Garrett Hardin

Written by: Paul Thompson

We’ll finish up “food ethics icons” month with the evil genius of the food/population debates. Everyone I know who ever met Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) spoke well of him. He was by all accounts a generous and open-minded man who welcomed philosophical inquiry and intellectual engagement. So don’t get me wrong when I call him “the evil genius”. He gets that moniker because of several articles he wrote on the population dilemmas that had been brought to public attention by The Population Bomb. The Ehrlichs mainly wanted to get across the idea that we (humans that is) simply could not continue to expand our use of natural resources endlessly. They were not too specific about what we were supposed to do instead.

Hardin put the matter much more pointedly: The earth is a lifeboat, and very soon we are going to get to a point where it is time to throw somebody off. And he didn’t stop there. Applying a pattern of reasoning that philosophy professors call “utilitarianism”, he argued that we (humanity, again) should follow the course that leads us to “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The problem as Hardin diagnosed it was that the poor (and here he pointed especially to places like Bangladesh) were just having too many babies. Rich people had already gone through that demographic transition we (this time it’s just you, me and the other Thornapple blog reader) were talking about just a few weeks back in connection with Rev. Malthus. Having gotten rich, we (again, just us) are in a position where we can cause ourselves considerable consternation by having lots of kids that we have to feed, educate and buy i-pads for. So we’ve learned to have smaller families.

Those poor folks, not so much. They keep on having kids, and that (wrote not just Hardin but also the Ehrlichs) is where the trouble lies. We (humanity circa 1971 now) were witnessing serious famines in Bengal (e.g. Bangladesh) at the time, as Sen would write about later. George Harrison was singing about “rice that keeps going astray on its way to East Bombay,” and holding concerts to raise money for the famine victims. Hardin was having none of that sentimental nonsense. He was writing articles saying that we should let them starve. If we feed them today, he reasoned, they’ll just grow up poor and have too many children. Only there will be even more of them then. We should let a smaller number starve today rather than creating the conditions that will allow a larger number to starve tomorrow.

I think that Hardin may have actually believed this, though it is possible that he took this position to shock people into something approximating an appropriate action. He was right to take on naïve offerings of charity like the Concert for Bangladesh. The whole point was that we just can’t keep riding down this road. As we wrote some months back, if you are trying to get to Canada and driving 90 miles an hour toward Mexico, slowing to 60 is not really going to solve the problem. Hardin saw the hunger crises as a “tragedy of the commons”—a case where doing what was individually rational (he didn’t think the poor were being irrational) is collectively disastrous. Note that this is exactly how many of us understand the climate dilemma today. And like many who write on climate today, Hardin believed that “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” is the only solution. So he wasn’t so much advocating the death of starving people as he was urging government regulation to control population growth. The Chinese eventually tried that, by the way.

But I do have to say that the moral position Hardin actually advocated is both indefensible and unsustainable. It may seem mealy-mouthed, but the better course is the one that Malthus and the Ehrlich’s advocated, even if they did so in less than clarion tones. We can’t have this kind of poverty anymore: It creates moral dilemmas for which there are no acceptable responses. At the same time, we should remember that it’s not just a matter of “distribution”. Sen taught that we can redistribute in ways that are almost as catastrophic for the poor as Hardin’s willingness to “let ‘em starve.”

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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