I had a debate with a friend regarding his uprooting of interesting plants in a woodland.

He argued that it's a big forest and he only took a few plants, so doesn't cause much damage. He also believes that it's his right to forage 'as nature intended'.

I asked him what would happen if everyone uprooted wild plants, to which his response is "not everyone is going to do that".

I find it very difficult to counter this type of reasoning, as he's probably right in what he says, but still I think my argument stands up as a reason not to do it.

If this kind of logic had a name, I think I would be better able to deconstruct his arguments.

  • 1
    It's not really a logical fallacy, I think it's mainly wrong if you accept a deontological framework for morality or one based on a strict form of rule utilitarianism, but if one is an act utilitarian or a "soft" rule utilitarian of the kind discussed here, his argument may be ethically correct in that context.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 23 '20 at 20:50
  • 1
    You should have your friend read up on the Tragedy of the Commons. Mar 23 '20 at 20:55
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    Most ethical frameworks endorse the universalizability principle, either as basic or derived, that one should be able to make one's moral guidelines universal, applicable equally to all. This can not be interpreted naively, however, or a plumber would not be able to do his work ethically because it is absurd to make everyone else into a plumber. Still, for what your friend is doing to be ethical it should be subsumable under a more general description that is universalizable, see complexities of universalisation.
    – Conifold
    Mar 23 '20 at 23:47
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    – J D
    Mar 24 '20 at 17:37
  • A fallacy by definition is a misleading conclusion drawn from a generally narrow set of premises for which a clear counterexample exists. The argument that your friend makes is a classic issue of balancing the needs of one or a few against the many. If you are looking to win the argument, understand the notion of soundness and cogency in relation to informal logic.
    – J D
    Mar 24 '20 at 17:41

There is no fallacy here since a fallacy involves a logical error in reasoning and I can't see that your friend commits that.

More than that, your friend's conduct is capable of defence on grounds of actual consequence utilitarianism. This position is not open to the 'what if everyone did the same?' objection since it rejects the requirement hypothetically to universalise. He can readily grant that if everyone did the same, and uprooted plants, there would be no plants for anyone including himself to uproot. But the mass uprooting of plants is not the actual consequence of his activity in that forest at that time and so fulfils the actual consequence criterion.

There are undoubted cases where this argument breaks down, and the actual consequence is that everyone does do the same and we all lose out. But this only means that the actual consequence criterion has to be indexed to a context. Your friend can grant this but still maintain that his uprooting of plants in that forest at that time does not have the actual consequence that all the plants are uprooted.

Universalisability is inbuilt into most ethical theories but not of all - ethical particularism is an example to the contrary. But actual consequence utiltiarianism can plainly be universalised. There is no bar, logical or prudential, to everyone's applying this moral criterion. Your friend has no grounds on which to deny this but then he has also to accept that while actual consequence utiltarianism justifies his uprooting of plants in that forest at that time, in different conditions it does not. Conditions are perfectly possible in which his uprooting does have the consequence that everyone uproots and so there is nothing left for himself or anybody else, in which case he is condemned by his own actual consequence criterion.


His statement that uprooting a few plants might not be true. For example, there's a species of lupine that is native to Maine but no longer grows there. (It might grow there in small numbers, but I think it's considered extirpated.) It just so happens that the Karner blue butterfly is dependent on this particular lupine. Guess what? The Karner blue butterfly is no longer found in Maine.

In this spirit, your friend's statement could be false, though it might derive from ignorance and may or may not qualify as some kind of fallacy. However, it can generally be said that no one really understands the true significance or importance of a particular plant or animal.

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