The phrase enlightened self-interest has been been used to describe and justify supposed positive results arising over time from individuals acting competitively, as opposed to cooperatively, using the best information and strategies available. One of the most enduring examples is the prisoner’s dilemma. Several others have dominated news cycles lately.

Something for Nothing

At the Univ. of Maryland, a psychology professor has been offering extra credit on exams of either 2 or 6 points if no more that 10 percent of students elect to receive the higher amount. If more than 10% go for the higher amount, no one gets anything. The final test question, which fails as a marker of student learning or achievement and doesn’t really function so well as a psychology or object lesson, either, went viral when a student tweeted out the question, perplexed by the prof’s apparent cruelty. Journalists then polled average people and found divergence (duh!) between those who believe the obvious choice is 6 pts (or reluctantly, none) and those who righteously characterize 2 pts as “the right thing to do.” It’s unclear what conclusion to draw, but the prof reports that since 2008, only one class got any extra credit by not exceeding the 10% cutoff.

Roping One’s Eyeballs

This overlong opinion article found in the Religion and Ethics section of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) website argues that advertizing is a modern-day illustration of the tragedy of the commons:

Expensively trained human attention is the fuel of twenty-first century capitalism. We are allowing a single industry to slash and burn vast amounts of this productive resource in search of a quick buck.

I practice my own highly restrictive media ecology, defending against the fire hose of information and marketing aimed at me (and everyone else) constantly, machine-gun style. So in a sense, I treat my own limited time and attention as a resource not to be squandered on nonsense, but when the issue is scaled up to the level of society, the metaphor is inapt and breaks down. I assert that attention as an exploitable resource functions very differently when considering an individual vs. the masses, which have unique behavioral properties. Still, it’s an interesting idea to consider.

No One’s Bank Run

My last last example is entirely predictable bank runs in Greece that were forestalled when banks closed for three weeks and placed withdrawal limits (euphemism: capital controls) on what cash deposits are actually held in the vaults. Greek banks have appealed to depositors to trust them — that their deposits are guaranteed and there will be no “haircut” such as occurred in Cyprus — but appeals were met with laughter and derision. Intolerance of further risk is an entirely prudent response, and a complete and rapid flight of capital would no doubt have ensued if it weren’t disallowed.

What these three examples have in common is simple: it matters little what any individual may do, but it matters considerably what everyone does. Institutions and systems typically have enough resilience to weather a few outliers who exceed boundaries (opting for 6 pts, pushing media campaigns to the idiotic point of saturation, or withdrawing all of one’s money from a faltering bank), but when everyone acts according to enlightened self-interest, well, it’s obvious that something’s gotta give. In the examples above, no one gets extra points, no one pays heed to much of anything anymore (or perhaps more accurately, attention is debased and diluted to the point of worthlessness), and banks fail. In the professor’s example, the threshold for negative results is only 10%. Different operating environments probably vary, but the modesty of that number is instructive.

More than a few writers have interpreted the tragedy of the commons on a global level. As a power law, it probably functions better at a feudal level, where resources are predominantly local and society is centered around villages rather than megalopolises and/or nation-states. However, it’s plain to observe, if one pays any attention (good luck with that in our new age of distraction, where everyone is trained to hear only what our own culture instructs, ignoring what nature tells us), that interlocking biological systems worldwide are straining and failing under the impacts of anthropomorphic climate change. Heating at the poles and deep in the oceans are where the worst effects are currently being felt, but climate chaos is certainly not limited to out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations. What’s happening in the natural world, however, is absolutely and scarily for real, unlike bogus stress tests banks undergo to buttress consumer sentiment (euphemism: keep calm and carry on). Our failure to listen to the right messages and heed warnings properly will be our downfall, but we will have lots of company because everyone is doing it.

  1. Clem says:

    What nature tells us. Exactly.

    But what exactly does nature tell us? Its a pretty complicated set of messages. There is both egalitarian existence – survival of the fittest; and a seemingly cruel chaos of random events. A perfectly adapted, healthy, and vigorous individual gets cut down by a bolt of lightning. How fair is that?

    I agree with (and also practice) your ‘media ecology’ approach. If our ears and eyeballs represent a commons then there are far too many screaming and shouting at us… so I tune out. One of my favorite aspects of my little farm is there remain a few isolated spots on it that are so isolated they betray no sign of human existence. But if you recline in such a spot – a Walden Pond so-to-speak – for a sufficient time you can observe nature and perchance hear what she has to say (spoiler alert – except for a good crack of thunder, she is a pleasantly quiet and refreshing conversationalist). But even in this non-human environment there is struggle and strife. A heron catching a fish is pretty cool… unless you’re the fish. A fish catching a mayfly is also pretty cool… unless.

    I think you have every right to note the negative behaviors we foist upon each other. And these negatives have grown in scale over time relative to the scale of the whole planet. But one can argue that we have already deeply ingrained what nature tells us… and it might be considered pretty cool… unless you’re a heron or a mayfly.

    For me the lessons we need to teach each other build on nature, but also build upon some learned experiences. We should account for externalities, we should keep our individual nest’s clean so the larger ‘nest’ isn’t spoiled beyond habitation. We should be respectful of others… and others is a VERY large set (herons and mayflies may apply).

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I actually cribbed that phrase — hear[ing] only what our own culture instructs, ignoring what nature tells us — from Dave Pollard. What nature is telling us can be interpreted widely, depending on what we attend to. I’m paying attention to methane vents, species extinction, ocean acidification, glacial melting, and other harbingers of a collapsing ecosystem on which we depend for our very lives. Predation and the randomness of, say, being struck by lightning, are IMO relatively innocuous by comparison because they aren’t world ending. From a god’s eye view and from the perspective of this blog, the message (or conclusion to be drawn) is that our species’ time is running out. Not in the sense that “if we don’t do something right away” but rather “the window of opportunity to fix problems we created has already closed and now our fate (doom) is sealed.” Most of us are ignoring that, while some are still in the bargaining phase. Everyone with functioning synapses is hoping that some dramatic last-minute rescue will materialize, typically fantasy technology to scrub greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and/or restore the hydrological cycle to normalcy. I’m in the acceptance phase, which changes my expectations, and accordingly, my values. But make no mistake, I have no answers, just some rudimentary understandings.

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