Saturday, June 28, 2014

Standard Arguments for Why It's OK to Eat Meat and Why They Are Much Weaker Than You Think

Introduction
At some point, every semester in my critical thinking class, I issue a challenge to my students.  For homework, they have to come up with their best possible argument for why it's OK to eat factory farmed meat.  Every class gives variations of the same handful of arguments and they are indeed the same arguments most people give.  In class the next day, I formalize the arguments (i.e., break them down into their basic premises) put the arguments up on the overhead and ask them to criticize the arguments themselves.  Here's the thing about many arguments (on any topic): when your formalize them, their weaknesses become very apparent to often even their most staunch supporters.

In this post I'll go over the most common arguments people give for why it's OK to eat factory farmed meat.  Before you read the arguments it is important that a few empirical facts be made clear.  First of all, animals on factory farms undergo unimaginable amounts of suffering.  They suffer from the moment they are born and every moment they are conscious.  This is no exaggeration.  Arguably, when the animal is killed, this is the best part of its life because it finally ceases to suffer.  It would not be hard to argue that these animals would have been better off never having been born than to having to endure the lives that they do.

Pigs are kept in gestation pens with barely enough room to lie down.  They do not even have room to turn around. They develop sores from not being able to move from the same place.  Their legs splay out when they attempt to stand because their underdeveloped muscles cannot support their weight.  The unnatural density of animals confined to the same small space produces unsanitary conditions leading to the spread of bacteria such that the majority develop permanent diarrhea. When piglets are born they often catch the bacteria that causes the diarrhea and die.  The dead piglets are then made into a slurry which is mixed back into the pigs' feed and fed to the mothers.




I will end the description here but if you doubt the severity and extent of nightmarish conditions and constant suffering endured by the animals, here are some links to videos.  These videos are not the worst I've seen but they are sufficient to convey the point.

Pigs in Gestation Crates
Chickens

Part I:  The Standard Arguments
Before reading the following arguments I want to be clear that these arguments apply specifically to factory farming.  The ethical implications of eating meat from hunting or "humane" farming practices requires further argument.

Argument 1:  The historical argument
(P1)  Historically humans have always eaten meat.
(C)   It is morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat.

To see why this argument fails we need to fill in the missing premise.

(P2)  If humans have done something historically then it is morally permissible.

(P2) causes the argument to fail because it is easily shown to be false.  Consider racism, slavery, sexism, genocide, and war.  Humans have historically engaged in these practices too.  It does not follow from this fact that these practices are morally permissible.  The argument commits the fallacy of appeal to tradition.

Argument 2:  The Evolutionary Argument
(P1)  We are designed to be able to eat meat. (Just look at my teeth! Look at my digestive system!)
(C)    It's morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat.

To see why this fails we fill in the missing premise:

(P2)  It is morally permissible to act in accordance with whatever capacities we have.

This premise can apply even to those who doubt evolutionary theory.  The origin of the capacities is irrelevant to why the argument fails. The argument fails because (P2) is false.  We have the capacity to kill, maim, punch, kick, etc yet the fact that these actions arise out of natural capacities is no reason to accept them as morally permissible.  This argument fails because it commits the naturalistic fallacy.

Argument 3:  I like it. It makes me happy.
(P1)  Meat tastes good and eating it give me pleasure.
(C)   Eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible.

This argument is so obviously weak it doesn't really need to be addressed.  I'll fill in the missing premise and you can do the rest.

(P2)  If I enjoy something and it gives me pleasure then it is morally permissible.

Consider for a moment the amount of pleasure you get from eating meat.  In order for you to have that pleasure, a sentient animal suffered every single moment of its existence.  From its first breath to its last, it suffered so you can say "yum." I don't see how a reasonable person could say that the lifetime of unremitting suffering endured by a sentient creature justifies the satisfaction one gets from a single meal.

Argument 4:  We need to eat meat/We need protein.
(P1)  We need to eat meat for protein.
(C)   Therefore, eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible.

I was guilty of this argument.  It was my last reason for not becoming a vegetarian.  I mistakenly believed that I couldn't be an athlete on a vegetarian diet (which in itself was a bad argument).  For this argument we don't even need to look at the hidden premise.  (P1) is empirically false.  Entire cultures have been vegetarian for millennia.  We don't need to eat meat for protein.  I am a competitive athlete and I have more muscle mass than the average guy yet I am able to achieve this without consuming meat.  When I went vegetarian I didn't lose any muscle mass.   It is true that there may be a very small segment of the population that might need to eat meat for medical conditions but by and large, this argument fails for most of us.

