Lifeboat Essay Discussion

A Critique of Lifeboat Ethics

As each year goes by, it becomes more and more clear that over-population is a problem that must be dealt with. This isn’t just an issue for the more populated nations, but every nation on Earth. While some small nations may not currently be close to reaching their land mass’s carrying-capacity, they, as well as the other nations, need to determine what steps must be taken to ensure future generations won’t be faced with the same population issue. This is where Garrett Hardin, and his work, Lifeboat Ethics enter the scene. Throughout Hardin’s work, he lays out the premises of how each nation similar to a lifeboat, and like these rafts, have a specific carrying-capacity. From this, Hardin brings up several possible solutions to this issue and then goes on to speak on the matter of immigration, which directly related to the over-population issue. While the laid out arguments are strong, there are still some weak spots that need to be questioned. Firstly, and most importantly, are nations actually lifeboats? No. Humanity for one, has moved past natural quantities such as a carrying-capacity, reasoning and scientific thought can prevail over any nature imposed limit. Secondly, is carrying-capacity important in face of a catastrophic event? Hardin argues that the further the population is from reaching the nation’s carrying-capacity, the higher the chance of survival. However, a large enough “wave” would cause the lifeboat nations to sink.

Hardin was an american economist who throughout his life, sought to warn others on the dangers of over population. From this, Hardin developed an ideology in the late nineteen-hundreds which had the means of solving the complex population issue. In September of nineteen seventy-two , these principles were compiled into Hardin’s work titled “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor”. Hardin begins introducing the difference between a spaceship and a lifeboat, the a metaphorical sense. If the Earth were to be a spaceship, it would have to have some captain or leader, however as Hardin points out, the United Nations isn’t fit for the role. On the other hand, lifeboats are representative of the rich nations while the majority, the poor nations, swim about in the waters trying to board one of the boats. However each lifeboat has a limited carrying capacity and exceeding this limit could be the difference between sinking or floating.

Now that Hardin has set up his core beliefs, he can further explain his solution to the population issue. Hardin does so by offering up the following scenario. If there are fifty persons in a lifeboat with the carrying capacity of sixty, and around the sea vessel are one hundred others wishing to board the boat, what is to be done? Hardin offers a few solutions to this ordeal. Firstly, he states that allowing all one hundred swimmers to board would spell out completely catastrophe and therefore is not an appropriate answer. However, because not everyone can be saved, who will be the lucky ones to reach salvation? There are a few possible outcomes. Hardin offers that the ten empty spots could be filled solely based on a first comes, first serve mentality; or possibly the ten most superior could be saved. Regardless of which outcome is chosen, ninety persons will still be excluded. While some on the lifeboat may feel guilty about abandoning others, whether it be ninety or one hundred, Hardin suggests that if there are those that do feel guilty, they can simply give up their seat in exchange for one of those less fortunate. Finally, Hardin offers a solution that guarantees the lucky fifty the best chance of survival, which is to not allow any extras to board. This is in hopes that if the carrying capacity is not exceeded, or better yet as far from being exceeded as possible, that the lifeboat will be better prepared in case of some disastrous outcome.

Lifeboat ethic’s harshness grows when the reproductiveness of the two classes of nations are examined. The rich nation’s double in size ever eighty-seven years while the poor nation’s population doubles over twice as quickly as the former, after ever thirty-five years. This becomes even more crucial when limited resources are taken into account. Hardin, again, offers another scneario in order to further justify his premises. Suppose the United States were to begin sharing its resources with seven nations which when combined, have the same population as the United States. However, these seven nations have a population growth rate two and a half percent higher than the Unites States, so in eighty-seven years, the latter will have doubled, but the former would have grown so much more so. After these eighty-seven years, one American would now equate to eight persons from the differing countries as opposed to the one to one ratio which existed prior to the time lapse.

