The Tragedy of the Commons: The Philosopher’s view

‘Tragedy of the commons’ is a socio-economic dilemma in which “independent economic agents receive benefits from a subtractable resource that is endangered by their aggregate use” (Herschel Elliot). To explain this definition further, ‘independent’ means that agents have no collective agreement governing the use of the commons (resources). ‘Subtractable’ suggests the gain in benefits can be depleted by its overuse, and in the worst scenario, the source of these benefits itself can be destroyed. Although each agent might consider the actions of other agents, they have no agreed system for sharing use of the commons beyond “mutual tolerance of mutual use”. By saying the resource is threatened by their aggregate use denotes it is not threatened by each individual act of taking from the commons because no individual is exploiting the commons at an unsustainable rate. In other words, individual acts are harmless, but acts, in aggregate, are harmful. The philosopher is concerned with ethical issues of this dilemma such as environmental ethics, moral accountability, egoistic versus altruistic nature of humans and moral obligation.

Firstly, one must understand why this dilemma is called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. Imagine a pasture open to all herdsman. Assuming each herdsman is rational, he will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the pasture. In other words, he will graze and sell one extra cattle until its marginal benefit has reached zero. However, there comes the day when the inherent logic of the commons generates a tragedy. To explain further, each herdsman seeks to maximise his utility or, in this case, his grazed cattle. The tragedy is each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his acts, without limit, in a finite world. This is self defeating for all agents because of individuals pursuing their own best interest, whilst failing to actualise their collective interest, in a society that allegedly believes in the freedom of the commons. Does this suggest freedom in the commons brings ruin to all? In conclusion, this dilemma is a tragedy because the depletion of resources is a self-conflicted event which satisfies the individual’s utility, in the short term, but dissatisfies the collective interest of commons preservation and minimal negative externality effects on society, in the long term.

One of the ethical issues concerning the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is environmental ethics. This discipline analyses the moral relationship of human beings to, including the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents. In relation to the tragedy of the commons, the immediate problem faced by the public, as a result of the dilemma, is the overuse of the commons. To put this into modern context, this problem could be the overgrazing of public lands, the overuse of public forests and parks or the depletion of fish populations in the ocean. From these empirical observations, it is apparent a strong environmental ethical code is needed to preserve the resources and maintain sustainable economic activity. For instance, there needs to be a code in which individuals and companies are restricted from using a river as a common dumping ground for sewage and from polluting the air. But who formulates this code; from a small group of intellectuals, the government or the people? Whoever it is, are we not basing our ethical code on a group’s subjectivity? Furthermore, can this criterion be universalised without contradiction? Clearly there are more questions than answers. Another question we must ask is whether the use of commons is of instrumental value or intrinsic value to society (meaning “non-instrumental value”)? The former is the value of things as means to further some ends whereas the latter is the value of things as ends in themselves, regardless of whether they are too useful as means to other ends. For instance, a wild plant may have instrumental value because it provides ingredients for some medicine. But if the plant also has some value in itself, independently of its prospects for furthering some other ends, then the plant also has intrinsic value. Because the ‘intrinsically valuable’ is that which is good as an end in itself, it conforms that something’s possession of intrinsic value creates direct moral duty on the part of moral agents to protect it or at least refrain from damaging it. If we accept this line of argument, it follows that humans have no moral duty to end the tragedy of commons, if the use of commons is of instrumental value? Which draws to my original question, is the use of commons of instrumental value or intrinsic value to society? In conclusion, the tragedy of commons is an environmental ethicist issue because users of the commons, together, are depleting resources which have environmental ramifications.

