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...
- Hardin G (1974a) Lifeboat ethics: the case against helping the poor. Psychology Today 8:38–43Google Scholar
- Singer P (1979) Practical ethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 158–181, Widely reprinted as a rejoinder to HardinGoogle Scholar
- Van Wyk RN (1988) Perspectives on world hunger and the extent of our positive duties. Public Affairs Quarterly 2(2):75–90Google Scholar