Garrett Hardin: Lifeboat Ethics

1278 words 6 pages
Garrett Hardin argues for a very harsh thesis: we simply should not provide aid to people in poor countries. His argument is consequentialist: he claims that the net result of doing so would be negative -- would in fact be courting large-scale disaster. One of the things that we will notice about Hardin's essay, however, is that whether he is right or wrong, he paints with a very broad brush. This makes it a good essay for the honing of your philosophical skills; you should notice that there are many places where the reasoning procees with less than total care.

Hardin begins with metaphors. He points out that while the metaphor of earth as a grand spaceship has a certain popularity (or did 23 years ago) it is a flawed metaphor
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This is simply unsustainable; our sharing would lead to catastrophe for all of us.

This is the consequence that Hardin believes would follow from following the sharing ethic inherent in the "spaceship earth" metaphor. And he sees it as an example of a more general phenomenon that he labels "The Tragedy of the Commons." A commons is a public resource, open for all to share. The air is such a resource at present. To a lesser extent, water is as well, though the examle would have to be sharply qualified. The model Hardin offers is a public grazing space. If the space is a comons, there is a real danger that not everyone will use the resource with restraint and consideration for others. Adn, Hardin claims, "it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint."

Now this is hardly true -- if most people act decently nonetheless. But when it comes to earthly resources, Hardin believes that there is no hope but for a system of stringent control. In particular, a World Food Bank is a bad idea, he believes. The least of the reasons he gives is that it will probably benefit certain wealthy corporations while raising prices for the rest of us. Still, if the scheme were effective, we might consider this cost worthwhile. The problem is that the World Food Bank would be a commons in disguise. It would do nothing to force poor countries to curb their populations. In the long run, it will result in catastrophe.

Another alternative to food aid is


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