Social Justice and the Zombie Apocalypse (Based on a Conversation with Levi Lewis)

In 1974, Garrett Hardin published his controversial essay “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” in Psychology Today. In this essay, he argues that rich countries should neither give food aid to poor countries nor should they allow people from those countries to “come to the food” by immigrating to rich countries. While many find this policy immoral, Hardin contends that efforts to relieve starvation in the short run do nothing to change the unsustainable population growth of poor countries and lead to greater harm in the long run as the demands of increasing numbers of poor people begin to outstrip the entire planet’s supply of resources. Hardin compares the citizens of rich countries to the passengers of a nearly-full lifeboat surrounded by multitudes of drowning swimmers, where allowing more people to board would risk swamping the lifeboat and dooming everybody. He asserts that just as in the lifeboat situation it would be moral to prevent additional swimmers from boarding, it is moral for the rich to deny the poor the “lifeline” of food aid or immigration.


While some individuals find Hardin’s analogy compelling, and English landlords during the Great Irish Famine would certainly have appreciated it, it makes some important and inaccurate simplifications. The first is that on a lifeboat the main limiting resource is space, something that each passenger uses roughly the same amount of. On our planet however, space is not the primary limiting factor. We are much more limited by food, water, and energy, which rich and poor people use in vastly different quantities. In fact, in 1999, it was estimated that the richest 16% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its natural resources (Utley 12-Oct-1999). If the richest 16% of people were willing to take steps to correct this imbalance and live a somewhat less luxurious, but by no means food-insecure, lifestyle at least some of those currently starving could be adequately fed. While Hardin claims that the “lifeboat” of food-security is already filled to capacity by passengers, it seems that in reality some of the “space” is taken up by the equivalent of Louis Vuitton suitcases that could be thrown overboard to make room for additional people and save additional lives.


Hardin’s second oversimplification may be even more misleading than his first. In his lifeboat example, any people denied boarding will have no means of retaliation, at least not on this side of eternity. The passengers will remain perfectly safe as the swimmers drown all around them. There are reasons to suspect, however, that the rich will not remain safe while the poor starve. Not everyone denied food aid or the opportunity to immigrate dies instantly[1] and some of the survivors may resent those who could have helped them and did not. Enough resentful survivors could represent a serious security risk to the rich countries that expected them to quietly starve to death. Perhaps a better analogy than a lifeboat after a shipwreck would be a well-stocked fortress at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. While the gatekeepers can turn those seeking shelter away, and may have justifiable reasons for doing so, there is no guarantee those denied entry will not come back later, perhaps in a much more dangerous form[2]. While Hardin is correct to point out that there are ecological risks to aid policies designed to help the poor, refusing to help is not a perfectly safe option.


While the concept of “Lifeboat Ethics” makes for a good catch phrase it ignores the fact that modern food shortages are due to inequitable distribution rather than global shortage and neglects some very frightening security implications. While many people have legitimate fears about the ecological consequences of an increasing human population, those concerns should not be used as an excuse to behave like a 19th century absentee landlord. Instead, let us try to prevent women from being forced to breed either by rape or by forced marriage and to make family planning safer and more widely available. Hardinian thinking should be thrown out of the lifeboat along with those Louis Vuitton suitcases.



Hardin, G. Sep-1974. “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” (Accessed 4-Apr-2017).

Utley, G. 12-Oct-1999. “World’s wealthiest 16 percent uses 80 percent of natural resources”. CNN (Accessed 4-Apr-2017)

[1] Anyone who uses this as justification for not helping the poor should really try to be more compassionate.

[2] This analogy is for explanatory purposes only. Obviously poor people do not actually resemble zombies.


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