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Pooka Fey Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 04:09 PM
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RE: The Tragedy of the Commons - a re-examination of moral behavior
An Abstract of "A General Statement of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons"

Although "The Tragedy of the Commons" is widely acclaimed, activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics continue to act as if the essay had never been written. They ignore the central thesis that traditional, a priori thinking in ethics is mistaken and must be discarded. Hence the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement--one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles. In essence Hardin's essay is a thought experiment. Its purpose is not to make a historical statement but rather to demonstrate that tragic consequences can follow from practicing mistaken moral theories. Then it proposes a system-sensitive ethics that can prevent tragedy. The general statement of the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that an a priori ethics constructed on human-centered, moral principles and a definition of equal justice cannot prevent and indeed always supports growth in population and consumption. Such growth, though not inevitable, is a constant threat. If continual growth should ever occur, it eventually causes the breakdown of the ecosystems which support civilization. Henceforth, any viable ethics must satisfy these related requirements:
(1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it.
(2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behavior which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require.
(3) Biological success is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any acceptable ethical theory. In summary, no ethics can be grounded in biological impossibility; no ethics can be incoherent in that it requires ethical behavior that ends all further ethical behavior. Clearly any ethics which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.

February 26, 1997
Herschel Elliott
Emeritus Philosophy
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611l

...I believe, however, that Hardin's essay not only requires the "repudiation" of certain ethical beliefs but it also requires the rejection of the whole paradigm on which the ethical and political thinking of the Western world is based. By showing that factual evidence can refute systems of ethical belief, the tragedy of the commons repudiates the a priori method which has long been used to justify ethical principles and obligations. By implication it repudiates the purely linguistic distinction between value and fact, that is, it denies that value claims and factual claims belong to such distinctly different domains that they cannot interact. It also denies that human rights are universal, and that specific moral laws and principles make unconditional demands on all mankind.

Specifically, the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that all behavior which is either morally permissible or morally required is system-sensitive whenever it involves the use of land or the transfer of matter or energy. That is, it is conditional on the size of the human population and the availability of material resources.

Part III: Four General Premises that Entail the Tragedy of the Commons

The conditions that force the breakdown of ecosystems require neither assumptions about the nature of reason, nor ones about maximizing personal gain in a free market system, nor ones about excessive fertility. If such presuppositions are dropped and replaced by four more general ones, Hardin's argument can be strengthened. Then prejudice and ability to rationalize need never give people an easy excuse for denying the conclusions of Hardin's crucial thought experiment. The more general premises seem factually certain and yet they entail, just as inexorably, the tragedy of the commons. They are:

(1) The Earth is finite: it has a limited stock of renewable fuels, minerals, and biological resources, a limited throughput of energy from the sun, and a finite sink for processing wastes.

(2) Although human activity very often does occur on privately owned lands which are not a commons, that and all other human activities take place in some larger natural commons. And that larger commons is a limited biosystem which is in a dynamic, competitive, and constantly evolving equilibrium. The equilibrium of an ecosystem can usually accommodate any activity on the part of its members as long as that activity is limited in amount and/or is practiced only by a small population. But continuous growth in the numbers of any organism or in its exploitation of land and resources will eventually exceed the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain that organism.

(3) Now for the first time on global scale human beings are exceeding the land and resource use which the Earth's biosystem can sustain.

(4) Certainly it is true, as Hardin noted, that individuals who seek to maximize their material consumption contribute to the ever increasing exploitation of the world's commons. But it is also true that all who follow the rarely questioned principles of humanitarian ethics -- to save all human lives, to relieve all human misery, to prevent and cure disease, to foster universal human rights, and to assure equal justice and equal opportunity for everyone -- do so also.

Thus severally and in conjunction, people -- from the most selfish individualists who seek to maximize personal wealth to the most self-sacrificing altruists who devote their lives to the elimination of inequality, injustice, and human suffering -- all work together to take more land, more water, more fuels, and biological resources away from all other living things. In short, all the principles which presently drive human activity steadily increase the destructive exploitation of the Earth's biological resources.

(emphasis mine)
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marmar Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 04:14 PM
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1. The commons? What a novel concept!
The very nature of capitalism is at odds with the commons. The voracious beast won't be satisfied until it devours every resource. And then what? :scared: :scared:.....
It's perhaps time for a complete rethinking of our socioeconomic system.
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mike_c Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 04:22 PM
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2. thanks for posting this-- I assign TOTC to my ecology students...
...and it usually stimulates a lively debate, even now, 40 years after it first appeared. I might add Elliott's comments to the reading list as well.
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Pooka Fey Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 05:51 PM
Response to Reply #2
5. I'm sure your students will thank me for the increased reading load.
I know mine would. ;-) The essay is a great conversation stimulator, no question.
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NNadir Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 04:24 PM
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3. Boy isrequirement number 2 a loaded statement!
The number 2 to which I refer is:

2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behavior which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require.