Argument 5:  Other animals eat meat.  
(P1)  Animals eat other animals and we don't say it's morally wrong.
(C)   Therefore, it's morally permissible for humans to eat meat.

We can look at the hidden premise to see why this argument fails but it really isn't necessary.  But for fun I'll put it down:

(P2)  If other animals do something then it's morally permissible for us.

I won't even address (P2) because it's obviously silly.  Consider these other disanalogies instead: (a) animals in the wild (and true carnivores in captivity) genuinely do need to eat meat or they will die. They don't have a choice whereas we do.  (b)  Humans are capable of moral reasoning while animals are not.  (c) Wild animals are not running factory farms.

Argument 6a:  What if plants feel pain?
(P1)  If plants feel pain then no matter what we eat we'll cause pain and suffering.
(C)   It's morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat.

I think people with philosophical tendencies appeal to this argument.  I've actually seen it used in the comments section of a philosophy website for philosophers.  I probably used it in undergrad.  This is the point where philosophers need to get out of their armchairs and read some basic science.  The missing premise for this argument to work is:

(P2)  Plants can feel pain.

In order to feel pain an organism needs to have a central nervous system.  We know plant biology down to the molecular level.  They do not have central nervous systems and so cannot feel pain (despite what some crank websites will have you believe).

Argument 6b:  How do we know that the animals are suffering? (Yes, people actually make this argument)
(P1)  Suffering in an internal phenomenon and so we have no direct way to verify its truth conditions.
(P2)  It follows that we can't be sure that animals are suffering,  
(C)   Therefore eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible.

This is yet another case of undergrad philosophers needing to take a basic science course. The reason why animals are used for medical testing (pain killers included) is because their physiology closely resembles ours.  This in itself should undermine the objection.  We can go one step further and ask how we know that a fellow human is suffering.  The answer is behavior.  One might respond that "no, it's because we have language and we can communicate our inner condition this way."  But this is clearly false, we don't need someone to tell us they are in pain if we lock them up in a cage and poke them with a cattle prod. 

If you are still unconvinced, I recommend you watch the following short video.

Argument 7:  But it's hard!
This isn't so much of a argument as it is an excuse.  To see why it fails consider how you'd respond to someone who owns a slave that gave you the same excuse.

Part II:  Why Give Animals Moral Consideration of their Interests? (I.e., why should we include animals in our moral circle.)

"The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"
--Bentham 

Basic Argument:  Here's an obvious question, what is worse: kicking a dog or kicking a stone?  I hope you answered the former.  Why do we say it's bad to kick the dog and not the stone?  Well, the simple answer is that the dog can feel pain and will suffer while the stone cannot.  The dog has an interest in avoiding suffering because suffering is bad.  If suffering is bad then it's bad for anything that experiences it.  It would seem strange to say of any animal capable of suffering that the (unconsensual) suffering it endures is good or value neutral.  

Some people might respond but sometimes suffering is good, like when we work really hard for something or train hard in the gym to get gainz.  But this is to confuse the contingent consequences of the suffering with the suffering itself.  The suffering itself is bad.  Its consequences (in these cases) are good, however, they could have turned out bad (e.g., you get a 'D' on the paper you suffered through, you don't make any gainz after your intense workout).  Given the choice between achieving the desired consequence through suffering and achieving it without suffering, most would choose to achieve the consequence without suffering.

We give moral consideration to the dog because it can suffer and we don't give it to the rock because it can't suffer.  In short, if a being has the capacity to suffer then it has the right to have its interest in avoiding suffering taken into account.

There are several possible objections to the claim that me must include animals in our moral circle.  I want to deal with only one line of these objections:

But They Aren't Human!
The assumption here is that there is some morally relevant property that humans have that animals don't have.  Common answers are "rationality" "intelligence" "self-awarenss" and "language".

Reply 1: If these are the relevant moral properties then we should exclude human infants and severely handicapped humans from our moral circle.  They do not have these properties.  We do not have to consider their suffering in our moral calculus.  Adult chimps and other mammals (and some birds) exhibit some of these traits in greater degrees so we ought to consider their interests more than the interests of infants and the severely handicapped. Nevertheless, we do included infants and the severely handicapped in our moral circle because they have the capacity to suffer.

