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I seem to recall that there is an ethical principle (in some systems) that while one person might do something with minimal, but still negative, effect, it is still wrong if it is the case that it would be harmful if everyone did the same thing.

An example is throwing trash on the street, though there are more serious examples.

I'm looking for both a name of such a principle (and the system in which it arises) and some information explaining it and the background.

It's been a long time since I studied ethics.

Based on some early answers here, and some additional thought, I think that the case where an action by one (or a few) has no negative effects at all, but vastly negative ones when "everyone" does it, might be a different situation altogether.


My special interest here is about copyright infringement by academics of academic materials. If one person does it there is a small negative effect. But if everyone does it then there is no longer any incentive for publishers to publish things in the first place, which would be problematic in academia. A different system would be preferable, most likely, but it is hard to see how it emerges or who absorbs the cost as well as there responsibility to maintain access over very long time spans.

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  • It's also linked to the golden rule and its many variants. "You wouldn't want people around you to litter the streets, so don't do it". It can also be reached through social contract theory: "I don't want other people to litter, and I don't have the individual power to impose my will to everyone. But we can agree to make it a universal rule because they share the same idea."
    – armand
    Mar 18 at 0:08
  • Sounds like "rule utilitarianism," technically. Mar 18 at 0:50
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This is Kant's categorical imperative, and more specifically, universalizability.

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 20 at 18:39
  • @hypnosifl, I can't enter chat. You are missing my point. When you are allowing specific attributes for some people to get treatment x you open the window for biases, prejudice, racism, etc. I originally stayed that to causative who would agree with you. He would allow a dictatorship where he can make the rules only apply to himself or only the people he values. This is NOT what the categorical imperative allows or means. There are cases where an ethical principle is adopted from a moral one.You don't seem to care to make the distinction. Perhaps that is why you are confused with the terms.
    – Logikal
    Mar 20 at 18:54
  • @Logikal "When you are allowing specific attributes for some people to get treatment x you open the window for biases" Not if you derive the particular rules for particular groups from general moral principles, in the same way that we derive statements about prime numbers from more general principles of arithmetic. You still aren't giving any evidence (from Kant's writings or from other philosophers) that Kant understood his categorical imperative to rule out such particular moral rules. As for terms, I understand how you are using them, just saying philosophers don't define them that way.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 20 at 20:04
  • @@hypnosifl, "If you derive the particular rules for particular groups from general moral principles . . ." Well firstly, moral claims are not the same as just true or false claims. Moral claims have OBLIGATION. They Express an absolute MUST. Some people would say AN OUGHT. So claims about types of numbers are not in the same realm. Can you give an example in the real world of your understanding? MORAL rules imply universal to begin with. There are no subjective morals within the field of NORMATIVE ETHICS period. The term moral is also used in other fields. You may be confusing them.
    – Logikal
    Mar 20 at 20:49
  • @Logikal - "Can you give an example in the real world of your understanding?" Sure, for ex. in utilitarianism the rule that you should act to maximize happiness is a universal one, but different classes of people might be made most happy by different things, so that in a utilitarian framework one could derive the claim that you should do X for the class of ppl made most happy by X and Y for the class of ppl made most happy by Y. In Kant's morals it seems possible that the rule "treat people as ends in themselves, not means" might lead to different obligations to people with different needs.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 20 at 21:23
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Welcome, Buffy.

False first appearances

At first sight the kind of case you describe is an example of the 'collective action problem':

[There are cases that have] the following structure: A certain number of people - perhaps a large number of people - have the ability to perform an act of a given kind. And if a large enough group of people do perform the act in question then the results will be bad overall. However - and this is the crucial point - in the relevant cases it seems that it makes no difference to the outcome what any given individual does. And this is true regardless of whether others are doing the act or not. Thus, if enough people do perform the act the results are bad overall; but for all that, it remains true of each individual agent that it makes no difference to the overall results whether or not they perform the action in question. (Shelley Kagan, 'Do I Make a Difference?', Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2011, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 105-141: 107.)

The collective action problem is widely regarded as a problem for consequentialism:

The problem, in effect, is this: consequentialism condemns my act only when my act makes a difference. But in the kind of cases we are imagining, my act makes no difference, and so cannot be condemned by consequentialism - even though it remains true that when enough such acts are performed the results are bad. Thus consequentialism fails to condemn my act. In cases of this sort, therefore, consequentialism seems to fail even by its own lights. For here - unlike the deontological cases that purport to show that something else matters besides results - the act seems wrong precisely because of the bad results of everyone's doing acts of the same sort. Yet consequentialism still cannot condemn the act. Apparently, then, consequentialism fails to handle a kind of case that even consequentialists admit it ought to be able to handle. (Kagan: 108.)

