Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Food for thought

The lifeboat

'Right,' said Roger, the self-appointed captain of the lifeboat. 'There are twelve of us on this vessel, which is great, because it can hold up to twenty. And we have plenty of rations to last until someone comes to get us, which won't be longer than twenty-four hours. So, I think that means we can safely allow ourselves an extra chocolate biscuit and a shot of rum each. Any objections?'
'Much as I'd doubtless enjoy the extra biscuit,' said Mr Mates, 'shouldn't our main priority right now be to get the boat over there and pick up the poor drowning woman who has been shouting at us for the last half hour?' A few people looked down into the hull of the boat, embarrassed, while others shook their heads in disbelief.
'I thought we had agreed,' said Roger. 'It's not our fault she's drowning, and if we pick her up, we won't be able to enjoy our extra rations. Why should we disrupt our cosy set-up here?' There were grunts of agreement.
'Because we could save her, and if we don't she'll die. Isn't that reason enough?'
'Life's a bitch,' replied Roger. 'If she dies, it's not because we killed her. Anyone for a digestive?'

Source: 'Lifeboat Earth' by Onora O'Neill, republished in 'World Hunger and Moral Obligation', edited by W.Aiken and H.La Follette

The lifeboat metaphor is pretty easy to translate. The boat is the affluent West and the drowning woman those dying of malnutrition and preventable disease in the developing world. And the attitude of the developed world is, on this view, as callous as Roger's. We have enough food and medicine for everyone, but we would rather enjoy luxuries and let others die than forfeit our 'extra biscuit' and save them. If the people on the lifeboat are grossly immoral, then so are we.


The UN has set a target for developed countries to give 0.7 per cent of their GDP to overseas aid. Few have met it. For the vast majority of people, to give even 1 per cent of their income to help the impoverished would have a negligible effect on their quality of life. The lifeboat analogy suggests that it is not so much that we would be good people if we did so, but that we are terribly wrong not to.

Julian Baggini, 'The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments'

No comments: