Is what I am doing now (submitting a question to Ask a Philosopher) unethical, in view of the fact that
if everyone else were to submit a question at the same time chaos would ensue? (I'm thinking of
something I once read, but can't remember clearly, about Kant's Categorical Imperative.)
The Pathways web site currently receives around 50 visitors today. Add to that an unknown number
of surfers who come across a link to Ask a Philosopheron other philosophy web sites and the result
of everyone submitting a question who had the opportunity to do so would be an avalanche. The
service would collapse.
According to Kant's Categorical Imperative, the intention that everyone should do as you do should
not turn out to be self-contradictory or self-frustrating. "Act only on that maxim that you would wish to
be a universal law." So if your maxim is, "I want to know the answer to my question, that is why I am
submitting it to Ask a Philosopher", then it seems the corresponding general rule or universal law
would be, "Everyone who has a philosophical question should submit it to Ask a Philosopher". The
result would indeed be chaos.
In reality, the number of questions submitted to Ask a Philosophereach week remains surprisingly
constant, between 10 and 15!
Consider a different case. You are walking down a country lane and see a beautiful wild flower. (Let's
ignore the fact that in the UK, there is a law against picking wild flowers.) Suppose you thought to
yourself, "If everybody who saw a wild flower they liked took it home with them, there would be no
wild flowers left for the rest of us to enjoy. I agree that's a bad thing which I do not want to happen.
But most people will not do this, because they will not feel justified in making an exception in their
own case. So if I pick this flower, there will still be plenty left." There is no doubt that such an action
would be unethical, according to Kant's Categorical Imperative, even though you are confident that no
bad consequences will ensue from your action. You are making an unjustified exception of yourself,
relying on the ethical behaviour of others.
In the case of Ask a Philosopher, you are not making an unjustified exception of yourself. It is
perfectly reasonable to think, "Everyone who has a question which they think would be suitable and
who wants to know the answer to their question as much as I doshould submit it", knowing that, in
fact, noteveryone has a suitable question, and, out of those that do, not everyone wants to know the
answer to their question as much as you do. You are not making an unjustified exception of yourself.
You are merely acting on the basis of your prediction of what other people will do for their own
That still leaves a puzzle about how such a service is able to work. The secret of success is that
reward for submitting a question should not be too high in relation to the effort required. If, for
example, everyone who submitted a question received 1000 Pounds, then as soon as word got round
the money would soon run out. Would it be unethical to submit a question under such circumstances?
If no-one submits a question, then no-one benefits. If you get your question in first, then you benefit at
the expense of others. If you delay, then others benefit at your expense. If those are the only
alternatives, I do not see how it can be more ethical not to submit rather than to submit. It's a fair
competition. If, however, the maximum total benefit could only be secured by agreeing with other
users of the service on restricting the number of questions submitted to ensure that the money does
not run out, then the ethical thing to do would be to hold back, and strive to set up such an