A second look

However, the case you describe is not one where what the individual does 'makes no difference'. Instead it's one where the individual's action is 'of minimal effect'. An action doesn't have to be of major effect to count morally. An action 'of minimal effect' is still an action that does have results. If the results are harmful, all else equal the action is wrong on consequentialist grounds and may well be open to objection on deontological grounds as well.

The kind of case you raise first received serious and extended attention in Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (1984) and the solution to it - or at least the response I've given here - follows his own answer to it.

A title

As analysed above, the example falls within the scope of consequentalism and violates its requirements. It does so irrespective of any principle of uiversalisability. Even if no-one else did your action 'of minimal effect', all else equal it would still be wrong because it produces a bad (if minimal then still real and still bad) consequence. One might appeal to a principle of the moral relevance of minimal effect.

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  • My special interest here is about copyright infringement by academics of academic materials. If one person does it there is a small effect. But if everyone does it then there is no longer any incentive for publishers to publish things in the first place, which would be problematic in academia. A different system would be preferable, most likely, but it is hard to see how it emerges or who absorbs he cost.
    – Buffy
    Mar 18 at 15:21
  • @Buffy publishers of academic journals are vampires who contribute almost nothing. They don't typeset or edit the published papers - researchers must typeset themselves using LaTeX, and other academics peer review for free. All the publisher provides is the prestige of a journal that previously published important papers. This is why there is a trend towards open access journals and ditching the middlemen.
    – causative
    Mar 18 at 15:32
  • @causative, I partially disagree. Publishers enable academic reputations as well as an obvious place to find things. Not a small thing. And, even with open access, someone has to (a) cover the costs, which aren't trivial, and (b) guarantee long term availability, which is even less trivial. Too many online "services" simply disappear when the sponsor no longer cares. I'm looking at you, Google.
    – Buffy
    Mar 18 at 15:36
  • @Buffy the hosting costs of an open access, online-only journal are fairly trivial. Individual researchers are usually happy to send you a pdf of their paper, performing the hosting themselves. Many papers are hosted by random websites if you search for them. sci-hub.se demonstrates that there is the will and the money available to host lots of papers on a volunteer basis. Disappearance of online services is not a problem if the papers are distributed in DRM-free PDF format; even if a service goes down the papers will still exist and get reposted.
    – causative
    Mar 18 at 15:41
  • @Buffy. Thank you for explaining the context of the question. I answered it in the general terms in which it was set. In those terms, issues of universalisabilty can (I argued) be side-stepped but they are clearly relevant to your specific concerns. It is a good, thought-provoking question whatever the case. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 18 at 15:43
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When I was in my twenties, I spent a lot of time thinking about this rule. Or Kant's categorical imperative which is the fancy way of calling it. Ultimately I came the conclusion that I disagreed with it. A lot of activities are harmless/good when some people do it but not if everyone does it. Some examples

  • It's ok when some people become full-time artists. However if everyone would be a full-time artist there would be no nurses, firemen, factory-workers, software developers and other people who perform necessary work left.

  • There is nothing wrong when you withdraw all your money from the bank. However if everyone would do it at the same time the economic system would collapse.

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  • Neither of these examples have the property that individual action has "minimal" (rather than zero) negative impact. I wonder if that is the critical distinction here.
    – Buffy
    Mar 19 at 13:37
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Take a football team. Eleven players, and one is the goal keeper. Having eleven goal keepers would make an awful football team, but having none is awfully bad as well. So "I will be the goal keeper" is damaging if everyone does it, but very benefical if one of a team of 11 does it.

Take an orchestra. If everyone wants to be the conductor, you won't get any music. If nobody acts as the conductor, the quality of a performance will be nowhere near as good as it could be.

I think you will be able to find plenty of examples where something is harmful if everyone does it, but benefical if one person does it.

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  • Same answer as mine but with other examples. Mar 19 at 11:42
  • I wasn't really looking for examples, but your first one seems flawed. The "harm" is only to the team itself, not to society generally.
    – Buffy
    Mar 19 at 13:34

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