Lifeboat Ethics

From Derb, I learned of this decades-old article by Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor” (Psychology Today, September 1974), which provides a useful thought experiment surrounding the problem of pathological altruism:

So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of 60. Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat or for handouts. We have several options: we may be tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being “our brother’s keeper,” or by the Marxist ideal of “to each according to his needs.” Since the needs of all in the water are the same, and since they can all be seen as “our brothers,” we could take them all into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.

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