The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 26 September, 2003

Tributes to Garrett Hardin

The Revolutionary Import of Garrett Hardin's Work

by Herschel Elliot, July, 2003

I consider Garrett Hardin to be one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. Generally, however, people still fail to understand the import of what he is saying. They assume that he is merely calling attention to problems that arise from the use of common resources. Various critics mistakenly assume that he advocates the brutal consequences caused by scarcity and overpopulation, that he supports the right of the wealthy nations to maintain a privileged way of life, that he champions private property and capitalism, that he lacks concern for human rights and freedoms, that human survival is the goal of moral life, or that Hitler-type coercion is a moral necessity. In their own unique ways, critics overlook the revolutionary character of Hardin's work both for the nature of ethics and for the method by which ethical claims are justified.

As I pointed out in A General Statement of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons (Vol.18, No.6, July, 1997 of Population and Environment), Hardin's essay is not making factual claims. It is not recommending any specific moral theory. Rather it is a thought experiment. And the purpose of a thought experiment is to bring to light the contradictions within a system of thought. Hardin's thought experiment proves that if people do what is right or good according to established moral principles, they can in fact cause great harm; they can destroy the commons - the environment - that sustains moral life. In this seminal essay, Hardin proves the tragic error implicit both in individualism and in the philanthropic, human-centered ethics which people in the Western nations commonly assume to be the final moral truth.

The fact that a tragedy of the commons is possible proves that a factual state-of-affairs can refute a moral theory. In effect, it proves the falsity of the methodological assumptions on which Western ethics is founded, namely, that reason and valid a priori arguments and/or the infallible revelations of God justify moral laws and principles. Consequently a priori reasoning and non-empirical arguments do not suffice to justify moral beliefs. Knowledge of moral laws and principles is not a priori knowledge. It cannot be certain; it cannot be universal in scope; it cannot be invariant under changing circumstances. Henceforth the rules of correct moral conduct must pass environmental and factual tests. Nature can veto moral beliefs and theories.

A priori thinking in ethics is a kind of species narcissism. It is an instance of the hubris of rationalism to believe that the human mind creates or determines moral reality. By contrast, the contingent character of empirical knowledge requires that human beings be humble before the facts. People can only rearrange events in the world according to the laws and limits of nature. The empirical constraints that apply to engineering and architecture apply to ethics as well. People can only make ethical proposals; nature either tolerates or denies their proposals.

An ethics capable of being practiced in a finite world must be founded on the moral obligation never to cause the environment to break down. This obligation stipulates a necessary condition for moral life. It can be stated as the environmental principle, namely, to preserve the endurance and the resilience of the earth's system of living things. This principle cannot be justified by appeals to reason or the infallible revelations of God. It cannot be justified by valid inferences from human-centered definitions and universal moral principles. And it is not subject to scholarly rebuttal by professionals in moral philosophy. Rather, it is a factual necessity. Any ethics which denies the environmental principle is doomed to fail. People who live by an ethics which denies it simply die out. In effect, the moral certainty of the environmental principle is proved by the absurdity of its denial.

Indeed, conditions of impending and intractable scarcity change the types of behavior that are suited to the various environments in which they occur. They change the moral behavior that is possible. As always, the moral necessity stands to discriminate against those who break moral law. For example, Western ethics discriminates against thieves, murderers, and all who commit immoral acts. It does not give them equal rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Similarly, an ethics founded on the environmental principle discriminates against those who trash their environments and those who fail to control their reproductive behavior. It does not give them equal rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Hence human rights are not universal and the obligation to render philanthropic aid to all in need is not unconditional. People who either ignore or deny the environmental principle diminish their rights, freedoms, and opportunities. They may forfeit their right to philanthropic aid as well. Just as Western ethics does not subsidize or reward people for their sins, so an ethics founded on the environmental principle does not subsidize or reward people for their environmental sins.

The possibility of a tragedy of the commons refutes both the a priori methodological assumption and the egalitarian, human-centered principles of Western ethics. In a finite world human rights, opportunities, and freedoms are not the birthrights of all who are genetically human. Rather they can be accorded only to those who live as the environmental principle requires.

Finally, to accept the environmental principle is to effect a revolution in ethics. It changes the conception of good and evil, right and wrong. Saving human lives and promoting human welfare no longer define moral behavior. Rather the first moral obligation is to sustain the earth's delicately balanced system of interdependent living things. Then the epitome of evil is not selfishness, theft, and murder. Rather it is to violate the environmental principle by degrading the earth's biosystem. Then secondarily, after the environment is secure, moral attention can be directed to human concerns - how to best to direct personal and societal behavior so as to make human life in a finite world ever more worth living.