Reply 2:  If these are the relevant moral properties then it could follow that one's interests should be considered in proportion to the degree to which one has the relevant properties.  The moral interests of highly rational, intelligent, self-aware, and linguistically skilled individuals should be given more consideration that those who have these to a lesser degree.  Few people agree with this and so the aforementioned properties are not relevant to moral consideration.

Reply 3:  Suppose a severely handicapped human or infant and a normal human were both in a equal amount of pain.  You only have enough of a pain killer for one.  Splitting the dose will render it ineffective.  How do you decide to whom you will administer the dose?  Is intelligence, rational thought or capacity for language relevant to your decision?  Most people would say no.  

Counter-Reply 1: We include infants and the severely handicapped in our moral circle not only because of their capacity to suffer but because they are human.

Reply:  This only pushes the same problem back one step.  What properties do humans have that distinguishes them from animals in terms of worthiness of moral consideration of interests?  You haven't told me yet what's so special about the category "human" as it relates to moral consideration of interests?

Counter-Reply 2:  The infant is a potential human.

Reply: Again, this only pushes the same question back one step:  What property do humans have that animals don't have that confers moral status?

Last Resort Counter-Reply:  You don't get it.  WE ARE HUMAN, THEY ARE ANIMALS!!!
This is circular reasoning.  Lets lay the argument out to show why:
(P1)  We are human and they are animals.
(C)   Humans interests are worthy of moral consideration while those of animals aren't.

The only way this argument works is if you add the hidden second premise:

(P2)  Human interests are worthy of moral consideration and animals' interests aren't.

Notice that the conclusion of the argument is contained in (P2).  The only way the argument works is if you have the conclusion already in the premises.  This is the very definition of circular reasoning.

Part III: Argument for Moral Consideration of Pigs and Cows
Watch the following video clip.

Do you think the way they are treating the dogs is wrong?  If you do, consider this.  Pigs are every bit as intelligent and social as dogs.  They are every bit as capable as showing affection for their young and fellow animals.  They remember people and other animals.  There are very few differences between pigs and dogs in terms of social and cognitive skills.  If you think it's wrong to treat dogs in this way what morally relevant property do dogs have that pigs don't?  Imagine if we did to dogs what we do to pigs.  Would you stand for it?  What would you say to some who said: But I really like the taste of dog!  or But I need protein! or But we're designed to eat meat--look at my teeth! or But they aren't human!

Think about it.

Part IV: Practical Advice for Becoming a Vegetarian (Or Possibly Vegan)

First an aside on ethical living: When it comes to ethical behavior I favor the Aristotelian approach.  That it, we should aim to be virtuous but recognize that we will screw up sometimes.  The good life is the activity of virtuous behavior.  If you take a rule-based approach (i.e., all or nothing), psychologically, once you've broken the rule most people will just revert to their old habits. Ethical behavior requires daily effort and practice.  We will make mistakes but that is no reason to give up the cause. 

I'm not ready to give up meat but don't want to support factory farming:  What should I do?
There are meat producers that adhere to humane practices and there are many supermarkets from which you can buy meat from humanely raised meat.  I'll list a few below.  First, there are a couple of distinctions that should be kept in mind to avoid falling prey to marketing hype.

The label "All Natural" means nothing no matter what product it's applied to and (depending on the jurisdiction) "organic" when it is applied to meat might only refer to the animal's diet, not its treatment.

Eggs:  Best is "free range."  This means the chickens are able to walk around outdoors and have enough space for a normal chicken social life.  "Cage free" means that the chicken are kept in a large barn rather than in cages.  They may or may not have access to the outdoors.  The cage free eggs tend to be priced fairly close to conventional eggs.  The free range eggs usually run about 5.00/dozen at Smith's.

Chicken:  The same "free range/cage free" distinction applies here too.

Beef:  "Grass-fed Free range" beef means the cows got to live a life outside eating grass.  Unless indicated otherwise, most beef is from cows confined to feed lots with minimal exercise.

Pork: Look for "pasture-raised" pork.  This mean the pigs got to have a somewhat normal life free from the suffering endured in gestation crates.

Meatless meat:  Over the last few years as more and more people are going vegetarian/vegan there's been a profit incentive to create good "meatless meats."  You can find several brands that make fake chicken, beef, pork, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts.  The taste and texture of these products is very good and they are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

The Hard Part
Moving to a vegetarian diet was actually much easier than I thought it'd be. By far the most difficult part was eating out and late night meals after going out, so I will only address those.

