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Richard Feynman


A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons

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

A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons

by Herschel Elliott

Almost everyone recognizes that we must preserve our national heritage — our parks and wildlife, our farms, our wetlands and forests. And few dare to doubt that equal justice and universal human rights are essential axioms of morality. Simultaneously people accept the necessity of protecting the environment and they also assume the moral obligation that every human being has an equal right to health, education, and employment, regardless of where a person is born or from where that person is fleeing hardship or persecution. To satisfy these demands it becomes a moral necessity to create more jobs, to build more housing, to expand the infrastructure, to produce more food and water, and to provide more sanitation, health care, and educational facilities. The only problem is that success in attaining these worthy goals is possible only in an infinite world where no conflict need ever arise between individual, societal, and environmental needs.

Only stubborn and muddled thinkers, however, can make believe that the world is infinite. The delusion of its infinity blinds them to the fact that all human activity must take place within the narrow range of resource use that the Earth can sustain. The ethical implications of the Earth’s finitude are made clear in one of the world’s great essays.

The author conducts a simple-seeming thought experiment in which he proves that any ethics is mistaken if it allows a growing population steadily to increase its exploitation of the ecosystem which supports it. Such an ethics is incoherent because it leads to the destruction of the biological resources on which survival depends; it lets people act in ways that make all further ethical behavior impossible. The essay in which this fundamental flaw in modern Western moral thinking is demonstrated is Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968).

Activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics have long applauded Hardin’s essay. But then they go on to ignore its central thesis. They accept the environmental goals and then, acting as if the essay had never been written, recommend behavior which will cause the environmental commons to collapse. Consequently Hardin’s refutation of traditional moral thinking still seems to be not understood. And the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement — one which can clarify its revolutionary character, one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles.

Hardin himself fully understood the difficulty of his task. In the preface of Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1972), he wrote, For too long have we supposed that technology would solve the “population problem.” It won’t. I first became fully aware of this hard truth when I wrote my essay “The Tragedy of the commons,” … Never have I found anything so difficult to work into shape. I wrote at least seven significantly different versions before resting content with this one, … . It was obvious that the internal resistance to what I found myself saying was terrific. As a scientist I wanted to find a scientific solution; but reason inexorably led me to conclude that the population problem could not possibly be solved without repudiating certain ethical beliefs and altering some of the political and economic arrangements of contemporary society (Hardin, 1972, p. ix).

And a bit later on in the same preface, he adds, As I set about securing the logical bases of my argument I was led, … to go farther and farther back both in time and in logic to make the structure of the argument clear. This book is the result (Hardin, 1972, p. x).

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.

The more general statement of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons which follows is divided into five sections. In the first, the theoretic nature of Hardin’s argument is emphasized. In the second, several of Hardin’s original assumptions are shown to be restrictive and unnecessary. The third offers four general premises which seem empirically certain. The fourth gives a general statement of the human causes of the breakdown of the commons. It demonstrates the same inbuilt contradiction between what benefits the individual or the human species and what is necessary to the welfare of the whole. The fifth part concerns ethical theory. It shows that the first necessary condition for acceptable moral behavior is to avoid the tragedy of the commons. Inevitably, meeting this goal requires holistic or coerced restraint in order to assure that people never fail to live within the narrow limits of the land and resource use which the Earth’s biosystem can sustain. Thus people’s first moral duty is to live as responsible and sustaining members of the world’s community of living things.

Part I: The Theoretic Nature of the Tragedy of the Commons

Because the tragedy of the commons is written in everyday language, people overlook its theoretic nature. Mistakenly, I believe, some critics assume that the essay is talking about an actual commons. Such criticisms, however, are completely beside the point that Hardin is making. They confuse a proof of incoherence within a system of thought with a factual claim which they consider to be false. By contrast Hardin’s essay can best be understood as a thought experiment. It proves that the unquestioned assumptions of modern ethical thinking are self-refuting; hence they must be revised or discarded.

