Environmental Philosophy

Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2005

W. S. K. Cameron
Pages 30-43

Can We Afford the Tough Love of Liberals?
A Deflationary Look at Garrett Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethic

In two shocking articles that appeared in 1968 and 1974, Garrett Hardin argued that the population explosion was producing a “tragedy of the commons.” Since we lack an effective method of sharing common resources, the strong incentive for individuals to appropriate them selfishly would soon lead to their collapse. To mitigate this danger, Hardin proposed a “lifeboat ethic”: less populated and -polluted Western countries should deny food aid to developing nations, where it would save lives only to increase population pressure, and they should close their borders to immigration to prevent their lifeboats from becoming overcrowded and going down with the rest. This paper challenges and complicates Hardin’s account of the tragedy. While there is something right about his view, its vulnerability to a series of empirical challenges reflects its conceptual limitations. I argue that we need to develop a broadly ethical and arguably religious solution to the twin challenges of population growth and pollution. If the liberal commitment to negative freedom is, ironically, largely responsible for our current ecological bind, our only hope of escape is to build bridges between traditions in search of a thicker sense of ethicopolitical obligation.