Friday, November 13, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons IV: How To Legislate Temperance

Hardin Says,“The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” In other words an act may be moral at one time and immoral at another.

(This is situation ethics, which usually seems to refer to divergences from religion’s or society’s prohibitions. Thou shalt not commit adultery, except in cases of... What I think Hardin is getting at is a harder morality. Individuals -- or society -- need to know when to refrain from doing things they think of as perfectly benign, even necessary. Hardin’s main case is reproduction, but I think of diet, in terms of both curbing gluttony, and tailoring diet according to economic and ecological circumstances: What is the diet for a small planet?)

Hardin says this follows from an analysis of pollution as a function of population. Pollution of the frontier doesn’t harm the common good. In a city it can’t be allowed. Likewise frontiersmen could be careless in harvesting bison, but we have to manage the few that remain.

Hardin says that the morality of shooting an elephant or setting grasslands on fire “doesn’t show up in a photograph.” “The essence of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally -- in words.”

(Was there a public service announcement on television that I don’t remember from the time, showing dead elephants or a burning savanna? In any case, the cliche is to accuse an anecdote of being “just a snapshot,” one moment of many.)

Our traditional morality is not “system-sensitive.” It is a list of prohibitions, “Thous shalt not.” This doesn’t work to govern a “complex, crowded, changeable world.” Because we don’t know when it’s okay to shoot an elephant or dump industrial waste into a stream, we “augment statutory law with administrative law.” We make laws that create corruption -- offices of vulnerable, venal, or incompetent bureaucrats. “Quis custodiet ispsos custodes?” “Who watches the watchmen?” Hardin quotes John Adams that we must have a government of laws, not men, and says that bureaucracies create governments of men, not laws, but lands, with regret on the side of bureaucracy.

(The ultimate answer, maybe not in this century, but eventually, must be wisdom. The problem is how to reach that time when everyone wises up. The bureaucracy is the expedient. We might hope that religion would answer, Bateson’s gods’ standing for cybernetic function, while we do our purposive, non-cybernetic calculations. Would that mean a change in existing churches’ teachings, or a new cult? Traditional myths don’t fit with modern understandings, churchgoers take their religion cafeteria style, and thinkers who could forge new myth would have a hard time taking the task seriously.)

Prohibition is easy, but temperance is hard. Hardin says, “We must limit possibilities unnecessarily, if we suppose the sentiment of Quis custodiet denies the use of administrative law. The great challenge facing us now is how to invent the corrective feedbacks that are needed to keep the custodians honest.” The authority of the custodians and the feedbacks must be legitimate.

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