Lifeboat Ethics is a Metaphor for the Process of Wealth

Lifeboat Ethics is a metaphor for the process of wealth and resource distribution as described by ecologist Garrett Hardin. In 1974, he published an article called, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor,” that outlines his reasons that the wealthy nations worldwide should not be wholly responsible for supporting the needs of the poor. Donald Kennedy and William Clark both wrote articles in the concept of lifeboat ethics and the tragedy of the commons. In the article, Hardin defines the concept he terms lifeboat ethics and defends his utilitarian approach to the problem of wealth distribution by offering interesting solutions through the use of his appeal to reasoning; however, his metaphor finds fault in assuming that the problem is solved when the richer countries completely stop aiding the poorer countries.

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Garrett Hardin’s use of logos assisted in explaining the concept of lifeboat ethics. His hypothesis is that people in richer nations should not do anything in sustainability for the people of poorer nations. Hardin disagrees with how environmentalists label the Earth as a “spaceship,” citing that a spaceship implies that there is a single ruler in charge of the Earth’s resources for every country. Instead, he labels Earth as a lifeboat in which the rich nations are aboard and have the necessary resources to sustain themselves, while those in the water swimming to the lifeboat are the poorer nations who want to share in that wealth. This is an excellent analogy in how one can visualize the problem with an ever-expanding population. His use of logos made it exceptionally clear in how problematic the wealth distribution is. For example, in the “Adrift in a Moral Sea” chapter, Hardin creates a scenario in which 50 passengers are on a boat that has a capacity of 60, but there are 100 people in the water swimming towards the boat. There are three logical solutions to this problem: admit all the 100 to board the boat with the 50 people on it already and risk drowning from overpopulation, allow only 10 people on the boat and exclude the other 90, or do not admit anyone at all. Hardin also elaborates that if those on the boat choose to give up their place for one in the water, “The net result of conscience-stricken people giving up their unjustly held seats is the elimination of that sort of conscience from the lifeboat.” This means if those who gave up their seats to other less fortunate, there will be without humanitarianism, as those who now hold the seats in the lifeboat could be extremely reluctant to give up their spot. This starts to become a slippery slope. If the rich countries keep allowing more to share in their resources, they begin to extinct themselves. At some point, there needs to be a limit on how much the rich can help the poor before the resources are completely gone. Hardin describes his views as utilitarian in the manner in regard to his lifeboat ethics.

Hardin researched extensively to support his utilitarian view on the situation of the rich against the poor. As is the case for most utilitarian proposals, the topics for lifeboat ethics are designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive. For this reason, his views are correct because of their practicality. For example, this article was published in 1974; his statistic on India’s population was very accurate. With no population controls, in 28 years, the population of India did double from 600 million to 1.2 billion as he predicted. Every person that is added the Earth continues to add a strain on its resources, which is why he supports having the means to control population growth. The solutions are not popular ones but are logical in their hypothetical implementation. The discovery of “miracle rice” and “miracle wheat” opposes the lifeboat ethics model. He believes that the discovery and distribution of an easier crop to grow further worsens the population problem. While this seems rather harsh, this makes sense because now these poorer countries have access to a food source to sustain their population growth. Hardin explains how a former vice president of the Rockefeller foundation one of the richest organizations of the world had expressed doubts in these efforts to increase food production. The vice president compared the spread of humanity to the spread of cancer in the body, pronouncing that “cancerous growths demand food; but as far as I know, they have never been cured by getting it.” While Hardin has some good ideas and solutions to problems, there are some flaws with his lifeboat analogy.

Effectively “shutting the door” on the poorer nations is not the only solution in addressing the need to sustain the use and distribution of natural resources. Hardin elaborates that reproduction is faster among the poor nations. With the myriad facts and statistics on the growth rate of rich and poor nations, his comments on wealth distribution and reproduction rate are accurate. With that being so, most people would disagree in the way this problem should be addressed. There are seven people in poverty for every “rich” person. Those in the rich countries would argue if every person has to share everything, why every rich person has to support seven other people when the poor do not have to. Going back to the 50 people in the lifeboat example, if they give them access to the resources, rather than a share, one must assume that some of those people will now be more selfish about their new space. The result of equal access can be just as harmful when it comes to the sharing of resources.

Hardin disagrees with the mission of the World Food Bank to distribute food worldwide through a system of countries donating food to a central governing body and allocating the resources to countries around the world. The World Food Bank actually does not seem like a bank at all. It is more likened to a transferal system since it implied that it is only the rich nations that are depositing into this system. Again, Hardin finds fault because most people would disagree in the manner that he is making the poorer nations fend for themselves. Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief for a science volume ponders over science’s role in sustainability for the environment.

Donald Kennedy published a magazine editorial entitled, “Sustainability and the Commons” in 2003. Kennedy was an acquaintance of Garrett Hardin’s and was surprised at how his “Tragedy of the Commons” essay had radically changed the general conceptions on population growth and environmental sustainability. Kennedy explains how Hardin’s essay has led to an increased awareness of the impact population growth has on the environment. The world population, from the time Hardin wrote the essay to the time Kennedy published his article had nearly doubled from 3.5 to 6.3 billion people. “That growth, amplified by global increases in affluence and the power of technology, has brought escalating pressures on common pool resources such as air, fresh water, and ocean fisheries.” Years of misuse along with the increase of humans is leading to a truly dire situation. Kennedy goes on to explain that science is focusing on the problems, but any headway made ends up falling through due to reasons such as politics and economics. For example, “Models and climate history tell us that global warming is likely to reach damaging levels, but the cost of controlling carbon emissions is high.” Kennedy ends his article questioning whether if scientific evidence can overcome the many social, political and economic opposition that has thus far hindered the problem.

Kennedy’s article supports Hardin’s essay in how he changed the thinking about overpopulation and environmental waste. With Hardin’s insight from that time, we find ourselves in a very similar predicament but magnified due to the increase in human population. If these problems have been continuing, who is to say that a change is mounting in the foreseeable future? Hardin’s argument was extremely relevant in the 1970s but is increasingly pertinent here in 2014. The article leaves one to wonder just how bad it can get and where is the breaking point? Hopefully, through better understanding and advances in technology, this question can be properly addressed.

William Clark wrote an article entitled, “Two cheers for the commons” in 1998. In this article, he praises the progress by scholars in understanding that Hardin’s depiction of overexploitation of resources. He also praises modern-day efforts in applying the understanding of sustainable local commons to the design of management regimes for larger resources. He explains that these open solutions to the problem are needed because,” The very acts of exclusion through which Hardin sought to save the commons have often had devastating consequences for those excluded.” This does tie back to how “shutting the door” on the poor nations is not necessarily the correct method in solving the problem of human overpopulation.

Clark supports Hardin’s views on the overexploitation of resources but disagrees with him excluding people from the sharing of resources or commons. He believes that open access to resources that are common to a people have been a livelihood for many people, but most notably poor people. Typically, in a poorer culture, togetherness is paramount in their daily lives. It is an “everybody has” rather than “some have” in most cases. Through a continued understanding of human population growth and continued sharing of the resources, the problem can be curtailed. The sooner we can discover this as a species, the better the world we can leave for future generations.

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Lifeboat Ethics Is a Metaphor for the Process of Wealth. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved July 2, 2022 , from

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