Virtue and the Commons

PUBLIC POLICY: WHY ETHICS MATTERS, Jonathan Boston, Andrew Bradstock and David Eng. Canberra, eds., ANU E-Press, Forthcoming

30 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2009 Last revised: 22 Jun 2010

See all articles by Xavier Marquez

Xavier Marquez

Victoria University of Wellington

Date Written: November 24, 2009

Abstract

Can “virtue” help overcome the tragedy of the commons? A growing body of work suggests that one important way of dealing with the protection of the commons is the inculcation of certain sets of virtues, that is, dispositions or character traits that internally motivate individuals to habitually do the kinds of things that promote common benefits in the particular context. In this paper I suggest that the virtue-ethical approach to such problems, though not without merit, has important limitations. I begin by making a distinction between “robust” and “conditional” virtues in the context of commons dilemmas. Empirical evidence suggests that “robust” virtues are very rare, and hence cannot be relied upon to solve the many commons dilemmas we confront today. While conditional virtues are much more common, their “supply” is itself an endogenous effect of the potential solutions to the commons dilemma which virtuous agents may promote, resulting in trade-offs between solutions that can deal with urgent commons dilemmas (which may over time decrease the supply of virtue) and solutions that increase the long-term supply of more robust virtue (which tend to be slow and unreliable). Given plausible epistemic constraints on virtuous agents, this means that even they will face severe collective action problems in deciding how to best contribute to a “difficult” collective action problem (like the problem of global climate change).

Keywords: climate change, virtue, ethics, collective action, tragedy of the commons

Suggested Citation

Marquez, Xavier, Virtue and the Commons (November 24, 2009). PUBLIC POLICY: WHY ETHICS MATTERS, Jonathan Boston, Andrew Bradstock and David Eng. Canberra, eds., ANU E-Press, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1512987

Xavier Marquez (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington ( email )

P.O. Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand
64-4-463-5889 (Phone)

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