Is there a name for this fallacy/reasoning?

Let’s take the effect of driving on air pollution.

In the real world, Person A never drives a car since it contributes to air pollution.

Now, put Person A in a hypothetical world where he is the owner of the only car in the world. Person A is willing to drive his car, since the air is relatively clean, and the effect of his car on the earth’s air pollution is negligible.

So, in other words, even though the person’s net effect of doing something (or not doing something) is always the same, they’re influenced to flip-flop what they’d willingly do when the majority is “over-doing” it.

In the case above, Person A perceives his impact of not driving to be significantly more positive in a polluted world, than he perceives his impact of driving to be negative in a clean world.

In the empty world, the total possible effect from all actors is known to be just the effect generated by the single individual. There is no good reason not to drive.

In the full world, the total possible effect from all actors is much larger, so the situation is not equivalent. Being a good member of a society is often like this. In a well functioning society, everyone does their own small part, the total effect is large, and the whole community benefits.

I think your reasoning is fallacious, in claiming complete equivalence between the two situations solely because the effect generated by the sole actor is similar. Actions taken in isolation are not equivalent to actions taken within a community of other actors.

The earth can absorb quite a bit of “pollution” and come out unscathed. For example, as small village could just dump their human waste in the ocean, where it’d be recycled like any other waste.

Another example is oil spills- well oil naturally leaks into the ocean anyway, even if no humans at all.

The issue is when such stuff is concentrated or in too large of quantities.

If person A really did not want to contribute to air pollution he wouldn’t drive the car in the hypothetical world. If he doesn’t drive in the real world because there is too much pollution already and he doesn’t want to contribute any more to it then the situation in the hypothetical world is different and he is not being inconsistent.

Fallacies apply to logical arguments and there’s no argument here.

“I care about adding a small amount of pollution to an already polluted world, but I don’t care about adding an equal amount of pollution to an unpolluted world.”

That’s a policy statement, not a logical argument.

I don’t think it’s a fallacy. On the contrary, it’s perfectly reasonable (when you’re part of a group) to judge the rightness or wrongness of an action by imagining what would happen if everyone did it.* There’s nothing illogical about saying that this strategy only applies to groups, not individuals.

Should I cut in line at the movie theater? If everyone cut in line, there wouldn’t BE any lines at all, just a big mob of people fighting to be first. That doesn’t appeal to me, therefore I won’t cut in line. But if I go to the movies on a day when I’m the only person there… then that whole discussion about waiting in line is irrelevant.

Should I drive a car which spews lots of pollution into the air? If everyone drove cars like that, we’d have terrible smog. I like breathing, therefore I won’t drive that kind of car; maybe I’ll ride a bicycle instead. But if I’m the only human on Earth, then imagining what would happen if other people (who don’t exist) followed my example is irrelevant. There’s nothing illogical about adjusting my analysis to fit the situation I’m in.

*FWIW, I think this provides a solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Just ask yourself which choice has the best outcome if you assume that everyone else will make the same choice that you yourself are making.

To be honest, I think the fallacy is the OP’s, not Person A. Sorry. :slight_smile:

A rational person A doesn’t use the “driving is always a small negative contribution” argument characterized in the OP.

Instead, the rational personal A takes this position “Pollution is not harmful below a certain environmental threshold.” This predicts their behavior: less driving when totals are too high, and more driving totals are lower than the threshold.

So OP has basically created a straw man out of Person A’s thought process in order to make it seem illogical or inconsistent.

A related observation, which I’ve not heard called a fallacy, is the observation that people will drive a lot farther to save $2 on a $4 ballpoint pen, than they will to save $2 on a $1000 suit. I don’t have a name for that either, other than “retailing”.

Another good one, that I’m certainly guilty of, is the inordinate effort people will go to to save 1% on a tank of gas, including burning more gas than the money they save to make a detour.

Maybe their policy is to pursue savings of over 20% whenever possible. $2.00 on a suit is negligible, and questionable because of taxes and extras. Noone believes they are going to save 2.00 on a suit if they get to it. It’ll be something.

I think it’s a case of people wanting to feel clever and smug. They want to go home thinking “Gee, I’m such a smart and savvy shopper because I got a GREAT price on this item I purchased.” You can get that feeling from buying a $4 pen for only $2 but you don’t get that feeling from buying a $1000 suit for $998.

This also explains people driving miles out of their way to get $1.99 gasoline when the stations on the corner are selling it for $2.32, $2.36, or $2.39. They only save two or three dollars total but they feel smart because $1.99 seems like a much better price, several standard deviations below the mean.

Wife: “Honey, why don’t you fix that leak on the roof?”

Husband: “Because it’s raining outside!”

Wife: “Why don’t you fix it when it’s not raining?”

Husband: “Roof doesn’t leak then.”

