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Garrett Hardin: The Tragedy of the Commons. Each rational person seeks to maximize his or her gain. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”. Authors of article on nuclear war admit the problem does not have a ‘technical solution.’ What is a technical solution?

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garrett hardin the tragedy of the commons

Garrett Hardin: The Tragedy of the Commons

Each rational person seeks to maximize his or her gain.

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

does population have a technical solution

Authors of article on nuclear war admit the problem does not have a ‘technical solution.’

  • What is a technical solution?
  • Hardin: The population problem does not have a technical solution. In that, it is like tic tac toe.
  • Population must reach zero to address the problem.
Does population have a technical solution?
Malthus 1766-18341798: An Essay on the Principle of Population…Population will eventually outstrip food supply
what shall we maximize

Some might say the population is growing and so is not optimal, not ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’ (Bentham)

Hardin denies this.

We do dispute what the good is for people. Some say goods are incommensurable (can’t be compared w/ one another).

Hardin: In nature, the criterion is survival.

Can we trust population to be regulated by an ‘invisible hand’? (Adam Smith)

What shall we maximize?
tragedy of freedom in a commons

What is tragedy. Whitehead “The essence of domestic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” (p. 274)

  • A tragedy requires that the causes of a serious misfortune be set up long prior and (perhaps) almost impossible to overcome. We often see tragedy coming but can’t do much.
Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons
what s a commons

A commons is a shared set of finite resources where a group people are free to draw on those resources. They are collectively owned.

  • Examples you can think of?
  • Example: Cattle, grazing land. What’s rational for a herdsman to do with his cattle on common grazing land?
What’s a commons?
issues of growth within freedom

Limited resources (energy)

  • Differing conceptions of the good.
  • Adam Smith’s idea was that people’s trading would be guided by an ‘invisible hand’ that would ‘promote the public interest.’
  • Hardin: Doubts an invisible hand will lead to the public good. So he believes we may need to restrict freedom.
Issues of Growth within freedom
self interest causes the tragedy

But Hardin thinks we must act on our rational self interest.

  • Our rational self interest will compel people to “increase herd without limit.” (p. 275) [Positive utility +1 because benefits are individual, negative utility fraction of -1 b/c costs are shared.]
Self interest causes the tragedy
pollution in the commons

Tragedy of the commons reappears in the problems of pollution. Cost of dumping waste cheaper than cost of purifying.

  • Some commons [air/water] are hard to fence.
  • Private property deters us from exhausting resources but favors pollution.
Pollution in the commons

“The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” (p. 276)

  • Therein lies the problem: Actions are collective but effects won’t be known in time. (You only know what you do.)
  • Would laws work to govern commons? Hardin asks ‘Quoiscustodietipsoscustodes?’ Who will watch the watchers themselves.
can we allow people freedom to breed

Hardin says we should prohibit people from breeding.

  • We should deny the UN Declaration of Human Rights for its deference to the family.
Can we allow people ‘freedom to breed?’

Those who are forward thinking have a conscience. They won’t overbreed. This trait is heritable. There will be more irresponsible people than responsible eventually.

  • How do we persuade people morally?

We say we’ll shun the selfish. But we actually have contempt for the less selfish since they stand aside while the rest of us exploit the commmons.”


For Hardin, coercion is the solution. But he wants “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”

  • So the method of coming by the coercion is democratic in some way. The issue is whether we can mutually agree to take away some fundamental part of people’s freedom.
private property

Another solution is private property.

  • Private property is unjust—but yet it protects the commons, in Hardin’s view, so it is necessary. [It is unjust with good consequences.]
  • Why might private property be unjust?
  • Why might it protect the commons?
Private Property
freedom is the recognition of necessity

Hardin: We accept costs to our freedom when we recognize failure to accept those costs means “universal ruin.”

  • We’ll object to those costs at first but then become accustomed to them.
  • Is coercion the solution? Does it have hidden costs? Would it ever be ‘mutually agreed upon?’
“Freedom is the recognition of necessity”