Applications of the Environmental Principle

The environmental principle transforms the way in which modern moral problems are described and moral behavior is justified. It will be applied to the following issues: immigration, abortion, aid to single parents, aid to victims of droughts, floods, and earthquakes, medical aid for people living in disease-prone tropical climates, aid for the technical development of nations with exploding and impoverished populations, and the limits of publicly financed medical care.


The finitude of every nation's land, water, and mineral resources determines the size of the population and the level of consumption that each nation can sustain. The finite boundaries and the finite land, water, and natural resources of all nations make it impossible for them to have either a constant influx of immigrants or a constant increase in the material goods and services that their citizens consume. Sooner or later constant growth will require any nation to exploit more land, water, and mineral resources than it possesses. To be sure, new technology may increase the number of citizens and the quantity of the consumer goods and services that a nation can support - for a while. Continual growth, however, results in shortages that will force both a population and its standard of living to decrease. In any case the limited land, water, and natural resources in every nation define the size of the population and the consumption of the material goods and services that it can sustain.

To increase the population one immigrant at a time is like loosing hair one at a time. Indeed the loss of one hair or the addition of one needy immigrant is inconsequential. But the end result of such a continuing process is clear-cut and certain. Eventually steady hair loss makes one bald. Eventually steady immigration requires a greater exploitation of its land, food, fuel, and water resources than can be sustained. To be sure the reduction in each citizen's allotment of living space, water, and food may be done equitably and fairly through taxes and rationing. But allowing immigration steadily to increase the population causes a similar long-term damage to society as theft, crime, and murder - it reduces the quality of life that is possible; it destabilizes society by damaging the environment which sustains the society.

All who claim that it is immoral racism to advocate an end to all immigration are living in a dream world of infinite lands and unlimited natural wealth. The fact that all nations have finite boundaries and finite resources makes it logically necessary to limit the number of citizens who can live within them. Once a nation's population has reached the maximum that it can support at an acceptable standard of living, moral outrage, no matter how futile and absurd it would be, should be vented against the finitude of nation's boundaries - not against those who bear the message of its limits.


Birth is not a personal act. Indeed for a mother to give birth to a child is the epitome of a social act. Every birth affects the welfare of others - the child and the society at large. Because the child is another person for whom society must supply water, food, shelter, clothing, housing, education, medical care, employment, police protection, and recreation, it is society - not the individual - that has the right and obligation to determine who may have children and when extra citizens will benefit both society and the environment. Furthermore, the morality of all social acts, including the social act of having children, depends on the circumstances - the resources of the parents, the society, and the environment.

When the wealth and resources are great, each child can increase the welfare of all; each can help to increase the nation's security; each can increase the production and the variety of goods and services available to all. When, however, a nation has no excess land or natural wealth, the demands of each extra child reduces what is available for everyone else. Then to satisfy the legitimate needs of each extra child diminishes the welfare of all. It diminishes the health and durability of the environment and thereby the security of society and the nation as well. Under such conditions to give birth to extra children is another instance of the tragedy of the commons because the advantages and satisfactions of having children accrue to the parents while society at large must pay the major costs.

As Hardin noted, a system of incentives in which the benefits go to the individual while society at large bears the costs is a clear instance of a system that will lead to tragedy. Indeed, the environmental principle forces society to limit the number of children who may be born. The principle makes it immoral to violate these limits.

Imagine two possible extremes. At one extreme, if some tremendous calamity should afflict the human race and put mankind on verge of extinction, it would be every woman's moral duty to have as many children as possible. Most abortions would then be crimes. At the other extreme, if the human population is rapidly destroying the world's capacity to support human life, a moratorium on all births would have to be imposed. Then to give birth to a child would be a crime for it would deprive others of the necessities of life. Not to have an abortion would be immoral.

The morality of all human acts that require the use of matter or energy cannot be classified as moral or immoral unconditionally. Rather their morality varies with the environmental consequences caused by human acts. For example, the morality of building houses, cutting timber, draining wetlands, mining coal, and burning fossil fuels varies with the resource use that can be sustained and with the contingent consequences which these activities cause for society and the environment. Abortions are no exception. They are moral when they support the environmental principle; they are immoral when they frustrate it. Once the health of the environment is secure, they are moral when they advance human welfare; they are immoral when they diminish it.

Aid to Single Parents and their Children

Human beings are social animals. Children need to be brought up in stable and loving households that are socially and intellectually challenging. Hence society must take steps to prevent children from being deprived of the regular attention and long-term security that two parents can best provide. Just as society cannot allow theft and murder to go unpunished so also to give birth to children who are deprived of the security and guidance of family life is an antisocial act that must be deterred. Because society has to pay for education, health care, and the added infrastructure and capital investment needed to create employment, it is morally intolerable for society to subsidize deliberate or casual acts of single parenthood. That is, without effective deterrents, to subsidize deliberate and casual single parenthood with food, housing, and financial aid only fosters and rewards the anti-social behavior of depriving children of the love and guidance of a full family life. Furthermore, society must demand that all who willfully or accidentally have become single parents face appropriate constraints. They should have to confront two choices. Whether male or female, they should either undergo sterilization or else they should have to live under a strict parole sentence that would last until natural sterility sets in. To disregard society's interest in responsible reproduction is a breach of moral law which society cannot allow to go unrestrained.