Indeed Hardin’s innovative argument in ethics is analogous to the thought experiment which Einstein used to demonstrate a contradiction within the set of assumptions that define Newtonian physics. To resolve that contradiction Einstein proposed the special theory of relativity. It should be noted that Einstein’s thought experiment cannot be refuted by showing that no train could ever be engineered to travel in a Euclidean straight line at near the speed of light. Similarly Hardin’s experiment cannot be refuted by showing that no simple commons could ever exist in which villagers maximize their personal gain by steadily increasing the size of their herds — until they destroy the commons which supports them. In both cases, the thought experiment concerns only the inconsistency of an imaginary but possible state-of-affairs. Neither one makes a historical or a factual statement.

Specifically, Hardin’s thought experiment with an imaginary commons demonstrates the futility — the absurdity — of much traditional ethical thinking. The sad fate of the imaginary commons on which people pasture their herds proves that moral principles can be refuted by facts — the consequences caused when people live by those principles. It shows that if any ethics makes it advantageous for individuals or groups to increase their demands on the biological commons while it forces everyone to share equally the damage which that behavior causes, then the demise of the whole — the ecosystem which supports that behavior — is inevitable. Surely such an ethics is absurd. It refutes itself in the sense that it requires or allows ethical behavior which denies the possibility of further ethical behavior.

Part II: Three Assumptions which Divert Attention from Hardin’s Thesis

Hardin’s argument is of great importance and is powerfully persuasive. But, I believe, he has made some unnecessary assumptions. For example, his assumption of individualism and the free market system and his proof of the necessity of some form of societal coercion allows many liberals, humanists, religious leaders, and defenders of democracy (whose never-questioned moral and political convictions take no account of biological principles or physical limits) to reject his thesis without understanding it. Again his concern about over-population allows some people to accuse him of disregarding the environmental damage caused by wealthy nations and their run-away system of production and consumption. By pinning on him epithets like “racist,” “elitist,” “self-centered egoist,” “capitalist,” “fascist,” and “apologist for private property,” these critics find easy excuses for disregarding what is disturbing and revolutionary in Hardin’s essay. Misdirected charges allow people to disregard the essential thesis, namely, that physical and biological determinants limit the range of options available for moral and political life.

Three assumptions seem to me to be unnecessary and restrictive. And they are not essential to Hardin’s fundamental thesis. When they are removed, his argument can be given a more general statement, namely, that human behavior (whether it is thought to be grounded in economic self-interest or in the traditional moral ideal of self-denying altruism, in conservatism or liberalism, or in religious or secular humanism) incorporates inbuilt feed-back mechanisms which tend to cause constant economic growth and a steady increase in the human population.

Because continual growth is impossible in any finite domain, they all lead to the tragedy of the commons.

One restrictive assumption is that reason entails specific factual conclusions about human behavior. It requires, Hardin says, that “As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain” (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244). By immediate inference, Hardin’s claim can be restated in a logically equivalent form: “Any herdsman or person who does not seek to maximize his (monetary) gain is irrational.” But clearly this assumption about the nature of reason is false: reason can make no factual claims. In fact some people, who reason correctly, reason from different premises. They may choose to live simply so as to meet the needs of life with the least effort and with the least damaging impact on the environment. For such persons, simplicity and frugality can afford a better life because they allow more opportunity for leisure, for cultural or social activity, and for intellectual development. Such individuals may have no concern or interest in maximizing their material gain. No! One cannot assume, as Hardin does, that reason makes rational individuals seek any specific factual goals.

Another restrictive assumption is that individual self-interest is identified with certain modern conventions about private property, individual freedom, and the utility of maximizing wealth in the free market system. Note Hardin’s words: Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he (each herdsman) asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all (Hardin, 1968, p.1244).

Clearly Hardin proves that when people in any finite biosystem accept the modern economic ideal of steadily increasing their wealth and consumption, a collapse of the commons which sustains them is inevitable.

But Hardin’s proof applies only to a special case. In this passage, he ties individual behavior too closely in with the way of life found in modern industrialized societies. That is, he assumes that human behavior is determined by the commonly unquestioned assumption, namely, that the goal of all individuals is to improve the quality of their lives by steadily increasing their wealth and their consumption of goods and services within a free market system.

