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Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor – Garrett Hardin What Should A Billionaire Give-and What Should You? – Peter Singer Essay Sample

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Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor – Garrett Hardin What Should A Billionaire Give-and What Should You? – Peter Singer Essay Sample


One of the most important issues facing the world today is the issue of the poor. There are many things that can be done about this issue, however much of the world is torn between wanting to help and not knowing how to go about it. This is the issue that is presented in the two essays – Garrett Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor,” and Peter Singer’s “What Should A Billionaire Give-and What Should You?” Garrett Hardin was an ecologist who warned of the dangers of overpopulation. In his article, he argues that our first obligation is to ourselves and our posterity and that we would be foolish to let rich nations share their surplus with poor nations. He believes that in a world with a growing population such sharing would do no good, “it would only overload the environment and lead to demands for still greater assistance in the future” (Hardin, Pg. 80).

On the other hand, Peter Singer takes the view that people in affluent countries ought to stop spending their money on luxuries and begin giving that money to aid the world’s poor. He believes that all lives have equal value no matter where they are being led, and that we are very far from acting in accordance with that belief. Both Hardin and Singer have Utilitarian views on this subject pointing out the consequences for society. While Singer makes many good points throughout his article, at the end of the day I believe that Hardin provides a better analysis of the situation. Hardin’s point is the more persuasive and the stronger of the two articles, due to his many real world examples and his vivid lifeboat metaphor.

Hardin starts off his article with the use of a metaphor, referring to the Earth as a spaceship. A true spaceship would have to be under the control of a captain, and Earth certainly has no captain he says. This led him to the idea that if we divide the world into rich nations and poor nations, each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world. He gives an example with 50 people in a lifeboat with room for ten more people. While 100 others are swimming in the water outside begging to come onto the boat.

Hardin lists several options: one, we could take them all into the boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60 people. Second, since the boat has an unused excess capacity of ten more passengers, we could admit just ten more to it, but then how do we choose which ten to let in the boat? Our last option is to preserve our safety factor and not let anyone on the lifeboat to make survival a possibility. Being that this last solution provides the only means to survival, Hardin believes that the last solution would be the morally right decision. Hardin also points out that the ethics of the lifeboat become even harsher due to the people inside and outside the lifeboat doubling in number due to reproduction. The fundamental error of the spaceship ethics and the sharing it requires is called “the tragedy of the commons.” To understand this concept, Hardin gives an example that if a farmer allows more cattle in a pasture than its carrying capacity, erosion will set in and he will lose the use of the pasture.

He states that the solution is that everyone needs to restrain themselves, and there needs to be a responsible system of control. Hardin also mentions a new commons called a World Food Bank, an international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs. But the real power behind this program was soon revealed, “Feeding the World’s Hungry Millions: How It Will Mean Billions for the U.S. Business.” “The combination of silent selfish interests and highly vocal humanitarian apologists made a powerful and successful lobby for extracting money from the taxpayers” (Hardin, Pg. 83).

Hardin points out that however great the potential benefit to selfish interests, it should not be a decisive argument against a truly humanitarian program. Without some system of worldwide food sharing, the proportion of people in the rich and poor nations might eventually stabilize. The overpopulated poor countries would decrease in numbers, while the rich countries that had room for more people would increase. Hardin continues on to show that the modern approach to foreign aid stresses the export of technology and advice, rather than money and food! An ancient Chinese proverb once said: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he will eat for the rest of his days” (Hardin, Pg. 84). A number of programs for improving agriculture in the hungry nations known as the “Green Revolution” have taken a big stand in offering harvest and greater resistance to crop damage due to action taken on this advice. It is said that foundations such as “miracle rice” and “miracle wheat” are one of the most prominent advocates of a world food bank.

“If we satisfy a growing population’s need for food, we necessarily decrease its per capita supply of the other resources needed by men” (Hardin, Pg. 84). Hardin also points out that food is going to be significantly increased to meet a demand due to the overloading population, so what are going to do about the environment? For example, studies show that India’s population increases by 15 million each year. The country’s forests are now only a small fraction of what they were three centuries ago and floods and erosion continually destroy the farmland that remains. Hardin stresses that new lives added to India’s population puts an additional burden on the environment, and increases the economic and social costs of crowding. He talks about how unrestricted immigration moves people to the food, thus speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries.

