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?


8 Responses to “On the Fallacy of Individualized Collective Action”

  1. Individual action is, of course, a form of expression, and perhaps the most effective form of persuasion. “Leading by example,” if you will. I think you may be underestimating the effect of the individual’s action on the collective. The very act of voting, recycling, or declining to eat meat is a small challenge to those who choose to do the opposite, and in that way the individual’s actual contribution may not be negligible.

    Really though, when we start taking things like the above into account, it’s impossible to say what tangible effect any action has. It may be true that a single person’s decision not to eat meat etc. may not affect the number of animals slaughtered, but most arguments I’ve heard for that thesis essentially begin and end with “There are so many people!” Even if you don’t count indirect effects, I have yet to see a proof for the non-effect of ANY of the individual acts or purchases I perform every day much less ALL of them. Add the indirect effects back in, and the argument for individual inconsequence gets even weaker. One thing I can be certain of, however, is that choosing to do the opposite of the things you mentioned cannot possibly have any effect in the positive direction. (clearly this works better for some of the examples than others)

    Finally, there might be some sort of “tipping-point” argument based on indirect effects. E.g. corporate policy and law requires a certain amount of support for individuals. If a school or corporation decides to stop purchasing meat (e.g.) because 50% of the people working/studying there have chosen that option, perhaps each individual in that 50% gets some cut of the moral credit for all the animals not slaughtered from that point on.

  2. mcs,
    I think it is easy here to overestimate the effect the individual has on the collective. I would like to take voting as the example here, because I think it’s much easier to talk about than recycling or vegetarianism. Meticulous records are kept on voting, and if I were to invest maybe 30 seconds of effort I could tell you Obama’s exact margin of victory in individual votes (let’s ignore the Electoral College here), but I don’t think either of us would find it nearly as easy to estimate the number of people who would have to recycle or become vegetarians in order to make a real difference.

    The 2000 and 2004 elections were very close, and a change in only one state, if it was the right state, could have swung the election the other way. In 2000, the election in Florida was legendarily close. Of course, the recount was stopped, so we don’t know exactly what the final vote tally was, but if the Wikipedia page is to be believed, the absolute closest scenario had Gore winning by 60 votes. I find it a bit hard to believe that my own example could motivate more than one or two other people to vote, if that; do you really think you could get 60? But more importantly, if your goal is to get 60 people to vote, voting yourself is not exactly the most effective means you could imagine to achieve that. Volunteering would be a much better start. And not everyone (or even close to everyone) who votes volunteers.

    To return to vegetarianism, I have a friend who says her vegetarianism has directly caused two or three other people to become vegetarians, and that’s just in the last few years. On the face of it (and according to my rough calculations) that would seem to suggest that, if you are a vegetarian for thirty years, you will have caused just over 1 million people to convert to vegetarianism. Is this really true, though? For one thing, I have no facts to back this up but I would imagine that there is a certain stage of life, maybe high school through late 20s, where people are much more susceptible to vegetarianism than at other times in their life. For another thing, a lot of people backslide; I know a number of former vegetarians. For yet a third thing, social networks mean that you and your friends are going to be “converting” a lot of the same people.

    What seems even more convincing than that, though, is that if the problem you’re trying to solve is animals suffering, individual vegetarianism just doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way to do that. It does seem a lot more effective as a measure designed to ease your conscience for participating in a society that perpetrates such horrors. I think there’s a reason that people are willing to undergo the many hassles of eliminating meat from their diet but aren’t as willing to, for example, stand outside a restaurant that serves meat and hand out pamphlets, or pay for ads on the subway. Individual vegetarianism has a satisfying, cleansing asceticism to it, like a monk’s hairshirt.

    Again, though, the tipping point for recycling or vegetarianism is a very difficult thing to imagine; it’s probably easier to think about this in terms of voting, where we can see exactly how insignificant our effect is (and note that in talking about the 2000 election above, I didn’t even take into account that in the end it was the Supreme Court that decided it).

  3. I wonder whether your examples — recycling, voting, vegetarianism — are in fact NOT examples of “individual collective action” at all; they are, instead, examples of genuine collective action, which you admit CAN have large-scale effects. You say that you recycle in part because you want to feel that you are part of a recycling “movement” in some way. But isn’t that the whole point — your recycling IS a part of a collective action, albeit not one in which the collectivity enforces its will with physical force or the like. If I decide one day all by myself to start recycling paper and no one else is doing it, then I will surely have no effect on the environment, no matter how much I hope others will follow my lead. But If I decide to recycle in the knowledge that other people ARE recycling, then aren’t I part of a collective movement that (a) could have a real, large-scale effect and (b) still other non-recyclers could join and increase that effect?

