Slight of Hand: Egoism and the Tragedy of the Commons

Ty Barnes, Green River Community College


This assignment will introduce students to a theory in the Normative Ethics of Behavior (NEB) known as Hedonic Ethical Egoism. Students will learn to present and explain the "Invisible Hand Argument for Hedonic Ethical Egoism", an argument due in large part to Adam Smith. That argument will be shown to depend on the following assumption: that the community as a whole is better off if everyone acts selfishly. This assumption is false as the "Tragedy of the Commons" will show.

To bring the point home, students will complete two teaching-and-learning activities.

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Learning Goals

To bring the point home, students will complete two teaching-and-learning activities. The first will invite them to calculate their "Ecological Footprint" Their results will be given in terms of the number of planets one would need if everyone on the planet behaved the way they do. The second will invite them to "Check Their Labels", to do some research, in other words, on the practices of companies they support and the extent to which those companies may or may not be contributing to tragedies in their respective commons.

Context for Use

This assignment would be appropriate for introductory students in an ethical theory or environmental ethics class. It is designed to get students to see that their actions have implications beyond their immediate environment. It would be given early in the quarter, while the instructor is still presenting elementary theories in NEB. This learning activity should take one class period to complete in an ethical theory class, but in an environmental ethics class it should take two periods to do a more thorough job.

Description and Teaching Materials

Classroom Discussion

"Slight of Hand"
Ethical Egoism is the family of views that include the idea that everyone ought to act so as produce the best consequences for themselves and themselves alone. It is suggested by the following remarks:
"By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man--every man--is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose." (From Ayn Rand's "A Defense of Ethical Egoism")
"Ethical Egoism is the idea that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively. . . . Ethical Egoism says we have no moral duty except to do what is best for ourselves." (From Rachels' "Egoism")
The statements are suggestive of a theory, but it's hard to say how to formulate a criterion of moral rightness based on them. One thing is clear: Egoism of the kind referred to above is a consequentialist theory. It makes the rightness or wrongness of actions depend on their results. So the right thing for an agent to do, on this theory, is to perform the action that produces the "best" result for the agent.

But what makes one set of results "better" than another? To fill out our account of egoism, we need to decide upon an axiology, a theory about what things are good.

One way of making sense of good consequences takes a page from hedonism. Hedonism is the view that every episode of pleasure is intrinsically good, and every episode of pain is intrinsically bad. Ethical Egoists who adopt a hedonistic axiology are known as Hedonic Ethical Egoists. To formulate their theory, let's introduce a few technical terms:
A2 is an alternative to A1 if and only if A2 is some other act-token that the agent of A1 could have performed at the same time as A1, instead of A1.
The consequences of an act-token, A, are all of the things that would happen as a result of A, if A were performed.
Hedonic Agent Utility (HAU): The hedonic agent utility of an act-token, A, is the result of subtracting all the pain the agent of A would feel as a consequence of A, from all the pleasure the agent of A would feel as a consequence of A, if A were performed.
An act-token, A, maximizes HAU if and only if no alternative to A has a higher HAU than A has.
Hedonic Ethical Egoism, then, is the view that an act-token, A, is morally right if and only if A maximizes hedonic agent utility.
Students Will Learn to Present and Explain:
"The Invisible Hand Argument"
Some have thought that a defense of Hedonic Ethical Egoism is to be found in the writings of Adam Smith. Smith said that an economy will do best when corporations rationally pursue their own economic welfare in a free market. Likewise, someone might claim that a social group does best when members freely pursue their own long-term self-interest. This idea seems to be at the heart of this remark from Robert G. Olsen:
"The individual is most likely to contribute to social betterment by rationally pursuing his own best long-term interests."
The Invisible Hand Argument in favor of Hedonic Ethical Egoism seems to go like this:
  1. The community as a whole is best off if each member acts so as to maximize hedonic agent utility.
  2. If (1), then each individual ought to act so as to maximize hedonic agent utility.
  3. If each individual ought to act so as to maximize hedonic agent utility, then Hedonic Ethical Egoism is true.
  4. Therefore, Hedonic Ethical Egoism is true.
Explain the Argument by Providing Rationales
Providing a rationale for the premises of an argument involves telling why someone might think that the premises are true. It involves giving reasons in support of the premises. Why might someone think that line 1 of the Invisible Hand Argument is true?
Smith's reasoning seems to be this: If corporations merely pay attention to maximizing their profits, they will not do anything to mess up their community. If they did, then people would stop buying their products, and that would be bad for the bottom line. So as long as everybody cares only for themselves, the Invisible Hand will guarantee that everything will work out alright.
Line 2 of the argument expresses a value. It says that if the community as a whole is better off when everyone is selfish, then everyone ought to be selfish. This is because what we want is that the community as a whole is better off, a strange thing for an egoist to want, but we'll leave that objection aside just now.
The third premise of the argument says that if everyone ought to be selfish, then egoism is true. This is because egoism says everyone ought to be selfish, so if that turns out to be true, then the egoist got it right.
So much, then, for explaining the argument. Now we want to know if the argument is any good. It is a valid argument, following Modus Ponens. 2 But is the argument sound?
Evaluating the Invisible Hand Argument
It seems to me that line 1 of the Invisible Hand Argument is not true. It runs afoul of the Tragedy of the Commons. These tragedies show that communities are not always better off when their members behave in selfish ways. There are many examples of the Tragedy of the Commons. Mine follows an account given by Fred Feldman in his essay on Egoism.
Imagine there are many fishermen living in the village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. These fishermen fish the outer banks off the coast of Cape Cod. Their fishing practices have caused depletion in the stocks of fish in the outer banks, so they convene to decide what to do.
Someone in the group suggests that the practice of fishing the outer banks may be continued only if everyone in the group voluntarily agrees to reduce their daily catch until the stocks rebound. They all argue about it for awhile, but finally agree, in principle, to the reduction.
But suppose each fisherman reasons this way: "Look," he might say, "if everyone else is going to reduce their catch, then I should rush out there and get as many fish as I can. After all, the fish stocks won't be depleted since everyone else is reducing, and I will have the chance to get ahead, to catch more fish than anyone." This is called free-riding on the forbearance of others. "On the other hand," he says, "if no one else is going to reduce their catch, then why should I? I should get out there and get my fair share, catching as many fish as I can." So either way, thinks the fisherman, "I should catch as many fish as I can."
Let's imagine that the fishermen make enough money depleting the stocks of fish in the outer banks that they can sell their houses and move to another place to start another career, maybe logging in the Pacific Northwest. Then the fish will be gone, the fishermen will be gone, and the community as a whole will be worse off.
The Tragedy of the Commons shows that line 1 of the Invisible Hand Argument is not true. The community as a whole is not always better off when everyone is selfish. In fact, it is often worse off.

The Learning Activities

  1. Calculating Your Ecological Footprint - Go to the website for the Global Footprint Network Calculate your ecological footprint to determine your resource consumption and learn what you can do to tread more lightly on the earth.
  2. Check your labels - Do some research into the companies that your purchases support. Find out whether or to what extent those companies have contributed to tragedies in their respective commons.

Teaching Notes and Tips


When presenting, explaining, and evaluating the Invisible Hand Argument, students will be graded on the content and clarity of their answers. They will need to be able to present the argument by merely writing it down using numbered premises and conclusion. They will need to explain the relevant technical terms in their own words, and to provide rationales for each of the three premises. They will then need to be able to recount some story involving a Tragedy of the Commons in order to refute premise one of the argument. Assessment of the learning activity will involve assessing students’ levels of active participation in classroom activity and discussion.

References and Resources