He argues that we can easily understand why poor people should want to make this latter transfer. But he asks why should rich hosts encourage it? The primary selfish interest in unblocked immigration is the desire of employers for cheap labor, particularly in industries and trades that offer degrading work. They are brought into the U.S. to work at miserable jobs for poor wages. That is why “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are particularly reluctant to call for a closing of the doors to immigration for fear of being called bigots” (Hardin, Pg. 85). U.S. liberals argue that we cannot shut the doors now because many friends and relatives would like to come here some day to enjoy our land as well.

“How can you justify slamming the door once you’re inside? You say that immigrants should be kept out. But aren’t we all immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants? If we insist on staying, must we not admit all others” (Pg. 86) the U.S. liberals argued. It is pointed out in the book that we Americans can look at ourselves as guilty morally of stealing this land from its Indian owners if thats the case. Does that mean we should give back the land to the now living American descendants of those Indians? Or, since all of our wealth has also been derived from this land, wouldn’t we be obligated to give that back to the Indians too? The article states that drawing a line after a random time has passed may be unfair. I agree with Hardin in that we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point where we are today. He concludes his article by saying that for the future our survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat.

While Hardin argues that our obligation is to ourselves and our posterity, Singer has a different perspective to share with us. Singer believes that “all lives–no matter where they are being led–have equal value” (Singer, Pg. 90). Instead of spending money on luxuries, Singer says that we should give that money to aid the world’s poor. A large amount of people struggle to survive on the purchasing power equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar per day. Most of the world’s poorest people do not have things that are essential to live in their daily lives such as safe drinking water, the opportunity to send their children to school or even the most basic health services cannot be given to these poor people. Singer backs up his argument by pointing out that more than 10 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty related causes.

Singer focuses a big part of his article on the donations Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have given to reduce poverty, disease, and premature death in the developing world and claims that we should all give to the poor. According to Singer’s research, diseases that affected the poor in the past have been of no commercial interest to pharmaceutical manufacturers because the poor cannot afford to buy their products. Does this mean that there is an obligation for the rich to give, and if so, how much should they give? “To whom much has been given, much is expected” (Singer, Pg. 91).

This suggests that those who have great wealth have a duty to use it for a larger purpose than their own interests. Singer points out that it may be a possibility that the reason why wealthy people give away money, is to ease their consciences or generate favorable publicity. He says that if the rich just give their money away to improve their image, then what they are doing has no relevance to what we have to do. Thomas Hobbes argues that we all act in our own interests. There is a story about Hobbes in the article that says he saw an old man in miserable condition, and by providing the man with some relief from misery, it eased Hobbe’s pain.

Hobbes also said that he would have done this action even if Christ had not commanded him to do so. German philosopher Immanuel Kant would disagree. He thinks that an act has moral worth only if it is done out of a sense of duty. “Doing something merely because you enjoy doing it, or enjoy seeing its consequences, they say, has no moral worth, because if you happened not to enjoy doing it, then you wouldn’t do it, and you are responsible for your likes and dislikes, whereas you are responsible for your obedience to the demands of duty” (Singer, Pg. 91). At this point, Singer says that the rich should voluntarily donate some of what they earn to the poor because the “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States and northwestern Europe. These are the foundation of which the rich can begin their work.


Therefore, the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is a result of their hard work is true, at most 10 percent of it. In any case, Singer says that even if we were to grant that people deserve every dollar they earn, what should they do with it? An example is given of walking by a pond and seeing a small child who has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. Singer states that even though we have done nothing to cause this, everyone agrees that we ought to save the child at minimal trouble to ourselves. Anything else would be wrong, the fact that in rescuing the child we might ruin a pair of shoes, he says, is not a good excuse for leaving the child to drown. Since we all agree that fairness is a good thing, Singer says that we should reject the fair share view. He refers us back to the example of the child drowning in the pond, and says, now imagine 50 children have fallen into the pond and cannot swim. Among the pond, 50 adults are picnicking and can easily rescue the children.

The fact that we would find it cold and unpleasant in the water is no reason for failing to rescue the children. Singer points out that the “fair share” theorists would say that if we each rescue one child, all the children will be saved. But, what if half the picnickers decide they prefer to stay clean then rescue the children? Now, can we say that it is acceptable if the rest of us stop after we have rescued just one child, knowing that we have done our fair share but that half the children will drown? “We might justifiably be furious with those who are not doing their fair share, but our anger with them is not a reason for letting the children die” (Singer, Pg. 96).

