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Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons


  • Baylor L. Johnson


When people use a resource without a co-ordinated plan the result is often a tragedy of the commons in which the resource is depleted. Many environmental resources display the characteristics of a developing tragedy of the commons. Many believe that each person is ethically obligated to reduce use of the commons to the sustainable level. I argue that this is mistaken. In a tragedy of the commons there is no reasonable expectation that individual, voluntary action will succeed. Our obligation is not fruitlessly to reduce individual use, but to support a collective agreement to reduce everyone's use to the sustainable level.

Suggested Citation

  • Baylor L. Johnson, 2003. "Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 12(3), pages 271-287, August.
  • Handle: RePEc:env:journl:ev12:ev1213

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    Cited by:

    1. Marcello di Paola, 2013. "Environmental Stewardship, Moral Psychology and Gardens," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 22(4), pages 503-521, August.

    More about this item


    Commons; ethical obligations; collective action; environmental ethics;

    JEL classification:

    • D46 - Microeconomics - - Market Structure, Pricing, and Design - - - Value Theory
    • D7 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making
    • Q01 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General - - - Sustainable Development
    • Q21 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation - - - Demand and Supply; Prices


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