Alan Tate

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					                                                                                    Tate 1

Alan Tate


Diane Russell

30 October 2006

   Unlike the Poorest of Problems: A rhetorical analysis of “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case

                                Against Helping the Poor”

       If a single bacterium was randomly selected from the surface of this paper and its

decedents permitted to reproduce in an environment with unlimited space and resources,

the population would increase in both size and number. Within one month‟s time the

bacterial colony would weigh more than the observable universe and yet still grow or

expand outward at the speed of light. However, this intrinsic rate of a population‟s

growth is suppressed in nature for virtually any extended period of time for reasons that

our environment is unable to supply.       Similarly, the limited capacity, or carrying

capacity, that the earth has bestowed on the human reproduction rate, because of its

restricted resources that are readily available for humans, can attenuate the potential

survivorship of our populations and so abate the exponential rate of growth as

conceptualized with the bacteria on a limited basis. In spite of this, the preceding

statements do not imply that these rates cannot change over time or vary from one

population to the other, but only that all populations exhibit the reproductive capacity to

exceed the resources that would be needed in order to sustain them for their complete


       Empirical evidence of such a phenomenon in the human population can be

witnessed by its size and relative exponential growth within the past several hundred
                                                                                      Tate 2

years. In 1750 there were approximately 790 million people on earth, which eventually

rose to 2.56 billion by 1950, and has presently (2006) grown to 6.65 billion. This

increase in the earth‟s carrying capacity for humans was brought about by a revolution in

technology, allowing the human population to grow vigorously. Nevertheless, such

growth was or could be detrimental to the potential survivorship of other species and/or

the forthcoming human population due to the intensified burden we have placed on earth

itself. As an ecologist, microbiologist, and professor of human ecology for the University

of California, Garrett Hardin perceived this succession of the human population, and in

response, wrote an essay entitled “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor,”

which first appeared in the September 1974 issue of Psychology Today. Even though

some physiologists and psychiatrists may read this particular magazine, it is written for a

mass audience of non-psychologists.       Some readers have distinguished the author‟s

petition as being that we should not help the poor. Although this previous statement

implies that the poor can be helped and that the problem(s) of world hunger, that is if one

considers them a problem, can be deduced to the notion as being in our realm of control

to either restore or ignore. In other words, we might be inept of abilities to truly help the


        Thus, an alterative interpretation of Hardin‟s essay is that the poor cannot be

helped. This inevitability that the poor will always exist is seen throughout the history of

humans, in which there has never been a population where every individual has had an

equal quality or quantity of resources. Hardin challenges his audience in a modern

approach by informing them about the dangers of using the metaphor of a “spaceship” in

describing earth and instead attempts to replace it with the analogy of a lifeboat and how
                                                                                         Tate 3

it likened to the observation that the earth has finite space and resources that are readily

available to a given population, which in turn determines the growth of that population

without external help. Within his parallel, the rich are those in the lifeboat and the poor

are those swimming alongside wishing to gain passage so they will not sink under the

exhaustion of treading water or perish due to the toll of an inclement environment.

          According to Hardin, because the lifeboat has a limited capacity, as the

environment has its carrying capacity for organisms, populations will inevitably be

"crudely [divided] into rich nations and poor nations." If a rich nation, or those in the

lifeboat, attempted to save all the poor nations, or those in the water, without a change in

trends of their reproduction rates, the lifeboat's floatation attributes that correlate with our

enhanced standard of living will be unattainable by the current environment of earth. In

our charitable attempts to help, we will all sink. The word our is used to refer to the

United States, which Hardin imparts as being the wealthiest1 of all. Even though we have

a substantial amount of wealth, he claims in spite of everything that we should avoid

being trapped by “the tragedy of the commons,2” which would swamp our boat or

country by allowing all immigrants to enter who have the desire. In doing so, and

because the immigrants would possibly reproduce at the same increased rates compared

to the United Sates as before, which would subsequently lead to overpopulation,

    Having the most influence over the assessable pool of resources or capital of any other

    This is where all resources are shared equally in a mutual ownership under those in a

system. Furthermore, no one person has more influence or recognition of control than

any other person within the same system.
                                                                                     Tate 4

Hardin‟s defines this “complete justice” as eventually channeling our whole country to

“complete catastrophe.” Fortunately, we have not witnessed such misfortune and our

population can still be represented as a continuum, where wealth has been distributed

differently among those in our nation.

       For simplicity, each nation, country or population can be described as a

distribution, where the independent variable (x-axis) or predictor is the standard of living

and the dependent variable (y-axis) is the percent of the population. Within our nation,

the United States, we would presume the distribution to be skewed (negative) to the left.

