Featured Philosop-her: Adrienne M. Martin

I am very pleased to welcome Adrienne M. Martin as the next featured philosop-her.  She is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and will take up the Murty and Shankar Chair of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Claremont McKenna College, starting in fall 2014.

Her post follows.


Consumer Complicity in Factory Farming

Adrienne M. Martin

Many people who become vegetarians do so first out of a concern for the welfare of factory farmed animals. They believe it is wrong to treat animals and people as they are treated in factory farming, and that consuming the meat produced through factory farming makes one complicit in the wrongful means of production. I am interested in articulating a good justificatory rationale for this line of thought.

There are arguably two distinct forms of complicity in cases structured as this one is: first, consumers provide the means and incentive for the primary agents who carry out the wrongful means of production, so consumers are accomplices in the wrongs committed by factory farmers; and, second, the individual consumer participates in the creation of this means and incentive as part of a collective. I’ll focus here on this latter relation, which I’ll call “participant complicity.”

The consumer might resist the idea that she is complicit in the wrongful means of production, because of the collective nature of market support. “My purchase,” she might argue, “makes no difference whatsoever to the continuation of factory farming.”

Shelley Kagan argues that the consumer at least takes the small risk of making a very large difference, in his recent article, “Do I make a difference?” (Philosophy & Public Affairs,Volume 39, Issue 2, pages 105–141, Spring 2011). And Elizabeth Harman argues that, even if one doesn’t take such a risk–or if the fact that one takes such a risk is not a moral reason to stop buying factory farmed meat–each consumer contributes to the market support for factory farming as a “joint cause” (article forthcoming in Philosophers Come to Dinner, ed. Chignell, Cuneo, and Halteman, forthcoming from Routledge). According to Harman, being a contributor without being a difference-maker is morally significant.

I want to explore the possibility that there is more to participant complicity than being a joint cause, while agreeing with Harman that one does not have to be a difference-maker (or risk it) to be complicit in a collective wrong.

Worth noting: Harman argues that, sometimes, it is morally wrong to participate as a joint cause of wrongful harm and, sometimes, there is moral reason not to participate, even if it is not morally wrong to do so. I myself am unclear as to whether it is always wrong to be complicit in a wrong, or prima facie wrong, or something there is decisive moral reason not to do, or something there is just some moral reason not to do.

A joint cause of an outcome is precisely a causal contributor that is neither necessary nor sufficient for the outcome. One of six pallbearers is a joint cause in the carrying of the coffin, when four would be able to carry it alone. Here are some ways I can be a joint cause of factory farming but not, I believe, complicit: I can purchase the vegetarian option at a restaurant that also serves factory farmed meat–it is common for restaurants to make greater overhead on their vegetarian options. I can split the tab with meat-eating friends. I can buy meat substitutes made from the soy waste products of factory pig farming. (I’ve heard it rumoured that some pig farmers sell soy waste to companies that use it to make meat substitutes. This may be a conspiracy theory, but the possibility still makes a useful point, here.)

What is the complicity difference between purchasing a factory farmed chicken for dinner and these other actions? I think we should attend to the different consumer groups one joins by making these purchases. In a capitalist market economy, a consumer group is recognizable as such because it has the function of signalling demand for a type of product. institutions, with individual designers involved in their inception and ongoing maintenance and development. And such economic systems do have aims, even if what those aims are is a subject for critical debate about the justifiability of the systems (middle-class prosperity? wealth consolidation in the upper tiers? maximal growth regardless distribution?). Capitalist markets rely on their constituent organizations’ pursuit of a subset of aims, and many constituent organizations are corporations that in turn rely on being able to roughly predict consumer demand for their product. Individual consumers don’t matter much for this purpose, except insofar as their buying patterns combine with others’–insofar, that is, as they are members of consumer groups.*

A person who splits the tab with meat-eating friends does not thereby join the consumer group that signals demand for factory farmed meat, even though she is a joint cause of incentivizing and supporting its production. What needs spelling out, clearly, is what does constitute joining this group. A likely necessary condition is that the consumer knows–or is culpably negligent for failing to know–that her purchase jointly with others signals demand for meat at the prices made possible by high-density stocking. It is also worth considering conditions setting a higher bar, such as requiring that the consumer is committed on pain of inconsistency to endorsing the means of production, or even that she identifies with her purchases in a certain way.



*A somewhat different version of this argument will appear in Philosophers Come to Dinner, op cit. The notion that we should think about participant complicity in terms of functional roles played within aim-oriented groups is inspired by Saba Bazargan’s compelling analysis of combatant liability to be killed, in “Complicitous Liability in War,” Philosophical Studies, April 2012. However, the extension of his analysis to the case of consumer complicity is not straightforward, since the military is more clearly a systematically organized group with a defining set of aims, within which people willingly adopt functional roles.






2 responses

  1. Very interesting stuff! I wonder about a case of the sort you mention where I eat a vegetarian option from a restaurant that serves meat. Suppose they make a profit on my purchase and this profit, predictably, helps the restaurant chain expand into areas where cheap meat was not as available. As a result, more meat is consumed in this new area and so the economic demand for animals expands. Suppose too that I know all of this will. I take you to be saying that in such a case I do not join a relevant sort of consumer group despite the fact that my action (and the action of others behaving as I do) does help create more demand for meat. But suppose I ate at this restaurant with the goal of increasing their profits so that they would expand into new markets and sell more meat. In that case it seems more likely that we should think I am complicit. If that seems right to you, then it can look like a person’s private intention is a key to determining who is complicit. Thus I wonder if you are thinking the agent’s intention is morally crucial in determining what groups the agent joins? If so, why not just say that the intentions are morally crucial to determining culpability and that the story about joining groups is somewhat derivative from the differences in intentions.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David! I don’t think a person’s intention determines whether she joins a consumer group–especially if we limit intentions to explicit aims or goals. *Maybe* a person’s maxim–a full rationale for her action, usually for the large part inarticulate and discoverable only by interrogating the counterfactual conditions under which she would act the same way–is relevant. But think even that sets the bar too high: culpable ignorance seems sufficient to me. That is, if I ought to know my purchase jointly with others signals demand for a certain kind of product, then I’m in the consumer group for that product.

    I share the intuition that buying the vegetarian option at a restaurant with the goal of helping them sell more meat is worse than buying that option without that goal. Assume I know I am not a difference maker, but only an inessential contributor; then the intuition seems to be that aiming to be a joint cause of a wrongful harm is worse than being a joint cause unintentionally. It seems to me there are a number of plausible explications of this intuition. The intention to contribute suggests a more vicious character. There might, *pace* considerations of culpable ignorance, complacency, etc, be greater moral reason to refrain from intentional contribution to wrongful harm than to refrain from unintentional contribution. And so on. I’m not convinced, though, that intentionally contributing makes one complicit in (liable to be blamed for) the wrong, while unintentionally contributing does not.

    Lots of moving parts, here. I hope this is clear.

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