“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Richard Feynman


Chronic Famine and the Immorality of Food Aid

by Joseph Fletcher University of Virginia

(This appeared in Population and Environment, Volume 12, Number 3, Spring 1991)

Social biologists have always been aware of, and sensitive to, the significance of numbers and size. They understand that human populations are avid consumers of the world’s natural resources to a degree and in a scope far exceeding the consumption by all other populations. Inquiry into the ratio of the production of foodstuffs to the reproduction of human consumers has been a concern since long before Malthus and Darwin, especially among agronomists, geographers, and the more sophisticated investigators of demographics.

In the nineteen-seventies Garrett Hardin’s (1974) article in Psychology Today on “lifeboat ethics electrified the general public. Its subtitle, “The case against helping the poor,” particularly excited discussion and debate. The term lifeboat” comes from philosophical discourse in jurisprudence, having to do with the situation-ethics issue whether we may ever take the life of a person or of several persons in order to save the lives of a greater number of persons.

A typical case was one that occurred in the eighteenth century. A ship out of Liverpool for Philadelphia, the William Brown, sank after collision with an iceberg, and one of its lifeboats was faced with swamping and sinking because of an overload of passenger and sailors. To make the boat seaworthy the seaman in charge, by force and violence, threw several men out of the boat after they had refused to jump out voluntarily. After their rescue he was tried for murder in a Pennsylvania court. The verdict, reflecting the dilemma, was “guilty” but the punishment imposed was only six months’ imprisonment (Cahn, 1955).

Hardin’s reasoning rested on the view that when populations exceed the biological carrying capacity of their territory, famine aid would only exacerbate the situation by keeping the starving alive long enough to add significantly to the overpopulation by their reproduction. At that time (1974) I thought, and still do, that (1) his reasoning was not only correct but vitally important, and (2) he had overstated the practical conclusions to be drawn from it.

Hardin based his analysis on the premise that there are limits to growth because there is a limit to the supply of literally everything in a finite world. Like John Stuart Mill, he perceived that generosity can sometimes cut across and undermine not only the interests of recipient(s) of largess but, more broadly, the general welfare and public interest as well. As he explained, even in the affluent United States we were then (and still are) faced with shortages in such essential items as fossil fuels and food reserves. Jay Forrester and others, using various models, had calculated global and national breakdown points in such cofactors as population, pollution, raw materials, food supply, and industrial output. They calculated that breakdown points were liable to come, most probably in a matter of decades — not centuries. At the present time, at the start of the nineteen-nineties, the rates of consumption and human reproduction are considerably advanced, making the problem of scarcity — and undersupply far more exigent than they were when Hardin shocked his readers.

Citing as his own model the history of commonly owned or possessed grazing lands, Hardin (1968), it was widely recognized’, had been the first to state clearly and convincingly the tragedy of the commons.. His study showed how rational human self-interest within a system of common ownership or usage results ironically but foreseeably in a loss to everybody within it. He challenged the idea held in scientific circles that there is or could be a technical solution for such problems. There are, he declared, some problems for which technical solutions will not work, problems which are beyond the scope of natural science and which can indeed only be solved by a change of values or ideas of morality. Population, he reasoned, is one of the situations on the list of “no-technical-solution” problems.

In this way Hardin showed that commonality is not workable unless everybody within it is either willing or compelled to abide by a distributively just allocation. The fundamental error of the sharing ethic,. he said, is that it leads to the tragedy of the commons.. This logical and tenable proposition has sometimes been compromised with overstatement. He himself failed to modify or qualify it enough. He should have put it this way, I think: The fundamental error of the sharing ethic is that it leads to the breakdown of sharing if it is practiced without rational and critical limiting principles.

After all, the real thrust of his reasoning was not to repudiate sharing but to pair it with responsibility. Countries suffering from chronic famine (Ethiopia, for instance) are morally obliged to control their fertility in return for assistance. This limiting principle is to be seen at work in nature itself in such phenomena, familiar to biologists, as the reciprocal altruism. observed in various species of mammalian and submammalian animals.

In the eyes and ears of the sentimental, who tend to be simplistically open-handed about famine relief, he seemed to be saying that in all famines, as such, the victims are without a valid moral claim for help, regardless of the variables of situations, and that those enjoying relative plenty should not allow for any extenuating circumstances. Such an uncritical stance would of course be too doctrinaire and ethically undiscriminating.

I would urge as an ethical guideline that relief be withheld in only two kinds of famine situations: (1) when the probable consequences of sharing would actually endanger the survival of the giver, and (2) when the probably consequences of sharing would increase rather than relieve the recipients’ misery.

It is indeed a fact that sometimes sharing threatens the survival of the generous, unless the givers carefully calculate what they can afford to give. At what point does sharing become hurtful, yet bearable? When does it become not only a loss to the giver but mortally dangerous’ I can see no moral objection to giving to others even when it hurts to do so, nor in some conceivable cases to giving even if it entails a calculated risk of not surviving, but surely giving when it is clearly suicidal is not morally required of those who would otherwise be willing to help.