That is that most of the population is contained on the right side of the graph with an

overall higher standard of living.       Conversely, third world countries or developing

countries tend to maintain populations which are skewed (positively) to the right, and so

frequently have lower standards of living. With this being the case, an allocation of a

population, which is greater in a distribution that is positively skewed, expires under the

inability to maintain a sustainable capability within their environment.

       Although some might state a destitution that leads to death as merely part of a

consequence that corresponds to the laws of natural cause, others cannot help but “feel

sorry” for such a population who must cope with such misfortune.              Attending in

attribution to thoughts such as these, the author of the essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case

Against Helping the Poor,” addresses the worldviews of Marxism and Christianity, which

ideals he states, rests is the notions of “to each according to his needs” and being “our

brother‟s keeper,” respectively.    However, because of the tragedy of the commons,

Hardin claims that supporters of either one of these worldviews in their intention of

goodwill to create a world food bank would destine our population to the bleak problems
                                                                                     Tate 5

of those who we attempted to secure. As the author continues his sequential logic of

utilitarian humanistic views that sets up a claim or asks a question to the reader regarding

a “problem,” he subsequently supplies evidence in support of his initial remarks and then

asks another question is response to make sure the reader is “on the same page” and not

just ignorant to his logic. In doing so for his case of why poor countries should “learn to

budget for infrequent but certain emergencies” such as “periodical crop failures,” Hardin

backs his remark with an example of Joseph. Contemplating back on his previous

denunciation of Christianity or what he thought was a biblical standard of being “our

brother‟s keeper”; one would venture to presume that he would refrain from a biblical

account in order to affirm his argument. However, as can be seen in the following

elucidation, this rational is contradicting.

        A wise and competent government saves out of the production of the food years
        in anticipation of bad years to come. Joseph taught this policy to pharaoh in Egypt
        more than two thousand years ago. Yet the great majority of the governments in
        the word today do not follow such a policy. They lack either the wisdom or the
        competence, or both. Should those nations that do manage to put something aside
        be forced to come to the rescue each time and emergency occurs among the poor

        Garrett Hardin, in my view, is an erudite professor and scholar. Nonetheless,

there appears to be disparity between the biblical examples he provides as evidence to his

claim and so a potential incongruity within his argument. Because of Hardin‟s intellect

and his foresight that this particular essay not only could but would create controversy, I

assume that he was aware of this potential discrepancy within his reasoning, and it was

not due to absentmindedness. With that being the case, he implies that Christianity,

which should be holistic in perspective because it is a worldview or claims to be one, is in

itself incompetent of holding true when being hard-pressed with troubles unlike those
                                                                                     Tate 6

with the poorest of problems. His logic is simple; if we are Christians, then we need to

be our “brother‟s keep,” but if we allow for this “complete justice,” it will lead to our

“complete catastrophe.” Therefore, we cannot live biblically because in the occasion we

decide to do so will undoubtedly emaciate our wellbeing; or put another way, if we are

Christians then we need to be our “brother‟s keeper,” but because we are unable to help

the poor, the biblical view is irrelevant and extraneous for this particular issue. However,

he, like most would likely concede that some “stories” such as the one about Joseph can

be constructive, except, this is not the only biblical account or story that he mentioned in

his essay. The other is also reported in a book named Genesis, where a description can

be found about two brothers named Cain and Abel. Because Jesus had not yet paid for

the forgiveness of man‟s sins with his death in atonement, people were required to offer

scarifies to the Lord in petition. One day, the two brothers both offered their scarifies to

the Lord, and according to Genesis, Abel offered the best that he had, while Cain gave an

offering of only nominal merit. The results of such behavior can be seen in the following

account from the book of Genesis.

       The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering
       he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
       Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If
       you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right,
       sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." Now
       Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in
       the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to
       Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my
       brother's keeper?" The Lord said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's
       blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven
       from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from
       your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.
       You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.
                                                                                    Tate 7

After reading the preceding account of Cain and his actions, Hardin‟s assertion of those

“tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being „our brother‟s keeper‟” as being

related to “complete justice” almost appears irrelevant, especially because this is only

place it is almost found in the Bible. Hardin thought he was quoting the Bible or a

Christian Ideal, but in actuality, the words, our brother’s keeper, are only a misquoted

idiom that is taken out of context from a man named Cain who was both a murderer and

one who did not respect the Lord, and as a result was later cursed by Him. Whether he

believed in this account or story as being true is beside the point. Nonetheless, the

allegation of using “our brother‟s keeper” as the presupposition of the Christian ideal in

affirmation to its worldview is an erroneous conclusion in having correlation as being

“complete justice” that will eventually facilitate “complete catastrophe.”

