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The Argument Against Foreign Aid - Garrett Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics"

Updated on March 24, 2011
Hardin argues that it is not morally wrong to ignore hunger and famine in foreign countries.
Hardin argues that it is not morally wrong to ignore hunger and famine in foreign countries. | Source

Lifeboat Ethics

Garrett Hardin makes a compelling, if not unsavory argument in “Living on a Lifeboat”. In this essay, I will consider his four main points. First, I will look at how apt his metaphor of “lifeboat” is. He equates the earth and individual states to lifeboats, limited in terms of space and resources, and examine how this should affect our conceptions of justice. I will then look at his considerations on and opposition to immigration, a hugely controversial topic, before finally looking at his idea of “door shutting”, and drawing a historical line. Overall, Hardin makes a clear, concise, and valid argument in “Living on a Lifeboat”.

The first point I will consider Hardin’s use of metaphor. He opens “Living on a Lifeboat” by referring to Susanne Langer, who wrote that “it is probably impossible to approach an unsolved problem save through the door of metaphor” (1974:561). This is a notion I could definitely entertain. Hardin too sees some use to this. He is responding to Kenneth Boulding’s metaphor of “spaceship earth”, which basically sets out that we should reject our “cowboy economy” and replace it with a “spaceship economy” (1974:561). He agrees with some of the ideals of “spaceship earth”, but sees other aspects as “suicidal” (1974:561). He doesn’t believe that Boulding’s metaphor is enough. He furthers this by claiming the earth, and individual states themselves, can be equated to a lifeboat. They both have limited resources and a limited safe capacity. Interestingly, rather than focusing on international justice from a global egalitarian point of view, he looks at it from a state centred viewpoint. He introduces “Lifeboat Ethics”.

Metaphorically, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats. Continuously, so to speak, they fall out of their lifeboats and swim for a while in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to the rich lifeboat, or in some way benefit from the “goodies” on board. What should passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem of “the ethics of a lifeboat”. (1974:561)

“Living on a Lifeboat” is essentially an attack on the logic of egalitarian systems of distributive justice. The second metaphor that Hardin uses is that of “the commons”. Commons were essentially pieces of land that everybody owned, and anyone could uses. He looks at the earth and its natural resources in this regard. He recognises that a farmer, if grazing cattle on his land, will not over-populate it, or over-graze it in the short term, because it leads to long term ruin. The farmer limits himself in the short run for long run prosperity. With a commons, he maintains, people do not act this way. Expecting everyone to act with restraint in a commons is foolish, he says.

Prosperity in the system of the commons cannot survive errors. If everyone would only restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint. In a crowded world of less than perfect human beings-and will never know any other- mutual ruin is inevitable in the commons” (1974:562)

This is an interesting point, and is most definitely a pessimistic outlook. But it is a realistic one. Commons, in the form Hardin describes, are a thing of the past, but football pitches are not. Let us consider public football pitches in housing estates. In a public football pitch, everyone uses according to their own desire. Even when the weather is unsuitable, or the pitch starts to deteriorate. The end result inevitably is a poor quality surface of grass, and a very mucky goalmouth. Private pitches, on the other hand, are almost always of a decent standard. Hardin’s assumptions do seem to hold true in the real world, even today. Hardin uses his commons metaphor as a starting point for his theory, which we will now consider.

The next major point Hardin deals with in “Living on a Lifeboat” is that of food, and population. Hardin is worried at the rate of population growth in the poor countries of the world. The way he sees it, the population of the countries in the rich lifeboats doubles every eighty-seven years, compared to a doubling of the population in poor countries every thirty-five years. This is unsustainable, according to him.

Suppose that all these countries [poor countries], and the United States, agreed to live by the Marxian ideal, “to each according to needs,” the ideal of most Christians as well. Needs, of course, are determined by population size, which is affected by reproduction. Every nation regards its rate of reproduction as a sovereign right. If our lifeboat were big enough in the beginning it might be possible to live for a while by Christian-Marxian ideals. Might. ” (1974:562)

The way Hardin sees it, we must stop the population from reaching unsustainable levels. He goes back to his lifeboat metaphor, which we will look at when we consider immigration. In nature, animals in all eco-systems are subject to the population cycle. It goes like this- population grows rapidly as resources and space are plentiful. As the population grows, competition over now scarce resources ensues, and waste builds up in the eco-system. Population levels growth levels out. Wastes or toxins become widespread, and food very rare. There is not enough for everybody, famine occurs, and brings the population down to sustainable levels, and the process repeats. This consideration leads Hardin to one of his more controversial points: stop food aid to poor countries. According to Hardin, there are no rational justifications for food aid, and the need for one fobbed off in an “emergency” situation. Hardin writes:

A wise and competent government saves out of production of the good years in anticipation of the bad years that are sure to come. This is not a new idea….Yet it is literally true that the vast majority of governments of the world today have no such policy.” (1974:563)

But, he asks, “what happens if some organisations budget for emergencies while others do not?” Each organisation should be responsible for its own well being, poorly run ones will suffer, and thus learn from experience. (1974:563) This is fine in theory, but when you start to consider countries of millions starving to death, its hard to justify being so calculated. Hardin does this, however. He describes a “ratchet effect”, whereby food aid, when a country reaches a naturally unsustainable population level, prevents it from falling, and it reaches an artificially high level. This is more unsustainable than the last though, and another emergency inevitably comes along. And the process repeats. He concludes:

Under the guidance of this ratchet, wealth can only be moved in one direction only, from the slowly breeding rich to the rapidly breeding poor, the process finally comes to a halt only when all countries are equally and miserably poor.” (1974:565)

