Tuesday, January 6, 2009


How many times have you told your kid not to do something by asking, “What if everyone did that?” You know, something along the lines of “No, you may not pick a flower from the garden in the park,” or “No, you may not leave your empty juice box on the sidewalk,” or “No, you may not repackage subprime mortgage backed securities as AAA-rated CDOs” – What if everyone did that? The point of this question is to convey to your child that unless everyone could do the act in question, the act shouldn’t be done. Call this the universalistic prohibition.

Now how many times has your child tried to persuade you to allow her to do something by appealing to the fact that everyone is doing it? “Can’t I go to the party? Everyone is going” or “Come on! Everyone else’s parents let them have one!” Of course, this is a practical version of the
bandwagon fallacy. Call it the bandwagon appeal. The bandwagon appeal usually fails to move parents. The thing is, it is the logical response to what kids hear from parents quite often, namely, the universalistic prohibition. After all, if everyone is doing X, then everyone could do X. And if everyone could do X, then the condition laid out by the universalistic prohibition is met.

What is the typical parental response to the bandwagon appeal? Perhaps something like the following: “And if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” Here, the idea is that one shouldn’t do something just because everyone else is doing it. If everyone is doing the act, we cannot infer that the act is permissible. Yet with the universalistic prohibition we are saying that we can infer from everyone doing an act that the act is permissible. So are we contradicting ourselves?

No, for two reasons. (Boring paragraph warning.) The first, I think, is that parents intend for the universalistic prohibition to set out just one of several conditions a potential act must meet before it is permissible. So, to show that everyone is doing X is only to show that doing X meets only one, but not all, of the necessary conditions for a permissible act. Another condition might be, for example, that X does not contradict the family’s values, or that X is "age appropriate," etc. The second is that when parents set forth the universalistic prohibition, it is usually not in the Kantian sense (of whether the aim of the act is realizable in a world in which everyone acts in the same way), but more along the lines of negative universal consequentialism, that is, that one should act only in ways that wouldn’t have awful results if everyone did it. When a child says that everyone is doing X, that is compatible with the results of everyone doing X being truly awful, in which case the universal prohibition would not actually be met.

Even though parents are not contradicting themselves here, that doesn’t mean they aren’t making a mistake. Indeed, it may be that the kids are more right than the parents. For it’s unclear that universalization is even a necessary condition for the permissibility of an act. If everyone wanted to become a professional philosopher that would be awful. And not just awfully annoying. We would all die. Well, we’ll all die anyway, but we would die a lot sooner, since there would be no farmers, doctors, police, or air conditioning technicians. Nonetheless, we'd all agree that it is permissible to become a professional philosopher (except parents who insist on business school for Jr.)

Further, if there is anything to that whole Wisdom of Crowds idea, or more sophisticated arguments about disagreement, the kids may be onto something when they alert us to what everyone else is doing.

My kids, though, are still not getting a PlayStation.


Anonymous said...

Why not respond by telling them that "everyone else is doing it" is not a good argument. Explain it by picking something they do not like that everyone does does - like eat brussel spouts. "Do you think you should have to eat them just because everyone else does?" Try to turn their argument into a lesson about logic.

Richard Y Chappell said...

"For it’s unclear that universalization is even a necessary condition for the permissibility of an act."

It works if formulated more carefully, as the question "What if everyone felt free to do that?" It's fine for everyone to feel free to be professional philosophers (in our actual circumstances, at least), because most wouldn't want to anyway. Not so with littering, etc.

Philosophy Dad said...

Interesting suggestion, Richard.

So for an act to be permissible, the consequences of everyone feeling free to do that act in our actual circumstances must not be terrible.

This seems too weak. Consider bizarre and difficult immoral acts that no one wants to do--I don’t know, something like filling the space shuttle with dolphins and releasing them into outer space. The consequences of everyone feeling free to do this, given our actual circumstances, would not be terrible, since, presumably, very few people want to do this, and among those, none have the capability to do so. Nonetheless, we'd still want to say of such an act that it is impermissible.

One reply would be to say that "oughtn't implies can." That is, morally condemning an act makes sense only when the act is possible (on some specification of "possible"). I don’t know whether "dolphins in space" is impossible in the relevant sense. But even if it were, I don't think we'd want to embrace "oughtn't implies can." It’s wrong for me to murder, even if I could never bring myself to do it. It’s wrong for me to steal, even if my clutziness always prevents me from advancing far in my plans to purloin. It would be wrong for me to nuke the whales (it is a bad hypothetical day for sea mammals--watch out walruses, you're next), even though I’ll never be in the possession of a nuclear weapon. And so on.

All this shows is that an act's passing your "feel free actual-world consequentialist universalization" (FFAWCU - ha ha) test isn't sufficient to tell us that the act is morally permissible. We might also ask whether an act's passing the FFAWCU is necessary to tell us that the act is morally permissible.

I don't know about this. If anything, FFAWCU seems superfluous, for it is unclear how it differs from a version of rule consequentialism (i.e., an act is right if it conforms with rules the having of which bring about the appropriate state of affairs). The answer may hinge on how we end up ranking the possible states of affairs.