Monday, August 18, 2008

Vera on Sustainability and Moral Dupes

[Guest post by Vera Bradova.]


A moral dupe is one who makes sacrifices on behalf of his/her own conscience in matters of the commons, and in so doing aids and abets those who do not.

A person who decides to do the “right thing” at some disadvantage to himself may be said to have the satisfaction that doing the right thing brings. But the moral dupe reaps no such comfort; he must admit that his having done the right thing actually makes it possible for the wrongdoers to do more wrong.

Garret Hardin spoke of this problem in his famous essay on the Tragedy of the Commons. He called it a pathogenic effect of conscience. He writes:
The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough to condemn it; but has serious short-term disadvantages as well. If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist "in the name of conscience," what are we saying to him? What does he hear? --not only at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep, he remembers not merely the words we used but also the nonverbal communication cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: (i) (intended communication) "If you don't do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen"; (ii) (the unintended communication) "If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons."

Suppose my small community decides to put a lot of effort into reducing electricity usage at considerable expense (replacing old appliances, investing in low energy lighting, etc.). Let’s say these worthy citizens are successful in reducing yearly usage by half. They will not have saved anything for future generations! They will merely make it possible for some wasteful nearby employer to use up the “saved” electricity in a month. Our prudence, our economic sacrifice, and all our time and effort will only lead to some improvident person having more available to them to intensify improvident behavior.

But it gets worse. When the sacrifices of the moral dupe affect her reproductive fitness, then she also increases the chances her genes will over the long run be selected against, so that the “appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run.” This is particularly obvious in the area of human population growth, where some people against their own preferences choose to have fewer children than they would otherwise aim for. In this situation the long term future goes to those who reproduce regardless of the burdens thus imposed on humanity as a whole or on the planet itself. As Albert Bartlett has pointed out, “unfortunately, the resources that the [people working on behalf of sustainability] save are not preserved for the use of future generations, but rather are used to support the continued growth of the population. Thus the net result of many of the actions of the sustainers is to accommodate and hence to encourage continued population growth.”

It is profoundly troubling for me to face this dilemma: Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. There are those who see no way out, advocating (perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek) the idea that in order “to save the planet, we must waste it.” The idea of course being that the faster we overreach, the better chance we have to deal with the impending disaster. Michael Lardelli argues that “faced with the inevitability of resource limits the best scenario is to hit these limits with as small a human population as possible. Our waste and inefficiency then becomes a buffer of unused capacity. As resources decline we can reduce our consumption but still have enough to support life (maybe – if our supporting ecosystems have not collapsed completely). In contrast, if we hit our resource limits with maximal numbers of humans each living very frugally, then we have no spare capacity to fall back on and we will all perish.” He concludes that we should consume as wastefully as possible.

So is there a way out of this dilemma? Are there alternatives? Some commons have been managed well. For example, tribal chiefs had in pre-colonial days worked out good management of the Sahel grazing grounds. Various local fisheries and Alpine meadows have been managed well by nearby communities. The experts studying the problem of wise management of the commons say that local management by small, face to face communities is essential. But it is difficult to imagine how this advice would translate into good management of vast, impossible-to-fence-in resources of the global commons (e.g. clean air, viable oceans, healthy old growth forests, etc.) or even, on a smaller scale, the management of electricity supply and usage at the regional level.

I have been a big fan of sustainability and only recently have come to recognize the subversive logic of the moral dupe’s dilemma. Am I doomed to either throwing out my moral principles and waste as much as possible, or resign myself to being a moral dupe, an enabler for precisely those behaviors to which I am opposed on moral grounds?

-- Vera.


  1. Hi Vera, I think it's worth emphasizing that one is not always a 'dupe' to refrain from exploiting a commons, since -- as you note -- there are some functional commons (at least in small communities) where the cooperative norms are upheld by all.

    The broader problem (air pollution, etc.) is political, not moral. We must set up the legal/economic system so that individual incentives match up with the common good. In short: tax those negative externalities!

  2. This is a very interesting post, but it is worth pointing out that the situation described is a special case of the tragedy of the commons. It is often set up as a multiplayer prisoner's dilemma where individual cooperation is always better for the group, but worse for the individual, in which case the right thing to do is typically to simply cooperate. However, the situation described by Vera is much nastier than this one, and there would be little reason if any to cooperate.

    In my view, the climate case is much more plausibly of the first type. If someone deliberately pollutes 1 ton less CO2, what will happen to the expected amount of CO2 produced? It might not have a whole ton decrease, but I find it implausible that it will have no expected decrease. If we really were in such a bad situation, then the appropriate response of an environmentally inclined individual would be to show this was so (with publications etc.) and bring this aspect to urgent attention on a world scale as it would mean that the only way out, short of near-universal multilateral change in strategy, would be to change the structure of the game we are in.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts. I still have not found a good solution to this, though much interesting stuff has been posted around the web on the related Jevons' paradox. I think tobyord is right... the game needs to change.


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