Response on Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics and Singer’s Rich And Poor

“Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor” by Garrett Hardin and “Rich and Poor” by Peter Singer are the two articles which put forward different and opposing views on the act of altruism and providing aid to the poor and helpless. Both of these philosophers use several intimate and peculiar hypothetical scenarios in order to simplify the concept, so as to engage with the audience more closely and evoke responses from them. Hardin uses the metaphor of a lifeboat in defending his position against altruism - the potentially destructive consequences of uncontrolled foreign aid to poor nations by the rich nations, such as hastening environmental degradation, encouraging irresponsible behaviour of poor countries and devoiding future generations of their legitimate rights, while on the other hand, Singer creates a hypothetical scenario that unequivocally persuades the readers to consider their moral obligation to assist the poor children. The thread that runs across both these differing takes on the ethical issue of altruism is whether rich have a moral obligation/responsibility in assisting the poor out of their own earned income. Both of these texts have, very cleverly, provided the imaginary situations and the supporting statistics that do not just misrepresent and oversimplify the actuality, but they illustrate a distorted reality that subconsciously persuades the audience to believe the presented line of thinking and to reach false conclusions that are in sync with the authors’ suggested solutions.

The metaphor of a lifeboat, as presented by Hardin, seems clearly to be an inaccurate construction of reality by the use of extreme cases. As per him, onboard the lifeboat are the rich countries while those in the water are the poor ones who are in large numbers as compared to the onboard members and wish to board the boat. He says that since the lifeboat has a certain capacity, so if everyone climbs, “the boat swamps and everyone drowns.” Relating this metaphor to the probable devastating consequences by helping the poor countries, he highlights the pragmatic implications behind the selfless act of helping the poor, such as endangering human survival and the environment. But drawing such catastrophic consequences from the lifeboat metaphor is a logical fallacy since the author is equivocating the extreme cases with the real-world scenario. Besides, the consequences are too far-fetched and overly-negative in nature and are not supported by any concrete evidence from the real world (Chen 2013, 11).

Similarly, in Singer’s article, he creates a hypothetical situation in which a person is confronted with the moral dilemma of either saving the child from drowning in the pond or heading to the lecture. Since Singer argues that there is a very indistinguishable line between hypothetical situations and real life, thus it is the moral obligation of the rich to donate their money to the poor. But he fails to notice the fact that such scenarios are very uncommon and, which require people to give a considerable thought rather than acting on human instincts. The act of saving the child’s life seems more to be a human instinct, but whether to donate money to poor more than their fair share is indeed a thoughtful decision to be made in reality (Chen 2013, 12).

Oversimplification of real life situations is another problem which both these articles share. Hardin’s use of lifeboat metaphor to describe the entire world lacks logical explanation. He incorrectly divides all the countries into rich (developed) and poor (under-developed) categories and, thus fails to recognise the whole set of nations that do not fall into both these extreme categories i.e. the developing nations and also the complex relationships that exist between among the nations. He overlooks the fact that we are now living in a globalised world where there is a link of interdependence that ties all nations and thus, rich countries can isolate themselves so easily. And even if we believe in this scenario, then one cannot also ignore the possibility that poor countries can then create a ‘lifeboat’ of their own by efficiently utilising their resources via technological help (Chen 2013, 13).

In the same manner, Singer’s solution to eradicate poverty by giving up a considerable amount of one’s own money seems rather impractical and overly-simplified. He ignores the fact that in real life, people need to maintain a “safety factor” (as also suggested by Hardin). Thus, if people lose this factor by donating most of their money to poor, they would themselves fall into poverty and thereby, creating more poverty which now depend on a much smaller fraction of rich for help (Chen 2013, 13).

Likewise, both the philosophers use statistics that suit their stands on altruism and hence do not provide the readers with the full picture. In order to illustrate how uncontrolled foreign aid can lead to complete catastrophe, Hardin assigns numerical values to the overall capacity of the lifeboat i.e. 60. Since the boat currently has 50 members on board, saving all the poor nations leads to a total of 150, which will ultimately drown the boat. Considering Hardin’s metaphor in terms of the statistics presented by Singer in his article, the lifeboat metaphor consisting of rich nations giving unlimited foreign aid to poor ones falls flat since in Singer’s articles elicits the fact that the U.S. government only spends 0.19 percent of its GDP on overseas aid which is far less than the UN’s official target of 0.7 percent. Similarly, Singer fails to acknowledge that the U.S. government’s aid is in absolute numbers the highest among all nations in the world, which might seem to be relatively less when seen in percentages.

Additionally, both Hardin and Singer fail to take cognizance of other subtle and underlying factors that can affect the data presented in their works. In “Lifeboat Ethics”, Hardin mentions that since the rate of population growth in poor countries is more than two times that of the rich countries, this would not only lead to overpopulation and widening of the prosperity gap, but it would also increase the burden on rich countries if spaceship ethics are adopted. But if we analyse this from the facts stated by Singer in his article, we can safely rebut Hardin’s claims. Singer has highlighted that improved education, introduction of sanitation and modern medical techniques and emancipation and employment of women in poor countries can reduce the birth rate and thus, bring in demographic transition, as is now the situation in many sub-Saharan African countries. Besides, not helping the poor countries in any manner can result in more devastating consequences which Hardin overlooks, for example, eruption of contagious diseases due to poverty and lack of sanitation henceforth, can engulf the entire human race on Earth.

In the same manner, Singer’s estimation that donation of mere $200 can save a poor child seems erroneous. As stated by Hardin in his work, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach them how to fish and he will eat for the rest of his days”, this conclusively explains that money should be donated to long-lasting purposes, such as in education and technology rather than simply using it to meet basic financial needs so that poor countries become self-reliant and self-sufficient in the longer run.

Therefore, careful and critical analysis of Hardin’s and Singer’s works highlights that both the authors create a severely constrained framework that limits the scope of possible solutions that can be offered and thus, restricts the readers to a certain line of thought and the suggested solutions. Also, the data as well as the hypothetical situations presented by them, suffer from significant logical, evidential, practical and statistical weaknesses. Hence, it is important that we adopt a wide and critical view to such ethical issues so as to prevent being tricked by such fallacies as well as to be able to devise more wiser solutions instead of falling into the trap of picking limited choices. 

16 December 2021
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