[Excerpt] The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Content Summary: 1500 words, 15 min read.

Excerpts are not my writing! This comes from Joshua Greene’s excellent book:

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

The book goes on to present an interesting solution to the below problem. Check it out!

The Tragedy of the Commons

The following parable – entitled tragedy of the commons – originates from Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper:

A single group of herders shares a common pasture. The commons is large enough to support many animals, but not infinitely many. From time to time, each herder must decide whether to add another animal to her flock. What’s a rational herder to do? By adding an animal to her herd, she receives a substantial benefit when she sells the animal at market. However, the cost of supporting that animal is shared by all who use the commons. Thus, the herder gains a lot, but pays only a little, by adding an additional animal to her herd. Therefore, she is best served by increasing the size of her herd indefinitely, so long as the commons remains available. Of course, every other herder has the same set of incentives. If each herder acts according to her self-interest, the commons will be completely eroded, and there will be nothing left for anyone.

You may recognize the economic structure of this game from the Prisoner’s Dilemma. To win such a game, you must find the magic corner; that is, to accomplish cooperative outcomes despite the temptation of selfishness.

The problem of cooperation is the central problem of social existence. Fortunately, our brains come equipped with the following mechanisms, all of which foster cooperation.

  1. Concern for others. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they place some value on each other’s payoffs in addition to their own.
    • Faculties: empathy, violence aversion.
  2. Direct reciprocity. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they know that being uncooperative now will deny the benefits of future cooperation.
    • Faculties: punitive motivation, forgiveness, gratitude
  3. Commitments. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they are committed to punishing each other’s uncooperative behavior.
    • Faculties: shame, guilt, loyalty.
  4. Reputation. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they know that being uncooperative now will deny us the benefits of future cooperation with others.
    • Faculties: gossip, embarrassment.
  5. Assortment. Two prisoners can find the magic corner by belonging to a cooperative group, provided that group members can reliably identify one another.
    • Faculties: identity markers, tribalism

We have cooperative brains, it seems, because cooperation provides material benefits, biological resources that enable our genes to make more copies of ourselves. Out of evolutionary dirt grows the flower of human goodness.

The Tragedy of Common Sense Morality

To the east of a deep, dark forest, a tribe of herder raise sheep on a common pasture. Here the rule is simple: each family gets the same number of sheep. Families send representatives to a council of elders, which governs the commons. Over the years, the council has made difficult decisions. One family, for example, took to breeding exceptionally large sheep, thus appropriating more of the commons for itself. After some heated debate, the council put a stop to this. Another family was caught poisoning its neighbors’ sheep. For this the family was severely punished. Some said too severely. Others said not enough. Despite these challenges, the Eastern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the west of the forest is another tribe whose herders also share a common pasture. There, however, the size of a family’s flock is determined by the family’s size. Here, too, there is a council of elders, which has made difficult decisions. One particularly fertile family had twelve children, far more than the rest. Some complained that they were taking  up too much of the commons. A different family fell ill, losing five of their six children in one year. Some thought it was unfair to compound their tragedy by reducing their wealth by more than half. Despite these challenges, the Western tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the north of the forest is yet another tribe. Here there is no common pasture. Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence. These plots vary greatly in size and fertility. This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others. Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors. Some Northern herders are less prosperous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock or their children to disease. Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large fertile plots of land, not because they are especially industrious but because they inherited them. Here in the North, the council of elders doesn’t do much. They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another’s property. The vast differences in wealth among Northern families has been the source of much strife. Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth. Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe. They share not only their pasture but their animals, too. Their council of elders is very busy. The elders manage the tribe’s herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of this tribe’s labor are shared equally among all its members. This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others. The council hears many complaints about lazy workers. Most members, however, work hard. Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbor’s reproach. Despite these challenges, the Southern tribe has survived. Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth.  

One summer, a great fire burned through the forest, reducing it to ash. Then came heavy rains, and before long the land, once thick with trees, was transformed into an expanse of gently rolling grassy hills, perfect for grazing animals. The nearby tribes rushed in to claim the land. This was a source of much strife. The Southern tribe proclaimed that the new pastures belonged to all people and must be worked in common. They formed a new council to manage the new pastures and invited the other tribes to send representatives. The Northern herders scoffed at this suggestion. While the Southerners were making their big plans, Northern families built houses and stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many Easterners and Westerners did the same, though with less vigor. Some families sent representatives to the new council.

The four tribes fought bitterly, and many lives, both human and animal were lost. Small quarrels turned into bloody feuds, which turned into deadly battles. A Southern sheep slipped into a Northerner’s field. The Northerner demanded a fee to return it. The Southerners refused to pay. The Northerner slaughtered the sheep. The Southerners took three of the Northerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Northerners took ten of the Southerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Southerners burned down the Northerners farmhouse, killing a child. Ten Northern families marched on the Southerner’s meeting house and set it ablaze, killing dozens of Southerners, including many children. Back and forth they went with violence and vengeance, soaking the green hills with blood.

The tribes of the new pastures are engaged in bitter, often bloody conflict, even though they are all, in their different ways, moral peoples. They fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be. These are not mere scholarly disagreements, although their scholars have those, too. Rather, each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life. Each tribe has its own version of moral common sense. The tribes of the new pastures fight not because they are immoral but because they view life on the new pastures from very different moral perspectives. I call this the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

Five psychological tendencies tend to exacerbate intertribal conflict:

  1. Naked group selfishness. Human tribes are tribalistic, favoring Us over Them.
  2. Moral disagreement. Tribes have genuine disagreements about how societies should be organized, with different emphases on e.g., the rights of individuals versus the greater good.
  3. Authority question begging. Tribes have distinctive moral commitments, whereby moral authority is vested in local individuals, texts, traditions and deities that other groups don’t recognize as authoritative.
  4. Asymmetry capitalization. Tribes are prone to biased fairness, allowing group-level self-interest to distort their sense of justice
  5. Punitive escalation. The way we process information about social events can cause us to underestimate the harm we cause others, leading to the escalation of conflict.

Morality is nature’s solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, enabling us to put Us ahead of Me. But nature has no ready-made solution to the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, the problem of enabling Us to get along with Them. And therein lies our problem. If we are to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, we’re going to have to find our own, unnatural solution: what I’ve called a metamorality, a higher-level moral system that adjudicates among competing tribal moralities, just as a tribe’s morality adjudicates among competing individuals.

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