The ethics of "Hoarding"

In conversation with a new acquaintance yesterday she mentioned that she had a stockpile of food, enough to last her family for an entire year. (It had something to do with her religious beliefs, but whether it was required or encouraged, or just her own interpretation I don’t know.)

Anyway, it got me to thinking. On the one hand, it’s probably a great idea for the security of your family to not have to worry about food… This is the Northeast, we have had blizzards that disrupt transportation and shipping some times, and hurricanes and other disasters do happen now and then. But the worst of those disruptions in the past 50 or so years has lasted barely a week. So a year’s worth seems way past what’s needed.

OTOH, what would you do if there really was a disaster that stretched out for weeks and weeks? And you couldn’t reasonably predict how long it might continue? Can you just sit there, feeding your family on canned soups and vegetables and whatall, while you know that your neighbors have nothing to eat? (Ignore the possibility of bands of ravaging starving looters, I’m just talking about how you’d feel in your own mind.)

Say it is now one month into the disaster. You still have enough food to feed your family of five for another 11 months – call it 1650 “food/days.” If the food supply problem were to last for another 60 days and then end, you would still have 1350 food/days left of food in your pantry – and you’d be surrounded by houses full of the skeletons of your former neighbors. (I’m assuming that 90 days would be long enough for the ‘average’ household to exhaust their food supply and then starve to death.)

So if you’d shared it out, there would have been enough to keep 22 people alive. Or more, if everyone had eaten just enough to starve slowly enough.

Which you would no doubt have done, if you’d known for sure when it would be over. But you don’t.

So, what do you do? Share a little, with the neighbors you like best? Share at first, then stop when your supplies drop too far?
I’m not at all sure it should be called ‘hoarding’ anyway. It’s not like you ran out and bought all that food after the problem developed, depriving others of the chance to buy it. You just gradually picked up some extra cans of food every week until your reached your goal, and all it meant was that the local grocery ordered a bit more (and made a bit more money) than they otherwise would have during the time you were building up your stockpile.

And, of course, it represents an ‘investment’ of a sort. Say you devoted an extra $25 a week to the project. That’s $25 you didn’t put into your retirement account, or 5 days you brown-bagged your lunch, or that movie/popcorn night you skipped. You gave something up in order to have the food supply. Why shouldn’t you enjoy the fruits of your earlier sacrifice? Your neighbors could have done the same, instead they enjoyed the extra pair of shoes or round of golf or have a fatter stock portfolio.

Is your friend Mormon? Storing food for 6 to 12 months is encouraged by their religion. It’s not true hoarding, because they also use and rotate what they store.

I don’t see in what sense that makes it not truly hoarding, assuming there’s always a store that’s topped up when taken from. Though I personally would say “hoarding” suggests that through it you decrease what’s available for everyone else, so I doubt it would count anyway by that standard.

Anyway, at the end of the day it’s all about providing more options. Whether those options will ever come to be needed is something else entirely, but I think questions of do I share/do I keep it for me and mine would depend on cost/benefit stuff. It’s not more ethical to share out your food if that means that everyone just starves a little later than they might. The big problem with a hoard is, like StarvingButStrong (what an appropriate username/post combo) says, it’s limited. The key question is “when do you expect to be out of rations?”

It is ethical to take extraordinary precautions to ensure the safety of yourself and your family, even if you don’t also take extraordinary precautions to ensure the safety of every single person in the world. And unless you’re living in a third world shithole, your choice to stockpile food in case of an emergency is not meaningfully decreasing anyone else’s ability to do the same.

That said, the nature of the emergency might mean you don’t need the full duration of your stockpile. A blizzard might stop food being brought into a town, but it isn’t going to cut supply lines for an entire year. In such a situation, setting aside part of your stockpile to share with others probably wouldn’t undermine your purpose in creating the stockpile in the first place.

We all make decisions everyday that impact risk for us and those around us. We’re not generally as aware due to the risks being lower than in this scenario. Driving faster because we’re running a little late increases both increases the odds and likely severity of a car crash to people getting no benefit from you being on time. In large enough numbers that causes maiming, permanent disability, and death. Plenty of people are making a decision about how fast to drive as I type this.

Most don’t realize they are making life and death decisions. This scenario would obviously drive that home.

The scenario described isn’t true hoarding. Hoarding is a mental disorder/set of behaviors that cause people to accumulate huge amounts of essentially worthless things for no practical purpose and the people that are afflicted usually have an extreme aversion to throwing or even using the things that they accumulate. The behavior described in the OP is commonly called ‘prepping’ which is short for disaster preparation.

That said, there is nothing unethical about being prepared for a long-term disaster especially if it turns out that the person was right. There is no ethical obligation to share it with anyone when the big one hits and there are practical reasons not to. One is that you will need to keep really quiet about your food source if everyone around you is literally starving. Sharing it with even a few stray beggars will quickly cause them to become dependent on you and let everyone else in the general area know that there is food to be had (the same phenomenon as feeding one stray cat in an area teeming with other stray animals). You are going to have to draw some hard lines anyway. There isn’t enough food to feed even your neighborhood for more than a few days. If you give it away too soon, you will all be just as dead, it will just be a little later than it would have been otherwise. The person that stored the food for their family has full ownership of it and is under no obligation ethical or otherwise to share it with anyone else.

