Lifeboat Ethics Essay

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Lifeboat ethics are a set of guidelines for avoiding a global overpopulation crisis outlined in an influential 1974 Psychology Today article of the same name by microbiologist Garrett Hardin. Hardin argues that rich nations act against their own long-term interests by subsidizing continued population growth in nations already in excess of their local carrying capacity through humanitarian aid. Drawing equally from Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972), and earlier publications by Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics” maintains a firmly Darwinist view that populations inevitably grow to the limits of their environment, inevitably increasing faster than parallel increases in food production and other necessary resources. The article links this perception of Malthusian scarcity to an earlier article by Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), which argues that any resource not protected through direct ownership will be exploited relentlessly. In both “Lifeboat Ethics” and “Tragedy of the Commons” Hardin argues that the surest path to global sustainability is through implementing policies of enlightened self-interest.

To illustrate his point Hardin asks that readers imagine a drifting lifeboat filled near to capacity, surrounded by hundreds of people in the water demanding to be let aboard. One option is to allow everyone aboard until the boat swamps. To Hardin this result is clearly self-defeating and irresponsible-an obvious reference to current aid policies that will inevitably overrun the global capacity to provide for everyone, and in the end save no one.

Another option is to allow as many swimmers aboard as there is surplus capacity. Although this appears to be a compassionate response, Hardin argues that the need to choose who survives from the multitude in the water renders this a fundamentally amoral option. This solution also presents a heightened risk of the absorption of the small surplus of resources on the boat, and if we wish to guarantee survival this is also an unsatisfactory solution.

An ostensibly selfish response is therefore the only moral option in this context, and abandoning those in the water and using the surplus as survival insurance is the only real solution. This improves the chances of those with the best hope at survival while not sacrificing anyone not already at risk. Against accusations that this is actually a thinly veiled rationalization for scientific racism, Hardin responds that it is foolish to risk the well-being of the whole species for the sake of a subset of superficial physical differences and imagined diversity. The rational choice in Hardin’s scenario is to demonstrate our fitness for survival by making realistic appraisals of our options. In the lack of an authoritative global leadership that can make these decisions of resource allocation, the only real authority is invested in those in possession of the resources, which happens to be the developed world.

In common with many of the debates about population written immediately following the publication of The Limits to Growth, the argument presented in “Lifeboat Ethics” assumes an imminent overpopulation crisis in the underdeveloped world, which has, as yet, failed to occur. The avoidance of a classic Malthusian disaster has done nothing to deter Hardin from his conviction that the threat of a global population collapse is growing rapidly, and that climate change, conflicts over water and oil, ozone depletion, and other hallmarks of a looming environmental crisis are clear indications that we are nearing the global carrying capacity. Indeed, according to Hardin, the lack of a Malthusian crisis has only increased the danger by intensifying resource demands and the sheer numbers of people at risk. The avoidance of crisis through advances in science, particularly the Green Revolution and contraception, and the steep decline in global fertility rates since the 1970s has led many to doubt that resource crises are inevitable and cannot be circumvented through innovation and adaptation.


  1. Brzozowski, “Lifeboat Ethics: Rescuing the Metaphor,” Ethics, Place and Environment (v.6, 2003);
  2. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science (v.162/3859, 1968);
  3. Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today (v.38/43, 1974);
  4. Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat.” Bio-Science (v.24/10, 1974);
  5. J. Hardin, The Limits of Altruism: An Ecologist’s View of Survival (Indiana University Press, 1977);
  6. J. Hardin, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia (Oxford University Press, 1998).

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