Vegetarian Culpability Part 2 (Economics of Information Edition)

Previously, I wrote about the paralysis that a vegetarian would face if confronted with a broad view of production inputs. Namely, that hunting Cecil the lion was part of the dentist’s maintenance of his own labor. Given that preferences are diverse, we’re all perpetually facing a similar dilemma: If we trade with someone, then we are definitely, 100% helping them to do immoral things with which we disagree.

After a good night’s rest, I awoke and realized an age-old tool that humans have used to address the issue. As humans, we care and know most about those people who are closest to us. My previous analysis took as given that all of the relevant information concerning our trade partners was available. However, as Stigler knew well, information is a good and it’s costly to obtain.

When you know that your local lawyer is also a drug-dealer and a lecher, you don’t employ his services. Of course, your moral taste dictates a boycott as appropriate because his actions would be aided by your cooperative trade. The information about his divergent moral preferences is cheap and easy to obtain.

Similarly, a vegetarian may want to boycott a butcher from the neighboring town or from another country. The vegetarian doesn’t know the moral tastes of the butcher except that they definitely include slaughtering pigs. Again the cost of the information is low. We all understand, more or less, how meat gets to the table and that it (mostly) requires that an animal be killed.

Now, consider that pet owners are also sympathetic with animals, but less so than vegetarians. They don’t mind eating pork – but neither do they want cute little piglets to be violently strangled in the process of making pâté. If there is no reason to suspect that the neighborhood butcher is engaging in morally offensive activities, then no boycott is warranted. If the butcher is, seemingly, an upright person otherwise, then pet owners would have no impetus to suspect, research, and discover the dirty secret that the butcher keeps.

Prudential Research

The question about boycotts and culpability becomes one of how much information people ought have. Information economics converges with morality by being relevant to prudence. Information is more costly to obtain as the topic is increasingly remote from us. That cost is important.

Bearing the time and resource cost necessary to discover the consumption habits of your dentist may cost you precious minutes (hours?) of quality time spent with your children. It may cost you the loving glances and attention of a spouse or a rewarding discussion with a close friend. This makes one’s morally appropriate amount of information contingent on the opportunity cost and duties otherwise. Researching your dentist’s consumption habits is one thing. Researching the consumption habits for all of your trade partners is another.

The cost of information is what makes personal culpability, a moral tool, excusable. Of course, one funds an infinite series of disagreeable behaviors by trade partners. But, culpability is limited by the information concerning their behavior that one ought to have. As information becomes cheaper, we ought to have more. As the opportunity cost of discovering information grows, the less of it we ought to have. The vegetarian can’t be blamed for his dentist’s dirty secrets. The vegetarian can be blamed for not reading a food label and discovering the mammalian origins of gelatin.


For most people, there is little good reason to investigate the moral tastes of our trade partners. They are remote from us and we have no reason to suspect grave violations. We know that a butcher kills animals – we don’t know about his specific moral deviances otherwise. BUT, if information were to be suddenly revealed to us (at a very low cost), then we can’t claim to un-know it. The vegetarian who instantly has information concerning the distasteful habits of their dentist must, with reasonable opportunity cost, decide how to address the issue. Pretending to be ignorant would be wrong.

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