The tragedy of the commons: social responsibility during a pandemic

Tragic occurrence

The tragedy of the commons is a moral reasoning scenario that questions the right actions of individuals in using collective resources. Individuals can choose to act in their own best interests and consume whatever resources they need at the expense of everyone else who also relies on those same resources, or they can choose to limit their consumption so that there are more resources for everyone to use. The first option gives them a better chance of success, whereas the second option gives everyone a better chance, but relies on everyone taking the same approach. The tragedy occurs when someone breaks from the collective approach and negatively impacts everyone else.

In a complex modern society with lots of people with different values, of course both options are taken. Those who believe in the greater good support the collective approach of sharing resources, and tackling inequality through making more resources available to those that have less. And those with an individualistic approach do what they consider best for themselves, consuming and hoarding resources with the belief that everyone can, should and will behave in the same way. Both sides believe they are right, and so conflict arises.

Tragic turnaround

The coronavirus pandemic gives a very visible stage for the tragedy of the commons to play out in very real ways that affect people’s lives. Our ideas about how does or should society function become far more polarised and distinct because individuals and society as a whole have far less cognitive capacity during a crisis. Its in crises like this that the tragedy becomes very apparent as the conflicts between the individualist and collective parts of society are more easily recognisable and real, and interestingly in our current situation, less so about consuming resources as the usual moral scenario goes, but more about contributing to them.

So, we now see a situation where the resources available to everyone are not sufficient for everyone to get what they need. I think we can say that there are some very practical factors that led us here; an increased demand because of the crisis, compounded by a lack of investment over time in those resources, but from the point of view of the moral reasoning scenario we can say that we’re experiencing that tragedy of the commons. The question now is, who is responsible for contributing to those resources?


In a lucky moment if synchronicity, two tweets with interesting opinions about our current tragedy of the commons appeared next to each in my timeline.

Two tweets with overlapping opinions about collective responsibility in difficult times

Collective responsibility for collective problems

Nikki, a well-respected expert in fundraising for charities, tweeted about how the recent history of things like the media contributing to undermining trust in charities has led to a drop fundraising income, and how under-funding the NHS has created a situation where the essential services that are available aren’t sufficient to meet the needs. Her point of how asking the general public to contribute financially to fix the issue created by decisions made by institutions like the government and media industry reflects the tragedy of the commons conundrum of the collective contributing to collective resources.

Commercial organisations have a direct funding model whereby those benefiting from the products and services they provide also pay for them, and organisations such as the NHS Trusts are funded through central government via taxes. Charities have a different funding model. They are funded by third parties who are usually not the beneficiaries of the services provided by the charity. These funds can be from contracts with local authorities, trusts and foundations, and of course, donations from individuals. This is a core aspect of the business model of a charity, and one that is often presented as a positive thing because it allows charities to remain impartial and not swayed by government policies.

In a time of crisis more so because the demand is higher, but in actual fact at all times, charities provide essential services to society. That is worth repeating. The services provided by all sorts of charities to all different groups within society, are essential. There is no other means for people to get those services.

The funding model for charities could be considered to let the government off the hook. If the essential services provided by charities had to be provided, and so funded, in the same way other essential services are, it seems likely they would not be available.

So one of the questions here is, if society considers those services provided by charities to be essential, should they be funded through central government? Whilst they aren’t, the charity funding model of lots of small contributions from a lots of people is being pushed as a means of funding the core essential services provided by the NHS. The question here, and back to Nikki’s point, is, is it right to make it the responsibility of the collective to do this?

Individuals actions for collective problems

Kirsten, digital product developer and humanist thinker, tweeted about how the situation needs a collective response but how can we rely on this approach when so many factors in our society push the individualist approach?

Inequality drives the individualistic approach because people who don’t have much and don’t have confidence that they will get much, feel justified in protecting the limited resources they do have. Elitism drives the individualistic approach because it works as a means of accumulating resources and so becomes self-reinforcing.

So perhaps the question here is that even if we do consider it the responsibility of the collective to contribute to collective resources, would we have confidence that sufficient numbers of people could act in service of the greater good when so many factors, both historic and situational, suggest that they shouldn’t?

Overlapping understanding

As I mentioned earlier, in our complex society there are some people who believe in the greater good and will contribute to the collective. There are those that believe in the greater good of doing what’s right for the collective but don’t agree that asking the collective to fix the issues caused by the more individualistic parts of society is indeed right. And there are those individualists who believe that asking the collective to solve collective problems is right because it is the collective that benefits. I don’t think there is a single easy answer.

I see an interesting overlap between Nikki’s and Kirsten’s tweets. I see questions about how the tragedy of the commons plays out in our society given our current situation. No one has answers to the complex realities we face, but perhaps the lens of a moral reasoning scenario can help us position these questions and consider the overlaps of understanding we can create.