In my intro class I’m teaching Garrett Hardin’s famous 1974 article, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor.” I hadn’t appreciated quite how horrible it is. It’s not (just) that I disagree with his conclusions – I teach material I disagree with all the time. It’s the incredibly weak arguments and the snide innuendos.
I understand, of course, that it was published in Psychology Today, so perhaps he didn’t think it needed to be so rigorous. But what is one to say when he insists that “The concept of blame is simply not relevant here” and then one sentence later argues that if a world food bank were established, “slovenly rulers” would not be motivated to save?
Actually, Hardin doesn’t put much faith in the reform of such corrupt or incompetent rulers, despite calling that section “Learning the Hard Way”. Rather, he thinks that if the rich countries would simply refrain from giving assistance, the problem will basically 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.” (I wonder about those scare quotes around “need”.) Call this “passive genocide.”
What I had forgotten and found especially appalling is his attitude toward “survivors’ guilt.” When those in a lifeboat don’t have the capacity to rescue other innocents, “Some say they feel guilty about their good luck. My reply is simple: ‘Get out and yield your place to others.’” Right – and Holocaust survivors could have volunteered to go to the ovens themselves. What’s more, this callousness is completely gratuitous. It’s consistent with his main point to say something like this: “yes, it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to regret not being able to do more, but the cold hard fact is that we simply cannot support everyone.”
His main point, of course, is to press the life-boat analogy: our ability – the earth’s ability – to provided necessary resources is finite. That’s certainly right – we can’t sustain an infinite number of people, whatever that would mean – but what is that number? a million? a billion? a trillion? He doesn’t say – or even hint – or even suggest how to think about it. (Yes, I know he has done more work on this elsewhere.) The life-boat analogy by itself doesn’t even begin to help answer that crucial question. What is clear, however, is that the number is variable. There is room to debate the extent to which the Green Revolution increased the crop yields of developing countries, as well as the costs of the loss of biodiversity and other environmental concerns – I certainly don’t know enough to weigh in on these issues. But Hardin dismisses them in a single sentence: “Whether or not the Green Revolution can increase food production as much as its champions claim is a debatable put possibly irrelevant point.” Wrong – that’s 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? Are we in an already-overloaded and sinking lifeboat with millions more drowning outside or are we in a luxury liner with plenty of additional room but unwilling to pull in the drowning victims all around us? Silence.