Lifeboat Ethics

by Jon Mandle on April 22, 2004

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.



Steve 04.22.04 at 7:10 pm

I just read the article for the first time from your link, and frankly I think it is fine. Its quite direct (perhaps he’s shocking for effect-a la Nietzche), and as you said, plenty of it is questionable, but it seems like a fine article to use in an introductory class. I especially like the freeloader of the commons argument (apply it ot European defense spending?). Your critiques here seem a bit trivial (survivor’s guilt for example-and your Holocaust analogy seems awkwardly worded). If that’s the best you can do, I strongly suspect your disagreement with his argument has blinded you to the whole article.



Josh Jasper 04.22.04 at 7:14 pm

But does everyone on earth have an equal right to an equal share of its resources?

Equal? No. Enough for survival and good health? Yes. I’d argue that they *should* have that, and that those who have an overabundance of resources has a moral responsibility to help those who’re below that threshold. How much should they help? That’s the tough question.

The essay creates an unrepresented, unnamed counterpoint and then assigns it the viewpoint that people should have equal shares. That’s an argument against communism, not charity.


mon 04.22.04 at 7:39 pm

The only mention he makes of birth control is to picture it as one of the causes for higher immigration which is also pictured as one of the factors that risk sinking the lifeboat.

Seems amazingly detached from reality. Where’s the awareness that immigrants get exploited for cheaper labour by industry sectors that would not otherwise thrive so much were they to rely entirely on non-immigrants? Where’s the facts about birth control not being as widely available and encouraged in the areas of the world where it would be most needed?

Aside from the repulsive nazi-like ‘ethics’, you’re absolutely right, it’s just such sloppy reasoning. Tunnel-vision, and so centered on America only while pretending to be about the earth.

I’m surprised this stuff gets taught in schools at all. Does it really have to? and why?


Thorley Winston 04.22.04 at 8:01 pm

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.

I do not think that the two situations are analogous. In the case of Hardin’s lifeboat example, he is clearly referring to a person who feels guilty that he could not save a drowning person unless he was willing to give up his own spot in the lifeboat or risk killing everyone. That does not appear to be the case for the Holocaust since the National Socialists would probably not spare the life of one of their victims simply because someone offered to take their place in the ovens. In which case a survivor really did not have an opportunity to save someone else’s life at the expense of their own.


jdw 04.22.04 at 8:10 pm

I especially enjoy

“Since the boat has an unused excess capacity of 10 more passengers, we could admit just 10 more to it. […] If we do let an extra 10 into our lifeboat, we will have lost our “safety factor,” an engineering principle of critical importance. For example, if we don’t leave room for excess capacity as a safety factor in our country’s agriculture, a new plant disease or a bad change in the weather could have disastrous consequences.”

Which sure is a nice way of mangling an inapt metaphor.


Shai 04.22.04 at 8:13 pm

most of the examples are between countries but it’s not hard to see that even more absurd conclusions follow from the same arguments employed within a country.

now, I didnt read every word but the most obvious objection follows from the percent of the world resources consumed by affluent countries — the assumptions about decreasing birth rates and anti-immigration simply don’t wash.

the most ridiculous aspect of the article is that it is more interested in being controversial than a good faith discussion of issues of sustainability


DJW 04.22.04 at 9:01 pm

“The Tragedy of the Commons” doesn’t make precisely the same point, but you can use it to talk about this and any number of other points. It’s a much better essay, IMHO. The framing of ‘the problem’ here is much better, and allows for more creative problem-solving on the part of the students.


aps 04.22.04 at 9:23 pm

It seems that the arguments in the article could just as easily be used in a case against having and feeding children. My kids are ‘slovenly rulers’, freeloaders of the commons, and immigrants in a way. Why am I so irrational that I let them sit at the dinner table and eat? They should get their own damn lifeboat.


Douglass Carmichael 04.22.04 at 10:02 pm

Most of us are probably familiar but few have read Garrett Hardin’s original paper

Hardin revisited his own paper 25 years later, and summarized himself, with approval,

What you can notice is that Hardin treated the farmers as if they were part of the modern culture , but they were not . They left in a pre commercial culture of cooperation were that I asked was using the land to grow the community . The commercial culture that replaced it, basically using the instrument of the law, which declared that everything had to be owned by somebody , took it as natural to use the land to grow crops or cattle for the market.


mon 04.22.04 at 10:15 pm

Thorley: actually, that did happen under the nazis – people willingly taking the place of others who were going to be sent off to concentration camps. Very rarely, obviously, and the cases I read about were mostly family members, but it did happen.

So I don’t think Jon’s mention of the Holocaust survivors is that far off. It’s the essay itself making that connection between the lifeboat metaphor and survivor guilt, in a context where you have to choose who survives and who doesn’t. Seems intended to apply to all such situations, from natural disasters to genocide.


m 04.22.04 at 10:29 pm

I read Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics” (and had not read it before; thank you for the excerpt) in the same vein as I read Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” (e.g., Something written in exasperation at an insoluble problem. But written without malice. Swift: “The question therefore is, how this number shall be reared and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed.” Can’t you use them both as well-meant, though not claimed to be operable, attempts to find a solution, their point being that a solution is not to be found in one essay.


artclone 04.23.04 at 5:32 am

Why is the objection so popular that egalitarian or communist welfare distribution would fail because it is too hard to find or agree upon an adequate level of social and material goods to be provided? (for example, see josh jasper’s post above.)

Seems it would be pretty easy for commitees to figure out nutritional requirements, allotments for leisure time, etc.

Or minimum standards could be decided locally and democratically.

Just to name a couple ways . . . .


h. e. baber 04.23.04 at 6:45 am

I used this piece when I taught “contemporary moral issues.” I recall that Hardin suggested that people would breed as long as there was a supply of food–like yeast cells that keep on multiplying as long as you keep dumping in sugar. Provide aid to poor countries (or individuals) and the population will just rachet up. A nice a priori argument.

The interesting thing about this thesis is that it has knock-down empirical falsification. The most affluent countries have the lowest birth rates and, to everyone’s amazement, birth rates in developing countries have fallen as they become more affluent and women become educated. People aren’t yeast cells.


BP 04.23.04 at 7:51 am

The biggest flaw with the entire article, is the underlying assumption that the acquisition and distribution of wealth is a zero-sum game. Hardin has literally less confidence in the effectiveness of the free market than Marx.


mon 04.23.04 at 8:39 am

m: I read Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics” in the same vein as I read Swift’s “Modest Proposal.”

Haha… seriously?? You didn’t notice a remarkable difference between the two? that is, aside from the difference in what and how and what field they wrote in?

Or is it just because you’re American? :p


YMSP82 04.24.04 at 7:01 pm

I think it’s Kai Neilsen that has a great response to that Hardin essay. It’s in the Mappes “Social Ethics” text that we used in the last Contemporary Moral Problems class I TA-ed for at UT. The whole metaphor is just inapt.


YMSP82 04.24.04 at 7:34 pm

The metaphor in Hardin, that is, is inapt. The world’s “carrying capacity” is not fixed, nations are not like boats, etc etc. Nielsen pretty much demolishes Hardin, I think. The essay is “Some Facts About Famine.”

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