Lifeboat ethics: how scarcity thinking sets us at each others’ throats [The Good Life series]

A scenario beloved of ethicists, public policy experts, and management consultants asks you to imagine yourself on a lifeboat.

Lifeboat Built into such scenarios are powerful assumptions with life-or-death consequences, so as we work through the lifeboat scenario try to make those assumptions explicit. Here we go:

You were flying over the Pacific, but bad weather knocked out the plane’s communications. To avoid the storm, the pilot then diverted from the plane’s scheduled route. A terrible hour or so later he lost control and crashed the plane into the ocean. You and some others survived and managed to climb into an inflatable lifeboat.

You take stock of your situation. There are ten of you in a boat designed for four people, with enough food and water for two days. Nobody knows where you are, you don’t know where you are, and your phones were lost or destroyed in the crash.

What do you do?

1. You might assess the situation ruthlessly, point to the water and shout Shark! When one of your companions foolishly looks to see — you shove him overboard. One down, five to go. Of course the rest see what’s up and begin trying to shove each other overboard. When the fighting ends, the four quickest and strongest have prevailed and the six slowest or weakest become shark food.

2. Or you might say, Nobody move — let’s talk this over. Someone then suggests that, in the interests of equality, everyone share the food and water. The likely result? A big wave swamps the boat carrying ten people but designed for four; everyone dies. Or when one person gets too hungry or thirsty, she defects and shoves someone overboard. Fighting commences. The four strongest prevail and six die.

3. Or someone suggests that, in the interests of fairness, you draw lots to decide who will live and who will die. Result? The first powerful person to draw a bad lot refuses to accept the result. In the ensuing fight to shove him overboard, the strongest prevail and the weakest lose.

4. Or you might suggest, Let’s see who has the most to contribute and the best chances of surviving. On the lifeboat, it turns out, are an 88-year-old man, someone who broke both legs in the crash, an emotional basket-case, and a 95-pound woman with zero fat reserves — along with a healthy 20-year old male, a woman in the military Special Forces, a middle-aged man who is twenty pounds overweight, and several others. So as a group you identify the four strongest and, unfortunately, sacrifice the six weakest.

Other options are possible. But note that they all seem to be converging on a common result: The lifeboat is a strong-versus-weak situation, and the strong will sacrifice the weak.

How realistic is this made-up scenario? The point of using lifeboats is to help us think through the big questions of life and death by giving us a simplified model of the factors that we must attend to.

The lifeboat’s key factors are economic: the lifeboat’s supply of space, food, and water is much less than the demand for them. That is to say, scarce resources is the dominant reality.

If the lifeboat is used as a microcosm from which we can draw grand conclusions, as many ethicists and other experts want to, then the claims are, first, that we live in a world of scarce resources and, second, that our public policy decisions should be based on that fact.

A nature show followed a herd of caribou on their annual migration from southern to northern Alaska where, in the short summer, they will graze. Packs of wolves also followed the caribou, picking off the old, the weak, and the injured. The narrator of the show intoned, “And this is good for the caribou,” explaining that the supply of grasses in northern Alaska was not enough to support the entire herd.

Anthropologists tell us that when a harsh winter approached and food was scarce, many Native American tribes had a policy of expecting their elderly members to take themselves off into the mountains, the woods, or the desert to let nature take its course. The reasoning was that the eldest were the weakest and that vital food resources should go only to the strongest.

In a widely-reprinted essay, contemporary bio-ethicist Garrett Hardin extended lifeboat ethics to the human population at large, arguing that the Earth’s resource scarcity demands that we rich and strong nations stop giving to the poor and weak nations. Such charity, he argued, undercuts the survival chances of the strong and means only that more of the poor will survive and reproduce, thus making the problem worse in the next generation.

But arguing against Hardin is the equally-widely-cited line from Mahatma Gandhi: “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Those of us with more are depriving those with less, so we resource-rich should give up for the sake of the resource-poor.

And we should not forget that very realistic lifeboat scenario — the sinking of Titanic in 1912. titanic-lifeboatsLifeboats were few and people were many, so a life-and-death scarcity was real. In that case, the operative principle was “Women and children first.” In accordance with Victorian and Edwardian ethics, stronger men had a noble obligation to protect and, if necessary, sacrifice for their weaker women and offspring.

So which is the more moral policy: Should we sacrifice the weak for the strong — or the strong for the weak?

For example, when revising tax policy, should we favor the rich or the poor? If the government’s healthcare budget is maxed out, should we first deny lifesaving surgeries to the elderly? Or should we prosperous nations feel guilty about our lifestyles and send more billions of dollars in foreign aid to the struggling nations?

Note that all of these arguments assume that we live in a zero-sum world that pits the strong against the weak. We are then supposed to choose sides, favoring either the strong or the weak. And note especially that underlying all of the arguments is the assumption of scarce resources.

The claim that resources are scarce is everywhere — in political debate, in environmentalism, in much of economic science, and in moral decision theory. But is it true?

In my next column I will argue that it is false. (Available words are now scarce, as my editor’s cruelly-imposed limits for this column have decreed.) We live in a world of plentiful resources, both actual and potential. And in those places where people sadly continue to struggle with scarcity for generation after generation, the problem always is dysfunctional culture or dysfunctional politics — or a doubly-dysfunctional combination of the two.

Bad thinking and occasional accidents can drive us into scarcity conflicts, but scarcity itself is not a fundamental or unavoidable fact of the human condition.

[This article was originally published in English at and in Portuguese at]

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