Should I Litter?


Littering is wrong, but dropping a gum wrapper isn’t a big deal.

Q1 Analysis

This statement contradicts itself unless you define "litter" so that it does not include gum wrappers.

Q2 Analysis

If you allow yourself to litter in circumstances you consider "not a big deal," you will have to allow others to make similar exceptions. This is particularly problematic if, for example, someone thinks that a coffee cup isn’t a big deal, but you think it is.


The validity of this statement relies on two things. The first of those things is the definition of littering.

If littering is the discarding of any garbage in an inappropriate place, then this statement means that dropping a gum wrapper is indeed littering but that small amounts of littering are not ethically significant. By this definition, you may run into a problem if you think that an area has significant litter, but that litter is largely composed of items you would consider insignificant. Under those circumstances, you might argue either that one more small piece of litter won’t make much of a difference, or that it doesn’t matter if you litter a little because even if you stopped everyone else would still be littering. Both of these arguments fail Q2.

Thinking of a small amount of litter as not significant is similar to thinking of one person’s vote as not significant. While it may be true that in the larger scheme of things a single piece of litter or a single vote will make little difference, the system depends on everyone treating the item they are responsible for as if it is significant. If you value the system, then even if a small item for or against that system is not significant, your treating those small parts as important is significant.

You might also define littering as the inappropriate discarding of garbage, so long as that garbage is of at least a certain size. You might argue that discarding smaller garbage isn’t really littering, any more than the random shedding of dead skin cells is littering. This is a problem if there is not general agreement on what qualifies as litter. Is it determined by weight? By volume? By biodegradability? Are many small pieces of paper less litter than one large one? Is a sticky piece of chewing gum litter even though it’s small? Consistency may be difficult to achieve.

The second thing this statement relies on (if the first definition of litter is being used) is the concept that convenience may be used as justification for performing an ethical wrong. In this case: it’s wrong to litter, but there is no convenient place to throw this gum wrapper, so I can justify littering because the inconvenience of having to deal with a gum wrapper I no longer want outweighs my belief that littering is wrong.

If that kind of thinking is valid, how do you set limits on it? If a small inconvenience outweighs a small ethical wrong, would a large inconvenience outweigh a large ethical wrong? If it would be a gigantic pain to haul my old couch to the dump, am I justified in abandoning it in the alley behind my house?

There are certainly situations in which personal inconvenience can outweigh ethical ideals, but in general these are cases where a large inconvenience is weighed against a small ethical violation. For example, it’s ethically right to return lost money, but most people would agree that you are not morally required to exhaustively search for the owner of a lost quarter.

The key here is Q2 in the form of "most people would agree." If you lost a quarter and honestly would not expect someone to seek you out to return it, then you may be justified in keeping a quarter you found. If you discovered you had a hole in your pocket and had been losing change here and there all day long, you still would not blame those who found and kept your escaped change. So you have to ask yourself if there is a similar social contract regarding littering. Would you call someone who discarded a gum wrapper a litterer? How about someone who discarded gum wrappers every once in a while all day long? Would someone who saw you drop a gum wrapper be wrong to call you a litterer?

You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at and See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.

Posted on June 11, 2010 at 10:15 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q

One Response

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  1. Written by James
    on June 17, 2010 at 7:01 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    This is a very interesting cosept one I personaly love to ponder myself.
    Well this is my first comment on your blog so I feel I must say that I have had a fairly enjoyible exsperince, even tho it is far from formatted for my iPhone.
    Well as I said you have some great work here and I may quote some time so keep up the good work.

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