The Tragedy of the Commons versus the Comedy of the Parks: By JOHN BURNHEIM

In the context of my writing about public goods, John Burnheim sent me the email below. (Note his use of the word ‘comedy is intended as Dante meant it – as a story where things turn out in the end).

The park in question is the wonderful park in which I walk every day, stretching for about three kilometres from the complex of apartments in which we live on the corner so Pyrmont Bridge Road and Booth Street down to Rozelle Bay and on to the Fish Market, It is full of glorious trees and lawns and a variety of facilities. It is bordered by High-density residential buildings and well used by a variety of people and pets.

In my walks I hardly ever see a dog turd, a food or drink container, not even a sweet wrapper. People take hose things away or put them in the bins because they cherish that particular public good as part of their lives. They recognise a moral obligation to refrain from spoiling it and have sufficient self-respect to feel shame if they harm it. The situation is fragile, but is, it seems to me, part of a profound change in our vies of ourselves and of the place of morality in our lives. We no longer see morality as imposed on us. But as the framework of what we want

Morality used to be presented as some set off injunctions imposed on us to curb our natural tendencies as vitiated by original sin. Morality could have little effect on our conduct except through supernatural rewards and punishments. We have now reconstructed morality to favour all that is best in human nature.
Parks, not so long ago, invariably had prominent notices forbidding various activities and threatening to punish offenders. Now the only notices are designed to assist people, it is assumed that people know very well what to do or refrain from doing, not only because that is how they want it, but also because they enjoy being among others who are enjoying themselves.

However, calling the change in the content and status of morality profound is dangerous. It is better understood as a lot of specific changes that need to be
kept under review from different points of view. Various models like the Tragedy of the commons apply to certain activities in certain circumstances, while the Comedy of the Parks and other models apply to different situations. It is extremely dangerous to strive to give any one model such as Prisoners Dilemma the status of THE correct analysis in terms of which certain types of behaviour, say to public goods, must be explained.

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paul frijters
paul frijters
5 years ago

Hi John,

an interesting observation I am dubbing about. Almost by definition, people don’t foul their own space. Some systems simply have different notions of own space that evolve over time. Important, certainly, but a profound change in morality? We are still just as polluting when it comes to air travel, and that doesn’t seem to bother us. The sell-off of the same parks also scarcely raises an airbrow, so perhaps the change is more in the degree of visual compliance with highly itemised notions of proper behaviour.

btw, you seem to be having a furious argument with yourself:

first you say
“The situation is fragile, but is, it seems to me, part of a profound change in our views of ourselves and of the place of morality in our lives. ”

and then you say
“calling the change in the content and status of morality profound is dangerous.”

You seem to be accusing yourself of living dangerously, John!

L. Ethell
L. Ethell
5 years ago

It’s not a change in public morality but two levels of morality, defined by ethical philosophers for centuries. E.G., Kant: heteronomous and autonomous morality: other-imposed rules and self-imposed rules, each representative of a certain level of moral development within the individual, or Aristotle: rules to be invariably followed by the young because they lack the life experience to decide for themselves whether or not the individual situation requires a solution not based on those rules and the mature person who has achieved the state of practical wisdom. Psychoanalysis, for example in the works of Melanie Klein, also defines two levels of moral development, fear-based and love-based passing from one to another in our psychic development.

Philosophical ignorance raises some dispiriting conclusions by experts in many fields: listening to the RN Economics program the other week I noted that the speaker felt sadly disillusioned by the reductionist, evolutionary explanations of love such that it seemed to her that there was no truth to our ordinary ways of speaking and feeling about it. Awareness of Wittgenstein’s concept of language as a complex of “games”, each appropriate in its context with its own rules makes us aware that no one type of language, when used correctly, overrides all others in all situations. Our ordinary ways of understanding ourselves are not invalidated by scientific language nor by evolution for that matter because these language “games” are only appropriate within their contexts. If they were to replace our ordinary ways of understanding ourselves we would cease to be who we, as humans, are.
I would not like to say that economists seem less aware of the fundamental concepts that ground our ways of understanding ourselves but they could do with at least some basic philosophical grounding in theories of human nature and ethics.

5 years ago

“Almost by definition, people don’t foul their own space”

I have the opposite view — many people foul their own space and that cannot just be explained away by changing the definition of space, or you simply have a circular argument (“things we foul arn’t in our space”). For example, one might take physical space like houses people own. It is easy to find gardens fouled by pets, people with houses falling apart etc. . More generally, things like littering still happens in most places of the world — indeed, cleanliness is probably still the exception these days. If you want to allow metaphorical space (which seems reasonable for humans), then people foul their own bodies, workplaces etc. .

John R Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  conrad

Yes its more like ; people are (mostly) more restrained in their behavior in what they regard as ‘on view’ public spaces than they are in what they regard as non-public view spaces.
For example in our town is people who stop their car at the most visible public park to give their dog a run do bag their dog turds but people who stop outside the houses in our street ( one block away from the park) mostly do not bag their dogs turds.

BTW am told that theologically speaking ‘original sin’ has often been sort of overstated. For a christian the basis for morality is simply:
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

paul frijters
paul frijters
5 years ago
Reply to  conrad

I guess there is a degree of relativity but most people eventually throw the garbage out of where they live or work, and take the occasional shower for their bodies too. Of course you have exceptions.
if you travel through the slums of India or much of Africa, it is striking how much cleaner things are inside houses and huts than outside of them.