Classic socio-ecological theory holds that the occurrence of aggressive range defence is primarily driven by ecological incentives, most notably by the economic defendability of an area or the resources it contains. While this ecological cost-benefit framework has great explanatory power in solitary or pair-living species, comparative work on group-living primates has always found economic defendability to be a necessary, but not sufficient condition to account for the distribution of effective range defence across the taxon. This mismatch between theory and observation has recently been ascribed to a collective action problem among group members in, what is more informatively viewed as, a public goods dilemma: mounting effective defence of a communal range against intrusions by outgroup conspecifics. We here further develop this framework, and report on analyses at three levels of biological organization: across species, across populations within a single lineage and across groups and individuals within a single population. We find that communal range defence in primates very rarely involves collective action sensu stricto and that it is best interpreted as the outcome of opportunistic and strategic individual-level decisions. Whether the public good of a defended communal range is produced by solitary, joint or collective action is thus the outcome of the interplay between the unique characteristics of each individual, local and current socio-ecological conditions, and fundamental life-history traits of the species.