English 103 – To Help Or Not To Help

NOTE: This essay was written for my English 103 class and is not free use.

To Help Or Not To Help

One of the most important issues facing the world today is the issue of the poor. There are many things that can be done about this issue, however much of the world is torn between wanting to help and not knowing how to go about it. This is the issue that is presented in the two essays – Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and Garrett Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor.” While both essays are well written and make their points plainly, they support opposing sides of the issue. And while Singer makes many good points, citing invented instances and the (then) current issue of the poor in Bengal, Hardin’s point is the more persuasive due to his many real world examples and his vivid lifeboat metaphor.

To prove this point, I will begin by describing Singer’s essay and his primary proofs for his argument, and then do the same for Hardin’s essay. Finally, I will cite further examples from Hardin’s essay and exemplify why I believe his point is the stronger of the two.

Singer begins his essay with a hook that was relevant to the time that the essay was originally published, and quickly leads into his thesis; his thesis essentially being that, “The whole way we look at moral issues – our moral conceptual scheme – needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society” (392). He argues that people in general do want to help those less fortunate, but rarely ever actually attempt to do so. Everyone knows of charities, and knows that they use the money they are given to help the poor and needy, but not many people actually take the time to donate and make a difference. Singer states,

“Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance [for those in need] ; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward providing the [needy] with the means to satisfy their essential needs” (391).

Perhaps the most pointed example in Singer’s essay is his “shallow pond” analogy, an invented instance involving the moral imperative that if you see a small child drowning in a shallow pond, you should wade in and save them, even if it sacrifices something small like your clothing to being wet and muddy. As Singer states, “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it” (392). While your clothing getting muddy is regretful, the child losing his or her life would be morally outrageous, and therefore the clothing should be sacrificed in order to save the life of the child.

Another of Singer’s points is that perhaps not enough importance is given to the need to help others. People see it as an option rather than an obligation. As he says, “The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it” (395). He goes on to say that “Because  giving money is regarded as an act of charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving” (395). He postulates that helping people should not be an option, but an obligation, and that there should be consequences such as jail time or tickets, for not giving.

Garrett Hardin, however, has taken up the opposing viewpoint in his essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping The Poor,” claiming that we are already doing too much to help the poor, and as a result, they do not ever help themselves. While the general public is overtly interested in helping those less fortunate, Hardin says that “In their enthusiastic but unrealistic generosity, they confuse the ethics of a spaceship with those of a lifeboat” (402). The main postulate of his essay is that, rather than being a place in which everyone on Earth has an equal right to an equal share of the planet’s resources, Earth is instead like a lifeboat. The planet has a limited capacity to support it’s population, and in many ways we have already exceeded our planet’s carrying capacity. Therefore, drastic measures must be taken to ensure the survival of our species and planet.

Unlike Singer’s essay, in which mostly invented instances and some statistics were used as examples, Hardin uses more real world instances as supporting evidence for his “lifeboat ethics” thesis.  His main invented instance is the lifeboat scenario itself, in which we are “adrift in a moral sea,” in a lifeboat with a limited capacity. For the sake of his hypothesis, the lifeboat contains fifty people, with room for an additional ten. However, as he indicates, choosing the ten other people from the myriad of human beings floating in this “moral sea” is nearly impossible. “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 sixty. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe” (403). As a result of this fact, Hardin reasons that it is the rational thing to do is to preserve the safety factor that we in the lifeboat already have, knowing that without the ten other people, there is plenty of room for us. As a result, those in the lifeboat will simply buckle down and have to be on the watch for boarding parties. As Hardin says, “While this last solution clearly offers the only [sure] means of our survival, it is morally abhorrent to so many people” (403).

As “morally abhorrent” as this solution is, Hardin argues that it is the only viable way of ensuring the survival of our species. And ultimately, thanks in part to his use of real world examples, versus Singer’s invented instances, Hardin’s essay proves itself to be the more persuasive.

Hardin uses many real world examples to illustrate why people should keep the lifeboat to themselves. One of his major points is the inevitable failure of the Food For Peace initiative that occurred between 1960 and 1970, wherein U.S. Taxpayers spent a total of over seven billion dollars on the program, and rather than helping the poor, instead it wound up putting money in the pockets of U.S. Businesses. Hardin claims that this would only be repeated with the hypothetical World Food Bank – an international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and draw from according to their needs. Though rather than the money ending up somewhere it didn’t need to go, the worry with the World Food bank is that people are inherently greedy, and would continue to draw from the bank rather than try to support themselves.

Another issue that Hardin addresses is the growth rate of the human population, and how the affluent reproduce at a much slower rate than the poor. Therefore those in need, those “in the water,” will always outnumber those in the lifeboats who are capable of offering aid. Hence the threat of being swamped should aid be offered. As coarse as it may sound, Hardin quotes the late Alan Gregg, Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation, who likened the growth and spread of humanity across the globe to a cancer in a human body, saying “cancerous growths demand food; but, as far as I know, they have never been cured by getting it” (408).

Hardin also sites immigration as a problem. Immigration, looked at in his invented instance of the lifeboat, is like the boarding parties he envisions. Quantity is the issue, not bigotry or racism, and too many people in the lifeboat will simply cause it to capsize. He also mentions that justice is a craving that most people have. We prefer rules and morals that are unchanged by the time and place, and yet our world simply does not work that way.

Ultimately, Hardin’s proofs resonate stronger than Singer’s, despite the emotional and eloquent way that Singer presents his argument. The real world examples of the hypothetical World Food Bank, and the previous attempt at Food For Peace, as well as the issues of world population growth and immigration bring Hardin’s point into stark relief. Prior to reading the essays in depth and writing this paper, I would have agreed with Singer’s point of view. However, I have found myself swayed in the course of this project, to Hardin’s side on the matter.

The case for, or against, the poor is a difficult and morally charged issue, and while Peter Singer presents a strong argument, ultimately Hardin’s essay is the more persuasive. As Hardin states in his closing paragraph, “For the foreseeable future, our survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh though they may be. Posterity will be satisfied with nothing less” (411). Comparing the two essays, their evidence, and their author’s viewpoints, it is Hardin’s essay that ultimately proves itself to be more persuasive.