It is the second of our two limiting principles on famine aid which is more significant ethically, namely, that we should not give it when the foreseeable consequence would be to make things worse for the recipients. For example, this second principle forbids giving food as famine relief when it can be foreseen that the recipients will thereby live on to reproductive years and thus increase the number of starving people, plus the predictable diseases that go with starvation, because their country has already exceeded its carrying capacity. Here again we can look at Ethiopia.

In the uproar following Hardin’s essay in Psychology Today there was one discussant, more simple-minded than thoughtful, who was prepared to give aid regardless of the consequences. A philosopher actually declared, on the grounds of an absolutistic moralism, that we should share all food on the global scale even if it means that all mankind would starve and the human species become extinct (Watson, 1977). This is a sense of obligation so undiscriminating that it takes our breath away. It is reminiscent of Cardinal Newman’s grim opinion, in a religious controversy in 1870, that to prevent the commission of even one petty little sin it would be better that the whole world and all the people in it be incinerated.

In moral philosophy the issue at stake in this discussion is not merely the age-old one of absolutism versus relativism, nor of the one (or a few) versus the many, but also whether we are able to make rational and responsible value judgments without accurate measurement — measuring not only the factors involved and the options available, but the probable consequences of alternative courses of action.

I have myself for a long time now insisted that not to measure, not to have the relevant numbers, is ethically slipshod and disingenuous. Indeed, many years ago I coined the term ethimetrics. in a conscious imitation of the way that classical economics has had to come to terms with the measurement of material values and their exchange, in the newly christened discipline of econometrics” (Fletcher, 1976; 1979).

After all, values (and in some cases conflicting values) are the parameters we have to identify when we make moral choices and decide our obligations. By such standards we also determine whether an act or policy is right or wrong. In mathematical language we might say our values are the independent variables we use in any set of ethical equations. My own training in moral philosophy was done within the context of the humanities, and such was the case for most of my colleagues in the field. Our lack of scientific and mathematical appreciation leaves us at some loss when we have to deal, as we do increasingly in our mass society, with the measurement requirements of just distribution. We lack the requisite quantifiers or any methodology of quantification.

Back in the seventeenth century such social analysts as Sir William Petty and Sir Dudley North were on much sounder ground (although they were not yet able to perceive that it was so) when they thought of themselves as engaged in political arithmetic.. In modern times legislators in democracies have as their primary goal the framing of laws which aim at the greatest good of the greatest number, and how else can they do it but by measuring the presumed consequences of their statutes on all the individuals and groups affected? How else’ can they determine a just allocation of society’s limited resources? Distributive justice is the core problem of politics, and politics in its turn is inseparable from ethics as Aristotle made abundantly clear a long time ago.

We should understand that the moral obligation to measure factors has all along been a central part, at least implicitly where it is not explicit, in Garrett Hardin’s many contributions to our investigations of the social, ethical, and scientific problems that nag at us constantly. But most recently he made this fundamental requirement quite explicit in Filters Against Folly (1985).

One of the conceptual filters Hardin called upon us to use was the Numerate Filter, and wisely he defined it as more than just measurement. He saw it rather more as a temperament or outlook that sees things in terms of measurement, of course, but one which also includes dimension, ratio, proportion, and rate of change. I would only remark here that all of these components of perception are of necessity still based on measurement; they are validated by numbers and function by them. He championed the virtue of what he called “numeracy,”. selecting the term “virtue” from moral philosophy’s lexicon. Literacy is good, yes, but it loses its impact and credibility when it tries to operate without numeracy.

It is characteristic of too many of the proponents of famine relief that they use numbers only at most to count the people who are starving. They do not measure the capacity of arable land, the rate of population increase, the morbidity and mortality figures over a long run, the balance of wetland and arid areas, or try to calculate the weight of population growth in relation to reproductivity and a standard of living. For the most part they lack numeracy, whether in Hardin’s full and careful sense of “temperament” or simply basic measurement. And they lack it to a significant degree.

There are perhaps only a half dozen, or even fewer, national economies in which chronic famine arises from the fact that population has patently exceeded its capacity to feed itself. Wherever that decisive gap exists we who are affluent should help but do so by developmental assistance rather than by famine relief. As in the familiar old saying, it is better to give a starving man a fishing pole rather than a fish. We can help to close the gap between population numbers and productivity numbers by education, technical assistance and equipment, and planning. One highly profitable pharmaceutical company in the United States (not to be identified here? annually gives huge grants to a country in the subSahara region, but on principle never gives a cent for food relief.

However, even in cases of developmental assistance as distinguished from food relief, we should offer it as a quid pro quo, insisting that in return for our help they help themselves by reducing their fertility to a reasonable and constructive rate. As some forgotten wag once put it, our aid should be offered on condition that contraceptives and vasectomies “go with the groceries.” Otherwise we simply increase the number of diseased and starving human beings. We should give if it helps but not if it hurts. Food relief in places of chronic famine is self-defeating. It subverts its own purpose, naively turning a human concern for human beings into a monstrous injury.

