Water & Drought

Droughts force moral reflection over property rights, liberty, justice, communal good

Scarcity prompts moral reflection. Imagine a group of hikers lost in the desert with limited water. How do they share the water? Perhaps you should share the water equally. Or maybe the thirstier person should get more water, or the person who owns the bottle – or the youngest or weakest.

There are conflicting intuitions about such cases. Drought exposes conflicting ideas about property rights, liberty, justice and communal good. Here are some moral insights that can guide our thinking about droughts and other conditions of scarcity.

1. Droughts challenge civilization. The oldest written code of law in the world – Hammurabi’s Code – contained rules and punishments for maintaining a system of irrigation. Agricultural civilizations require a complex division of labor, bureaucratic control and obedient citizens. Droughts challenge this system. Droughts have caused civilizations – such as the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico – to collapse. Drought prompts reflection on the fragility of civilization and the importance of stable, resilient social systems.

2. Environmental justice matters. Droughts create suffering, poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Successful responses must be fair. We owe special care for the weak and vulnerable. Resentment grows when some go thirsty while others thrive. Drought reminds us to focus questions of fairness and justice.

3. Egoism is immoral. A thirsty egoist may feel resentful or envious. Those with money and water may feel a similar sense of entitlement. But egoism is immoral. A selfish desert hiker who sneaks a drink is stealing water from the mouths of others. It is immoral when selfish owners of water refuse to share – or engage in price-gouging or wasteful water use. Drought shows the insufficiency of egoism.

4. Collective action limits liberty. A world of egoists left alone to pursue their own self-interests could end up destroying shared resources or creating resource wars. That is why law and regulation are needed. However, in a free country and a capitalist economy, we value liberty. Regulation limits liberty, including imposing limits on what we can do with our own property. Free people resent such limitations. Others suspect that regulation is manipulated by the rich and powerful. Drought exposes the conflict between individual liberty and collective action.

5. Cooperation is important. The optimal solution is cooperative self-regulation. People must limit their own liberty out of concern for others. Sharing and cooperation may sound naive. But the thirsty desert hikers will each do better if they cooperate and share. Sharing and caring are taken for granted within stable communities – and they help sustain community spirit. Drought demonstrates the importance of building and maintaining community spirit.

6. Consumption can be reduced. There is more to share when we each consume less. The lost desert hikers quickly learn that it is wrong to squander water. Scarcity causes us to reassess about how we use – and waste – things. We’ve discovered that we don’t need green lawns and long showers. We’ve learned to wash dishes, brush teeth, and flush toilets in new ways. Drought forces us to conserve water and to understand the difference between a need and a luxury.

7. Democracy is the key. When our needs are considered and our voices heard, we find it easier to cooperate – and we feel that justice prevails. Whatever way our thirsty desert hikers decide to share their water, they should each be consulted. Democratic deliberation creates cooperation and community spirit. Democratic values are tested in times of crisis, when leaders are tempted to revert to authoritarian policies. Drought should strengthen our commitment to democracy and inclusion.

8. There are reasons to hope. The good news is that 40 million Californians survived another arid summer. Moral action depends upon hope. To be inspired to do the right thing, you have to hope that others will do the right thing – and that doing the right thing will lead to good outcomes. To survive drought, you need moral hope.

So far, so good. We have limited egoism. We have developed community spirit. We have reduced consumption. We have attended to justice. And we have kept true to principles of democracy. There is always more work to be done. The rainy season provides a chance to hone our moral intuitions as we plan for the future of our hot, crowded state.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.