Tragedies of the commons, however, can have more general causes. The essential tragedy is not that the self-interest of individuals drives them continually to increase their use of the material resources within a commons. Rather, it is that if any individuals or societies — regardless of the causes or ideals which drive them — should steadily increase their exploitation of the finite ecosystem which supports them, then that system eventually will collapse. And the collapse will bring tragedy to the offending individuals or population.

In brief, tragedy is logically dependent only on the assumption that there is steady growth in the use of land or resources within any finite ecosystem; it is not logically dependent on the conventions of any specific political and economic system.

A third restrictive assumption narrows the tragedy of the commons to the problems caused by the unrestricted freedom to breed. Surely, a rapid and drastic reduction in the size of the present human population is the most difficult moral problem facing the world today. Surely, “The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding” (Hardin, 1968, p.1248). Indeed a rapid reduction in fertility is an immediate biological necessity for the two or three billion people who live in the world’s poorest nations.

However, the march of events toward biological tragedy is also driven by the excessive consumption of the wealthy industrialized nations. Because of their huge and increasing appetite for luxury goods and travel, for lavish housing and gourmet foods, and for leisure and entertainment activities which have high energy and environmental costs, the citizens of the industrially powerful nations account for most of the destructive exploitation of land and biological resources that is occurring in every corner of the globe.

Nevertheless, the rich nations’ contribution to pollution may soon be overwhelmed by the steady small increments in the standard of living of such huge populations as those of India and China. In any case, when driven by the needs of a rapidly expanding world population whether or not in combination with the demands of a growth-oriented consumer economy, a constant increase in the exploitation of the Earth’s limited resources can only aggravate the stresses already placed on the Earth’s ecosystems. The end point toward which this process tends is a rapid loss of the Earth’s ability to support human society in its present form.

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.

Part IV: The General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons

Now, for the first time in the world’s history, a single species — man — has developed the technological and economic means to exploit the resources of all the Earth’s ecosystems at once. Human beings can watch the gradual destruction by simplification of the Earth’s biosystem. Some tell-tale signs of this global process appear as deforestation, desertification, pollution, climate change, and the rapid extinction of species. Others appear as shortages of land, water, and biological resources. All over the world, scarcity is driving people away from the countryside and out of the regions and nations that can no longer support them. Some make up the flood of political or economic refugees. Others migrate to cities where they cause urban sprawl and an intractable scarcity of jobs, sanitation, housing, and the necessary infrastructure. Even now in the megacities of the world, various forms of natural control are working to reduce the size of the human population and its excessive environmental demands. They include parental neglect, disease, unemployment, hopelessness, drug abuse, gratuitous violence, starvation, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and warfare. This kind of empirical evidence supports the generalization that human beings are now stressing the world’s ecosystems.

Bolstered by the a priori, human-centered ethical doctrines of the monotheistic religions, everything that directs human behavior — cultural and legal traditions, genetic determinants, the free-market economic system, and the material demands of industrial production — all reinforce each other in producing a steady growth in population and consumption. Indeed as people all around the world go about the business of daily life, they demand more land, fuel, water, timber, and food. It is possible, however, that significant changes can be made in the complex of causes presently directing human activity which can put an end to the steady growth in population and to the constant increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. Nevertheless, if appropriate causal forces cannot be found to maintain human environmental demands in a sustainable equilibrium, then the step-by-step destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems will remain the persisting — and eventually tragic — characteristic of human activity.

Ecosystems have their own dynamic structure. Feedback mechanisms have evolved to maintain their stability. For example, one species may become dominant and take over much of the land and most of the biological resources in some ecosystem. And continued growth may have no destabilizing effects for quite some time. But as more and more of the system’s biological wealth is concentrated in the bodies and artifacts of an exuberant species, other species evolve the means to utilize the abundant food source. Then as the newly adapted predators increase in number, they reduce the population of the prolific species. If, however, such controls should fail, the continued growth of any organism at some point will begin to stress the ecosystem which sustains that organism. Finally the additional stress of continued growth will make the system collapse, suddenly and apparently without warning. Nature does control any exuberant species either by drastically reducing its population or by its extinction.