Eating Out:  Most restaurants offer seafood.  The problem is that it usually costs 2 dollars more to get the shrimp or scallop option than it does to get the chicken, pork, or beef.   If you're like me and not fabulously wealthy (when's this philosophy thing going to pay off?) then you're price sensitive.  What to do?  Here's what I do.  First watch this short happy video.

Now ask yourself.  Would you pay an extra $2.00 to prevent Little Miss Sunshine and chickens just like her from enduring a life-time of suffering?  Is it worth $2.00 to you?  When I frame my decision in this light, the decision is easy.

Late night:  Often after a night out we're tired, hungry, and possibly a bit drunk.  Not a good combination for ethical decision-making; trust me, I know!  If you go to most fast food restaurants (which are the main type of place open late) you'll find beef, beef, chicken, beef, chicken, and more beef.  Luckily, most fast-food places have one fish burger.  Maybe it isn't your first choice but it's a way to avoid supporting factory farming. Another solution is to go to a Denny's or IHOP and order eggs and toast/waffle/pancake.  Yes, the eggs are probably from battery hens but it's likely the lesser of the available evils.

EDIT: Several commenters have noted that fish should be excluded as a menu option because there's growing evidence that (several species) are capable social cognition and of (most importantly) experiencing pain.  This is a legitimate issue in regards to the permissibility of killing.  However, the scope of this article is confined to evaluating the moral permissibility of factory farming in relation to the amount of suffering the animals endure over the course of their lifetimes.






17 comments:

  1. This is why philosophy is so impotent in the modern age. We've discerned that we evolved morality to facilitate social cohesion, yes? We need to feel like we can trust one another for society to function. All social animals exhibit a degree of morality. Of what purpose is directing morality at animals? They don't need our trust, we don't need theirs. Our society doesn't include them. Any reflection on animal rights is born out of a misguided notion that morality is something universal, there's no evidence of that.

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    1. Hi anonymous,
      Thank you for your comment. To address your first point: You're correct to identify the evolutionary origins of our intuitive moral judgments. However, to argue that the evolutionary origins of our intuitions dictate how we ought to engage in moral reasoning now (i.e., not our evolutionary environment) is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. An analogy should bring this point into relief: Our sense of vision evolved to increase our fitness in our evolutionary environment (e.g., identify ripe fruits, judge distance, etc...) nevertheless, this is no objection to using our vision to appreciate art (i.e., use our sense for a purpose for which it was not originally designed). Our new environment confronts us with new problems. There is no prohibition on using old tools for new purposes. Our capacity to reason and our moral intuitions can also be retrofitted for the new problems presented by our new environment.

      Your second point that "any reflection on animal rights is born out of a misguided notion that morality is something universal, there's no evidence of that" doesn't seem to be necessarily try. Even Mackie, the arch anti-realist, agrees that moral discourse and behavior doesn't require objective moral truth. As I mentioned below, this article is intended to show 2 things: (a) that the reasons/arguments people give for why it is morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat are not good arguments because they commit common errors in reasoning and do not withstand counter-examples; (b) that including animals in our moral circle is a conclusion that follows from principles we *already* agree to--we have simply been inconsistent in our application of these principles/axioms/beliefs. The ontological status of moral facts is not relevant to the issue because the conclusion follows from principles that most people already accept. If someone disagrees that we should avoid the unnecessary suffering of innocents, then the burden of proof is on them to justify their position since burden of proof (generally) falls on anyone arguing against consensus.

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  2. Hello! I think you presented pretty much all the standard arguments and I agree with how you approach them all, but then you end it with the suggestion for people to eat fish. I just don't think this follows in the slightest with the arguments you were making nor a vegetarian diet. And wouldn't the same arguments support, and therefore push you towards, a vegan diet?

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    1. Hi Anonymous.
      I agree with you that if fish (which is a fairly large and diverse category) are capable of suffering, it follows that we must give consideration to their moral interests. That said, I'm not sure that the particular arguments I've given rule out consuming all types of animal products and husbandry. There are additional arguments that could be made for that position however my purpose here was to specifically address "lay" arguments for the moral permissibility of consuming *factory farmed* meat. I think the main objection to factory farmed meat is not the fact that the animal is killed but the fact that it endures tremendous suffering for the entirety of its existence. The question of killing is another matter and its impermissibity can be argued for but I think it requires arguments that go beyond the scope of the issue I've restricted this article to.

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  3. > I don't see how a reasonable person could say that the lifetime of unremitting suffering endured by a sentient creature justifies the satisfaction one gets from a single meal.

