration in demand has absolutely no effect on price, profit and production.” (See his ‘Act-Utilitarianism and Animal Liberation’ The Personalist 60 (4): 423–428). Thus consequentialist reasoning provides no grounds for an individual to become vegetarian.

In the second story, involving Simon and the judge, the judge represents society’s attitude toward the possession of child pornography. In most Western societies the mere possession of child pornography is considered a serious crime. In Australia and the United Kingdom, for example, maximum penalties for the possession of child pornography lie between 2 and 5 years. In the United States, in 2010, the average sentence for ‘non-production’ child pornography offences was 95 months. Offenders are typically regarded as deserving such serious punishment because their activities contribute to the suffering of children. In their influential book Child Pornography: An Internet Crime (2003), for example, Maxwell Taylor and Ethel Quayle say that the problem with viewing, collecting or distributing child pornography is that it “contributes to the process of abuse, and supports and nourishes the production of child pornography.”

Hopefully the point of my little fiction exercise is clear. The argument given for making possession of child pornography a serious crime is a consequentialist one, directly analogous to the consequentialist argument for vegetarianism. Simon’s argument for leniency is analogous to Bob’s objection to the case for vegetarianism. Both claim that an individual cannot be held responsible for some situation if their actions have no effect on the situation. Of course, I utterly condemn the production and use of child pornography. The point of the present argument is however to demonstrate that consequentialist arguments are not by themselves adequate to explain why it is wrong, and so to show the limits of consequentialism.

Given the evident close parallel between the two debates outlined above, then assuming that the industrial production of meat does indeed have bad consequences overall, we can draw one of three conclusions:

(1) The consequentialist argument for vegetarianism is valid, and so is the consequentialist argument for treating child pornography as a serious crime;

(2) The objection to the consequentialist argument for vegetarianism is valid, and so is the objection to the consequentialist argument for treating possession of child pornography as a serious crime;

(3) There is some relevant difference between the two cases that means that the validity or invalidity of one consequentialist argument tells us nothing about the validity or invalidity of the other argument.

Let’s set aside possibility (3) for the moment. If we do assume that the industrial production of meat does indeed have bad consequences overall, then we are faced with the dilemma of my title. Either the consequentialist argument for laws against possession of child pornography is a good one, in which case so is the consequentialist argument for vegetarianism; or the consequentialist argument for vegetarianism is a bad one, and so is the consequentialist argument for laws against possession of child pornography. This dilemma is of interest because the accepted morals of our society are inconsistent with either conclusion: our society sees the possession of child pornography as morally wrong, but generally sees nothing morally wrong with the consumption of meat. Still setting aside possibility (3), the only consequentialist way to defend this stance is therefore to argue that the consequences of meat production are not bad overall. I have nothing to say about that argument here. My point is that we cannot defend our society’s general attitude to meat consumption with the kind of argument Bob gives without threatening society’s stance on child pornography.

Relevant Differences?

So what of possibility (3)? Is there a morally relevant disanalogy between the two cases? I can think of four possible arguments that there might be:

A Difference In The Wrong Being Done

First, one might argue that there is a relevant difference between the kind of harm being done in the two cases: child pornography involves the terrible abuse of human children, while industrial meat production involves the suffering of non-human animals.

I will not here attempt to compare the suffering of animals for the industrial production of meat with the suffering caused to children in the production of child pornography. So long as we accept the premise that the industrial production of meat causes more harm than good (and of course the premise that the production of child pornography causes harm), there is no need to examine the nature of the wrongs being done in any detail, since, as long as wrong is done, the nature of the wrong does not seem to tell us anything at all about the fundamental moral relationship between consumer and producer in a way that counts for consequentialism. Of course, you might argue that the suffering of animals just does not count in moral evaluation; but this is to abandon the ‘individual impotence’ objection and instead attack the premise that the consequences of industrial meat production are bad in a morally significant way.

