Lifeboat Ethics As Regards Immigration; Relevant Today? Part I - February 12, 2022

Well-Considered Immigration Policies Include Painful Decisions.  Are We Up To It?

Salesmen focus on the strong points of their products and downplay or ignore shortcomings.  Lobbyists, politicians, pundits and sympathetic media do the same.  But ignoring or denying or ‘not intending’ consequences, immediate and longer term, won’t make them not happen.

In September, 1974, Psychology Today published an article by University of California Professor Garrett Hardin entitled Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.  In it Professor Hardin argued that well-intentioned practices of aiding poor nations by giving them food were making the people in those nations poorer in the long run.  To illustrate the problem he posed a hypothetical situation that goes something like this:

A ship has sunk during winter in the North Atlantic.  Fifty of the 150 passengers and crew are safe, for the time being, in the only lifeboat to survive destruction.  The other hundred people are swimming or clutching debris nearby.  The lifeboat was designed to accommodate fifty people, with a safety factor of ten; in ordinary seas it would carry sixty before swamping and sinking.  It also has a few days of water and food for the design capacity.

The fifty people in the boat have to consider whether they will allow any others to get in the boat and, if so, who and how many.  If they refuse to bring any more on board they enhance their own chances of surviving the often-stormy ocean long enough to be rescued or reach land.  If they take on up to ten of the people in the water they give those swimmers at least temporary survival, but they decrease their own chances of longer-term survival; if they take in any more than ten, the boat will swamp and everyone will drown.

Of course, survival chances for the boat and its passengers could be maximized by taking on the stronger and more capable among the swimmers … and tossing overboard an equal number of the weaker and more dependent among the fifty already on the boat.

The fifty in the lifeboat must decide; shall fifty, or maybe sixty, or nobody survive?

Put yourself in the lifeboat.  What would you do?  What values or considerations would guide your decisions?  How would you implement your decisions?  Then, consider what you would do if you were among the hundred in the water.

What will happen if those in the lifeboat don’t make a decision, or just ‘kick it down the road’?

In his article, Professor Hardin extended the hypothetical to many policies and practices in America, including immigration.  He identified who profited from and who paid for such.  And he explained why then-current practices were misguided, especially in the long run.  He didn’t promote specific changes, and he pointed out that any honest consideration of such matters will involve painful decisions.

Our next blog, Part II, will deal with how ‘lifeboat ethics’ applies to immigration in America.

(For more, preview Immigration here.)


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