people fall short of their professed rules of conduct. This is called
Garrett Hardin was one of the few indi- viduals I've known who
greatly exceeded his own expectations of human virtue.
Some who were acquainted with Hardin only through his
writings, might well have come to suspect that this was a misanthropic
curmudgeon. After all, he had once written that “conscience is self-
eliminating,” and that humans are an essentially self-centered
species with a very limited capacity for altruism.
In person, he was a living refutation of this dark view of human nature. His
many friends knew him as a generous and perpetually cheerful individual,
with an infectious zest for life – for knowledge, for art, and for human
He was a devoted father to his four children, and a loving husband to
Jane, his wife of sixty-two years. Visits to the Hardin home in
Santa Barbara were always a delight. In fact, it was more a
"homestead," a "settlement," with Garrett's set-apart
studio and study, Jane's garden, and the fabled "economically
irrational" redwood tree that Garrett had planted years before.
In the car port was the well-worn station wagon with the "COMONS"
vanity plate. Usually a second or third generation Hardin was about
and in evidence.
Each time I visited Garrett, he would invite me to his study for a
conversation. He was always at work on “the next” essay or book, and
more often than not, there was a piece of sheet music open, testifying to
his lifelong devotion to his violin.
Garrett was the lead violin in the “Salsipuedes Quartet” (Salsipuedes:
“Get out if you can”). He was the lead, since, as his friends joked,
“Garrett Hardin plays second fiddle to nobody." The
annual recitals at the Hardin’s Santa Barbara home were festive
occasions, not to be missed.
He enjoyed intelligent and informed conversation, and seemed genuinely as
interested in hearing your opinions as he was in expounding his own. This
philosopher’s encounter with the world-renowned biologist was fated to
generate many points of disagreement. Yet he would invariably treat a
contending point of view with respect and fascination, never with hostility.
In 1968, with the publication of his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,”
Hardin’s reputation broke free of the confinement of his academic
specialty and into public awareness. Displaying an extraordinary breadth of
knowledge, clarity, and force of argument, the essay demonstrated how, in
readily recognizable conditions, “rational” self-interested individual
behavior must lead to ruin for all. “Ruin is the destination toward which
all men rush, “ he wrote, “each pursuing his own best interest in a
society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”
The solution, he argued, was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon” –
in other words, the rule of law and regulation, which means, of course,
government. The “mutual agreement” proviso serves as the legitimization
of democrat government – i.e., “from the consent of the governed,” as
phrased by the Declaration of Independence.
To be sure, the central concept of The Tragedy of the Commons – “good
for each, bad for all” and “bad for each, good for all” – is hardly
unique. Political philosophers back to Aristotle have expounded it in
various forms – most notably Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Rawls.
The principle is validated in game theory (“the prisoners’ dilemma”),
in military discipline, and in labor disputes and peace negotiations. In
general, the tragedy of the commons is essential to understanding the
foundations of both political life and social morality.
And yet, however ancient. clear, and compelling, the principle “good for
each, bad for all – bad for each, good for all” is implicitly rejected
by the anarchism, egoism, and social atomism of today’s radical right.
The unique value of Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” resides in his
application of this ancient insight to contemporary environmental issues
such as population growth, pollution, economic policy and sustainable
development. Drawn, not only from biology, but also from philosophy,
literature, political science and economics, “The Tragedy of the
Commons” has had significant and lasting impact upon all of these
disciplines and more.
That one brief essay, which I understand was for awhile the most widely
reprinted scientific paper, sufficed to establish for Garrett Hardin an
enduring mark in the history of ideas. However, it was a peak moment in a
distinguished and ongoing career that produced twenty-seven books and 350
articles. Of his books, my personal favorite is his Exploring New Ethics
for Survival (1968, Viking), which melds a science fiction tale with a
presentation of the further implications of the tragedy of the commons along
with a devastating critique of conventional economic theory and practice.
Garrett’s life and career exemplified the life of reason. Secure in his
scientifically empirical premises, he would would follow his argument
where logic would lead, regardless of the resulting clashes with
conventional beliefs and sentiments. Thus emerged his notorious defenses of
“lifeboat ethics” and “tough-love” – a refusal to endorse foreign
aid apart from a recipient nation’s commitment to population control.
As his life was governed by an uncompromising allegiance to reason, so too
was the ending of it. In poor and declining health, Garrett and Jane Hardin
foresaw nothing but pointless suffering in its continuation. And so, a week
after their 62nd wedding anniversary, they jointly decided that after
abundant lives of accomplishment, enjoyment and love, it was time to leave
I was shocked to learn of the passing of Garrett Hardin, but not surprised.
At age 88, and in poor health, this was not unexpected. I was doubly shocked
when I learned that he had taken his own life. But on reflection, I came to
understand. This was typical Garrett: his final act was no doubt well
thought-out in advance – calmly, rationally, and appropriately.
Who am I to disagree with Garrett Hardin?
No more will he nourish my mind through his wise and engaging conversation
and correspondence. But his published legacy remains for all who share his
concern for the condition and the future of humanity and of the earth’s
Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications
Conscience of a Progressive:
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field
of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at
the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He
publishes the website, "The Online
Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website,
"The Crisis Papers".