Another of Hardin’s point deals with the daunting issue of immigration. Hardin contends that because the United States’ population is anywhere from nineteen to thirty-seven percent reliant on immigration, and that it continues to grow, that it needs to be considered if that is what is in the best interest of the United States. As a disclaimer, it is also said that the quality of both native born Americans and immigrants are equal. Hardin suggests that the use of immigrants as sources of cheap labor is detrimental to not only the carrying capacity of the Lifeboat of America but also to the resources utilized by the lifeboat. From this, Hardin offers up the highly controversial point that national food banks should be a thing of the past. Due to the removal of these food banks, excess amounts of persons would die off, causing the population to become further away from the dreaded carrying capacity and then in turn leading to a restoration of environmental equilibrium.

Hardin’s proposals aren’t outlandish or even anything close to that. The main issues with his arguments stem from inaccurate assumptions and unintended consequences of his claims. To start, Hardin’s ideals focus on the fact that the Earth’s nations are like Lifeboats, as previously explained. However, with the positivistic approach, these nations have no carrying capacity. While fossil fuels and other non-renewable recourses are currently abused by many of the nations here on Earth, thats not to say that without them we are are all doomed. The truth is actually extremely contrary to that point, abandoning finite resources will remove limits that humanity must follow allowing for unprecedented growth, all that is needed is the right scientific findings. The rate at which scientific research is carried out only continues to grow more and more rapidly and because of this, humanities scientific advancements should one day be able to solve all of the ailments plaguing society. At the forefront of these issues comes over-population and the aforementioned reliance on non-renewable recourses. However both of these issues shouldn’t be an issue. The former can be solved by building up instead of across. There is no limit as to how high humanity can build homes. Yes, skyscrapers have a maximum height limit, however as humanity’s understanding of space increases, a time will come when not only the space but also differing planets and other heavenly bodies are opened up for human terraforming. All of this drives home the point that Humans have more or less transcended evolutionary restrictions such as carrying capacity. With more developed brains comes logic and reasoning, which can almost always prevail.

Even if Hardin is correct in saying that all of Earth’s nations are lifeboats with a set carrying capacity, having a population far from that capacity still wouldn’t guarantee survival. Hardin’s scenario of the harsh lifeboat decision has an outcome in which of the one hundred swimmers on in the boat, none are saved in order to ensure the survival of those already on the lifeboat. However, if a large enough wave, or any other disastrous circumstance were to happen which involved the lifeboat, it isn’t relevant whether one hundred percent of the seats are filled or if its one percent, the boat will still meet its end.

In order to further prove points against Hardin, I will refute some criticisms of my own arguments. In my first rebuttal against Hardin and his premises, a majority of the argued points rely on positivism being taken as an undisputed fact, that is, that science will prevail over any difficulties humanity may come across; whether it be combating the rising population or the stabilization of food production. It is too big of an if statement to say that science will just fix everything that may ail society. Fully relying on this approach is not only detrimental to today’s world, but also to our future generations. Instead of working towards issues that are growing and possibly beginning to have long lasting effects, they would be pushed off until the technology is right for the solution. However if each nation’s carrying-capacity is not determined and attempts aren’t made in the present, by the time any sort of operation begins to counteract the overpopulation, it may already be too late. To go along with this, the technology that is developed may not have any relevance to solving over-population issues. Companies may be able to produce smartphones thinner than the eye can comprehend, but that doesn’t help the regulation of carrying capacity.

My rebuttal against this counter argument is as follows. Yes, the future is technically unpredictable, as is technology that may exist. However taking into consideration the rate at which not just technology but all scientific research has grown in the past few decades, it’s clear that with this trend, there’s no slowing down. For instance, Moore’s law states that every two years, the complexity of the electronic devices will double as well. This belief originated in the nineteen-sixties, and now, even over five decades, the premise still holds up. If anything, the rate at which the complexity of technology doubles will speed up as opposed to slowing down. As for the second counter argument, all technology is related in some way. A glamorous new phone or gadget may not directly effect these important issues dealing with lifeboat ethics, however in some way, they eventually will. The development of new transistors could lead towards more efficient renewable energy sources. New, more powerful batteries to power mobile gadgets could be used to store energy from these new sources. More powerful computers will giveway to more advanced research in the areas of genetically modified organisms, resulting in more food to feed the growing population. Technology, as it has for all of humanity’s existence, will continue to pave new roads for civilization to walk down.