  4. Groucho,
    As individuals, all we have the power to enact are individual actions. A “collective action” emerges when we look at a group of individual actions in a certain way. I think you’re making the mistake I’m arguing against here, which is to assume that, since recycling as a collective action has good results, recycling as an individual action must have good results, since the collective action is made up of a lot of individual actions. The problem is, from a consequentialist point of view, that leap isn’t valid; in order to determine whether you personally should recycle, you should look only at the effects of your own action, since others will behave the same way regardless of what you choose. So to answer the question in your last sentence, yes, you are part of that collective movement, but that doesn’t mean that your individual action is making a difference.

  5. Couldn’t a “collective action” be akin to a pact or contract — i.e., I’ll recycle if others do; if they don’t, I’ll stop recycling because my own action would have no effect. To be sure, there is no enforcement of this pact — except that if there is too much “cheating” (i.e., too many people fail to recycle), then I’ll just stop doing it myself, and no one will have the benefit of recycling. Under those circumstances, isn’t recycling justified on a consequentialist rationale? Or is this not a consequentialist rationale in your view?

  6. I don’t know about “akin”; that kind of a pact or contract could certainly lead to individual actions that together would constitute a collective action, if that’s what you mean. If you mean that collective actions are, in general, the result of individuals behaving as though there is a pact or a contract, that seems like a falsifiable claim that I don’t happen to know the answer to. In the circumstance you’re describing, it would be very difficult to determine whether recycling was justified from a consequentialist point of view. To find out, you’d have to calculate how many people, if any, your recycling or failure to recycle would affect, and whether they in turn would affect enough people to make a difference. We should be careful not to assume contrary-to-fact scenarios that involve an impossible state of perfect knowledge.

  7. On voting: you write “The fact that Obama was elected, of course, was in no way a consequence of my voting for him.” This is actually untrue. Technically, the fact that Obama was elected IS a consequence of your voting for him. Because of the electoral college (which I admit to not fully understanding), it’s indirect. But Obama’s election is a consequence of your vote, even if your “portion” of the action that instigates the consequence is infinitesimally small. If that weren’t true, then it would be impossible for voting to work. Voting would not work if the outcome of voting were independent of the vote of one person.
    Even though the American presidential election is on a large scale, voting on a very small scale (like within a group of 10 people) works, and in the same model large scale political elections also work on the principle that one vote counts. It’s just that in elections with a wide margin of victory (and even the closest presidential elections have a wide margin of victory simply because of how many people live in the United States) this is not immediately possible to observe.

    It is possible to reduce everything to emotional motivation–I write a paper because it makes me happy to have written the paper, even if I find it unpleasant in the course of the actual process, and I work because it makes me happy to have money and to be able to tell people I have a job, not because I would literally starve to death if I didn’t work. In the same way that you can condition an animal to press a lever for food without which it would otherwise starve, you can say that avoiding the distress of hunger is an emotional reason for pressing the lever and eating. So, the motivation for all human actions can be reduced to an “emotional reason.” Voting, vegetarianism, and recycling aren’t specifically different.

  8. Phoebe,
    The fact that Obama was elected is a consequence of a group of people voting for him. However, it is not a consequence of any one individual person (e.g., me) voting for him. There seems to be a paradox here, but really there isn’t. As you say, my portion of the action that instigates the consequence is infinitesimally small, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t calculate the consequence of my action alone. To calculate the consequence of the collective action (of which my individual action is only a tiny portion) is something entirely different.

    Maybe you’re right that every intentional action can be explained by an emotional motivation, but what I meant was to contrast consequentialism with not-consequentialism. If I do something for the sake of what will result, that is consequentialism; if I do it for the sake of the process itself, that is not. I suppose you could expand that to, if I do something for the sake of the emotion I’ll get from the result, that is consequentialism; if I do something for the sake of the emotion I’ll get from the process, that is not consequentialism. What I meant was, I recycle, vote, and am occasionally vegetarian for non-consequentialist reasons. Maybe you’re right that saying it was “for emotional reasons” was not quite what I meant.

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