This sequence of biological events is of decisive importance for ethics. It proves that the two opposing theories of ethics which presently vie for acceptance both lead to tragedy. Both an ethics grounded in a self-centered individualism and an ethics which builds on the need for a self-sacrificing altruism have the same inherent defects. Both have inbuilt, positive feedback mechanisms which cause a steady increase in the human exploitation of the Earth’s biological resources. All such material demands, however, are constrained by the limited resource use which the biosystem can sustain. Exceeding this carrying capacity will cause that system to collapse into a simpler state which is incapable of supporting civilization in its present form and perhaps most of the complex forms of mammalian life as well. This is the tragedy that awaits mankind, if people do not begin to live as responsible members of the Earth’s system of mutually sustaining life forms.

Part V: Deliberate Restraint as a Moral Necessity

Hardin has correctly noted that nature has devised the means by which “to commensurate the incommensurables,” that is, to resolve the conflicting needs and interests of all of the Earth’s various life forms. For example, natural selection has allowed some animals to find their niche by being short-lived but highly prolific. Others compete by being large, long-lived, and highly protective of their few offspring.

Nature also controls the fertility of prolific and irresponsible parents by letting their excess offspring die of neglect, disease, or starvation. In addition, the excess population of exuberant species is curbed by allowing an algae bloom to cause an algae bust. But the means by which nature forces its life forms to live within its limits would be unnecessary in human affairs if people used other means to achieve the restraint which nature demands.

However, avoiding the cruel coercion of nature cannot be achieved as if by miracle or accident. Admittedly, the tendencies which support unlimited growth and which are built into the patterns of human behavior do not inevitably produce growth. But they will do so unless opposing causes can be made to predominate. By analogy, the tendencies to growth are like a window opened on a cold winter’s day. A comfortable room temperature cannot be maintained by opening more windows and doors to the cold air outside. Unless more fuel is added to the fire or unless glass traps the sun’s heat inside, the room will cool down. Similarly steady growth cannot be countered by doing more of what has caused the growth in the first place. To avoid the cruel coercion of nature, society must discover controls which are warranted empirically by their ability to prevent growth in population and to stop the destruction of the Earth’s biosystem by steady increases in the exploitation of biological resources.

Learning the effective means for controlling growth requires the repudiation of important causal misconceptions.

(1) People must reject the doctrine that moral behavior can be justified by a priori thought which requires no knowledge of the causes of growth and no knowledge of its ecological consequences.

(2) People must discard the misconception that yet more economic growth and still greater consumption will cause a demographic transition in which the human population will become stable at ecologically sustainable levels automatically and painlessly.

(3) They must recognize that the moral obligations to fill all vital human needs can never cause those needs to diminish and can never cause people to stop their destructive exploitation of the environment.

(4) They must reject the notion that exhorting people voluntarily to protect the environment and to reduce their fertility is not an empirically effective means for accomplishing these morally necessary goals.

(5) They must disabuse themselves of the conviction that, under the conditions of a steadily increasing population, the enforcement of the presently accepted moral system — defined by its human-centered ideals, its unconditional principles and its egalitarian definition of justice and human rights — can ever reduce human suffering or prevent environmental disaster.

(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.

These misconceptions must be abandoned, if ever growth in population and in the exploitation of natural resources is to cease to be a persisting — and eventually tragic — characteristic of human activity. Means must never work at cross purposes with the necessary ends. They must be proved by empirical evidence to be able to attain — not to thwart — the necessary holistic goals.

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.

Human beings are in a unique and fortunate position among all living things in that they have language, memory, and intelligence. These abilities allow them to accumulate factual knowledge. And this knowledge, in turn, makes it possible for them to break out the patterns of behavior normally determined by habit, culture, religion, and genetic endowment. When knowledge of the structure and limits of the Earth’s biosystem is gained and acted on, it can lead people to live as sustaining members of the Earth’s biotic community. People can maintain a limited, stable population; they can minimize their use of physical and biological resources. There is, however, no assurance that people will allow ecological knowledge to direct their moral behavior rather than let it be controlled by a priori assumptions or appeals to habit and tradition. Nevertheless the challenging possibility exists: moral behavior can avoid the tragedy of the commons even while it is directed, secondarily, to the task of steadily improving the quality of human life.