    So basically anyone who isn't a utilitarian is unreasonable in your view?

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thank you for your question. As I have framed the assertion your are correct to call it utilitarian, nevertheless, one does not have to a utilitarian to accept the assertion. One could easily reframe the principle for a deontologist ("never act such that the pleasure of your action is grossly outweighed by the suffering it causes") or for a philosophical intuitionist ("we all assent to the principle of impartiality; i.e., from the point of view of the universe--to paraphrase Sidgwick--my interests do not have greater importance than the interests of another). One could also be an anti-realist and claim that the epistemological virtue of consistency demands that we act in accordance with principles most of us already accept (we should avoid the unnecessary suffering of innocents). Both realists and anti-realists can also appeal to quality of reasons: the standard reasons for the permissibility of eating factory farmed meat are weaker than the reasons against it. Ultimately moral discourse (unless we are going to abandon all standards) boils down to the quality of reasons for or against a position.

      The main purpose of this post was to show that the standard reasons given in favor of eating factory farmed meat do not support the conclusion because the arguments commit common informal fallacies in reasoning.

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    2. So then would you argue that amoralists are irrational/mistaken?

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    3. I'm not sure if I'm interpreting your position correctly but I'd say that anyone who cannot justify their actions with normative reasons is irrational. (If someone can't explain why they did one thing rather than another, I don't see how we can call this rational action). The article is intended to show that the standard reasons people give for eating meat are poor reasons and do not withstand scrutiny. Also, the article shows that the reasons that people give for excluding animals from their moral circle are not consistent with fundamental beliefs they *already* have. The intent of the article is not to impose new beliefs on people or show that their most basic ethical beliefs are weak, rather it is to show that the conclusions people have about factory farming and the moral status of animals are not consistent with more basic normative premises they *already* ascribe to. I'm showing what follows from beliefs most people already have. If someone *doesn't* think that suffering is important for moral consideration (i.e., psychopaths) then their consumption of factory farmed meat will not be inconsistent with their view. However, since most people do subscribe to this moral principle (be it objective or conventional) it follows that we must bring animals into our moral circle and take their suffering into account.

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  4. Well Argued. But why do you think it is Okay to eat fish?
    Don't most of the same arguments apply?

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    1. Hi anonymous, thank you for your comment.
      The main argument I've presented here against factory farming is not that it is impermissible because the animals are killed but that their suffering is such that it would have been better for them never to have lived at all. I'm not sure that the same can be said of fish that are caught in the wild. That said, there are arguments for the impermissibility of killing any sentient animal if it is not necessary to do so but the issue of killing is a different matter and goes beyond the narrow scope of what I tried to achieve in this article. It may very well be that there are compelling arguments against killing that prohibit factory farming as well. I find the issue of killing to be much more complex and have chosen to set it aside for a later post perhaps.

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  5. Where is the argument supporting that "pain of sentient" beings is of utmost importance? Do you think that fish would consent to it? What if there is an alien species that is thousands of time more intelligent than us? Would it be OK for them to eat us? There is no universal moral argument that you *can* offer for *humans living*. Dying at this very instance than harming anything, pig, fish or a vegetable, is more moral. If the flower or fish does not have capacity to feel same level of sentience as you do then why should you hold it against them? A fish feels great when it finds a good dinner. A flower feels great when it finds sun and is pollinated, it turns into a seed, that it intends. It lacks a central nervous system, says the one with central nervous system to others that lack it to use it for what he sees is the best use of. What if more sentient species of aliens come here with ability to fly like birds and associate themselves more with birds than mammals and start taking revenge upon us? What if more sentient species has ability to photosynthesis and does not require anything but water, light and vitamins and has nervous system that is more peer to peer (think internet) than a centralized? What if that species starts taking revenge on us? Tell me what your argument would be, oh, one with central nervous system?

    The line is arbitrary between farmed animals and vegetables. It is preference. Any way you look at it, it is preference. It is self-preservation pf a species, homo sapiens, at the end of the day. Your argument is no different than people using bible to defend slavery.

    If you want to make the circle of what it means when we say "us", say so. If you want to treat cetaceans to have "rights to same dignity of an individual as humans" say so. It would be moral in itself up to a point, in a limited context. But get off of your high horse. It is still a preference.