          With this implication reveled, Hardin‟s grounds of saving “our brothers” from the

water, and pulling them into the boat as being the Christian ideal, are broken due to its

faulty foundation that was found. On the other hand, the story about Joseph that was

drawn from Hardin‟s evidence can also be examined.            In Hardin‟s other examples

throughout the essay, he depicts “real life” situations as evidence in contribution to

likening the earth as a lifeboat, with some of these being the “Food for peace program,”

growth rates and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation with their development of the

“green revolution.” Because the United States, according to Hardin, is the “wealthiest of

all” the nations, it would appear as an aberration to conserve a tangible situation as an

example of a competent government, or one that was not the United States for that

matter.     What would be the advantages in a persuasive essay to use a fictional

government system as the evidence? So far, none have been noted. If in fact Hardin
                                                                                     Tate 8

believed that the Joseph account or story actually took place, several implications can be


       According to Hardin, Joseph taught his policies of government to the Pharaoh, but

as can be distinguished again in the book of Genesis in the Pharaohs own words, "Since

God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you.” In

this account, Pharaoh in actuality was taught only what God imparted to Joseph, this

being, the responsibility of private ownership in the available recourses with a biblical

worldview. The Bible does, however, instruct on the importance of private ownership

and the inability for man to reach a utopian society due to the selfish nature of people. In

essence, this is what Hardin challenges his audience to accept with his argument of “the

tragedy of the commons,” addressing the potential consequences of the world food bank

by stating that “if everyone would restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only

one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint.”

       With all this being said, however, we do reside at an unprecedented time that has

a propensity to alter the earth for the potential destruction of generations to come. In our

attempts to redress social problems such as those that inflict the poor, easy solutions seem

to sum to only selfishness. As being human or living organisms, what do we all equally

deserve? Well, that depends on what we derive from our worldview. In actuality, with

all societies and people that have ever existed as evidence, the poor cannot be helped, or

at least not all of them that remain on our naturally selfish planet at one unequivocal time

in which all could agree. Even though not all the poor can be potentially helped, there is

a possibility that some could be transformed to maintain a higher standard of living as a

whole and so fluctuating the distribution as a whole slightly to the right. One process that
                                                                                      Tate 9

Hardin forgetfully ignores, or decisively avoids that could possibly attend to the potential

good of the poor, is the fact that the poor can be taught. Taught what though? This is

where he wants us, the inhabitants of the earth, to contemplate. Maybe the solution is

found in the education of reproduction strategies of K- versus R-selection and our

attempts to mold our conscience evolution in a mosaic of possibilities.

         These possibilities, which are primarily destined accordingly by one‟s or a

population‟s worldview, are also governed by the responsibility of a population to

educate their people in reproduction strategies that are pertinent for their survival and

wellbeing as a whole. By looking at a satellite photograph of the world, one can observe

that some regions do not appear to contain resources that are readily available to the

population, but furthermore, have some of the highest reproduction rates. All the less, the

actual growth rate of the population is nominal. This is a characterization of rapid (R)

selection reproducing strategists, where individuals have many offspring, but because the

resources are limited, most die before being able to reproduce themselves.               By

overproducing, little is able to be invested in their young due to unavailable resources

that cannot support a population that has surpassed its carrying capacity (K). This can be

contrasted with a K-selection reproducing strategist, where individuals have a limited

amount of offspring so they can ensure the fitness3 of their juveniles and ability to

compete for recourses. This is not eugenics, but a concept that a family must ensure that

resources will be feasible to secure in order to contribute to the welfare of those that they

themselves bring into the world. God blessed the human race and said, “Be fruitful and

multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” Although controversy may reside if we have

    Reproducing and ensuring that one‟s offspring are also able to reproduce.
                                                                                       Tate 10

reached our K or not, governing the earth is no diminutive task and an endeavor we

cannot dismiss.

        In address to this latter consideration, there is a plausible possibility that Hardin‟s

sincere intentions within his essay were to confront an audience who were/are either

unaware or apathetic toward the impending problems we as a nation or inhabitants of

earth will have to cope with and so wager with our humanity in an attempt to resolve

“pressing problems of overpopulation and hunger.” In other words, and with use of some

urban language for clarification, maybe he really doesn‟t think we should not or cannot

help the poor, but wants us to prove him wrong by thinking through this situation

ourselves. In this way, the manifestation of such effects is the only effective means that

could alter our complacency, because in reality, we do not see with our own eyes the

hunger or overpopulation that certain populations are experiencing. In Hardin‟s scheme

to provoke such a reaction, he has placed subtle clashing views as evidence, such as the

Christian ideal being “our brother‟s keeper” and Joseph as display of providing the

wisdom necessary for a competent government in order to assess our proficiency to

analyze his argument so we can in turn establish our own views towards the poor and

how they can be assisted by the use of criticizing his thoughts with careful consideration.

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