As a general principle, I agree. Also, in the specific hypo,

As I understand it, Person A is literally correct. As best we can tell, the natural world can (and did) absorb a certain amount of typical combustion pollution with zero negative effect. Below that threshold, adding a tiny fraction does not hurt. Above, it makes an ongoing problem worse, a problem which may have tipping points for various cascading effects.

So it seems to me that there were three distinct problems with the OP’s reasoning in this example.

But it may be that this was just a poor example, and that there’s some other aspect of reasoning that’s hinted at by the example, and that might be a genuine flaw in other circumstances. Does OP have other examples that might illuminate this?

Really, anything in nature is going to work something like this.

I remember a conversation with a friend who owned about five acres and got almost all of his heating by cutting down trees. My first response was to assume that they’d run out of trees, but the land is populated by alders that only live 30-40 years anyway, and regrow quickly. The wood he burns for heating is less than the number of trees that die naturally every year anyway. Of course, once he exceeds the natural replacement rate of the trees, then it’s only a matter of time until he runs out… but up until that limit, he’s simply taking advantage of a resource that would go to waste otherwise.

That is not an argument. It depends on the argument that Person A makes.

One argument that has no fallacy is: “The world is too polluted because too many people drive cars. If fewer people drove cars, pollution would not be a problem. Therefore I will not drive a car so that I can be one of the people contributing to a solution through abstinence. And perhaps I will serve as a model for others.”

There is no moral objection to driving a car per se; the objection only arises because pollution is a problem.

Not quite. In nature, the dead trees remain in place & decompose to feed microbes, fungus, etc. And become soil constituents to fertilize & feed the next generation of trees.

There may well be enough excess bio capacity that he can harvest all he needs without mid- or long-term consequences. OTOH there may not be.

Yeah, there can be other factors to consider.

In this case: Alders are nitrogen-fixing trees and tend to grow in places that other trees won’t - they’re often called “weeds of the forest.” So as long as he’s happy with alders forever, he’s not going to be hurting anything. It’s possible that 100 years of rotting alders would enrich the soil enough for conifers to replace them, but there might be other soil or moisture conditions keeping other trees out.

Thanks all.

I see now that it is not a fallacy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it before, so I hedged and referred to it as “fallacy/reasoning”, in case one term was more right than the other :wink:

I realize that my initial example was incomplete. It did not account for a variable effect of pollution depending on existing environmental levels, ie. being above or below “pollution harm thresholds”. As has been pointed out, Person A willing to drive when pollution levels are low, and NOT willing to drive when pollution levels are high, is being inconsistent IF their primary argument for whether or not to drive is based on their absolute emissions contribution (otherwise, if they were anti-emissions, they would just never drive). Therefore, if Person A is consistent in their policy, there must be a deeper argument as to why they’re willing to drive in certain scenarios; yes to driving when environment is below threshold, no to driving when environment is above threshold (or some other unnamed reason). That was my missing link.

My original motivation for asking is because I’ve been recently questioning whether I’d follow my current policies, in different variations of our current world. I play around with different variables to see what has a large influence on my outlook.

The above example is an extension of the thought - “What would I do with my car if I relocated to NYC? It’s so polluted there already…”

More examples - I’m just blabbing on about my thoughts now:

“If I was going to get another dog today, I would adopt one from a shelter. But, what if we lived in a world where there was ONLY one shelter dog per state (due to responsible pet owners/breeders), instead of the thousands, like now?” - Would I base my decision on:

  • Absolutes: “A dog saved is a dog saved, so yes, I’d still adopt from the shelter”)
  • Relative to the situation, #1: “Sheltered dogs aren’t so much of a problem, so I will not adopt from the shelter, and I will buy a dog from a breeder instead. Besides, chances are high that someone else might adopt the lone dog”
  • Relative to the situation, #2: “If I adopt this dog, I can reduce the number of homeless dogs by 100%, so heck yes I will!”

I do the same thing with:

  • Voting (all sorts: political, as a shareholder, at work, etc.) Should I? My one vote seems so insignificant. At what population would I consider my vote significantly influential so that I would vote nearly 100% of the time?
  • Eating meat. How poorly/inhumane would animals have to be raised/harvested for me to stop eating meat? How do I feel about the effects on the environment? Would it even make a difference if I stopped?

I think adopting shelter animals is admirable, and I will probably do so myself if I get another pet at some stage. However, I think people who condemn those who choose animals with specific qualities from a breeder do not have a consistent ethical basis for doing so. Pets become an important part of our lives, and I think it’s perfectly reasonably to want greater certainty about your pet’s behavior.

If it’s amoral to choose a non-shelter animal (as I have been told in the past), then if you have enough income to support a household alone, it seems to me that it must be equally amoral, perhaps more so, to choose a non-homeless human as your spouse or SO.