He looks at other resources, apart from food, which food aid diminishes as it facilitates population growth. He concludes: “Every life saved this year in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations.” His argument makes a very inhumane sounding theory seem like best practice. There are some points to consider against this, however. While in theory his reasoning is sound, I’m not convinced that, overall, the amount of food aid given each year is significant enough to make the main focus of criticism. Why pick on the poor people? They have no choice in where they are born on the planet. Surely it would be fairer to, in rich countries, stop treatment of smokers who suffer cancer, or drinkers with liver failure. These people make their choice- people in the poorest parts of the world don’t. This system is good in theory, but when it comes down to it, I can’t agree that letting poor people starve is the right thing to do, and that’s not from a bleeding-heart humanitarian type. His views on food aid and population, while sound in theory, are slightly shortsighted.

The next point we will look at is Hardin’s stance on immigration. He is quick to point out that his is not a theory of “bigotry, prejudice, ethnocentrism, chauvinism, and selfishness ” (1974:566) This theory is simple when considered next to the one on food aid:

World food banks move food to the people, thus facilitating the exhaustion of the environment of the poor. By contrast, unrestricted immigration moves people to the food, thus speeding up the destruction of the environment in rich countries. Why poor people want should want to make the transition is no mystery: but why should rich hosts encourage it? (1974:566)

Again, the reasoning is the same as above. And again, I can’t quite accept the conclusion of “no to immigration”. Hardin makes an exception for political refugees etc. The “lifeboat” metaphor is applied here too. There is a boat with a capacity of sixty representing a rich country. There are fifty people in the boat, with a safety factor of ten. Now, there are one hundred people floating outside the boat, looking to get in. He asks, “How shall we respond to their calls?” He gives three options. The first, admit them all, exceeding by far the safe capacity of the boat, which inevitably sinks, killing everyone. The second, admit only ten to the boat, getting rid of the safety factor, which will harm us in the long run, and leaving ninety more poor in the water. This poses problems aswell- who do we let in? And the third option, let nobody in and retain the safety factor, regardless of the desperate one hundred at the doorstep. Hardin suggests that anyone who feels guilty about this situation can give their seat up to someone in the water, and by this process guilt will be purged from the collective conscience of the ship. (1974:562) This is most worrying. Any idea that promotes uniformity of thought is unhealthy. What if someone on the lifeboat could come up with a better solution to Hardin’s? What if that conscientious objector was told to leave before he could formulate said solution? Hardin goes on to sanction occasional immigration of “men and women of unusual talents”. This, to me, contradicts his earlier writings. Beggars can’t be choosers right? If immigrants are needed then…. He does propose a balance between immigration and the birth rate, lowering one when the other rises. But how is this possible? Sure, you can close the borders and immigration stops. But the birth rate is different. You can have financial incentives to have a set amount of children (like China’s “one child” policy). But short of compulsory vasectomies this cannot be done with the birth rate. Some people just love children. I could go on, but for the sake of time I will leave it there. Hardin does make some good points about immigration, but they again seem pretty harsh.

Finally, let us consider Hardin’s idea of “historical line drawing”. He confronts the question that any post-colonial state has to- what gives us descendants of immigrants the right to stay, while we close the door to others who wish to do the same. He makes a very good point:

It is literally true that we Americans of non-Indian ancestry are the descendents of thieves. Should we not, then, “give back” the land to the Indians; that I, give it to the now-living Americans of Indian ancestry? As an exercise in pure logic I see no way to reject this proposal. Yet I am unwilling to live by it; and I know no one who is. Our reluctance to embrace pure justice may spring from pure selfishness.” (1974:567)

He recognises that the concept of pure justice initiates an “infinite regress”, it is futile. He says that drawing a historical line in the sand may be unjust, but it’s the only reasonable option. The following quote sums it up nicely:

We are all the descendents of thieves, and the world’s resources are inequitably distributed, but we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point we are today. We cannot remake the past. We cannot, without violent disorder and suffering, give land and resources back to the “original owners- who are dead anyway. We cannot safely divide the wealth equitably among all present peoples, so long as people reproduce at a different rate, because to do so would guarantee that our grandchildren- everyone’s grandchildren- would only have a ruined world to inhabit” (1974: 567)

He makes some a very good point here. Past injustices are in the past, and regardless of how people feel, they were carried out on, and by, people who are already dead. They cannot be undone or changed. It is unreasonable to expect whole scale redistribution of wealth anytime soon, I believe, so that part is irrelevant. His idea of taking things as they are as a start point, rather than worrying about how things went wrong is a good approach- one that Irish people now could take heed of. Hardin makes a strong case for historical line drawing.

As we have seen, Hardin covers many areas in a short space of time. His argument is a sound one, and it is extremely well written. His use of metaphors makes his theory accessible to everyone (compare this to theorists like Rawls!). However the detail of the argument is debatable. He covers food aid, population growth, immigration and historical injustice, and comes up with “lifeboat ethics”. While I don’t agree with everything he says, it will be interesting to see how the future will pan out. While the content of “lifeboat ethics” might only become relevant after my time, people should definitely keep it in mind. Hardin makes a very good argument in “Living on a Lifeboat” – one that could certainly be useful.


Hardin, Garrett. 1974. Living on a Lifeboat . Available:


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    • Nick Hanlon profile image

      Nick Hanlon 4 years ago from Chiang Mai

      Do you know of the example of Thomas Sankaro.He ruled Burkino Faso between 1984-7 and banned all foreign government aid on the basis that it was just to turn his government into a puppet state.

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