Utilitarian Ethics and the Tragedy of the Commons

In his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, (1968) Garrett Hardin looked at what happens when humans do not limit their actions by including the land as part of their ethic.

The tragedy of the commons develops in the following way:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work satisfactorily for centuries, because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land.

Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning (ie the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality). At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks: “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has both negative and positive components. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. However, as the effects of overgrazing are shared by all of the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

The sum of the utilities leads the rational herdsman to conclude that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd, and then another, and so forth. However, this same conclusion is reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing the commons. Therein lies the tragedy: 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 the commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin went on to apply the situation to modern commons. The public must deal with the overgrazing of public lands, the overuse of public forests and parks and the depletion of fish populations in the ocean. Individuals and companies are restricted from using a river as a common dumping ground for sewage and from fouling the air with pollution. Hardin also strongly recommended restraining population growth.

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is applicable to the environmental problem of global warming. The atmosphere is certainly a commons into which many countries are dumping excess carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Although we know that the generation of greenhouse gases will have damaging effects upon the entire globe, we continue to burn fossil fuels. As a country, the immediate benefit from the continued use of fossil fuels is seen as a positive component. All countries, however, will share the negative long-term effects.

The Tragedy of the Commons by ecologist Garrett Hardin was first published in the Journal, Science in 1968. Here is the full article.

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