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Lifeboat Ethics Essay

Life is like a cruise ship… or at least until the engine blows up and your oasis of luxury sinks. Before you know it, you find yourself sitting in one of the few lifeboats, surrounded by hundreds of people who are now accurately portraying survival of the fittest. They are treading water and fearing sharks, all because there are not enough rafts. You are grateful to be in your lifeboat and eventually question if everyone on this earth has an equal right to an equal share in its resources (Hardin 1). Well, if you were not wondering about that, Garrett Hardin was.

In his essay “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor”, Hardin compares the condition of wealthy nations to that of a lifeboat. Hardin’s main idea is that wealthy nations should not offer any kind of assistance or support to people in poor countries because the outcome in doing so would be a catastrophe. Although Hardin’s ideas accurately state the problems of over-population and supporting the poor, he fails to defend his logic by not stating a satisfying compromise between the two extremes of giving all of our resources to the poor and not helping the poor at all.

He uses a lifeboat example to show the segregation to show the segregation of the rich people in the boat and the poor people swimming in the surrounding water. Natural instinct is to take in as many poor people as possible even if the raft lacks space, but Hardin argues that the

result would be a sinking raft and a disaster. There would be no positive result. If rich people pull poor people in the raft, the raft would then lose its “safety factor”. In the end, there would be no positive outcome in helping the swimmers and the result would be “complete justice, complete catastrophe” (Hardin 1).

“In a crowded world of less than perfect human beings, mutual ruin is inevitable if there are no controls. This is the tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 3). The tragedy of the commons is a perfect example as to why there is no advantage in helping the poor. A person’s property or possession is well taken care of because it is his or her own responsibility. But if it is available for everyone it would not be taken care of as much. Hardin uses air and water as examples of commons that have been taken advantage of. Since air and water are both treated as commons, they have become polluted and therefore endanger everyone.

Another negative product of helping the poor is that they will never learn from their mistakes. Since poor countries know that the wealthy countries will be there to help and give them aide when needed, they will never learn to save themselves and prepare for future disasters. Why would they? No one would go out of their way to get something if they knew it would be handed to them when needed.

“But they can learn from experience. They may mend their ways, and learn to budget for infrequent but certain emergencies” (Hardin 4). Hardin does not give a neutral idea to this problem. He basically states, either we give the poor everything or we give them nothing at all. This problem could easily be solved by limiting how much we give other countries in their times of need. If they are aware that they will only get x-amount of supplies from us, they will be more likely to stock necessities and other resources.

Hardin’s argument is whether we should help poor countries and have them forever depend on us, or not help them and let them learn their lesson in the hopes that it will benefit them in the future. It is understandable that we should help them because we are a rich nation and should not be greedy with our wealth, but people are naturally careless and selfish when tragedy strikes. When people receive aide, they end up depending on it as long as they can. So the answer to the question asked earlier is no, not everyone is entitled to a fair share of resources. “For the foreseeable future, our survival demands that we govern our action by the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh as though they may be. Posterity will be satisfied with nothing less” (Hardin 8).


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