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  6. This article is great, and I am wrestling with the decision whether to post it to my facebook feed and make everything awkward for everyone. One thing: toward the end of your list of arguments you lose some of your rigor. In the "Last resort" portion, you suggest that the only possible P2 is circular. Aren't there others? Like genetic concerns (I read elsewhere that you're a Dawkins fan)? I think this article could genuinely serve to change some minds, thereby saving some lives because although we've all been in this argument before, your article clings with great strength to logic and rigor, whereas when we have it in person, we react to other people getting riled up.

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    1. (a) Make it awkward!
      (b) I think the idea that we should be concerned about human procreation (at this point in human history) over animal suffering would be tough to defend. That said, you're right to point out that familial and friend relations are relevant to moral decision-making all things being equal (e.g., If 2 people are suffering equally and one is a friend while the other is a stranger, it'd be probably be morally permissible to help the friend first). Nevertheless, in the case of factory farming, there isn't equal suffering going on.

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  7. I think the most persuasive standard argument for Why It's OK to Eat Meat acknowledges the wrongness of factory farming, animal suffering, etc. but sees it as a collective action problem where any individual's choice to become vegetarian will have no impact. So the argument goes something like this:

    P1: For any given individual A, if A becomes a vegetarian, that will have no impact on factory farming, animal suffering, etc., and so will result in no benefit for anyone.
    P2: For any given individual A, if A becomes a vegetarian, that will result in a cost to A
    P3: For any given individual A, if A's phi-ing results in a cost to A, and a benefit to no one, then it is not the case that A ought to Phi.
    C: For any given individual A, it is not the case that A ought to become a vegetarian.

    I imagine you reject the first empirical premise--even Aristotle would not say that the virtuous person should perform actions that she knows will not achieve their ends! But I would like to hear more.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thank you for the thoughtful comment.
      My response to your argument would be as follows:
      P1 is empirically false. For every person who does not eat meat that is one less unit of demand on the meat industry and production will fall accordingly. For example, the supermarket where I used to buy chicken now has the demand for chicken fall by about 3 chickens a month (yes, I used to eat quite a bit of chicken). Once this decreased level of demand shows up as a trend, they will reduce their orders to the producers. When the producers have fewer orders they will produce fewer chickens. For every person that does this, the effect is magnified. If 10 people do it at a single supermarket that's a significant decrease in their orders. Collective action does work.
      Re: P2, I'm not sure if I'm interpreting it correctly. I'm not clear what the cost is to becoming vegetarian. My food bills are down and I'm just as healthy if not healthier. And bonus--I have a clean conscience (which counts for quite a bit). Going back to Aristotle (one of my favorites), he would say that you cannot live a good life without living a moral life (i.e., practicing excellence in the moral virtues). By becoming vegetarian, and if we think there's anything to Aristotle's virtue ethics (or at least that a clear conscience matters for something) it seems as though I gain by becoming a vegetarian. Of course, this will not be true of everyone...some people are rational egoists and there's nothing I can do to convince them otherwise.

      Let me know what you think of the response and if it is satisfactory.

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  8. Using the impotence of individual argument, since the meat industry is so huge, one's decision in becoming a vegetarian will have little or no effect to the overall suffering of animals, is that right? I do agree though that if the whole community for to change their diet then it would maximize utility.

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    1. Hi 11lawpt1,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I've actually heard this objection in response to several moral issues and some days I think it's a good one but on others it seems like a non-sequitur. Before explaining why, I'll just note that I did partially address it already in a previous comment but I'll add a few remarks here. Lets use a non-controversial hypothetical example to illustrate why I think it's a non-sequitur. Suppose there is a Christian baby-meat industry (atheists have to eat something!). In fact it is a very powerful industry. Now suppose an atheist has the realization that it's wrong to eat Christian babies (even though they're delicious). He tells his friend that they should stop eating Christian babies because it's morally wrong to do so. His friend responds "yeah, but if I stop eating babies, that's not going to have much of an effect on the over-all industry." To this person, we'd think he's missing the point. The moral permissibility of your own actions has nothing to do with whether they will effect systematic change or the moral nature of other people's actions. If an action is wrong, it's wrong and arguing that others will continue to act impermissibly does nothing to diminish the wrongness of your own actions. So, if may be empirically true that my refraining from eating factory farmed meat has little effect on the industry, it has no bearing on the normative facts about my action. Appealing to causal impotence isn't an argument in favor of continuing to act in a way that is demonstrably contrary to our best moral reasoning. Let me know what you think of the response. The causal impotence argument is often invoked so I want to know if my response is satisfactory. If not, I'll see if I can strengthen it.

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