Will the Tragedy of the Commons Claim our Dignity?
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, AEI scholar and bioethicist Leon Kass explained the dangers that come from an increasing indifference to matters of human dignity. When asked to speak about the ghastly findings in the now infamous abortion clinic of Kermit Gosnell, Kass identified a deep and widespread problem, which appears in a particularly gruesome form in the Gosnell case but doesn’t end with unscrupulous doctors:
Abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness…Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology.
You might say that human dignity could easily fall victim to the “Tragedy of the Commons,” a phenomenon named by Oxford political economist William Forster Lloyd in 1832. As noted by Lloyd and illustrated briefly in this video, the Tragedy of the Commons is frequently used to explain why shared pastures get overgrazed, open waters over-fished, the air pumped full of pollution or the economy poisoned with toxic mortgages. In essence, it explains how individuals contribute to the downfall or degradation of resources we all depend upon, compelled by the drive of our private interests.
For example, personal benefit to a herdsman adding one extra animal, a fisherman maximizing today’s catch, or a factory pushing the limit on emissions is concentrated, yielding short-term, tangible payoff. The costs of such decisions are more diffuse, “commonized” so that no one person or organization takes the hit. When many people in a system or society follow the logic of a personal-gain calculus, the diffused costs pile up. The results: Beijing smog, the barren Chesapeake, eroded Haitian hills and our gargantuan national debt, just to name a few.
Who’s in Charge of Human Dignity?
Who is in charge of protecting the skies, the seas, the national economy or something like human dignity? The answer in a sense is “nobody” and in another sense, “everybody”! These goods are too great for any one person or entity to own or protect. So without a conscious decision to do so, we choose to pursue our own ends to the detriment of some of our most precious resources, lulled into complacency by the partial truth that looking out for the greater good is “not my job.”
When I was in middle school, I heard a scientist speak about genetic technology and the possibilities on the horizon: cloning, curing genetic diseases, slowing the aging process, extending life spans, and selecting “desirable” traits in our offspring. Amazed and somewhat troubled, I approached the speaker after the talk. “It’s amazing to be able to do these things,” I said, “But should we?” With a bemused look and matter-of-fact tone, he responded, “That’s not my problem.” The implication of his view, commonly held in the scientific community: if the capability, money and legal environment permit something, it’s going to happen.
The Problem with “That’s Not My Problem”
According to the honest scientist, abstract moral questions will not impinge upon material progress, at least not for long. With the potential in view to fix and optimize ourselves, to stave off the suffering related to genetic diseases and to delay what we all fear most—death—funding and legislation are likely to fall in line and give us what we understandably desire. Hence Leon Kass’s concerns.
So what do we do? It’s not natural to take “commonized” costs personally or to refrain from maximizing our own good. Accepting limitations, submitting to uncertainty, aging gracefully, and bearing one another’s burdens doesn’t come naturally—it comes supernaturally. For Christians, a familiar verse might come to mind: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
Christians have clear instructions to love others as ourselves. In our work, our spending, our consuming and our decision-making, we have more to account for than our personal benefit. We have the freedom to reverse the Tragedy of the Commons by setting aside our self-optimizing instincts and accepting that our neighbors, fellow citizens and society are affected by our decisions and conduct. We have the best of reasons our to care about others’ dignity and flourishing as much as our own. And, happily, we have it on good authority that if we do these things, we will find fullness of life beyond anything we could buy or engineer in a lab.