As in Hardin’s original essay, the general statement of the tragedy of the commons also demonstrates that ethical behavior requires holistic or societal control. In the case of many nations, the most effective means for them to learn the need for societal constraint may be for others to do nothing but stand back and watch. Just as a good parent may let a child fall down and get up and fall again as it learns to walk, so, too, many nations may only discover the need to reduce their populations and to limit their use of natural resources by allowing their people to suffer through the task of learning to live within the carrying capacity of their nation’s boundaries.

The means which Hardin recommends, for protecting the commons is deliberate, societal coercion. Preferably it is mutual restraint, mutually agreed on, and mutually enforced. Furthermore, knowledge of the most effective and humane means of societal coercion is empirical knowledge. And like all empirical knowledge, it requires constant experimentation, revision, and correction. As such, it can never be certain; it can never be final. And since final truth concerning matters of morality is impossible, the moral choice, as Hardin has so aptly emphasized, can never be between perfectly just coercion and none at all for then people will be free to cause the collapse of the environmental commons and the end of nature’s experiment with human kind. Clearly imperfect forms of coercion are preferable to none at all. They are like mistaken theories in science — at some future time they can be refuted and corrected or discarded. Imperfectly just coercive measures can be improved indefinitely. Thus it is important to note that the need for control does not make any claim about the type of coercion that different societies must practice. The moral challenge is to make the coercion as painless, as humane, and as unobtrusive as possible as long as it accomplishes the necessary holistic goal: it must prevent the tragedy of the commons and preserve the dynamic stability of the Earth’s system of living things. And after this primary goal is secure, the secondary moral goal can be addressed — that of improving the quality of life as people learn to unfold the evolving potential of being human. There is, however, no assurance that people have the will and the intelligence to live within the necessary limits of nature. To do so is the difficult but challenging task of ethics.

A Summary and Overview

Now for the first time in history, the cumulative effect of human activity has become a major and perhaps the dominant force affecting the Earth’s ecosystems. Under these novel conditions, a drastic change is necessary in the way in which ethics itself is conceived and moral practices are justified. Just as Einstein’s thought experiment called for a revolution in physical theory, so the general statement of the tragedy of the commons proves that a revolution in moral theory is necessary. Both require the rejection of established belief systems.

Einstein’s experiment proved that the coordinates of space, time, and mass cannot be simple and unchanging throughout the universe. Hardin’s experiment proved that moral principles (such as equal justice, human rights, and moral obligations) cannot be universal and unconditional in all social and environmental contexts. Henceforth, in both disciplines the basic concepts and principles must be recognized to be system-dependent, system-relative.

It should be noted, however, that system-relativity is not the same as skeptical relativism. System-relativity allows unequivocal truth claims to be made, but they must change so as to be appropriate for the context in which they occur. Thus as human activity comes to dominate the Earth’s ecosystems, the nature of ethics must be differently conceived.

Correct ethical behavior can no longer be deduced from a set of principles, rights, and obligations which are invariant in time and universal in application. Instead, ethical behavior must be relative to its most important goal — to protect and sustain the Earth’s diverse yet mutually supporting system of living things. Thereafter the secondary goal of ethics may be addressed, namely, to maximize the quality of human life.

The system-dependent nature of moral behavior entails decisive changes in ethical theory or in the decisions that affect the do’s and don’t’s of daily life. Five are worthy of emphasizing.

First, people can no longer assume that moral acts are autonomous, that they are simple consequences of a good will. People can no longer make believe that moral behavior takes place in an infinite domain of thought in which the members of the moral community have duties and obligations which are timeless, necessary, and never constrained by material shortage. Instead moral behavior is complex. Under the present almost universal conditions of crowding, most human acts pull with them a tangled skein of benefit and harm. Simple human acts, acts that are benign or even morally necessary when practiced on a small or limited scale, become tragic, even disastrous, when those same types of act are practiced on a large scale or by everyone. In many cases the morality of as act is a function of the number of people doing that kind of act.

Indeed an individual’s behavior can no longer be judged to be moral merely because its motive conforms to unchanging ideals and principles. This traditional subjective criterion for assessing moral behavior must be discarded because it is often irrelevant and even counterproductive.

