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Article Review - Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor

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In the article, "Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor," Garrett Hardin voices his idea of how successful countries, America in particular, should respond to the pressing global concern of world hunger. Hardin presents the "lifeboat" metaphor as a way to clarify his argument to his intended audience. He begins by encouraging the reader to view prosperous countries as lifeboats filled with native citizens. In the water surrounding the boats, the poor of the world swim and beg for "handouts" (508). Hardin insists that if the wealthy continue to aid the poor in the water more of them will survive and procreate, creating an even greater need for assistance. The solution the author claims to be the best for the situation is to do nothing. America, and other prominent countries alike, should refuse assistance to struggling nations in the hope that by doing so, fewer of the poor will survive and the high population levels in third world countries will eventually correct themselves. The poor will learn from their mistakes and "mend their ways" (511). At first, the "lifeboat" metaphor seems to be nothing more than a clever way to simplify a difficult situation into terms that are understandable and relatable. However, after considering Alan B. Durning's take on world hunger and the causes behind it in his article, "Asking How Much is Enough," the reader begins to question the validity of Hardin's argument. Durning focuses on overconsumption in rich nations and how it causes the destitution found in third world countries. He argues that rich countries should strive to consume less so that poor countries have access to more of the world's resources and are not forced to destroy the environment in order to survive. After reading Durning's article, it becomes clear that Hardin omits any information that could portray wealthy nations in a negative manner because it would inspire in the reader sympathy for the poor. With further analysis, the reader finds that Hardin's true purpose is to turn his intended audience against the poor by making them seem like enemies in order to lower resistance to his proposal of denying foreign aid. Durning's world view and his exposure of the overconsumption found in wealthy nations reveal Hardin's true purpose and the strategies he utilizes in order to persuade his audience, detracting from the credibility of his argument.

Hardin begins his argument with the introduction of his central metaphor of the lifeboat which insists that there are two kinds of people in the world: the rich and the poor. He singles out his audience almost immediately by using the American lifeboat as an example, requesting that the reader imagine that the lifeboat is more than eighty percent filled and can only hold ten more passengers. The poor are in the water. The occupants of the American lifeboat must select how many, if any, should be given aid and which ones are worthy of such generosity. Hardin proposes that no more passengers be admitted so that the lifeboat can preserve the "safety factor" (508) that may be necessary for survival in the event of future difficulties aboard the boat. He goes on to explain his theory of "the tragedy of the commons" (509) which claims that should all of the world's resources be made readily available to every person on the planet, many people would not act responsibly and take only that which they need to survive. He also compares population growth rates of wealthy nations to poor nations and finds that the poor multiply much faster than the rich. He claims that by helping them, the rich enable the poor to continue to grow their population, increasing the need for assistance. His argument seems sound enough in the beginning, but after considering the points that Durning makes in his article, Hardin's argument begins to take a new shape. When the reader questions why Hardin chose to omit certain information from his article, it becomes obvious that his purpose was not to simply inform the reader, but to persuade the audience to share his opinion of how the poor should be treated.

Very early in his article, Hardin sets about separating the nations of the world into two categories: the rich and the poor. Of those, "two third of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all" (507). With the last bit, Hardin hones in on his target audience and captures their attention. Hardin goes one step further in his quest to divide the people by introducing the "lifeboat" metaphor. He writes, "here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat" (508), thrusting himself into the hypothetical situation and dragging his readers along with him. By using the pronouns "we" and "our" Hardin relays to the readers that he is in the lifeboat with them and they must face the dilemma of the poor together. The wealthy American audience is then requested to envision that the water surrounding their lifeboat is filled with the poor people of the world, desperately begging for help. From the image Hardin has set, it is easy to see that there are two very different types of people involved. The wealthy are safe and dry in their sturdy lifeboats, content in their good fortune, while the poor flail about in the water, nearly drowning and in dire need of assistance. At first, Hardin's categorization of the world population seems to be plausible. However, after considering Durning's point of view, Hardin's decision becomes suspect. In "Asking How Much is Enough," Durning separates the people of the world into types based on finances, just as Hardin does. The difference, however, is that Durning acknowledges a third category, the middle-class, which has no place in Hardin's lifeboat metaphor. In Durning's model, the middle-class is a "massive" (408) group, outnumbering both the rich and the poor and it seems highly unlikely that Hardin simply overlooked the majority of the world population. It becomes obvious that the third group was deliberately omitted from Hardin's article because it does not coincide with his metaphor. The reader's awareness of Hardin's deception detracts from the validity of his argument because his word is no longer trustworthy.

Hardin goes on to insist that the wealthy are responsible for determining the fate of everyone. First, the people aboard the lifeboat can choose to rescue everyone in the water with the assurance that the boat will sink and every one will drown. The second choice is to select only the ten more that the boat can support and sacrifice the safety factor. Both choices will eventually lead to the destruction of the lifeboat, the United States, and everyone aboard it.



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