I disagree - there might not be, but I don’t think it’s something that can be ruled out. Your practical concerns are all well-founded, and practical considerations can affect ethical ones, but not always or necessarily.

Say I am well-prepared and have food that will last me for several weeks if kept only for me and my family. My neighbours are completely unprepared. The emergency situation is greatly credibly expected to last no more than one more week, and I can afford to share my food with them without reducing my own family’s rations.

I’d argue in such a situation that I had an ethical obligation to share. In fact, if I did not share knowing that this would result in their deaths, against that greatly credible belief that the situation will soon end - I’d say I was a murderer.

But there are corrosive effects to sharing the food–first, the fact that the food may run out before the crisis abates due to an unexpected increase in the number of people asking for it, and second, that sharing food discourages preparing for disaster by lowering the costs to being unprepared.

Life is about decisions, and some people make the choice to fly close to the sun. But that doesn’t provide a plausible causeway for making their harm become someone else’s responsibility.

I think you are overestimating the rate of decomposition of human bodies.

I don’t know if this is supposed to be just a theoretical ethical exercise but I feel the need to point out the practical side of the argument as well. People, especially most Americans, will not literally starve to death in any short to intermediate period of time (many weeks to months). Most could probably stand to miss more than a few meals. They may complain that that they are starving to death because they feel hungry but most really won’t be.

Any disaster in the U.S. that cuts off the food supply to any significant group of people for months to a year or longer means that the government and society has collapsed and everyone needs to be in pure survival mode because things are so screwed up that you cannot count on anything other than yourself and your family.

I’m reminded of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” where one family built a basement bomb shelter and encouraged their neighbors to do the same. They were laughed at, made fun of, but then one day things came crashing down and guess who they ran to for help?

My point is if we all are given the opportunity to stockpile and prepare, if some choose not to, is that our fault?

As for me, we have 2 months of backup supplies on hand and a bug out plan if we ever have to move. I dont tell any of my neighbors this because when I’ve tried they immediately say “Oh I know where I’m going if anything happens”.

BTW, emergency preparedness has gone mainstream. Costco sells emergency supplies. Their are stores dedicated to it. It’s something we should all be doing.

I thought this was going to be about the ethics of the television program Hoarders (and presumably its near-identical contemporary Hoarding: Buried Alive), i.e. putting mental illness on display for mass entertainment.

I can’t see an ethical issue with the mere stockpiling of useful items like food. It slides into hoarding when useless items are compulsively accumulated.

Freeze dried food and MREs taste better when you know others are starving. It’s better than tobasco sauce.

You would have to be pretty low to think children are dieing of hunger is ok.

Children are dying of hunger right now. There were children dying of hunger yesterday too. There will be more tomorrow. What are you doing about it?

Yes, it does. To me, what makes harm become someone else’s responsibility is simple; can you help, and to what extent does that help harm you in turn? In my example, there is no predicted harm to me; it’s possible that the disaster could carry on for longer than expected, but there does come a point where that isn’t a crutch to stand on, ethically speaking. I am able to share, and it seems very much like that sharing won’t cost me anything but the cost of the food, which the lives of my neighbours don’t really match up against cost-wise. You suggest that sharing discourages preparing - you mean for the next disaster to come, when people have presumably already died in the first one? I’d say that likely weighed out any minor grasshopper syndrome.

To my eyes, other people making bad decision doesn’t then mean they get an “idiot’s exception” to morality. Someone chose unwisely? Too bad, so sad, we don’t need to care about ethical conduct towards you because you aren’t as good at decision-making as us.

On that purely practical level, you and your family (I assume you mean something like you, a partner, any children, perhaps parents or uncles/aunts) are probably going to need some help. Pure survival mode almost requires cooperation with a larger group.

The word “hoarding” has a long history. It was not invented to apply solely to the mental illness.

I shudder to think of how much my parents have spent on food storage and emergency preparedness over their lives. Certainly in the tens of thousands and probably closer to a couple hundred thousand bucks. What a colossal waste of resources, time, and money. Always preparing for a disaster that hasn’t come and probably won’t come in their last few decades on Earth. While it’s just smart to have a couple weeks of supplies on hand, having several hundred pounds of wheat and a hand grinder in your basement is ridiculous. If society breaks down to that point you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than a basement hoard to survive.

But it makes them happy, somehow, so I view it as their expensive, pointless hobby. Like owning a boat, only not fun.

Man, this Raisin Bran is AWESOME! Did they change the recipe or something? I can’t put my finger on it, but it tastes way better than it did yesterday.
Back to hoarding, if I was a hoarder, and the Big One hit, my family comes before your family. I’m not going to be putting my family’s future at risk to secure your family’s future.

It’s a bit tricky, since if people expect they can just rely on others in an emergency, they’ll be much more likely freeload and not to shoulder the burdens of preparation themselves. However, once the disaster has already happened, it’s too late for that to matter, and letting someone die because they were a little bit lazy and lacked your foresight is awfully callous.

I would say that if it’s a short term situation and sharing your stockpile is unlikely to get you killed, then you do have a moral obligation to share. If sharing would legitimately threaten your survival, then while it would be noble and virtuous of you to share, you have no obligation. There’s certainly going to be a helluva lot of gray area, though.