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Lifeboar Ethics

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Lifeboar Ethics

Post  Joe_Morningstar on Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:57 am

Garrett Hardin’s argument for the preservation of well-to-do societies is embodied by his extended metaphor of each society as a lifeboat with its members the lifeboat’s occupants. His presentation of this metaphor is key in his assertions that the creation of an international food bank, efforts to improve agriculture in foreign nations (the Green Revolution), and lax immigration laws will all result in universal tragedy. Hardin’s initial complaint is against humanitarian efforts to establish an international food bank, to which rich nations will contribute and from which poor nations will draw. Theoretically, accidents (famine, crop failure, etc.) should teach nations to plan ahead and budget for future tragedies; the existence of an international food bank would inhibit this process from occurring by spoiling the benefiting nations. In addition, a food bank would allow population to constantly balloon regardless of immediate food availability. For example, a famine should reduce a society’s population back to its carrying capacity, but an international food bank would prevent this regression. A popularly proposed alternative is the Green Revolution, where agriculture is improved within a nation rather than food delivered directly to it. Despite the superior logic inherent in this idea as compared to that of a food bank, both have the exact same result: overpopulation. Hardin proceeds to point out that immigration itself represents a significant portion of this problem. Ethnic groups maintain paranoia of the label ethnocentricity, and Hardin insists that this prevents wealthy nations from creating more selective immigration laws. The consequence is the same as that of the food bank: a drain on the wealthy nations. Essentially Hardin asserts that food banks would prevent poor countries from learning their lesson and ultimately destroy the benefiting nation due to uncontrolled population growth. Likewise, the Green Revolution also spurs on this disastrous uncontrolled population growth. Finally, uncontrolled immigration allows foreigners to go to the food rather than vice-versa, thus destroying the wealthy nations in the same manner that food banks would destroy the poor. Quite simply, I disagree with Garrett Hardin’s theories regarding the self-preservation of wealthy nations in his paper Lifeboat Ethics. His assertions regarding the nations’ limited carrying capacities adheres the idea of self-preservation idea to firm logic, but logic cannot overpower the humanitarian impulse of mankind. World food banks and the Green Revolution are used to demonstrate the ratchet effect; a firm yet ineffectual point asserting that the efforts of wealthy nations to aid the poor are inhibiting to the welfare of the environment. Obviously this effect makes an excellent graphic for a thesis page and is alarming in many respects, but essentially it is encouragement for the wealthy populace to abandon the poor to the consequences of famine. Hardin’s initial analysis maintains that each nation can be viewed as a lifeboat in an ocean, each with a limited amount of space. As symptoms of overpopulation develop within a nation, members of that nation begin to fall overboard and seek refuge on other lifeboats. Similarly, overcrowded or poor nations who cannot support their population turn to the wealthier nations for food, money, and immigration opportunities; very similar to those adrift seeking passage on another lifeboat. This abstract view is actually well thought-out and consistent with parallels in the real world today, but simultaneously uncomfortable for most people. For example, this analogy may be extended to say that people aren’t willing to watch others die in the ocean while they are safe in a lifeboat, nor will they willingly watch others die on the planet while they possess the capability of saving them. This logical yet flawed model continues as Hardin reflects on the effects of taking on additional passengers, just as modern nations help those in need. According to Hardin, several problems arise when deciding to help those less fortunate: too many people will swamp the lifeboat (a.k.a.- the nation), no method exists to fairly choose which people to save, and if no saving actions are made, modern ethics will result in the guilt of the survivors. Again, this analysis is very consistent with the real world, as every day we (as individuals and as a nation) are confronted with opportunities to help those less fortunate. It is inconsistent, however, in that these daily confrontations do not default to the wealthy’s abandonment of the poor. Rather, the wealthy react to these daily confrontations by helping the poor, which eliminates the problems of selectivity and guilt. Essentially, the problems Hardin relates to the lifeboat dilemma only arise when his self-preservation ideas are implemented. In addition, Hardin’s philosophy regarding the resulting swamping of wealthy nations simply doesn’t seem currently feasible when the feeding of the poorer nations costs very little in relation to how much the rich spend on themselves. The ratchet effect is described in the essay as the prevention of famines (and other tragedies) from reducing the population back to the affected area’s carrying capacity. This theory correctly asserts that as wealthy nations give food to nations in crisis, the famines are eliminated before they can effectively prune that nation’s population excess, the result actually existing as the direct opposite of what would normally occur: rather than decrease, the population actually increases. While seemingly firmly based in logic, the extent to which this problem will effect modern nations remains largely in theory. The moral question arises as to whether or not the human impulse should be abandoned for a proposed trend that largely exists in theory. Essentially, should selfishness of the relatively wealthy be encouraged for a theory, regardless of the religious and moral breaches it would represent? Essentially, Hardin’s ideas are backed with logic but not with morals, religion, or even human instinct. Perhaps the root of the entire lifeboat dilemma is the humanitarian impulse of mankind (pity felt for the less-fortunate), but how can anybody expect to repel this impulse from themselves and others? I believe, like Hardin, that a strict accordance with the ethics demonstrated by limited lifeboats at an ocean disaster is the only way to curb our problem of over-population, but I also submit to the fact that putting selfishness on a pedestal in front of the world is not something that can or should be done.


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