The Obligation to Aid Victims of Droughts, Floods, and Earthquakes

People are never the innocent victims of droughts, floods, and earthquakes. They choose to live and to have their children where such calamities happen. To be morally responsible for their choice they must take precautions against the natural misfortunes that regularly occur. For example if they live where tornadoes are expected, they must build a storm cellar and take out insurance against damage to their houses. If they live in lowlands which severely flood every year or so, they cannot expect mankind to rebuild their houses every time they are destroyed. If there is no other place for people to live in their crowded country, they have a moral obligation not to have any children - for every extra child will only increase the number of people who suffer from future disasters. A reduction of population may be the only moral way to resolve the suffering caused by living in the earth's dangerous, disaster-prone regions.

The Obligation to Render Philanthropic Aid All Who Live in Disease-Prone Tropical Lands

Again people are never the innocent victims of the endemic diseases of tropical lands. They presume the moral right to live and to give birth to children where they choose. On biological grounds, why is there a moral obligation placed on all humankind to assure that people who assert their right to live in disease- prone tropical lands never suffer the consequences of their decision.

If it is hard to find any justification constantly to give aid to people who live in dangerous, disease-prone lands. it is even harder to find a moral justification for right of people to give birth to children in these lands. Can it ever be moral to give birth to children in regions which are likely to cause them to live only short and painful lives? It may be that some areas of the earth should best be left to the plants and animals that are adapted to living in them.

North-South Differences

Consider some of the physical differences between the well-to-do temperate North and the poverty-stricken tropical South. In temperate climates, winter can be long and severe. Until modern times, people in temperate climates who did not work hard in summer to provide shelter, store food, and fuel for the winter did not survive. Children could not survive whose parents failed to take care of them through the long, hard winters. In addition few children could prosper if their parents did not discipline and train them to meet the challenges and hardships imposed by nature.

Tropical climates present different conditions for life. There are no winters. The discipline which nature demands is more lenient. There is little reason to deny instant gratification or to train children in the self-discipline needed to save and preserve food, to construct elaborate housing, to make clothing; to collect and dry firewood. Instead different foods can be grown or gathered year round; housing can be a simple, thatched roof; and children can run outdoors with minimal if any clothing or parental guidance. A high birth rate can compensate for a lack of parental care in the tropics but not in the temperate zones. Almost indefinitely people of the tropics can put off until tomorrow what they could do today.

Unavoidably tropical environments allow human behavior to differ greatly from that which temperate climates demand. Indeed, there are climatic causes for the lack of discipline, for the high birthrates, and the poverty and disease found in the tropics. Environmental differences and the responses they elicit work together to modify the human rights, the moral responsibilities, and the ways of life that nature can support. Until tropical people learn self-discipline, disease control, and reproductive restraint, nature will limit the rights, freedoms, and opportunities that are possible for them.

The Limits of Publicly Financed Medical Care

Consider some examples that typically would follow from Hardin's insistence that human rights and freedoms be causally linked to human responsibilities. My son, for example, cannot learn financial responsibility if he is free to use my credit card whenever he wants and I have the responsibility to pay the bills. You are unlikely to learn to take care of your health, if you are free to abuse your body by overeating, lack of exercise, and dangerous behavior while society must pay the costs of restoring your health. When individuals are free to damage their own health and society has to pay the costs of curing them, medical costs can spiral out of control. Personal responsibility has to be causally linked to the human right to receive medical care.

Both the immunity and the susceptibility to disease have genetic causes. Some people are victims of diseases over which they have no control. Others are victims of diseases caused by their ignorance, carelessness, or lack of discipline. In the first case, moral responsibility for disease passes through the individual to the originating environmental or genetic causes. Human society at large may accept the moral obligation to furnish needed aid and try to discover the best means for limiting and controlling such diseases. In the second case, however, the moral situation is not clear. Here Hardin's assessment is apropos. If the individual is the primary cause, then moral responsibility cannot fall on those who have no control over the behavior which caused the disease. In effect the moral responsibility of society at large is limited. It cannot reward and cannot subsidize irresponsible disease-causing behavior. Rather the primary moral responsibility must fall on the individuals who were the initiating causes of the diseases which afflict them.

In a finite world, society can only have the moral obligation to give medical care to individuals who take responsible care of their own health. It cannot afford to take care of those who abuse their bodies and their health. Those who abuse their health must either suffer the consequences or pay the high insurance premiums needed to cover the costs of their extra care. The right of individuals to medical care must be causally dependent on their responsibility for controlling the originating causes of their medical need.