Encyclopedia of Global Justice

2011 Edition
| Editors: Deen K. Chatterjee

Lifeboat Ethics

  • Michael K. Potter
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9160-5_318

Although the idea dates back at least as far as the eighteenth century, the term “lifeboat ethics” denotes a position first proposed by influential Texan ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915–2003), whose ethical perspective traces back to the tragedy of the commons. A paradox of rationality and virtue, the tragedy of the commons is what happens when a plethora of people, all acting out of short-term rational self-interest, degrade, destroy, or deplete a common resource – resulting in a consequence that is not in anyone’s long-term self-interest.

In two substantially identical essays published in 1974, Hardin used a lifeboat metaphor as an alternative to the then-popular metaphor of “spaceship earth.” The spaceship earth metaphor, he argued, makes sense only if all on the spaceship are under the control of one captain, for the notion of a spaceship that runs by committee, or through democratic elections, is senseless. The metaphor ignores salient features of the actual world in order to lend...

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  1. Hardin G (1974a) Lifeboat ethics: the case against helping the poor. Psychology Today 8:38–43Google Scholar
  2. Hardin G (1974b) Living on a lifeboat. BioScience 24(10):561–568, Widely reprintedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael K. Potter
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Teaching and LearningUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada