Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 19 July 2016

Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor

Since 1991, the southern half of Somalia, a poverty stricken African nation, has seen various tribal militias battle for dominance and power over individual regions of the country. Violence has plagued Mogadishu, the capital, since warlords ousted the former president. Mere months after the collapse of the government, men, women and children in torn clothes ran helplessly towards packages dropped from military planes towards the hot sand of their tiny village. This action was one of many attempts to help underdeveloped nations receive food by the United Nations’ World Food Programme. Within his article titled “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor”, Garret Hardin, a well-known philosopher of ecology, analyzes the difficulty and ultimate ruin associated with providing aid to these nations.

Hardin’s argument for the preservation of well-to-do societies is embodied by his extended metaphor of each society as a lifeboat, with the citizens of developed nations riding calmly amongst a sea of drowning poverty-stricken individuals. Ultimately, Hardin argues for a very harsh thesis: regardless of the current situation, privileged nations simply should not provide aid to those individuals trapped within the vortex of underdeveloped nations. His argument is consequentialist: he claims that the net result of doing so would be negative and would, in the long run, court large-scale disaster.

Although Hardin’s argument appears logic-based, his excessive metaphors fail when applied to real-life scenarios, for oftentimes he misconstrues facts to create a claim that may be perceived as more accurate than reality illustrates. Furthermore, any counter-arguments Hardin feels may refute his claim are pushed aside, avoiding factual evidence that may prove his argument inaccurate or misleading. Much like a lifeboat, Hardin leaves the assertions of the “humanitarian apologists” to drown so as to avoid the overturn of his claim.

Within the section titled “Adrift in a Moral Sea”, Hardin reveals the lifeboat analogy upon which this essay is almost entirely founded, although shortly after it is presented one can see a loophole he cleverly ignores. The metaphor he creates is, nonetheless, coherent, and is used to describe the limited carrying capacity a lifeboat (rich nations), can hold:So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of 60. Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat … since the needs of all in the water are the same … we could take them into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe … we might let 10 aboard, but how do we choose? And what about the need for a safety factor? (1,2)Although logical, this metaphor is undoubtedly dubious. Hardin characterizes the safe and the drowning as rich versus poor nations, though in reality not all countries are deemed on one side of the scale, wealthy or impoverished.

Many waver on the edge, needing very little aid to push over into industrialization and development. In relation to Hardin’s metaphor, these nations, in retrospect, require a short ride on the lifeboat before they may swim safely away. Furthermore, Hardin assumes the earth does not hold enough resources to provide for everyone, and although correct in stating we cannot sustain an unlimited number of people, he neglects the very definition of such a word. Exactly how many people are contained within an “unlimited number”? Hardin disregards any hint as to what this number is, a fairly important point when referencing a depletion of world resources. By disregarding the importance of such a number, Hardin influences the reader to believe helping impoverished nations is impossible, for, after all, an unlimited number of individuals would hardly be feasible. However, if the number of people that could be helped was presented, some may change their minds, recognizing that helping some is better than helping none at all. In knowing this, Hardin however, chooses to eliminate the statistic entirely.

Within this scenario Hardin appeals to the readers with the presentation of a circumstance in which only two outcomes seem probable. Either the passengers help ten more individuals and drown, or they neglect to help any, and float securely away with the “safety factor” still intact. Hardin disregards the idea of helping some people, even if selected in a fairly arbitrary way: “Suppose we decide to preserve our small safety factor and admit no more to the lifeboat. Our survival is then possible although we will have to be constantly on guard against boarding parties” (2). He insinuates that once the decision is made to help some, the lifeboat passengers must attempt to save all of those drowning, which is clearly not feasible given the carrying capacity of the lifeboat. Although the boat’s capacity should not exceed the admission of more than ten people, why not admit three, four, or even those ten? It seems rather unreasonable to deny help to every individual, when, although not all can be rescued, the boat clearly holds the space for more. The same ideology may be applied in other philosophical debates, including the death penalty, as we discussed in lecture.

Ernest Van Den Haag, a defender of the death penalty, explains in his article that the importance of punishment is not whether every individuals gets what they deserve, but rather that some, rather than none, of the convicted receive their rightful punishment. Professor Yaffe applied this to a smaller-scale, saying, “If you have three pieces of candy and four children, all equally deserving, it is better, according to Van den Haag, for three to receive their desert than for none to receive what is deserved.” This scenario can easily be applied to Hardin’s lifeboat metaphor.

Hardin claims, “Since the needs of all in the water are the same … since they can all be seen as “our brothers” …” (1), therefore one cannot reasonably argue the desert of the poverty-stricken varies. As a result, the argument can be made that pulling some into the lifeboat to be saved is far better than leaving all to drown. One may argue ignoring such a possibility serves as a way to avoid criticism from liberals who would quite obviously propose letting some individuals on board. Hardin realizes the difficulty in a rebuttal to this argument, therefore he chooses to leave out the situation entirely.

