by William Aiken
Social Theory and Practice, v.6(1), Spring 1980, pp.1-11.
The following abbreviates this reply to Garrett Hardin's Neo-Malthusian
maxim that "Thou shalt not exceed the carrying capacity." If you find the
abbreviation to be too much, you can read a copy of the original in, W.
Aiken, H. LaFollette (eds.), 1996, "World Hunger and Morality" 2nd.Edition
(Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ).
"Offering assistance to innocent persons in need ... is presumed to be morally permissible.
"... certain Neo-Malthusians ... argue that membership of certain states disqualifies one from receiving assistance; that although assisting ... appears to be both beneficent and morally permissible, it is, in fact, neither.
"The argument used to support this position ... is derived from ... Garrett Hardin ... "Thou shalt not exceed the carrying capacity." The argument is as follows:
"Every nation has a carrying capacity ... some nations threaten to exceed ... their carrying capacity ... giving food to starving persons in such nations ... will contribute to that nation's exceeding its carrying capacity ... contributing is morally wrong according to the maxim. ... Therefore, ... we ought not to assist such persons.
"The selection of nation states as the units of classification appears to be somewhat arbitrary from both a biological perspective and a moral perspective. ... the adoption of political entities as environmental units requires justification. ... but even granting the questionable framework, the argument fails ... because it rests on an equivocation on the central concept, "carrying capacity.
"... the apparent empirical basis of the concept carrying capacity has a nice scientific ring to it.... The determination of ... an environment's carrying capacity for animal populations can be made with relative precision. ... It is ... a "biological fact" about the environment and the species involved. When the animal populations reach this limit ... starvation and concomitant disease reduce the population to a level which the damaged environment will tolerate ...
"... The argument applies this "biological limit" ... to human populations. The specifiable environment whose toleration limits are determined is the territory ruled by a sovereign nation state. By comparing the human population to the nation's available foodstuffs, a carrying capacity for that nation is determined ... the application of the notion of carrying capacity to human populations which generates the argument with its conclusion that we must not interfere with the effects of starvation.
"... When ... carrying capacity is applied to human populations within a nation state's territory, it is not a natural fixed ratio of organism to environment. Unlike nonhuman animals, humans have the ability to artificially extend the carrying capacity of their environment.
"One method humans use to extend their environments carrying capacity is to increase agricultural productivity ... Much of the debate ... has focussed on the ability of technological advances to keep up with population growth. Supporters of the Green revolution ... and the "technological optimists" square off against the Neo-Malthusians ... and the defenders of "quality" versus mere quantity of life. Although perhaps relevant to the entire globe's carrying capacity, this debate is irrelevant to the type of application of carrying capacity which [Hardin's] argument makes, that is, the carrying capacity of a particular nation. No matter how advanced agricultural technology becomes, if a nation cannot afford to buy this technology, it is useless to them as a means of expanding their population. Buying technology, however, is neither an environmental nor a technological matter. It is an economic matter.
"This points to the second and most important method which humans use ot extend the carrying capacity of their nation's environment: trade ... with others nations who have .... food to sell. Once trade is introduced ... the notion of carrying capacity .. is no longer merely a biological concept. Now it is determined by a nation's ability not only to produce, but also to trade for the necessary products ... to feed its population. Any country which can afford to purchase the necessary goods has not exceed it carrying capacity. The carrying capacity of ... The Netherlands is much higher than that of the sparsely populated sub-Saharan nations ... because of the wealth per capita.
"To demonstrate just how far from a "biological fact" the notion of carrying capacity is when applied to nation states ... would it not follow that it would be immoral to sell any food to any nation which need it for human consumption? Presumably a nation would not buy food unless its own agricultural productivity was incapable of supporting its own population. By selling food for human consumption, we would be assisting that nation ... to exceed its carrying capacity which, according to Hardin's maxim, is immoral. ... carrying capacity ... is not a biological limit -- it is a complex social, economic, and political limit. it is not fixed by "nature", but by trade practices. ... by the international market in terms of who has what to sell ... what price you can get for what you have to sell ...
"The force of [Hardin's argument] lies not in the short-range ... It lies in the long-range predictions of the geometric increase in population which results in keeping people alive. ... over generations ... the effect of keeping people alive now will be a sharp increase in total population. So ... we should refuse to assist now in order to avoid contributing to that nation's increasing its carrying capacity in the next generation. Yet here we must rely upon a long-range prediction of socioeconomic carrying capacity which assumes that all current socioeconomic factors will remain unaltered ... it is these predictions which .. are questionable. ...
"But what about those nations which have already exceeded their carrying capacity? ... Should we not refuse assistance to at least these nations? The strange thing about this criterion (that people are starving in a nation) is that it disregards other potential causes for the starvation such as economic factors ... political factors ... and social factors within that nation ... it looks only at the result of economic, political, and social arrangements in its judgment of carrying capacity.
"Still there may be some nations in which massive starvation is indeed unavoidable ... Surely these should not be given assistance. They are doomed ... Yet even these nations ... are doomed only by present international market practices. They do not have anything to sell which someone else wants, so their population capacity is very low, dependent upon what their indigenous agricultural productivity can support. They are forced into the same situation as animal populations are ... they are unable to extend their carrying capacity through trade and exchange. It is this group of nations ... of whom [Hardin's argument] boldly asserts that, "Thou shalt not assist any nation in which there are starving people who cannot afford to buy food at current market prices," and that "It is immoral to give people what they cannot afford to buy." Yet it must be repeated again, the carrying capacity of such a nation is not in any wy a biological limit, rather it is an economic limit. ... If oil is discovered in its territory, the supposed limit on population suddenly bolts upwards ... nation's carrying capacity is the by-product of the market -- nothing more. ...
"In spite of this, [Hardin's argument] that the same notion of carrying capacity which applies to deer and lemmings also applies to humans within a nation state ... [Hardin] must either stick to the primary biological meaning of the term [carrying capacity] and conclude that it is immoral to trade, exchange, sell, or lend food or agricultural assistance to any nation which needs it (at which point it becomes an absurd argument), or it must surrender the quai-scientific connotation of biological carrying capacity and address the economic factors ... By trying to do both, it equivocates on the term ... if we were to stick purely to the economic connotation, [Hardin's argument] would boil down to the claim that it is morally wrong to interfere with the free market and the "natural" consequences which result from the lack of interference with that market. .. In other words it is immoral to assist a nation which is unsuccessful in trade ... Without equivocation, [Hardin's argument] would never be seriously considered a moral argument. It would be seen for what it is, an attempted moral justification fro present world trade practices and allocation of economic goods. ... those who prosper can ease their conscience by the assurance that it would be, after all, immoral to interfere....
"... by exposing the confusion over the supposedly "scientific" basis
of the Neo-Malthusian arguments, I have at least cleared the way for the
debate over the moral permissibility of giving food aid to be waged in
its appropriate context -- the world of social, political, and economic
[Note: In later writing Hardin altered the concept of animal carrying capacity to that of cultural carrying capacity when applied to human society. His arguments have never met the challenge of global limits and the possible reduction in these caused by the actions of a small, but wealthy, segment of the world's population.]