Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Adirondack Philosophy: Our Divided Interests

The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume may seem like an unlikely lens through which to interrogate our Adirondack situation, except that all of our contemporary discord over public versus private land ownership and conflict over the need to manage natural resources in order to ensure human and other-than-human flourishing for generations to come, all sounds vaguely familiar.

Hume makes an impassioned argument for the commons when he writes of a world where resources “would be used freely, without regard to property; but cautiously too” after all he asks “why raise land-marks between my neighbor’s field and mine, when my heart has made no division between our interests” (Hume, 1777).Hume’s utopian vision of the human condition assumes an eternal abundance of resources. He argues that in instances where the world does (seemingly) provide without ceasing, our better benevolent natures rise to the occasion and “wherever any benefit is bestowed by nature in an unlimited abundance, we leave it always in common … and make no subdivisions of right and property”. He cites water and air as prime examples, and we can forgive him for being unaware of the battleground over clean air and water rights that mars our contemporary landscape.

He was a philosopher and so surely guilty of some flighty thinking, but Hume wasn’t completely naive and the worldview that he uses to foreground his thesis on justice is – he admits – imagined. In fact the arc of his discussion really has to do with the reality that a finite world combined with selfish motives creates the need for justice. In other words “increase to a sufficient degree the benevolence of men or the bounty of nature and you render justice useless. If material scarcity was replaced with abundance or if everyone had the same affection for everyone as for himself there would be no need of laws. It is the scarcity of provisions wherein justice derives its origin”. But any compelling idea is grounded to some degree in reality, and Hume’s notions on the human spirit of generosity and the mutual advantage that comes of this behavior aren’t without merit.

We can probably all agree that we’re in the midst of a crisis of want when it comes to resource abundance and also that we have little control over nature’s abundance. But what if we shift the emphasis from resource abundance to an abundance of goodwill? Hume writes “We are naturally partial to ourselves, and to our friends; but are capable of learning the advantage resulting from a more equitable conduct”. Put another way, scientists, philosophers and anyone who has ever been to a potluck dinner understands the mutual advantages of generosity and that at some point – what benefits the group or the community benefits the individual.

With that, I’m eager to open a conversation around the so-called advantages resulting from a more equitable conduct in the context of our contemporary Adirondack landscape. What about the distinctions between group and individual advantage and at what point does a thriving Adirondack community mean a thriving Adirondack citizen? Does our reliance on an American Wilderness narrative of autonomy and independence frustrate that transition from individual desires to community interdependence?

Illustration: British painter Allan Ramsay’s portrait of historian and philosopher David Hume (1766) from a photo in the public domain.

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park.

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

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