Additionally, the carrying capacity of the wealthy nations is far underestimated, and entirely misleading, within this metaphor. Hardin’s philosophy regarding the swamping of wealthy nations does not seem remotely accurate when the feeding of underprivileged nations costs very little in relation to the finances of developed nations. According to past statistics provided by the Index of Global Philanthropy, “Of the 122.8 billion dollars of foreign aid provided by Americans in 1975, 95.5 billion dollars, or 79 percent, came from private foundations, corporations, voluntary organizations, universities, religious organizations and individuals, although U.S. government aid is only 22 percent of the Gross National Income.” Therefore, one can see government aid, the kind Hardin mentions will ultimately deplete our resources, is fairly little in comparison to the rest of our nation’s finances. Furthermore, there are numerous other countries in the developed world that hold the potential to distribute more than the United States alone. Realistically, the capacity of a wealthy lifeboat would be close to double the capacity Hardin presents; the boat would be, at the very least, closer to a small yacht than a meager lifeboat.

Hardin’s lifeboat metaphor not only conceals facts, but also misleads about the effects of its proposals. Within Hardin’s scenario, the rich lifeboat can raise the ladder and choose not to let any more individuals on. In reality however, the problem does not necessarily go away merely because it is ignored. In the real world, there are armies and domestic dissidents who willingly sacrifice their lives and those of others to oppose policies they view as immoral. It is ignorant to assume all of the lifeboat passengers will agree with the decision that is made. Some individuals may attempt to pull the drowning on board, and hostility would be inevitable. Ultimately, Hardin’s lifeboat metaphor cannot accurately be applied to policy-making as it obscures more than it reveals.

Throughout the article, Hardin bolsters his assertions by reference to a “commons”, or the tragedy of, in which he explains a system of private property which, if open to all, ” … the right of each to use it may not be matched by a corresponding responsibility to protect it” (3). He creates a picture to the reader using an example of herdsman with a pasture of a certain capacity. Hardin writes, ” … the considerate herdsman who refrains from overloading the commons suffers more than a selfish one who says his needs are greater … It takes no less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint” (3). This statement is, like many of Hardin’s, entirely logical. Hardin explains that under a system of private property, the individual more easily recognizes responsibility (3). Under communal ownership however, Hardin argues the herdsman who may choose to fill the pasture with more sheep than it can hold for his own benefit would promote his interest at the expense of the community as a whole. It is clear Hardin attempts to propose that the commons created by aid is worse than the original problem.

This may indeed be true if the tragedy of the commons were truly a “tragedy” as Hardin claims, or if it were impenetrable, but that is hardly the case, and Hardin neglects to address this exact issue. Hardin lacks sufficient, concrete evidence for this claim; creating a hypothetical situation is hardly grounds for a generalization of a large-scale issue. The incentive to leave out such facts can be seen later in the section, when Hardin quotes Alan Gregg, the vice-president of the Rockefeller foundation. Hardin writes, “He likened the growth and spread of humanity over the surface of the earth to the spread of cancer in the human body, remarking that ‘cancerous growths demand food; but, as far as I know, they have never been cured by getting it'” (5).

To recognize any factual evidence that the Green Revolution has, in fact, resulted in increased food production would refute this quote, which provides the main support for Hardin’s argument. When researched, one can see why Hardin would neglect such information. In actuality, communal ownership has been tried in some countries with successful results. According to “Population and Food: A Critique of Lifeboat Ethics” by philosophers William Murdoch and Allen Oaten, instances of communal ownership have seen success. In Peru, the ownership of the commons has benefited a previously private-owned fishery, and China’s implication of communal agriculture has yet to see over-exploitation. If, however, a nation’s agriculture does not have success parallel to that of Peru and China, Hardin believes experience holds the key to unlocking poverty.

In his section titled “Learning the Hard Way”, Hardin explains how developed nations currently budget and prepare for infrequent emergencies substantially better than impoverished nations. Furthermore, he argues:If each country is solely responsible for its own wellbeing, poorly managed ones will suffer. But they can learn from experience … the weather varies from year to year, and periodic crop failures are certain … should those nations that do manage to put something aside be forced to come to the rescue each time an emergency occurs among the poor nations? (4)Contrary to his typical pattern or argumentation, Hardin acknowledges the universal response of “kind-hearted” liberals, who find it difficult to grapple with the concept of blaming poverty-stricken individuals for the faults of their governments. In response, Hardin answers, “The concept of blame is simply not relevant here. The real question is, what are the operational consequences of establishing a world food bank?” (4).

This response exhibits two of Hardin’s profound faults. By claiming that blame, in this instance, is an irrelevant point to discuss, Hardin neglects to address a very important issue. Why are the liberals wrong in arguing that fault of government should not influence action in providing aid? One may argue that faulty governments are a mere consequence of industrial deficiency, that can easily be fixed if aid is provided to nations who can then use financial assistance for education, resulting in educated political elections with educated individuals on the ballots. These political leaders may then be able to readily plan for emergencies.

