Our effort to control second-hand noise is part of a greater effort to protect that which is held in common by the public from exploitation, abuse, and degradation. Other efforts to protect the commons are concerned with protecting our public lands and parks; air, airways, water, and waterways; habitat, species, and bio-diversity. What these efforts share is the recognition that our well-being is enhanced when the commons is used to maximize opportunities for everyone, and degraded when the commons is used to maximize profits or opportunities for a few, or to maximize only a few opportunities.
Some individuals and businesses feel that they have a right or the freedom to use a common resource in any way they see fit. Perhaps these people are mistakenly extending their own private property rights to that which is publicly owned or cared for and not exclusively their own. Perhaps they do not realize what most of us learned on the school yard years ago: "that my right to swing my fist ends at your nose." Or, perhaps they do not recognize the soundness of our parallel claim "that my right to create noise ends at your ear." In any case, these people are acting as bullies, claiming rights and freedoms that are not theirs while degrading resources that are ours.
Polluting the commons is not a right. Our effort to reduce noise pollution is similar to other efforts to reduce pollution and reassert our collective stewardship over the commons. Whether the issue is second-hand smoke, elevated mercury levels, or ground level ozone, the strategy is to protect the environment and our health and well-being by creating an ethic of the commons.
In seeking to advance an ethic of the commons, we first need to recognize that competing uses that exclude other uses of the commons or damaging uses that detract from other uses are not wise uses of a public good. The commons should be used in as many non-competing, non-damaging ways as possible. Noise, like many other pollutants, precludes many enjoyable uses of the commons and is not a wise use of the commons: loud late night parties, early morning garbage pick-up, or aircraft take-offs trump sleeping, reading, working, or listening to music.
We are seeking to improve human well-being by establishing an ethic for the commons that allows for as many non-consumptive and non-rival uses of the commons as possible. Human well-being is enhanced when individuals or groups such as the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse succeed in two ways: first, by minimizing damaging uses of the commons, and second, by maximizing the opportunities for non-competing uses. With respect to noise, help us by spreading the message that good neighbors keep their noise to themselves.