Individual and Collective Decision Making

We are sometimes dismayed when it seems that we are up against a massive problem that no one individual can affect/have a significant impact.  But note how this line of reasoning may lead every individual in a society not to vote.  In an election in which there are (for example) 100 million voters, it is estimated that one candidate will get (for example) 40% of the vote, and other will get 60%.   Imagine each person calculates, unaware that others are going through a similar calculation, that the probability that the election will be decided by her or his one vote is highly remote (say, one out of 3 million).  Imagine, however, that each person went through such a calculation and each person decided it was not rational for them to go through the trouble of voting when they could be doing other acts that had a great probability of doing some good.

Consider these two examples of how individuals may seek to diminish individual responsibility by distributing it:  First consider this:

“Suppose a village contains 100 unarmed tribesmen eating their lunch. 100 hungry, armed bandits descend on the village and each bandit at gunpoint takes one tribesman’s lunch and eats it. The bandits then go off, each one having done a discriminable amount of harm to a single tribesman. Next week, the bandits are tempted to do the same thing again, but are troubled by new-found doubts about the morality of such a raid. Their doubts are put to rest by one of their number who does not believe in the principle of divisibility. They the raid the village, tie up the tribesmen, and look at their lunch.“

Now consider this process of diminishing individual responsibility through distribution:

“As expected, each bowl of food contains 100 baked beans. The pleasure derived from one baked bean is below the discrimination threshold.  Instead of each bandit eating a single plateful as last week, each takes one bean from each plate. They leave after eating all the beans, pleased to have done no harm, as each has done no more than sub-threshold harm to each person.”  (Previous examples from Jonathan Glover)