The second is a corollary of the first. Most people in the Western world hold a serious moral misconception which must be discarded.

Having been brought up or educated under the formative influence of a monotheistic religion, they commonly believe, without question, examination, or discussion, that the ideals and principles of moral behavior can be justified non-empirically, that is by reason or a priori thought. As a result, moral claims are treated as if they were like the conclusion of geometric proof whose truth is a matter of a logical necessity that empirical data cannot refute. However, the tragedy of the commons shows the absurdity of this claim. Because most human rights, laws, and freedoms are contingent on the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to support them, most cannot be universal, necessary, and unconditional. And no a priori arguments — no appeals to reason, to conscience, to God’s Word, or to the logic of moral language — can make them so. Indeed none of the human-centered obligations of a priori ethical theories can curb the inbuilt, positive feedback mechanisms which are now causing the ever greater impoverishment of the world’s ecosystems. And none can be adjusted to meet the holistic needs of the Earth’s evolving biosystem. These are the inherent defects which prove the belief must be abandoned that a priori reasoning can determine, for all time, the ideals and principles of ethics as well as the nature of justice itself.

Third, all systems of ethical beliefs are hypotheses about how human beings can live on Earth. As such, they make factual claims. And like all factual claims, their truth or falsity depends on empirical evidence. For this reason, the sequence of biological events which the general statement of the tragedy of the commons describes is of decisive importance for ethical theory. It shows

(1) that moral behavior must be grounded in a knowledge of biology and ecology,

(2) that moral obligations must be empirically tested to attain necessary biological goals,

(3) that any system of moral practices is self-inconsistent when the behavior, which it either allows or makes morally obligatory, actually subverts the goal it seeks. Thus empirical criteria give a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for acceptable moral behavior. Regardless of the human proclivity to rationalize, any system of ethical beliefs is mistaken if its practice would cause the breakdown of the ecosystem which sustains the people who live by it. Indeed, biological necessity has a veto over moral behavior. Facts can refute moral beliefs.

Fourth, ecosystems are in dynamic equilibrium. In addition, technology and human institutions are constantly evolving in novel and unpredictable ways. Furthermore, living things must compete with each other for space and resources; yet each organism also depends symbiotically on the well-being of the whole for its own survival and well-being. Indeed the welfare of all organisms — including human beings — is causally dependent on the health and stability of the ecosystems which sustain them. As a consequence, the stability and well-being of the Earth’s biosystem has moral priority over the welfare of any of its parts — including the needs and interests of human societies and individuals.

Fifth, human beings are in a biologically unique situation: empirical knowledge can guide their behavior. Indeed, intelligent behavior can free people from the rigors of physical and biological determinism. It should be noted, however, that this freedom is not absolute, for human behavior is still determined. But, instead of being determined solely by genes, habit, and cultural conditioning, it can be modified by the memory of individuals’ useful past experience augmented by the recorded successes of the human race. Thus although biological necessity has a veto over what people may want and hope, empirical knowledge can guide human behavior. And that knowledge clearly indicates that holistic planning and societally enforced constraint are the means necessary to prevent the tragic breakdown of the Earth’s biosystem.

Further experimental evidence is required to disclose the kind of controls which will be most effective, most humane, and most protective of personal life and freedom. Then as people learn the least obtrusive and most effective means for making human activity conform to biological necessity, moral attention can be directed to the narrower human concerns. Human beings and their descendants can learn how best to realize the evolving potential of being human. Moral effort will no longer be wasted in the futile attempt to enforce the status quo of accepted ideals and moral principles as if they were necessary and immutable. When thus grounded in the nature and needs of life rather than in the abstract relationships between the elements of an a priori system of thought, ethics can take its place among all the other human endeavors — science, medicine, technology, art, music, and literature.

All are on-going and creative human enterprises. All increase steadily in scope, in effectiveness, and in significance. Ethics must do so also.


Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, Vol. 162, December 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

Hardin, Garrett, Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, The Viking Press, New York, 1972.

Herschel Elliott

1915 N. E. 75 Street

Gainesville, FL 32641-2794

February 7, 1997 Words: 6661