Monday, March 6, 2017

The Meaning of Hobbes's Sword - Part II


If morality requires clear boundaries, fair and equitable rules, and active participation of group members in monitoring and enforcement, it resembles in some ways the conditions that make for successful long-term management of a Common Pool Resource.  Is a moral system, in fact, equivalent to a CPR?

A common pool resource, sometimes called a CPR, is a resource such as a body of water,  irrigation channel,  fishery, alpine meadow, etc., which is held in common. Common Pool Resources are akin to Public Goods such as public roads, in that, if they are available, they are available to everyone.  The thing about CPRs that is different from public goods is that when one takes away from the pool, there is less in the pool.  With public goods this is not the case. Up to a certain point of mass congestion, if I drive on a road, I don’t make the road less available to others.  

But what about morality?  Having it benefits everyone,  but is morality a CPR?  Is there less of it, if more people benefit from it? At first glance It doesn’t seem to work that way at all.  But morality isn’t a resource that gets consumed, it is an institutional system that completely enframes society;  It can be seen as a kind of Social  Capital;  something that’s necessary for human society to get off the ground;  something that affords trust and cooperation and social stability.  But, morality, unlike physical capital, is a living system that can die if it isn’t maintained and nurtured.     

What morality has in common with CPRs is that people who break moral rules undermine the viability of morality, and the larger the proportion of rule-breakers, the more catastrophic it is for a moral system.  Just as with CPRs in order for it to work, it needs everybody to share in rule following, monitoring, and sanctioning against any rule-breaking.  

Morality is a common pool resource.  Here’s why:  no human group exists without morality;  morality cannot get off the ground without  universal support within the group;  and once morality does get off the ground, it benefits everybody. All other normative systems are,  by the same argument,CPRs too, because rule following  exists in all human societies and rule following also requires universal support.  

I call morality a Common Pool Resource.   This is not the way Hobbes, the true originator of the concept of “Homo Economicus,” saw it, nor the Utilitarian Moral theorists who were influenced by his theories, nor the modern “game theorists”  who claim to derive morality from some form of  Darwinian natural selection. In fact, philosophers, evolutionary psychologists and behavioral economists have been looking for the origins of morality in all the wrong places - in individual actions, in individual reasons, or in simple aggregates of individuals.

Furthermore,most contemporary philosophers have no idea that an American Economist by the name of Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel Prize  for working out the conditions for the origin of morality.  (Nor for that matter, did the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee, because they awarded it to her for Economics, not Moral Philosophy.  Elinor Ostrom was an Institutional Economist who studied the management of Common Pool Resources.  She died in 2012.

I was reminded of this, while reading Does Altruism Exist by David Sloan Wilson. According to Wilson,   “Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for showing that groups of people are capable of managing their own resources, but only if they possess certain design features.”

Up to the time of Ostrom’s research the dominant view of Common Pool Resources were that they could not be managed without  central government control, which, no surprise, is Hobbes’s solution,  or  through a Lockean system of private property rights, backed by government.  In contrast, collective property rights were thought to be inevitably subject to the “Tragedy of the Commons”  - meaning that there was too much individual incentive to overgraze, overfish, or overuse the common resource, inevitably leading to its tragic demise.
According to the dominant thinking of the day, only private ownership of the resource, if it were possible, gave individual owners the right incentives to conserve resources.  (This was, of course, contingent on the owner not deciding that the resource was worth more in cash value if it were sold off and then consumed, rather than conserved for future growth.)  

As Ostrom pointed out in her research, there are a number of  examples of pre-industrial cultures from around the world, maintaining and sustaining common pool resources for hundreds, or sometimes as much as a thousand years without relying on a central authority or the institution of private property.

    What is significant in Ostrom’s findings is that she found that all successfully managed common pool resources followed a certain pattern of collective agreement. These she has summarized into “eight design principles” in her book summarizing her career:  GoverningThe Commons.

For the purposes of this article, we need only list the first five of these.  
The other three have to do with the dynamics and difficulties of larger groups and with competing groups of stakeholders.  These seem less relevant to the situation that may have been present at the origin of moral systems, when technology was, literally, stone age, groups were smaller than one hundred people, and a surplus stock of resources was nonexistent, or at best, highly intermittent.  

I have taken my account from Ostrom’s book, Governing the Commons.  Here I have paraphrased Ostrom’s first five design principles for successfully managed common pool resources:

                         Successful Design Principles for CPRs

  1. Clear boundaries and a strong sense of group identity around utilizing the resource.  
  2. Good fitting rules that are fair and equitable and easy to enforce
  3. There is a workable collective choice mechanism for changing the rules.
  4. Group members all participate in monitoring  
  5. Sanctions for rule-breaking are consistently  applied but they are graduated.

According to Ostrom:  “The central question in this study is how a group of principles who are in an independent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

In this paragraph Ostrom outlines the central question for collective choice problems;  but, more importantly for the purposes of this article, it is also the very foundation of any  moral system. In short, how could the first human group “obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

The traditional approach to this “central question” follows Hobbes’s analysis and posits an external enforcer to get the job done.  But Ostrom, having seen CPR’s in action successfully deal with this problem without centralized control, points out that:    “External coercion is at times a sleight-of-hand solution, because the theorist does not address what motivates the external enforcer to monitor behavior and impose sanctions.

