An Objection to the Formulation of the Universal Law Based on Overfishing

I think I thought of a new objection to Kantianism in normative ethics. I looked around a little, and I couldn’t find anyone making this point, although I found a number of instances of the preliminary objection that leads up to my real objection.

Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative says that

FUL: I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law. [Groundwork, p 4:402]

There is a well-known objection to this principle based on the idea there are certain things that it is logistically impossible for everyone to do. Suppose, for example, that I get up early to go fishing out on lake Tuscaloosa. Suppose my maxim is, when it is a pleasantly cool morning here in Tuscaloosa and I am hungry for bass, go fishing at Lake Tuscaloosa. But if everyone did that, the lake would run out of fish and then nobody could go fishing.There are too many people in Tuscaloosa for the lake’s bass population to survive if everyone acted on that maxim. I cannot consistently will that my maxim should become a universal law.

It is easy to think of similar examples. Going to the grocery store tonight. Calling your parents on November 7th at 6:00 Central Daylight Time. Drinking the last beer. If everyone tried to do these things, they couldn’t be done.

But it seems to me that the Kantian has a reply. Thinking again about the fishing example, a conscientious angler would never act on so crude a maxim. A conscientious angler would intend to carefully act in such a way that her activities could be coordinated with those of the rest of the angling community, so as to ensure that overfishing does not take place. Or won’t as long as everyone else acts in a similar manner. One way to do this is for there to exist a bureaucracy that sets and enforces rules about how many people can fish in Lake Tuscaloosa at a time, and how many fish they can take in a day, and then ensure that one’s maxims are in accordance with those rules. This is what most people do and this is why Lake Tuscaloosa still has fish in it.

The interesting thing is that the bureaucracy is a practical but not theoretical necessity. A conscientious angler could act on a maxim according to which she will take only a small amount of fish per day, so that there will always be fish left to sustain the population. And there is no contradiction involved in willing that such a maxim become a universal law of nature.

And this creates a further problem for the Kantian. This is the objection I’d like to pursue. Recall the example of the lying promise. The “conscientious” liar can act on a sophisticated maxim designed to ensure that “overlying” would not take place, just as the conscientious angler can. The liar can intend to perform only a small number of lies, so that there will always be enough suckers trusting people left to sustain the practice of lying. And there is no contradiction involved in willing that such a maxim become a universal law of nature.

Although I don’t think that the formula of humanity is vulnerable to this sort of objection, I don’t see how FUL can avoid it. And since they’re supposed to be equivalent, I don’t know what the import of this fact is.

But I have some questions. Am I overestimating the significance of this objection? Is this as interesting an objection as I think it is? If so, is it new? If so, does the Kantian have a response? If so, what?

Thanks, y’all.

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1 Response to An Objection to the Formulation of the Universal Law Based on Overfishing

  1. My two cents: I think all these points are all well-known in the Kantian community. The main “going to the grocery store tonight” examples I use in class are “moving to Tuscaloosa” and “becoming a doctor,” but, obviously, endlessly many examples refute the “but what if everyone did that?” approach to ethics. And Justin, I agree that the Kantian has no good reply to the “conscientious liar” objection, except for endless reinterpretive tweakings of the FUL. The conscientious liar objection is one example of Mill’s point (made early in his book Utilitarianism, I think) that there would be no physical or logical contradiction in the most inhumane maxims being universally adopted.

    By the way, the word “should” in the FUL (as formulated, or translated, above) makes the FUL nearly vacuous in content, since most of our moral discussions could occur in terms of what general maxims we “should” act on. Sometimes people change “should” to “could,” but then (as Mill said, and Klockseim proved) some pretty freaking horrible maxims (and actions) would be permitted. About a year ago I received a thoughtful email from a professor who said that, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, my dad and I subtly shift our interpretation of the FUL from “should” to “could.” She suggested, reasonably enough, that we choose one interpretation and stick with it. (She thought there was a plausible interpretation of the FUL.) However, I wrote her back and said that James Rachels and I had been put in a very awkward position by the Kantian community: to represent them as having a *consistent* line on the FUL would be to represent them as having a very silly and easily refuted position (and I canvassed a few of these hopeless alternatives). So, I did not know how to change what we had written without appearing to set up a straw man and offend all the Kantians in the world. (I never heard back from this professor, so maybe she saw the mess we were in …)

    FUL is completely hopeless. I think the FUL is still discussed so much in classes because we philosophers are trained to refute stuff like the FUL, so we write our lectures based on what we have been trained to do. We’re trained to play around with concepts, and we do so here, but the FUL is really a non-starter, so it would be better to teach other stuff.

    The part of Kant that is still alive and kicking is the stuff about “Don’t treat me as a mere means,” etc. I think the basic idea behind that will always have appeal. I tend to think of the two greatest ideas in ethics as being the utilitarian idea of maximizing happiness and the Kantian idea of respecting rational nature (and one way of not respecting rationality is to use others as mere means).

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