Perhaps if the objection were not that my choice makes no difference to the situation, but rather that my choice makes very little difference to it, then a difference in the wrong being done may be relevant, for one could argue that playing a small part in a small wrong can be morally overlooked, while playing a small part in a large wrong cannot. Such a position may go some way to explaining a difference in society’s attitudes to the two cases, but I am not sure that it justifies this difference in attitudes. For consequentialists will respond that to play even a small part in a small wrong is still to do something morally wrong.

A Difference In Available Options

One might argue that there is a relevant disanalogy between the two cases because the consumer of child pornography could easily choose to entertain themselves in some other way, whilst the consumer of meat has no other viable options. However, it is generally not true these days that the consumer of meat has no other options. It is not at all difficult in a modern agricultural society to maintain one’s health on a purely vegetarian diet. Indeed such a diet is usually less expensive than a diet that includes meat, and there is some evidence that in our society vegetarian diets are in fact healthier than non-vegetarian diets.

A Difference In The Consequentialist Reasoning

One might argue that the accepted legal sanctions against the possession of child pornography are not there because they reflect a belief that the possessor has personally committed a moral wrong; rather, the legal sanctions are there because of the consequences they have for society as a whole – they act as a deterrent to the consumption of child pornography, and hence reduce the demand on a scale large enough to make a difference to the producers, thus saving children from abuse. In this case the argument against possession of child pornography would not parallel the argument for vegetarianism.

However, there are three problems with this position. First, society generally tends to look down upon the criminal punishment of people who are innocent of any moral wrong, even if such punishment has positive larger consequences. Thus this reasoning could point to another inconsistency in social attitudes.

Second, this reasoning is not reflected in the legal literature on child pornography. While it is accepted that deterrence may have a large-scale positive effect, the legal justification given for punishing individuals invariably revolves around the individual’s personal encouragement of its production.

Finally, suppose that the true justification for laws against the possession of child pornography involves the social consequences of these laws rather than the personal culpability of the individual involved. Once again, a parallel argument could be made in the case of vegetarianism. So, one might argue that even if an individual is not morally culpable for eating meat, it would still be a good thing if there were a general condemnation of the practice.

Non-Utilitarian Arguments

Finally, one might argue that the belief that possession of child pornography is wrong is not based on consequentialist reasoning at all. For instance, the production of child pornography is a terrible wrong, so perhaps the products of such a wrong are therefore morally tainted, such that possession of, or even desire for, these products is itself morally wrong. This kind of reasoning would not be subject to the individual impotence objection, which is irrelevant here. But if we sanction such non-consequentialist reasoning in the child pornography case, then on the face of things it should be available in the vegetarian case too. One could argue that since the industrial production of meat involves wrongdoing, the products of this process are morally tainted, and so on. Here again, we find that the case for vegetarianism and the case against the possession of child pornography stand or fall together (assuming, of course, that the industrial production of meat does involve moral wrongdoing of some kind).


In this article I have focused on vegetarianism because there is extensive literature on the topic. However, there is a much bigger issue at stake here. The underlying question is whether consumers can be held morally responsible for harms caused in the production of that which they consume. The production of coffee, chocolate, fashion items, and sporting goods, for example, often involves the exploitation of people, so the arguments considered above could all be applied in these cases also.

There have been attempts to defend consequentialist arguments for vegetarianism against the individual impotence objection, but that is not my objective here. My aim is to point out that, as a society, we already accept that consumers can be held morally responsible for suffering caused by the production of that which they consume. In the case of child pornography, society’s attitude is so strong that we are willing to impose severe legal penalties on those who do no more than consume. Of course, the views of society are not an infallible guide to morality; after all our, society once thought that there was nothing wrong with keeping slaves. However, if the prevailing social attitude towards the consumption of child pornography is correct, then this shows that there must be something wrong with the individual impotence objection to consumer responsibility. So maybe consequentialist defences against the objection are valid after all; or maybe consumer responsibility is best understood through some other ethical framework, such as deontological (duty) ethics, or virtue ethics. Whatever the case, if we are right to condemn consumers of child pornography – as we must believe we are – then, as a society, we are required to rethink our attitudes towards consumer responsibility more generally. And what better place to start than with vegetarianism?

© Dr Richard Corry 2014

Richard Corry is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Tasmania.

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