"What if we all did that?" …my foot! – Part 1

As far as philosophers go, there’s a fairly famous one named Emanuel Kant who said something like, “Act only on that maxim which you could will to be a universal law.” In other words, would you want everyone else in your situation to do what you’re about to do? If not, don’t do it.

This is a pretty popular moral philosophy. And whether you’ve heard it directly from Kant or from someone else, you probably have some of it ingrained in you too.

I’ll say right here, though: it’s ridiculous.

Before I get to why, let me share a few examples where this might come up:

  • Should I vote or not? Hmm… what if everyone stopped voting? Okay, I’ll vote.
  • Should I throw this cheeseburger wrapper out my window? Hmm… what if everyone threw their trash into the street? Okay, I’ll go green.
  • Should I lie to get a better grade on this test? Hmm… what if everyone cheated on their tests? Okay, I’ll tell the truth.

People love this kind of reasoning and use it all the time. They think, if everyone acted this way, the world would start to fall apart… therefore, I’m not going to do it because we shouldn’t all do it.

The reasoning says it’s unfair for me to do something if everyone else shouldn’t do.

But there are huge problems with that reasoning… huge as in, “That’s stupid once you realize it”… huge as in, “I stop listening to your reasoning when that reasoning comes out.” I might still care about you as a person, but that reasoning is dead to me.

My first problem with this reasoning is that I see a ton of counter examples where it doesn’t work. Here are a few:

  • What if everyone only worked at an ice cream shop? That’s not good. I guess I shouldn’t do that.
  • What if everyone only vacationed at my favorite vacation spot? That’s not good. I guess I shouldn’t do that.
  • What if everyone tried to marry the same person I want to marry? That’s not good. I guess I shouldn’t do that.

It doesn’t take long for this line of reasoning to get nonsensical. Some things simply get worse when many people do them but are perfectly fine, good even, when only a few – or perhaps only one – do them.

So someone might object, “You’re applying the reasoning in the wrong situations.”

But wait… I thought that’s why we used this reasoning, to figure that out.

So what, this reasoning only works when we know the action is good for a few to follow but not many? That means this reasoning only works when we know the right answer ahead of time? But that’s circular.

What’s the use in that?

So that’s my first objection: this reasoning obviously doesn’t apply everywhere, so we can only use it when we already know the answer.

[Continued in Part 2…]