Everyday we each face questions of what we ought to do. We sometimes ask ourselves", What if everyone did that?" Every time you decide to pick up a piece of trash because you want the city to look nice, you are not doing it because of the aesthetic effect of one piece of trash, but rather what the city would look like if no one picked up their trash. Kant uses this everyday question in his system of morality as part of the categorical imperative. For Kant, the morality of an action can be determined by the categorical imperative. Kant would like to determine the morality of stealing, therefore Kant wants to examine the morality of "I will steal anything I want to satisfy my desire for it". Then Kant rephrases the statement to ask the question of what if everybody did it, "Everyone will steal anything they want to satisfy their desire for it".
Then Kant makes that statement a maxim, a law which must be followed by everyone in Kant's test world. Kant examines the world and asks if you can consistently will your maxim in a world in which that is a law? But if everyone steals anything they desire, how will there be property rights since it is okay for anyone to take anything at anytime? There can't. Since there are no property rights, the maxim breaks down since stealing only occurs when someone takes property from its rightful owner.
Since there is a contradiction in the 1 conception of the maxim, you are prohibited from acting on that maxim. Imagine Ice Man, a cold, rational person that does not find inner satisfaction in spreading joy and cannot take delight in the satisfaction of others. Does Ice Man have a duty to help others when they are in need? Ice Man is wealthy and not in need of help from others? Ice Man wants to determine the morality of "I will not help others when they are in need of help". Therefore, what if everyone did not help others when they are in need of help.
Despite this being an unhappy world, there is no contradiction in conception in this maxim unlike above. But does it pass Kant's contradiction in willing test? Ice Man is defined as a rational being. As a rational being, Ice Man knows that one day he too will be in need.
Since he is a rational being, he will prefer that someone would help him and as a rational being, cannot will that no one would help other when they are in need. Since it fails the contradiction in willing test, everyone does have a duty to help others when they are in need. In the Act Utilitarian theory of morality, you should always do whatever will produce the most utility in the circumstances. Under Bentham's principle of utility, Act Utilitarians act always to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. An Act Utilitarian named Arthur is faced with a serious question of morality.
Should Arthur steal an i Pod left by a student in the library? Arthur knows that the student's i Pod is insured for the original purchase price and the student wants to get a new i Pod. If Arthur stole the i Pod now, he would satisfy his desire for anew i Pod and the student would be able to buy the brand new i Pod they want. The only pain caused by this theft would fall on the insurance company who would have accounted for theft in their sale of insurance and whose pain would be less than the pleasure experienced by the two 2 new i Pod owners. Even Apple would profit by a sale of an i Pod they would not have sold otherwise. Therefore, according Act Utilitarianism, it is moral for Arthur to steal the i Pod since it will cause no pain and much pleasure.
In Act Utilitarianism, the effect of the action if everyone always did it is ignored. The question of "What if everyone did that?" has no role in morality for Act Utilitarianism. But in this Act Utilitarian theory of morality, all the little actions that cause more pleasure than pain in certain individual situations become moral. If everyone always stole something that was insured for the actual replacement value, no insurance company would sell replacement value insurance. This also ignores the cost to the insurers of those claims. Despite the seductive feeling that large corporations feel pain less than the average individual, that large corporation will have$350 of less profit due to Arthur's theft of the i Pod.
Each shareholder of the insurance company would see a little less profit, perhaps the difference between success and failure of a mutual fund manager. Many people, invisible to Arthur, could be hurt by his action. By ignoring the question of "What if everyone did that?" , Act Utilitarian assessments of morality ignore the ripple effect as the pain of the theft touches many more people than Arthur could realize. It also ignores the effect that a theft can have in encouraging others to believe that theft is moral. I believe that the question of "What if everyone did that?" should play a central role in our moral thinking. Only then can we look beyond our petty justifications.
As human beings, we can think up thousands of reasons to justify an action that will cause us pleasure, but by universalizing the situation and removing your own self interest, then we judge the consequences to our actions without prejudice or preference. By ignoring the question of "What if everyone did that?" , we can 3 justify murder, lies, and other unmoral acts that can hurt much more than we realize in the heat of the moment. If I leave a piece of trash on the ground when I am in rush or otherwise pressured and believe that is okay, that piece of trash on the ground means that someone else will have to pick it up and that other people will feel more free to drop their trash there. 1 Many actions may seem to hurt no one, but in the aggregate do cause pain to others. By ignoring the question of " What if everyone did that?" , we ignore the infinitesimal effects our actions have on everyone we come into contact with it or simply feel the secondary effects. Therefore, the universal question of " What if everyone did that?" should be a part of our ethical thinking.
1 I did an informal study on this in my social room last year with both dirty dishes in the sink and paper towels on the floor. The difference in dirtiness after an hour was impressive. Real studies have been done on this as well..