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Outline and Evaluate Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics”

In ‘Lifeboat Ethics’, Hardin puts forward an argument against helping the poor. He claims that the nations of the earth may be seen as a series of lifeboats with limited resources. The richer nations are well-managed and self-sufficient, whilst the lifeboats of the poorer countries are overburdened and overcrowded, so many of their people have fallen out and are in the sea around the richer lifeboats begging to be let in or given handouts. However, the lifeboats of the richer nations are limited in resources and do not have space to allow anyone else in. Whilst it may appear just to rescue the poorer people from the water or share the wealth with them, this would result in disaster. The ‘boat’ would sink or the resources would run out, meaning that everyone would drown. Hardin thus argues that his metaphor demonstrates that, overall, it would be disastrous to help the poor; the world’s resources would be exhausted and no one would survive.

However, it can be demonstrated that Hardin’s argument fails on several grounds. Not only are many of the assumptions made by Hardin questionably accurate, but the lifeboat metaphor itself is also too. Hardin fails to represent the situation and the effects of his proposals as they truly are and his argument remains unconvincing. Indeed, by demonstrating his metaphor to be mistaken, it is possible to provide a better representation of the circumstances. From here, a strong case for helping the poor can be given. Throughout his argument, Hardin draws on his original portrayal of the earth’s nations as lifeboats to present a picture of what he terms “the real world”. Hardin’s major metaphor appears simple but it could be claimed that it is so to the point that it can be considered over-simplistic and unrepresentative. In the “real world”, the economies of the world are not separate in the way described by Hardin.

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Nations have an effect upon each other’s food supply, population size, economic growth, political systems and more. The effect of rich nations upon poorer ones is undoubtedly, and it has not always been beneficial or even well-intentioned. Hardin argues against a variety of ways in which members of richer nations may help members of poorer nations. He argues against the consequences any such aid may have, pointing to various problems that he believes will occur as a direct result. One such problem cited by Hardin is that of over-population. According to his argument, the reproductive differences between rich and poor nations are such that poorer nations double their population every thirty-five years on average, whilst, in comparison, the population of a rich nation doubles only every eighty-seven years. From this Hardin claims that if the rich countries agreed to pool resources with poorer countries, with everyone receiving an equal share, in time resources would be so stretched that there would not be enough to go around.

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Thus “wealth can be steadily moved in one direction only, from the slowly-breeding rich to the rapidly-breeding poor, the process finally coming to a halt only when all countries are equally and miserably poor.” The problem would recur and on a worse scale than before; international aid will bring about disaster to all countries, rich and poor alike. However, Hardin fails to recognize the link between poverty and population growth. It is precisely poverty that causes high birth rates. Also, international aid can be linked to population control measures and the type of aid given could be that which makes populations self-sufficient. Even today, in some developing countries birth rates are falling. This happens when a country is sufficiently well-off to enjoy increased literacy, to have some confidence in the future and when women have an improved status and can gain access to birth control.

These events do not occur, however, in conditions of starvation. Hardin fails here by neglecting to realize the causes of over-population. His argument that we should allow the starving to die to prevent the poor overpopulating the world is, at best, misguided and, at worst, cruel and indecent. Not only this, but Hardin assumes that resources in the world are limited and that the earth will be unable to sustain a growing population. However, the fact is that enough food is now produced to feed the world’s population adequately. That people are malnourished is due to distribution and economics, not to the limits on agriculture. Another point made by Hardin is that, in some way, poor countries are responsible for their plight. Pointing to the existence of corrupt leaders he states, “wise sovereigns seem not to exist in the poor world today. The most anguishing problems are created by poor countries that are governed by rulers insufficiently wise and powerful.”

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According to Hardin, providing aid and resources to such countries will only serve to make the problem worse. They will never learn from their mistakes and the problem will continue. By claiming this, Hardin is failing to appreciate the true relationships between countries. The current exchange of goods that exists in the international marketplace has been established by rich nations via colonization and wars of commerce and is responsible for increasing the economic imbalances between rich and poor. Whilst Hardin claims that leaders of poor countries lack “the wisdom or the competence, or both” to feed their people, manage budgets well and prepare for disaster, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they lack the economic and political strength. In poor countries, western multinational corporations still encourage the concentration on cash crops rather than on food crops. U. S. foreign policy, including foreign aid programmes, favours regimes that are pro-Western and actively finances these.

Many of these are savagely repressive and govern in the interests of the wealthy elite of a country. The response to leaders with the wisdom and power to effect change is often replaced with those with policies the richer nations, particularly the U.S., favours. Not only does Hardin make a number of claims which are factually inaccurate and without any backing, but his very metaphor is also flawed in showing a terrible understanding of the global economy and an equally bad understanding of the effects of his proposals. The rich lifeboats cannot simply leave others to drown and sail away from the problem. It will not go away, nor will it improve. Nations do not exist independently of one another; they actually hold very important economic relationships with one another. The situation is completely misrepresented when Hardin tries to claim that each country is self-contained in terms of resources. It is rather the case that members of wealthy nations have consumed vast quantities of the resources of poorer countries and added to political problems in various ways.

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Hardin is incorrect to claim that we are in well-managed self-sufficient lifeboats; a more appropriate metaphor may be that the wealthy nations are greedy pirate ships that raid the seas for their own excessive benefit, with little or no consideration for the boats of other countries. Many of the problems faced by developing countries today are the result of involvement by the rich nations. If we reconsider the metaphor in this way, it is perhaps possible to see how the richer nations of the world have an obvious link with poorer countries. One could go so far as to say that the systematic exploitation of poorer countries by wealthier nations provides a very good reason as to why the rich nations should take an active part in providing aid to poor countries. As suggested by Murdoch and Oaten in Population and Food: Metaphors and the Reality, “…the policies dictated by a sense of decency are also the most realistic and rational.”


  • Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers (ed.) Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life (5th Edition, Harcourt 2000), Section 10
  • James White (ed.) Contemporary Moral Problems (3rd Edition – West Publishing Company 1991), Chapter 5.
  • James Rachels (ed) Moral problems (Harper and Row 1979), part III
  • Salonika Acharya December 2002

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Outline and Evaluate Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics". (2021, May 15). Retrieved October 4, 2022, from