Neglecting to answer this rebuttal however, results in the presentation of an argument that seems ill-prepared and unreciprocated. Furthermore, Hardin contradicts himself a mere one sentence later, writing, “If it [a world food bank] is open to every country every time a need develops, slovenly rulers will not be motivated to save” (4). In saying this, Hardin clearly puts the responsibility of the nation’s food supply within the hands of the incompetent rulers, thereby insinuating the blame lies within the government, and ultimately eradicating any piece of information that could have been deemed support for a strong argument.

In actuality, Hardin does not put much faith in the reform of such corrupt or incompetent rulers, despite calling that section “Learning the Hard Way”. Rather, Hardin believes that if the rich countries would simply refrain from giving assistance, the problem would take care of itself as, “population growth would be periodically checked by crop failures and famines. But if they can always draw on a world food bank in time of need, their populations can continue to grow unchecked, and so will their ‘need’ for aid” (5). When analyzed closely one can see Hardin neglects to address yet another prominent issue within his argument. How are underdeveloped nations expected to set aside food for the future when they do not possess enough for the current population? Denying aid would clearly cause death amongst many individuals, in saying this Hardin is correct.

In making this statement however, Hardin incorrectly assumes the dependence on aid would diminish. Although crop failure would reduce population size, a stabilized population does not coincide with a more successful agricultural system. As a result, food would remain scarce, for even a drastic reduction would not guarantee enough food for the new population. It is naïve for Hardin to view this solution as an end to dependency. Clearly the reduced population will suffer problems similar to the previous, food production will remain in deficit, need for aid will persist, and the crisis will continue to revolve in circles. Although many individuals propose the Green Revolution will decrease aid as well as increase food production in underdeveloped nations, Hardin neglects, once again, the importance of such a proposition in the next section of his article.

To help alleviate the problems associated with crop failure, many scientists have created “miracle” rice and wheat that promise a larger harvest and greater resistance to damage. Within the section “Chinese Fish and Miracle Rice”, Hardin, once again, ignores a significant issue in an attempt to hide behind the weakness of his argument. Hardin writes, “Whether or not the Green Revolution can increase food production as much as its champions claim is a debatable put possibly irrelevant point” (5). Although there is room to debate the extent to which the Green Revolution has increased the crop yields of developing countries, as well as the costs of the loss of biodiversity and other environmental concerns, Hardin neglects to even mention them; they are dismissed in a single sentence. The true issue resides in that simple, blunt statement, for these topics are exactly the point. What is that finite number of people who can be sustained, and can we nudge it further in the direction of survival? To ignore this essential statistic is to, once again, provide an argument that lacks support and coherence.

One of Hardin’s last arguments relates to what he refers to as the largest issue with providing aid: the rapid population growth rates within impoverished nations. Hardin explains, “The people inside the lifeboats are doubling in numbers every 87 years; those swimming around us are doubling, on average, every 35 years, more than twice as fast as the rich” (2). Hardin then implements a real-world example in which he emphasizes the correlation between population increases and the depletion of resources: “Every one of the 15 million new lives added to India’s population puts an additional burden on the environment … If rich countries make it possible, through foreign aid, for 600 million Indians to well to 1.2 billion … will future generations thank us for hastening the destruction of their environment?” (6). Hardin overlooks the fact that population growth rates are affected by many complex conditions besides food supply.

There are vast arrays of socioeconomic conditions that can be identified that motivate parents to have fewer children. Thus, Hardin neglects to realize that population growth can be controlled effectively by intelligent intervention that sets up these appropriate conditions, rather than a reliance upon the statistics of natural population cycles. These conditions include the improved education and equality of women, literacy, sexual education, and distribution of contraceptives, all of which are attainable through the foreign aid that may be provided by developed nations, and according to Murdoch and Oaten, “aid may encourage necessary institutional and social reforms, making it easier for poor nations to use their own resources and initiative to help themselves.” Hardin neglects to refer to the statistics that illustrate the positive effects on population growth within developing nations that have received aid. Costa Rica, for example, has a relatively large population and a low GDP, but the birth rate has declined by fifteen percent since the implication of foreign aid has increased industrialization.

Hardin’s article, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor”, holds more than twisted logic and misleading metaphors; it encompasses irony. Although Hardin consistently refers to his lifeboat metaphor, he, like the individuals in the boat, neglects to mention counter-arguments or deems certain information “irrelevant” in the attempt to save his own argument from sinking beneath the depths of deceit. Hardin was correct in stating that a particular boat may only hold its limited capacity, but this article needs to push off the inaccurate claims and leave room for those that are relevant if our world is to find a way to end poverty.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 19 July 2016

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