During the past 20 years of economic globalization, although expanding trade has helped lift many of the world’s poor out of poverty, it has failed to benefit the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population. Countries like Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands give three or four times as much foreign aid in proportion to the size of their economies, as the U.S. gives-with a much larger percentage going to the poorest nations. Singer says that this is another issue the rich should contribute to, but how much should they give? Singer shows us that Gates may have given away nearly $30 billion, but that still leaves him sitting at the top of the list of the richest Americans. He introduces another big contributor by the name of Zell Kravinsky who gave almost $45 million real estate fortune to health-related charities.

After learning that thousands of people with failing kidneys die each year while waiting for a transplant, he contacted Philadelphia hospital and donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger. “He says that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,ooo. For him that implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger is obscene” (Singer, Pg. 94). Kravinsky was also asked if he would allow his child to die if it would enable a thousand children to live, Kravinsky said yes. What marks Kravinsky from the rest of us is that he takes the equal value of all human life as a guide to life. Singer’s main argument throughout the whole article was that no one needs to live in such degrading conditions. The target we should be setting for ourselves he says is well within our reach, and a worthy goal.

John Stuart Mill is proponent of utilitarianism, an ethical theory that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. Mill defines utilitarianism as a theory based on the principle that, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. He argues that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity, and that pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures. Furthermore, Mill argues that people’s achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living,
should be counted as part of their happiness.

Mill argues that happiness is the sole basis of morality, and that people never desire anything but happiness. He supports this claim by showing that all the other objects of people’s desire are either means to happiness, or included in the definition of happiness. Mill explains at length that the sentiment of justice is actually based on utility, and that rights exist only because they are necessary for human happiness.

Utilitarianism is a theory that states that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, specifically defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering. It is now generally taken to be a form of consequentialism. Both Hardin and Singer utilize a Utilitarian argument. I would say that John Mill would agree with Hardin on the lifeboat ethics because he mentions the consequences for the greater society, as well as Singer with his argument on helping society by reducing poverty. Both views reach a solution that gives the largest amount of pleasure and benefits society with a positive consequence.

Singer’s argument is based upon his utilitarian perspective and in this case shows how charitable donations on part of the wealthy (relative to those in extremely impoverished conditions) impose very minimal hardship but greatly benefit the living conditions of the poor, thereby minimizing world suffering. At this point, I would say that Mill as a Utilitarian, would support Hardin’s view. Judging from the information shown on Hardin and Singer’s point of view, I have come to a conclusion that many of Hardin’s arguments are more along the lines of Mill’s. For example, one of Hardin’s main arguments that our first obligation is to ourselves and our posterity, is quite compatible with Mill’s principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others.

I believe that that Hardin’s stance on helping the poor does have some valid points. For instance, if the poor are going to reproduce at and exponential rate (in relation to the wealthy and their population growth), then why should the rich have to tend to that ever increasing population? As long as people reproduce at different rates, we cannot safely divide the wealth. Additionally, if we always come to the rescue of the poor, then they will
never learn from their mistakes. I think that these arguments are extremely valid and hold some truth behind them. Based upon previous works by Singer, I was surprised that he only recommended donations of 33% of income from top earners be donated, considering most could get by quite happily with far, far less than 66% of $5 million.

I think one issue with Singer’s argument is that much of the aid given to developing nations seem to have no effect or even adverse outcomes in relieving poverty. For instance, donations of food to the starving definitely relieve the immediate suffering of those beneficiaries, but it also allows those families to have and care for more children than they would otherwise be able to- in other words more and more mouths to feed than the charities can keep up with. With the population of starving able to increase in part because of the donations of food, suffering has increased due to the same charity. Perhaps Singer would reply that those who consider this scenario to be a problem should instead donate their money to an organization specializing in distributing birth control to the same populations, but then those people would continue to starve and their current suffering would not be lessened.

Ultimately, Hardin’s proofs are more effective than Singer’s in my point of view, despite the emotional and eloquent way that Singer presents his argument. The examples of the World Food Bank, and the previous attempt at Food For Peace, as well as the issues of world population growth and immigration bring Hardin’s point into well defined and focused belief. Prior to reading the essays in depth and writing this paper, I would have agreed with Singer’s point of view. However, I have found myself swayed in the course of this project, to Hardin’s side on the matter. The case for, or against, the poor is a difficult and morally charged issue.

As Hardin states in his closing paragraph, “For the foreseeable future, our survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh though they may be. Posterity will be satisfied with nothing less” (Pg. 86). Comparing the two essays, their evidence, and their author’s viewpoints, it is Hardin’s essay that ultimately proves itself to be more effective and persuasive.

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