Each time you purchase factory-farmed meat, buy a ticket to fly, or take an eco-tour, are you making the world a worse place?

Theron Pummer posed this question of ethical vagueness in a post for Practical Ethics. After all, humanity has gotten to the point where our questionable choices have tipped the scales to the point of causing global climate change. But our single actions are like plucking one hair, Pummer explains.

“Plausibly, no plucking of any single hair on my scalp would make me into a bald man. And yet, together, several thousand such pluckings would do the trick.”

In a more morbid example, Pummer writes about a more stylized version from Derek Parfit's book Reasons and Persons from the chapter Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics. In this section, the author argues why “the share‐of‐the‐total view” is flawed and why we should “accept the marginalist view, which appeals to the difference made by each act, why we should not ignore either small chances, or effects that are trivial or imperceptible.”

“Plausibly, no plucking of any single hair on my scalp would make me into a bald man. And yet, together, several thousand such pluckings would do the trick.”

Consider a man lying down on a table with a cloth over his face. One person puts a drop of water on the cloth; nothing happens. But if 1,000 people each place one drop of water on the cloth, the man will gradually become uncomfortable to the point where the exercise becomes waterboarding.

“Each of the 1,000 people can, it seems, claim that their act made no negative difference at all, since the victim can’t tell the difference between adjacent settings (we can suppose there’s no phenomenological difference whatever to the victim between adjacent settings),” Pummer writes. “It seems there is vagueness about when the victim’s pain level increases.”

Yet, each act contributes in some way whether it's deciding to vote with your dollar and shop local rather than go to a chain grocery store, or unplugging a device once its done charging rather than leaving it plugged in.

“Here, and now, is where we live. We don’t think, or feel, globally. We don’t worry about others as much as we worry about ourselves. And we don’t worry about the future as much as we worry about the immediate.”

Pummer argues, “In cases where it is genuinely indeterminate whether your act makes the world a worse place, you have a moral reason not to perform this act. I’m simply thinking that it’s worth avoiding acting in a way such that it is indeterminate whether so acting makes the world a worse place.”

There are ways to mitigate this moral vagueness. Solutions include the SunPort outlet, which draws its power from renewable energy, and the Nebia showerhead, which cuts water usage by 70 percent.

However, making these choices or not isn't always clear to us, writes David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard. “Here, and now, is where we live. We don’t think, or feel, globally. We don’t worry about others as much as we worry about ourselves. And we don’t worry about the future as much as we worry about the immediate.”

The Nobel-prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom argues that, contrary to the widespread theory, with the right governance, humans are likely to forge peaceful solutions to coping with resource scarcity.


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Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at PCMag.com where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Photo Credit: MARK RALSTON / Getty Staff