On the Fallacy of Individualized Collective Action
In this post I would like to challenge the rationale that lies behind many instances of recycling, voting, and vegetarianism, among other things.
What do these three actions I just named have in common? All three of them can have a large-scale effect when taken as collective actions. None of them, realistically speaking, can have a large-scale effect when taken as individual actions.
There are a number of reasons why people vote, recycle, and refrain from eating meat. Unfortunately, in my experience one of the most common reasons is based on a mistake that I will refer to as the fallacy of individualized collective action. This mistake defends itself by means of the following three questions:
1. “But what if everyone thought that way?”: This is perhaps the most insidious and the most fallacious part of the fallacy. If everyone didn’t vote, the argument goes, our democracy wouldn’t work; therefore, I should vote. For some reason it is easy to overlook the fact that there is no logical relation between these two sentences. Whether you choose to vote determines only whether you vote, not whether everyone votes. It is true that if everyone did as you did, not voting would cause problems; it is not, however, true that everyone does as you do. It should be noted that this argument makes more sense as a reason not to advance the point I’m advancing, since convincing multiple people that it doesn’t (or does) make sense to vote has a larger effect than voting or not voting. This does not, however, make my point any less true.
2. “So you think an individual can’t make a difference?”: Clearly an individual can make a difference. For example, if I were the head of a major corporation, I could issue a company-wide decree to recycle that could, perhaps, make some kind of difference. Some actions have power on an individual level, others only on a collective level. To make a difference it is only necessary to choose the correct action.
3. “So you think voting/recycling/vegetarianism doesn’t make sense?”: Not necessarily. I personally recycle, for example, and it genuinely bothers me to throw away recyclables like cans and cardboard boxes. I do it, though, with no illusions that I am having any effect on the environment. I recycle because I approve of the recycling “movement” and want to feel like I’m in some small way a part of it. In other words, I recycle for emotional reasons. There are other reasons, too, to vote. I’ve never heard of any governmental election in the United States that has been decided by less than ten votes, and it’s a pretty safe bet that any election that could potentially be decided by one vote is an election for an office no one cares about. Nevertheless, one could argue that voting makes you feel involved in the political process and encourages civic pride. Last Election Day (actually the week before, because of early voting) I stood in line for three or four hours to cast my vote for Barack Obama. It wasn’t that much of a sacrifice (I had a book) and now I have a good story to tell my grandchildren. The fact that Obama was elected, of course, was in no way a consequence of my voting for him.
The rationale I am arguing against here is a consequentialist one, based on the idea that the proper way to judge an action is by its consequences. Other theories of moral philosophy might advance other justifications for vegetarianism, voting, and recycling, treating them not as individualized collective actions but as individual actions in their own right. It is consequentialism, however, that I believe lies behind most of the instances of vegetarianism, voting, and recycling that I have seen.
The argument I have laid out here is not too complicated. Why is it, then, that so many people follow the rationale I have attempted to disprove? The three actions I have been discussing are all, in a way, more “virtuous” than their opposites. Vegetarianism means denying yourself to prevent suffering, voting means going to some trouble for the greater good, and recycling means going to some trouble for the planet. In all these cases, the more altruistic and even the more ascetic choice is the one that naturally appears to us, surrounded as we are by the ruins of Judeo-Christian morality, as virtuous. It is easy to accuse meat-eaters of being selfish, non-voters of being lazy, and non-recyclers of being uninformed or apathetic; these charges could not be thrown in the other direction. That does not mean, however, that the harder and more self-denying choice is the right one. We should endeavor to clear our eyes of these prejudices and examine the reasons for our actions in the light of truth.
Questions for commenters: What non-consequentialist rationales could we come up with for vegetarianism, voting, and recycling? Do they justify the trouble involved?