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Astronaut versus Cowboy Ethics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” So said Garrett Hardin to correct misreadings of his misnamed “tragedy of the commons.” He’s partly right. We are now too free. But key ideas about need, greed, and rational freedom have also turned ruinous. Our fates are commonly bound by the logic of limits. Astronaut economics beats cowboy economics.

Hardin’s scenario described incentives for herders to overgraze a commons (public pasture). Pursuing their narrow economic self-only-interest, they ruin the commons. Hardin later agreed his “weightiest mistake” was not limiting his logic to “unmanaged” commons. The fault lies in the freedom. And in mismanaging it.

Humans are the freest, least genetically constrained species (praxotype wider than genotype). But rule-free freedom produces unproductive, maladaptive chaos. So our linguistic and ethical rule-processors evolved to coordinate and constrain our freedoms.

Perhaps the longest-surviving ethical principle is the Golden Rule—”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Darwin believed it would eventually evolve in any intelligent social species. It easily leaps Hardin’s hurdle. But its sway has weakened.

John Locke defined commonly accepted limits on liberty in 1690: “Reason…teaches all Mankind…no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” By 1968, Hardin assumed that self-maximizing, self-only thinking was accepted as “rational,” despite its tragic results.

Most of us know we are not free to harm another’s interests (without risk of penalty). So why do many think harming the interests of all others (the commons) is OK, even to the point of collective ruin?

Unlike the Golden Rule or Locke’s limits, Hardin’s herder logic is too myopic and asymmetric. It works only if others don’t do the same. It might make a twisted short-term sense, but it isn’t sustainable. Others will seek to do as you do. Contagious behaviors bind our common fate to what we allow.

Tragedy once meant more than a bad ending. It required being at the mercy of a situation (or of the gods) in which whatever choices were made, disaster followed. Hardin’s hard-of-thinking herders hardly fit the bill. They could simply not overgraze—and organize to ensure no one else did. A trivially solvable “tragedy” isn’t worthy of the name.

Avoiding foreseeable doom is adaptive. Pitting self-interest against self-preservation isn’t. We once could see this.

Hardin called economics “a minor specialty” within ecology, and compared “cowboy” vs. “spaceship” ethics. Ecology uses spaceship-ethics, whereby everything is limited and valuable. Economics often encourages cowboy-ethics and limitless greed (huge free herds mean it’s OK to shoot a buffalo to eat just the tongue). Near-extinction followed. Our economics and ethics must work better.

Locke’s limits must be redrawn. Rule systems (and norms) that permit—or promote—damaging what their followers depend on, don’t survive. Unchecked greed is maladaptive (the deadliest secular sin).

We need to better grasp our own needs. And that others, and their needs, are inescapable. “Reason teaches…all…who will but consult it.”

Know your needs. Don’t damage them. Don’t let others either. Or you are doomed.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors
Greek Myths About Human Origins
Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge
Economics vs Fiction on Human Nature
Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?
Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization
Food For Rethinking Markets
Non-grapefruit and fruitful non-science
Is Money Like Food?
Words Are Thinking Tools: Praxotype
Is Breaking Bad Darwinian?
The Most Dangerous Jargon Viruses

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. tuned 12:20 pm 10/11/2013

    The irony is the vast majority of “astronaut” type activities are a total waste of human resources in the face of of world poverty, pollution, and disease.
    The overweening ego of the “astronomer” gets masked as “quest for knowledge”, but said quest is better served in genetics/disease research (etc.) to better serve the children of Man.
    Hawking, et al, propose vast sums and resources to move humanity off the planet when it has almost NO chance of long term survival.
    Really the best chance of life surviving would be to simply and cheaply “shotgun” DNA in every direction, it tends to take root so long as a climate allows.

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  2. 2. bucketofsquid 12:27 pm 10/14/2013

    Eventually the greed mongers get rounded up and killed as we have seen in most major revolutions. Unfortunately we have also seen that revolutions tend to destroy the starters of said revolutions. We have also seen that any living thing that overpopulates it’s food source dies off dramatically, only to start the cycle all over again.

    The trick this time around is to hold on to as much knowledge as possible so we don’t restart from scratch.

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  3. 3. Noone 12:14 pm 10/15/2013

    Uh, people have been “free-grazers” for almost 5,000 years. What is not sustainable about the entire history of civilization? Sounds like the typical accusatory YOU are NOW too civilized (consume too much) BS of flagellants who hate their own middle class upbringing.

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