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Causal impotence objection

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The causal impotence objection is among the most serious threats to ethical vegetarianism, action on climate change, and population mitigation. The argument begins with the premise that individuals, or relatively small collections thereof, have a negligible impact on the world; it is unlikely that their actions will make a substantive impact, or noticeably change some state of affairs. By the ought implies can principle,Wikipedia's W.svg such individuals are not morally obligated to do anything about which they cannot control.


  • An individual riding a bike rather than a car makes no meaningful difference in overall carbon emissions. What difference they do make is generally so small as to be negligible and readily subsumed by the rest of society.
  • A lone individual abstaining from meat is unlikely to reduce any amount of animal suffering. The global market simply will not respond to one individual’s dietary choices, nor will most grocery stores, which are likely to purchase just as much meat as before.[1]

Proposed resolutions[edit]

In regard to vegetarianism, Alastair NorcrossWikipedia's W.svg and Peter Singer[2] argue there must be some number of vegetarians, N, at which some number of animals are spared a fate in factory farms. For example, 10,000 vegetarians might save 250,000 chickens from factory farms and slaughterhouses (a very conservative estimate, given that the average American consumes roughly 27 chickens per year.)[3] Assuming that the market does not respond to any less than 10,000 vegetarians, a vegetarian has a 1 in 10,000 chance of saving 250,000 chickens, which is logically and mathematically equivalent to saving 25.

Arguing in a different context, philosopher Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongWikipedia's W.svg rejects the “group principle” implicit to the threshold argument outlined above. Namely, by founding the individual obligation to do something on the collective impacts of a group, we merely beg the question of whether such an individual obligation exists.[4]