Lifeboat ethics

The ecologist Garrett Hardin proposed the concept of ‘Lifeboat’ ethics. It was used as a metaphor to discuss resource distribution and what was deemed acceptable behaviour (or indeed ethical) under these circumstances.

1280px-Titanic_lifeboat.jpg

The basic premise that Mr. Hardin proposed is as follows…

  1. There is a lifeboat carrying 50 people with space for 10 more.
  2. The lifeboat is surrounded by 100 swimmers
  3. Under what criteria/circumstances should swimmers be taken aboard? (bearing in mind that too many swimmers trying to clamber into the boat would put everyone currently in the boat at risk of capsizing)

Once the tricky matter of who should be allowed into the lifeboat is resolved other considerations become apparent. The lifeboat may be rescued in hours, days, months… or even never.

  1. Is it acceptable to deny a dying passenger food and water to save it for the others?
  2. Is it acceptable to jettison a dying passenger (knowing that they will die) to make room for someone else?
  3. It is acceptable to rank passengers by skill sets i.e. assigning a higher value to someone with physical prowess or medical skills when apportioning rations?

If food is low…

  1. Is cannibalism an option?
  2. Is it acceptable to murder weak/dying passengers or preserve food and/or to eat them?

Amongst other things the lifeboat is generally seen as analogous to spaceship earth. These questions mirror questions of immigration and foreign aid where the swimmers are the poor countries and the rich countries occupy the space in the lifeboat.