A Critique of "Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor"

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Since 1991, the southern half of Somalia, a poverty stricken African nation, has seen various tribal militias battle for dominance and power over individual regions of the country. Violence has plagued Mogadishu, the capital, since warlords ousted the former president. Mere months after the collapse of the government, men, women and children in torn clothes ran helplessly towards packages dropped from military planes towards the hot sand of their tiny village. This action was one of many attempts to help underdeveloped nations receive food by the United Nations' World Food Programme. Within his article titled "Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor", Garret Hardin, a well-known philosopher of ecology, analyzes the difficulty and ultimate ruin associated with providing aid to these nations. Hardin's argument for the preservation of well-to-do societies is embodied by his extended metaphor of each society as a lifeboat, with the citizens of developed nations riding calmly amongst a sea of drowning poverty-stricken individuals. Ultimately, Hardin argues for a very harsh thesis: regardless of the current situation, privileged nations simply should not provide aid to those individuals trapped within the vortex of underdeveloped nations. His argument is consequentialist: he claims that the net result of doing so would be negative and would, in the long run, court large-scale disaster. Although Hardin's argument appears logic-based, his excessive metaphors fail when applied to real-life scenarios, for oftentimes he misconstrues facts to create a claim that may be perceived as more accurate than reality illustrates. Furthermore, any counter-arguments Hardin feels may refute his claim are pushed aside, avoiding factual evidence that may prove his argument inaccurate or misleading. Much like a lifeboat, Hardin leaves the assertions of the "humanitarian apologists" to drown so as to avoid the overturn of his claim.

Within the section titled "Adrift in a Moral Sea", Hardin reveals the lifeboat analogy upon which this essay is almost entirely founded, although shortly after it is presented one can see a loophole he cleverly ignores. The metaphor he creates is, nonetheless, coherent, and is used to describe the limited carrying capacity a lifeboat (rich nations), can hold:So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of 60. Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat … since the needs of all in the water are the same … we could take them into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe … we might let 10 aboard, but how do we choose? And what about the need for a safety factor? (1,2)Although logical, this metaphor is undoubtedly dubious. Hardin characterizes the safe and the drowning as rich versus poor nations, though in reality not all countries are deemed on one side of the scale, wealthy or impoverished. Many waver on the edge, needing very little aid to push over into industrialization and development. In relation to Hardin's metaphor, these nations, in retrospect, require a short ride on the lifeboat before they may swim safely away. Furthermore, Hardin assumes the earth does not hold enough resources to provide for everyone, and although correct in stating we cannot sustain an unlimited number of people, he neglects the very definition of such a word. Exactly how many people are contained within an "unlimited number"? Hardin disregards any hint as to what this number is, a fairly important point when referencing a depletion of world resources. By disregarding the importance of such a number, Hardin influences the reader to believe helping impoverished nations is impossible, for, after all, an unlimited number of individuals would hardly be feasible. However, if the number of...
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