A counter argument for my second premise is that it is much too specific to have any sort of relevance in the matter of life boat ethics. An event that would spell certain doom for humanity is practically unlikely. Sure, when using the lifeboat metaphor, the argument is solid that a wave may come along that the measly lifeboat cant handle. However, this example is just a metaphor and in reality, one of these tsunamis doesn’t exist.

While it may be unlikely for a catastrophic event to occur, its still not out of the question. In the thirteen-hundreds, the Black Plague was unlikely however it still managed to decimate roughly one third of Europe’s population. If a similar virus or disease were to begin spreading now, it would be even more deadly. Yes, medical practices and facilities have drastically improved since the thirteen hundreds, so has transpiration. The existence of planes, high speed trains and cars would make the outbreak even more disastrous; attempting to contain a highly contagious disease would be almost impossible with the rate at which persons all across the world travel. So yes, a catastrophic event is not out of the question.

Looking back on Hardin’s proposals, its clear that his thoughts were in the right place. As studies have shown, global population is continuing to rise as dangerous rates, hence Hardin’s premises which show a natural concern for the pressing matter. However taking into consideration other, scientific studies, lifeboat ethics seems to hold less ground, although that doesn’t mean all of the premises are irrelevant. If Lifeboat Ethics were to be adapted to fit a positivistic view, then the concept would hold much more merit. It should also not be left out that positivism isn’t one hundred percent likely, there is still a chance that science cant solve the overpopulation issue, and because of this doubt, having a backup plan such as Lifeboat Ethics can’t hurt.

G. Hardin - "Living on a Lifeboat" (in James E. White text)

Hardin's thesis: People in rich nations should do nothing for the people of poor nations, and we should close our borders to them.

Although people talk about our common bonds here on "spaceship earth," that metaphor is misleading. We don't have one ruler, a captain, who makes sure everyone behaves. A better metaphor is a lifeboat. The rich people of the world are in one of the lifeboats, and the poor are in the water, drowning. Most people are drowning. Americans aren't.

 How should we respond to the drowning people if our boat is almost full?

  1. We could be charitable to all. And we'll all drown! (The Christian view is identical to Marxism here.)
  2. We could be charitable to some people. But this will never be fair in the selection process.
  3. We could do nothing for them, and survive while they die.

Let's now complicate it:

  • Reproduction is faster among the poor nations. Soon, there will 7 people in poverty for every "rich" one. Assuming we should share everything, why should each of us support 7 others?
  • Ruin of the commons: If we give them access instead of a share, we must assume some of those people will be more selfish than we are. The result of equal access is always harmful when it comes to shared resources. (Note that enforcing rules to protect what is common amounts to NOT making it commo
  • Some people want a limited sharing through a World Food Bank. But it's not a bank, since the rich deposit and the poor take. It's a TRANSFER system. Result: WE will pay, and enrich agri-business and shipping companies, to benefit people when it's not a real emergency. Low-frequency certainties aren't genuine emergencies.

Ratchet Effect

In nature, over-population is self-correcting (e.g., famine and disease).But there is a lot of suffering in the process. Our efforts to stop the suffering are what break the natural cycle.

Our interventions replace the natural cycle with a pejoristic ratchet system. Each step is worse than the last, by escalating the number of mismanaged poor.


You can't increase food without reducing other resources of many types (e.g., we increase pollution). In the long run, future generations must accept greatly decreased quality of life in order to reduce suffering now. This is backwards!.


What are the real reasons that rich countries permit immigration? To get cheap labor. But generous immigration means that, over time, we prefer to benefit the children of immigrants, because they will take over the commons (example: compare the lives of Native Americans with those of the people who immigrated into North Dakota.)


The additional problem with immigration is where to draw a line. If we think it's wrong to stop or slow immigration for OUR benefits, then we must think "our" riches aren't really ours. But then they should not go to immigrants. They should go back to Native Americans. But of course that's not right, either, since that just puts most Americans into poverty, and almost no one benefits. (Hardin assumes that questions of benefit are more important here than questions of justice.)


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