 The difference in successful CPRs is that:  “....commitment and monitoring are strategically linked.”  If everyone agrees to follow the same rules, this reduces the costs of monitoring.  When the common resource owners participate in monitoring the behaviour of other owners, they strengthen their own commitment to follow the rules and they raise the costs of breaking the rules for others.

I began Part II by outlining a plausible list of the requirements for morality to get off the ground.  My purpose was not to justify these requirements as the basic and only requirements, but to demonstrate that a plausible   description of what a moral system does can be closely matched up to the first five of Elinor Ostrom’s eight design principles for successful CPRs.  

Let’s take a closer look at those design principles.  First, a group needs to draw a clear boundary between itself and other groups.  In other words, the people in the group need to have a strong group identity.  In North American Hockey, Vancouver Canucks fans will tell you that the Canucks are not anything like the Anaheim Ducks. - two totally different teams.  Sports teams and their fans have very strong identities. No doubt this strong sense of identity helps the teams perform better, and the fans support their teams better.  

Note also that there is a darker, negative side to strong group identity - it can lead to genocide, witch-burnings and lynchings - because part of what it means to have a strong group identity, is that, whenever you and your group feels threatened  you will have powerful reasons to differentiate from people who come from another place and look and act differently; and then it’s not much of a leap to channel your anxiety into scapegoating and persecuting those “outsiders.”  

Second, there must be good fitting rules that are fair and equitable.   Remember Kant's famous “Categorical Imperative?”:  
"Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

     or his “humanity formulation” of the Imperative:
   "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

In these maxims, Kant was attempting to summarize the human moral system in  a single sentence that could conceivably guide all of our actions.  This is a heroic attempt but far too ambitious.   To put it in modern terms, from a “design perspective,” fair and equitable rules are rules that don’t privilege or prejudice  individuals or groups. We want rules to not impose unnecessary costs or burdens and we want rules not to selectively or disproportionately reward certain people.  

Rules that are perceived as fair and equitable are more likely to be followed than if they are perceived as unfair.  The collective owners of a CPR are more likely to commit to rules that they think will not unfairly burden them or unfairly reward others.  

Thirdly, there needs to be a workable collective choice mechanism in place if the rules need to be changed.  Back again to Hobbes.  Hobbes lived through the English Civil War.  For significant periods he was exiled  from England, and had to live on the Continent.
If the Protestants won they imposed their system on the Catholics.  But a Catholic on the throne was a counter-threat to reimpose Catholicism.  One does not have to be Hobbes to see that this could be a recurring legitimacy problem.  At the time, in seventeenth century Europe, outside of the Netherlands, the only solution appeared to be one state, one religion.  No one thought to look at the Ottoman Empire, which tolerated multiple Religions, (but only if they kept to their own enclaves.)   Because Europeans couldn’t see past Europe, the only way to legitimize a religion appeared to be either by Civil War or Coup D’Etat.  

This is to say that constructing a feasible procedure to allow everyone to agree to a change of rules helps immeasurably to preserve order and stability.  They could have avoided the bloodshed of the Thirty Years War if they had realized that.  

Fourthly, monitoring must be shared amongst all users of the CPR. If costs of monitoring are too high people won’t do it.  Then infractions increase and the pool gets emptied. In contrast,  If the rules make it easy to monitor, more people will do it and infractions are decreased.

Fifthly, sanctions must be administered for infractions, but on a sliding scale. A CPR or a moral system cannot be rigid, because environmental conditions and unforseen circumstances frequently come into play.  People may be breaking the rules out of desperation to keep themselves or their families from starving.  Punishments in this case, should be less severe.

We’re talking management design features here.   If the system is too soft, it gives no support, and allows rule-breaking to escalate.   If the system is too rigid it will not be flexible enough to deal with changes in circumstances. There has to be a backbone but there also has to be some “give.”

“.....commitment and monitoring are strategically linked.”  This is the key to why Hobbes is wrong and Elinor Olstrom is right.  CPRs require constant monitoring, the collective owners are able to commit to monitoring if the rules are fair and equitable; the whole system works well if there are procedures in place, such as consensus, or majority rule, for facilitating agreements about making or changing the rules when changing circumstances warrant. The commitment of the owners is also to a strong sense of identity with clear boundaries around the CPR.   The owners commit to following and monitoring rules, to sanctioning rule- breaking, and to a strong sense of group identity.  It is the continuing commitment of all the members that supports the whole system:  its boundaries, its rules and procedures, and its separation  of behaviours into included and excluded.  

In a small group of thirty to ninety people, everyone knew everyone else on sight; there was no anonymity as there is in our society. Monitoring is a very different ballgame in modern society because the number of people involved is so much greater and the complexity of the system is greater.  That’s why our moral systems appear to us to be far more complex, nuanced, and less visible.  Morality is internalized, but also spread out amongst different interlocking groups and professions within society.  A lot of work is done by the police and legal system, local and mass media, educational system, government legislators, mental health professions, clergy, etc.  There is nothing tidy about it.