This conception, not new, has lead to some odd events.
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Pooka Fey Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 05:47 PM
Response to Reply #3
4. My reply to your comment about number 2 will be number 6
from part 5 of the essay:


(6) Finally, the belief must be discarded that an ethics of good intentions, especially those intentions directed to filling individual or human needs, will automatically produce the good of the whole....

I believe that Hardin has understood and correctly stated the moral problem of directing individual behavior to attain holistic (i.e., societal and environmental) goals. He bluntly states that controls are social arrangements which create coercion, of some sort. ... Coercion is a dirty word ... . As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment (Hardin, 1968, p.1247).

For example, the payment of taxes is coercion; public subsidies for schools are coercion because those who do not need or use them are forced to pay for the schools of those who do; building permits are coercion because they force home builders to observe building codes whether or not those codes are relevant at an specific site to public health or the needs of an individual. In short, as Hardin uses the term, coercion is the general term which refers to the various means which society uses to direct or control the behavior of individual citizens.

And later on he adds, It is the newly proposed infringements (on our use of a commons) that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity" (Hardin, 1968, p.1248).

Indeed coercion need not be tyranny. On the contrary, effective and unobtrusive coercion in a commons is a necessary condition for having any enduring freedom at all.

Because misconceived coercive means are either ineffective or counterproductive, they often cause oppression and tyranny rather than prevent them. Many examples can be found that illustrate the futility of misconceived means to accomplish holistic ends.

(1) My son cannot be expected to learn to control his finances if he is free to run up whatever debt he wants and I have the obligation to pay it.
(2) The environment is unlikely ever to be protected when all are free to use as much energy and to consume as many goods and services as they can afford while society honors the moral obligation to supply the material necessities to everyone who lacks money.
(3) Significant incentives operate to increase the incidence of disease (and thereby raise medical costs) when all who take good care of their own health are forced to pay a disproportionate share of the medical and disability costs of those who abuse their bodies with tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, uninhibited and unprotected sexual contacts, overeating, and lack of exercise.
(4) No population is likely to remain stable as long as individuals are free to have as many children as they want while society at large has the moral obligation to pay for food, medical care, schools, and the increase in sanitary and employment facilities necessary to support all the children of parents who cannot do so.
(5) No nation (like North Korea) can be expected to rid itself of an oppressive tyranny or develop an effective economic system if its government is free from all foreign constraint and interference while the rest of mankind is morally obliged to supply food, medical, and financial aid to its suffering citizens and thus bolster that tyranny.
(6) The reliance on the free-will decisions of conscientious people is self-eliminating, because it rewards those who have no conscience by letting them do and take what they wish while it punishes the conscientious by making them bear the penalties of depravation. In summary, causation does work in matters of moral behavior. Specifically, systems of moral belief are self-refuting if, when actually practiced and enforced, they subvert the moral goals which they were intended to attain.

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NNadir Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-03-06 05:59 PM
Response to Reply #4
6. In the purely academic sense, I might agree - in fact I do agree.
I think from an environmental standpoint the basic function of government is to regulate the common space.

The translation of philosophy into practice is far more problematic. In fact, one of the very rare cases of philosophical concepts being translated into an effective document was the US Constitution - and as we have seen recently - even that brilliant document has been perverted out of existence.

Given the number of times that overt racism has been represented as a "biological imperative," operating with all sorts of "philosophical" underpinnings, I get nervous when philosophers begin discussing biology.

I note that many of the signers of the American Constitution had very distorted concepts of human biology. They were, I think, great philosophers, and brilliant men, but when it came to understanding biology - in particular whether skin color made some homo sapiens other than human - they were completely ignorant.
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Pooka Fey Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Aug-04-06 04:30 AM
Response to Reply #6
7. I see your point too. Coercion is easily perverted by those with power.
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YankeyMCC Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Aug-04-06 06:12 AM
Response to Original message
8. Some tough stuff there
but it certainly is important discussion that needs to happen in our global society.

One point I certainly agree with is
(1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it.

Perhaps that's why, even though I'm an atheist, I'm so interested even drawn to the culture and mythology of native american societies in which the land and living in harmony with the resources around them is so central. (at least in my limited understanding of their culture)

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