When Alan Gregg was a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation back in 1955, developing medical and health services all over the world, he explained in the bluntest language that overpopulation is a cancer and said that he had never heard of a cancer being cured by feeding it (Gregg, 1955).

By all the rules of logical coherence Hardin’s reasoning, examined closely, brings us to policy principles of global significance. They are guidelines for how to respond to famine. In the language of moral philosophy I would say these principles are moral imperatives, ought propositions, or obligations. In recapitulation, they are:

  1. We ought to share with the starving, even if it means loss and inconvenience, yet we ought not to help the starving if it hurts them by increasing their misery instead of relieving it. Such help when given should be conditional on population control.
  2. We ought to examine famine situations with prevention in mind, not simply rescue or crisis intervention. In developing solutions for mass hunger, prevention is more “virtuous” than simple-minded generosity. Famine relief without regard to the consequences is not beneficent.
  3. The most crucial element in preventive treatment is fertility control, yet not so much in the form of family planning as in the form of population control. The former is microethical, the latter is macroethical, i.e., a policy of social wellbeing. This limiting principle in famine relief should be included in the arrangements as a contractual condition.

Nowhere can we find measurement and moral realism brought to bear on questions of social biology with as much wit and wisdom as Garrett Hardin provides us in his 1980 Promethean Ethics. The consequentialist method of deciding whether an action or policy is right or wrong, good or bad, has been brought to bear by him with immense effect on the practice of famine relief.

I would only add to his exposition of promethean ethics that the term is exactly in line with the idea. Most of us seem to use “promethean” to connote courage and daring, because Prometheus, the son of a Titan in the Greek myth, exemplified that character by stealing the fire of the gods to warm and uplift mankind. Even Webster’s dictionary gives it that meaning. But in fact the hero’s name comprised the proclitic pro, for before or ahead of time and the verb mathein, to think. The term really means to think ahead, to foresee.

Hence it is that Hardin’s choice of “promethean ethics” as the right name for his ethical position is exactly the word for what philosophers call consequentialist ethics, that is, deciding what is right or good, wrong or bad, by the foreseeable consequences of actions and policies.

Since the shock to taboo of his “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin has continued to probe deeper into questions of ethical analysis and social practice. His work reflects the same shrewd perceptiveness or percipience he showed long ago in his 1968 Exploring New Ethics for Survival, but since then, his steps have gone deeper and farther into the moral value problems of social practice. Yet above and beyond all else he has shown us the crucial importance of population and its impact on environment, and the intellectual necessity of measurement or what he calls numeracy.


1. Hardin has explained many times that this subtitle was added in the editorial process, that it was not his own language nor his thought. I myself doubt that he would have meant all victims of poverty, as such, “the poor,” but in the moralistic charges and countercharges of the controversy he may in fan, have taken a line which seemed to some to lean at least toward a broad and undiscriminated idea of a nonrelief policy.

2. Forrester, Meadows and those who contributed to the Club of Rome’s report were indebted to the seminal work of Paul R. and Anne H. Erlich. See their collection: Population, Resources and Environment (Freeman, San Francisco, 1970).

3. To be careful let me say that my discussion here is directed to cases of famine relief but not necessarily to disaster relief — when earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons or the like occur without any culpability on the part of the victims.


Cahn, E. (1955) The moral decision. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. See esp. pp. 61-62.

Ehrlich, P.R. & Ehrlich, A. (1970). Population, resources, environment; issues in human ecology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Fletcher, J. (1976). Ethics and health care delivery. In R Veatch and R. Branson (Eds.). Ethics and health policy. Cambridge, Mass: Ballinger. pp. 99-109.

Fletcher, J. (1979). Distributive Justice. In Humanhood: Essays in biomedical ethics (Collected essays of Joseph Fletcher). Buffalo, N. ‘: Prometheus Book. pp. 41-55.

Gregg, A. (1955). A medical aspect of the overpopulation problem. Science, 121, 681-683.

Hardin, G. (1968). Exploring new ethics for survival: the voyage of the spaceship beagle. New York: Viking Press.

Hardin, G. (15 December, 1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, CLXXI, 1243-1258.

Hardin, G. (September, 1974). Lifeboat ethics: the case against helping the poor. Psychology Today, 38-43, 124-126.

Hardin, C (1980). Promethean ethics: Living with death, competition, and triage. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hardin, G. (1985). Filters againt folly: how to survive despite economists, ecologists and the merely eloquent. New York: Penguin Books, Viking Press. Esp. pp. 38-52, 128-137.

Meadows, D.H. et al. (1972). Limits to growth; a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Book.

Watson, R.A. (1977). Reason and morality in a world of limited food. In W. Ailen & H.

LaFollette (Eds h World hunger and moral obligation. pp. 116-123. Englewood Cliffs,