Here is one famous critic of Social Contract Theory.  Notice how he hangs his whole argument on the supposed fact that rule following and following authority are both based on the same foundations.

What necessity, therefore, is there to found the duty of allegiance or obedience to magistrates on that of fidelity or a regard to promises, and to suppose, that it is the consent of each individual, which subjects him to government; when it appears, that both allegiance and fidelity stand precisely on the same foundation, and are both submitted to by mankind, on account of the apparent interests and necessities of human society?
David Hume   “Of The Original Contract”

Morality is not the same as Politics.  Unfortunately, both critics and adherents  of Social Contract Theory, simply repeat Hobbes’s mistake of imposing a political solution on a moral problem.  Allegiance, if it is not just the allegiance of subordinates to a dominant, is based on fidelity - the fidelity that each human has to the moral system itself.  Without a moral system to begin with, allegiance to a rule-governed political system would be impossible and we would find ourselves in the equivalent of De Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, which is to say, where the only allegiance is to the Ape dominance hierarchy.

Of all forms of normativity, morality packs the most “punch.”  A lot of our most primitive and powerful emotions are driven by our moral concerns.  Compared to them, other forms of normativity can seem much weaker.  That is one of the reasons that I think that all forms of normativity come from an original moral system. Here is another reason:   commitment to a moral system is developmental and  occurs mostly in  childhood. When we reach a certain level of maturity we are considered to be true moral agents, and no longer dependents.

The length of time it takes to be considered an adult, with all the responsibilities this entails, is much longer than the time it takes children to successfully speak a language.  Children master their first language by the time they are six years old, but it takes three times that age to be considered a legal adult in many societies.  

One of the major differences between humans and our closest primate relatives is our larger brains and longer childhoods.  We are far more behaviourally flexible than other animals and we have a significantly longer post-natal period of neuroplasticity.  The longer childhood gives us a tremendous capacity to learn and utilize our larger brains.  Developing a moral system early on in our evolution, could have made longer childhoods and bigger brains possible, and these in turn would have encouraged the continued use of the morality in a self-reinforcing positive feedback system.

Morality afforded social stability, and group cooperation.  This led to longer, safer, childhoods and more children growing up to be adults.  Higher ranking chimpanzees can kill the infants of lower ranking chimpanzees - in most human societies, this is not tolerated.  More children survive in human societies because of our greater ability to cooperate.  This ability to cooperate relies on morality to get off the ground.  


  1. I thought you would start with something a bit more controversial, Charles. Something like Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons” where, in the spirit of Ayn Rand, he blames human overbreeding on the welfare state, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular.

    Personally, my own relationship with the commons is restricted to building a simulation model where fishing boats are allowed access to a comon fishing resource. The Gordon-Schaefer Model is used by many resource economists for this purpose.

    Think of the yield (number or value) of fish caught as a semicircle imposed on a graph. If nobody fishes, no fish are caught. As more fishing effort is applied (either through more people fishing or the use of more equipment) the total catch increases, but at a decreasing rate. At some point an optimum will be reached. After this point, increased effort will only reduce the yield of fish. If this continues, at some point the semicircle will again touch the bottom line of the graph, indicating that no fish will be caught, despite the massive effort of fishers.

    (Source: Dean Bavington, Science as Culture Vol. 19, No. 4, 509– 528, December 2010 “From Hunting Fish to Managing Populations: Fisheries Science and the Destruction of Newfoundland Cod Fisheries”

    The cost of fishing can be regarded as an angled, but straight, line that intercepts the semicirle. The angle of this line reflects the unit cost of fishing effort. Fishers will typically want subsidies which will make the angle more acute. Instead, society will want to tax fishing effort in some way to bring the angle closer to a right-angle, allowing for an optmal yield.

    There is only one small problem with the model. It doesn’t work. The Atlantic cod stocks were managed using this type of single-species model, and the entire cod fishery collapsed! Dean Bavington points out that the major problem was (and continues to be) Alfred North Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, where the map is confused with the territory, as discussed in, Science and the Modern World (1925).

    A major problem with economics, including matematical bioeconomics, is its use of mathematics, not as a methodology to prove conjecture in a discussion, but to silence critics. While I will not say that all mathematics in economics is a bluff, it is used that way far too often.

  2. Thanks for your comment Brock. I didn't mention Garrett Hardin's article except for its title. As you point out it is actually the effect of our modern economic systems that drive resource exhaustion because they incentivize not caring for what we have. Hobbes was wrong to insist on a single authority as enforcer, he didn't see the power of collective agreement as ongoing, not just a one shot thing, that got us out of the state of nature. Being human means continually renewing that collective agreement by commitment to following and enforcing the rules. Hardin's idea is that private property does a better job of conserving a resource because it captures the incentives. But that doesn't take into effect the fact that property owners are competing with other sources of income. If growth is too great, it will make more sense to cash in and destroy the resource, in order to reinvest the money in something that will give greater returns. This is the tragedy of Capitalism.