Lifeboat ethics. Over the centuries people have invented countless metaphors for the earth they live upon, calling it everything from a bountiful mother to a spaceship. A relatively new phenomenon is, with regard to population growth and our ability to ensure all have enough food, has been to describe the earth as an overcrowded lifeboat.
This image does make a certain grisly sense. If there is too little food for the world’s peoples, must not some suffer? And is it not the sad but inescapable responsibility of the rich nations to decide who? The idea, expressed by Garrett Hardin was termed “lifeboat ethics”:
If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all. Metaphorically each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the
world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do?…
First, we must recognize the limited capacity of any lifeboat. For example, a nation’s land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.
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 or for handouts. We have several options: we may be tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being “our brother’s keeper,” or by the Marxist ideal of “to each according to his needs.” Since the needs of all in the water are the same, and since they can all be seen as “our brothers,” we could take them all into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe….
…The harsh ethics of the lifeboat become even harsher when we consider the reproductive differences between the rich nations and the poor nations. The people inside the lifeboats are doubling in numbers every 87 years; those swimming around outside are doubling, on the average, every 35 years, more than twice as fast as the rich. And since the world’s resources are dwindling, the difference in prosperity between the rich and the poor can only increase.
Clearly, the concept of pure justice produces an infinite regression to absurdity….
…We are all the descendants of thieves, and the world’s resources are inequitably distributed. But we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point where we are today. We cannot remake the past. We cannot safely divide the wealth equitably among all peoples so long as people reproduce at different rates. To do so would guarantee that our grandchildren and everyone else’s grandchildren, would have only a ruined world to inhabit…. For the foreseeable future, our survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh though they may be. Posterity will be satiswith nothing less. Read More:http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil1200/Hardin.pdf
Before commending Hardin, particularly if you are of the neo-Malthusian school or can comfortably posture with the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, there is the issue of consciously letting others die by drowning which is the equivalent of murder. Or, more crucially, is the lifeboat analogy false, and the earth, instead of being a lifeboat, is more a badly managed ocean liner in need of a major overhaul and repairs. That aside, the major problems seem to return to two inter-related streams: population growth and wasteful, or to use the Veblen phrase, “conspicuous waste” regarding consumption of natural resources by the better heeled passengers.
It is almost axiomatic in the relationship between politics and wealth, that, as long as there is still steak and good booze in first-class on an ocean liner, it is likely too premature to order steerage to abandon the ship.
The neo-Malthusians, mainly of the “teach them how to fish and they won’t go hungry” school, feel there would be less human suffering if the advanced nations avoided direct food or medical aid thereby allowing inhibitors on population growth to come into play, before there is a population spike. There are plenty of holes here: does the aid actually reach those who need it? How does World Bank and IMF export oriented policies help if food resources are tagged for overseas consumers? The critics assume the peoples being assisted will never be able to reduce birth rates, leading to inevitable famine, tragic land and water management and the final misery of starvation down the road.
But maybe that lifeboat is simply a place of illusion. It goes nowhere. It floats on strange waters within a state of mind that is dry and arid as the sea is wet and harsh. It is a life of fear. Fear of some sort of mystical retribution from those who drowned and a fear of living without food or water until the specter of cannibalism appears. Suddenly, there is a realization where mental gymnastics, sleight of hand magic, no longer works and we are backed into a dark corner, an obscure shadow, Jonah’s whale that chucks us out into nowhere with no place to go or hide, a place of exile, and willingly or unwillingly we are there whether through punishment or a blessing in a silver lining which is hard to comprehend in the midst of suffering and a yearning to go back to what is comfortable that can’t be realized whether through wing and prayer or rational, logical intuition….( Big Muse)http://www.bigmuse.com/about.php