The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 3 June 2022

A general statement of the tragedy of the commons

A general statement of the tragedy of the commons, by Herschel Elliot, 1997.

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 require ethical behavior that ends all further ethical behavior. Clearly any ethics which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.