The next ethical issue is moral accountability. The tragedy of commons demonstrates a lack of responsibility from any user to prevent the depletion of the commons. So does accountability come from within the users or government intervention? Lack of such is exemplified by the free-rider problem. If and when a cooperative scheme, to avoid commons problems, is implemented, not adhering to it would be a result of free riding – an effort to enjoy the benefits of others’ sacrifices while avoiding one’s own fair share of them. So is free riding immoral? Furthermore, the problem of externalities signifies the complications of moral accountability. Is compensation, in either monetary or spiritual terms, to those who suffer from external costs appropriately paid by those who were responsible for such? Some argue, like Charles Frankel, that responsibility is the product of definite social arrangements. Does that suggest it is society’s moral responsibility to protect the resources? If so, is it morally justified to do so in the expense of agents’ economic objectives? In short, the tragedy of the commons shows there is a lack of moral accountability by users of commons to formulate a system to preserve society’s natural resources.

This leads us to one of moral philosophy’s biggest debates; ethical egoism versus altruism. As seen, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ originates from self interested, egoistic agents who act on their own objectives. This could be seen as ethical egoism; a belief that one ought to do what is in one’s own self-interest which may incidentally be detrimental to others, beneficial to others, or neutral in its effect. It is a stark contrast to altruism that argues moral decisions should be based upon the interests or well-being of others rather than on self-interest. Ethicists who support egoism have argued that altruism is disparaging to the individual, no altruistic obligation exists, and that all of our actions are based upon self-interest. This leads to ultimate question, “Do individuals have a moral obligation to help or serve others, or the greater good of humanity?” On one hand, ethical egoism is inherent in human nature because our genes, allegedly, are biologically programmed to act for ourselves and assume a ‘zero-sum’ mentality of the social environment, resulting in survival of the fittest race. Scientists, however, argue altruism could arise from mechanisms that produce “reciprocal altruism”, similar to “tit for tat” view, whereby an organism purposely acts to temporarily reduce its “fitness” while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time. Could “reciprocal altruism” be applied to resolve the tragedy of the commons dilemma? Could some agents reduce temporarily their use of the commons, expecting the other agents to do so similarly at a later date? This seems stronger than the limitations imposed by the concept of “inclusive fitness,” which proposed that organisms help out others, to the extent that they increase the probability of passing shared genes to the next generation. Yet we must consider the magnitude of external factors upon our moral faculties. In short, tragedy of commons demonstrates the lack of altruism in society from the pursuit of egoistic economic objectives.

Finally, the philosopher must ask, “Do users of the commons, individually, have a moral obligation to society’s interests?” It could be argued that users of the commons is morally obliged to reduce his use of the commons only on the grounds of the actions of others, which, in aggregate, damage the commons, and only his restraint will prevent a wrong and harmful consequences. Yet, if no individual contribution produces harm, which is a consequence of the universality of many particular actions, how can the individual prevent the harm caused by unilateral action? To explain further, if an independent action has no reasonable expectation of success, then even though society cannot rationally universalise the use of the commons at unsustainable levels, no agent has a direct moral obligation to restrict their use of the commons to sustainable levels by independent action. Does it not follow that collective, coordinated action faces no similar difficulty and thus, has a greater chance of protecting the commons which, in turn, suggests the user’s moral obligation is to work for and adhere to a collective system to protect the commons? Surely, one is committing ‘strawman’ fallacy? Furthermore, if society were to accept this argument, is each user willing and able to meet such an obligation? Can such a ‘protect-the-commons’ system be formulated on coherent, non contradictory grounds? Referring back to the original question, trying to logically demonstrate users have direct obligation to society’s interests is problematic and this question of moral obligation creates more problems than it solves.

In the final analysis, the “Tragedy of the Commons” exhibits an apriori ethical system constructed on human-centred, moral principles cannot prevent the depletion of commons, which is a constant threat. If continual ‘commons’ depletion constantly continues to transpire, it eventually causes the collapse of the ecosystems which support civilization. These observations indicate the need for a universal, moral criterion to reduce agents’ moral deficits on environmental degradation and so, preserve resources to sustainable levels. However, if such is not done rigorously, unintended consequences will arise, from moral loopholes, which may result in society arbitrarily deciding that unlimited use of air is no longer morally acceptable.

Contributed by Wafiq Islam

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