Vegetarian Culpability

Do you remember that dentist who went to Africa and shot Cecil the lion? I had a vegan friend who said that she would boycott him – had he been her dentist.

I can’t tell you how many questions I had. Why boycott him? In a competitive market, it would have no long-run impact on his economic profits. Was it important that his murder of Cecil was part of his consumption/leisure behavior rather than part of his provision of dental services? Does trading with people who have different preferences make one morally culpable for their consequently afforded activities?

A Trip Down Reasoning Lane

Let’s take some things as given. 

  • My friend is vegan and didn’t want Cecil to be on the receiving end of homicide (leon-icide?). 
  • Big-game hunting was a consumption activity for, who I’ll call, the dentist.
  • Everyone has unique preferences – including moral tastes.
  • Voluntary trade makes both parties better off.
  • There are a variety of input combinations that a firm can adopt in order to create output.
  • Humans are responsible for their own behavior to varying degrees.

My understanding of my friend’s would-be boycott is that lion-hunting was a direct result of the dentist’s inappropriate preferences and economic empowerment. Therefore, boycotting the dentist would reduce the dentist’s budget, and consequently reduce his spending on improper activities. Knowing that the dentist would spend his income in this manner makes each transaction with him a contribution to satisfying his illicit preferences.

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems

First, veganism isn’t unique. No two people have the same preferences. So, every single transaction necessarily empowers another person to do things that you think are not best. If the standard for culpability is simply “don’t help others do bad”, then we are paralyzed. No act is ethically perfect. All transactions help others engage in activities with which you take ethical issue. This conclusion is necessarily implied by diverse preferences and mutually beneficial trade. 

On the other hand, it may be that funding bad behavior via trade is OK, given some cost-benefit threshold. In which case, nothing is sacred and any trade or behavior is arguably proper. This last line of thought, while logically consistent, demands insurmountable computational ability and an impossible level of knowledge – making it irrelevant for a practicable ethic.

Personal Responsibility

If all transactions help to fund people who would make decisions with which we disagree, then the only practicable ethic is one of personal responsibility. That is, when we trade with another, we aren’t held responsible for their choices which are not an intrinsic part of facilitating the transaction. 

You know the phrase “your freedom to wave your fist ends at my nose”? Similarly, your culpability for choice ends at the choice of another. As such, we don’t descend down a spiral of incalculable material consequentialism. If culpability continues with the choice of another, then we are culpable for the infinite chain of consequences and choices that follow. Similarly, one would never be entirely culpable for their own choices because they are also the result of an infinite number of preceding choices by others who enabled your choice. No subsequent choice would be wholly attributable to any person. 

A Gaping Loophole

The above might sound nice, but there is a major problem. It is best illustrated by the economic concept of an isoquant. An isoquant illustrates the idea that there is more than one way to skin a cat (or more than one way to fill a cavity). As it turns out, producers can provide the same product or service by choosing from a menu of input combinations. Consider people who hang dry-wall. Some dry-wall hangers move quickly, but also use a lot of mud. Others move more deliberately, but use less mud. Both hang drywall to a similar standard. The problem is that many inputs are substitutable to an extent that is unknown to the non-specialist or unknowable period.

Without isoquants, we simply say that customer culpability is only present for productive activities rather than consumption activities. Imagine that a clothing producer enslaves children as part of its clothing assembly process. The slave labor is clearly part of the productive process that the consumer is encouraging with each purchase. Alternatively, consider a manager from the same clothing company who enslaves children during his leisure time. Without isoquants, we simply say that customers are culpable for the former activity and not for the latter because the latter is not part of the productive process.

Econ, Why You Gotta Cause Problems?

Why are isoquants problematic? Isoquants reveal that killing a lion is as indistinguishable an input to dentistry as is novocaine or fluoride. Consider our original lion killer. One of the inputs to his productive activities is the maintenance of his labor. The dentist’s preferences were such that the thrill of hunting motivated him to provide more dental services than he would have otherwise. Remove the exotic hunting opportunity, and you remove the pleasure that the dentist enjoys from his expenditure. It’s not enough just to say that the dentist would have spent on some other form of consumption. It’s entirely plausible that the dental services do not happen without the input of lion-killing.

One might argue that I am confusing inputs and consumption opportunities – that consumption is a separate activity from production. But humans are consumers and producers, both. The maintenance of labor via leisure and consumption are the inputs to labor supply, which in turn produces output such as dental services. What’s to separate the maintenance of labor, through leisure and consumption, and the maintenance of tools for the purpose of providing dental services? Aren’t both a result of choices by our hunting-est of dentists?

Prescription for Behavior

What’s a vegan, or anyone else, to do? Are we doomed to the impossible calculus of implicit utilitarianism? I really don’t know. I wish that I could end this blog post with a conclusion that addressed all of the above and left no frayed ends. I’m afraid, however, that my best answer right now is contingency. The world changes, technologies change, and productive processes change. 

Whether to boycott the murderer of Cecil the lion depends on the alternatives. If lion-killing is both morally distasteful and most other successful dentists don’t appear to have the craven desire, then the dentist is rightly boycotted. The production function of the greatest propriety isn’t up for a vote. But technology does determine our ability to afford different production methods that we learn about by looking to the variety of producers. Similarly, our greater productivity imposes greater culpability for our consumption choices when we are hardly impoverishing ourselves through boycott and abstinence.

EDIT: After a good night’s rest, the resolution dawned on me. See you next Thursday!

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