Sunday, 13 October 2013

Will we be able to justify the international birthright lottery to our grandchildren?

The recent drowning of several hundred illegal migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa has caused a stir, as spectaculars tend to. But, really, this is no more than freak news. Like mass shootings in America or child abductions by strangers, it is a statistically insignificant event attached to an emotive story. Freak news events don't actually mean anything, but they look like they should.  They are a poor basis for political conversation and government policy because they tend to misdirect our attention from what is really important, for example by confusing our sense of vulnerability with objective risk.

Yet the stir around Lampedusa is itself worth looking into. The pope said such tragedies are shameful, but I would describe Europe's emotional state as one of embarrassment. The embarrassment relates to our reluctance to confront the hypocrisy embedded in how we think about immigrants from the poor and broken parts of the world. On the one hand, we have high moral standards about our duty of care to refugees fleeing lives of squalor, fear, and oppression and these are embedded in various international treaties and national laws. On the other hand, if we applied those standards generally, we would have to accept that over a billion people have some legitimate claim to refugee status.

Who are those billion? Most women in the middle-east and many in other parts of the world; most of the world's homosexuals and other sexual minorities; most inhabitants of failed states (like Somalia and the Central African Republic); everyone but the elite in totalitarian dictatorships (like Eritrea, N. Korea, and Uzbekistan); the 12 million people without any state citizenship; the world's 30 million slaves; much of the world's indigenous peoples (perhaps including central Europe's own Roma); religious and ethnic minorities in intolerant countries (like Pakistan and Burma); all the civilians in war zones (like Syria); India's untouchables; China's Tibetans; the millions of refugees interned for decades in long-term camps in poor countries (like the Somalis living in Kenya or the ethnic Nepalis expelled by Bhutan). And so on.

We who are lucky enough to live in rich countries are understandably reluctant to live up to our moral standards when we realise the full scale of what that would require. Yet we don't want to admit that we can't have our cake and eat it too, that we can't have our sense of moral superiority and also carry on as usual. That would be embarrassing, in an 'the emperor has no clothes' way. Such a conflict between our values and our interests is particularly hard to avoid when we are directly confronted by people in need asking for our help. It is distinctly embarrassing to have to tell obviously suffering people to their face that, actually, we don't care enough about them to want to help.

So just as we might cross the street to avoid the pleading gaze of a beggar, we instruct our governments to protect us from being put into that situation. Thus, European governments on the Mediterranean, acting on the clear desires of their citizens, have spent vast amounts of money trying to prevent such embarrassments from occurring by bribing North Africa's dictators to 'deter' refugees from ever setting off. (A 'dirty hands' policy with some success, until the Arab Spring removed several of those dictators.) I believe Australia has a similar arrangement with the government of Indonesia.

The result is that we proudly offer refuge and asylum to all the deserving people of the world who ask for our help, but only if they can climb over all the walls and laws we've erected to keep them from asking. The illegal immigrants who still manage to arrive are those who can afford airfares and tourist visas, a different class of people from those who come by boat.

Given this, it is easy to see why events like Lampedusa cause us such acute embarrassment. When refugees die trying to reach our beaches it is hard for us to avoid acknowledging how very bad their lives must have been to drive them to take such a risk for such a cold welcome. It is hard for us to avoid recognising the scale of the problem that our own moral standards identify: more than a billion people living in fear, squalor, and oppression.

So we pretend such events are merely individual tragedies, dramas of human suffering that are no one's particular fault, unless it is the 'unscrupulous' traffickers who run the boats. And in a sense that is true. As long as people refuse to live in squalor and oppression, and as long as people like us refuse to let them have a chance at a better life that might dilute our birthright prosperity, there will be a lot of human suffering. But preventing the refugee boats from setting out would merely prevent telegenic catastrophes that embarrass our moral bankruptcy. It would do nothing about the real tragedy of vast human suffering in the places refugees come from.

Ethics without borders


The strangest thing to me about all this is the unreflective inter-nationalisation of our moral standards. The suffering of people who happen to live in other countries is not considered to be our problem. Helping them is seen as an exercise in charity rather than a strict moral duty, an act of magnanimity that we might fit in after our day to day concerns have been taken care of.

As a result, levels of international aid are a tiny fraction of what we are willing to spend to help needy members of our own society. Helping our own is a matter of justice and a real moral priority; helping foreigners is an afterthought at best. (Have you ever compared your country's definition of poverty to the World Bank's $1.25 per day threshold?)

It is as if our moral concern ends at our borders. Hence the strange fact that it is only when refugees actually manage to cross our border that we feel any moral obligation towards them (an obligation we would prefer not to feel). We seem to be in the grip of the peculiar prejudice or moral delusion that political borders delimit a moral boundary, with justice on the inside and mere charity on the outside.

I know there are good moral reasons for modern states. Amongst others, they're better at justice and prosperity than anything else we've tried, when they work. Yet states clearly don't always work - the persistence of large scale human suffering in a world of plenty relates largely to state evil, incompetence, and corruption. Inter-nationalism doesn't offer very clear moral guidance in such cases. The people born into such states hold the losing tickets in a birthright lottery that seems morally arbitrary. Can one seriously claim that people with Malawian nationality don't really want or deserve things like dignity, food, shelter, safety or justice because their parents were Malawian citizens?  

The best way to deal with this injustice would be to address its causes by fixing the world's monstrous or broken political institutions. But inter-nationalism itself makes such outside interventions politically and practically difficult (and reform hardly seems much easier from inside, as the Arab Spring reminds us).

Yet there is something else that we could do, and that in our better moments we declare we want to do, but that we refuse to seriously contemplate at the necessary scale. We could give everyone who can escape their broken states the chance at a better life in ours. Instead of forcing them into leaky fishing boats, we could send ships to pick them up, as we do when our citizens get caught up in conflicts abroad and need evacuating. At least we could let them take the ferry to Europe like we do. 

Of course this is politically unthinkable. Once invented, nation states generate good political reasons for immigration control. In particular, welfare states require control over the risk and economic productivity profiles of new entrants if their insurance financing models are to be sustainable [previously]. Yet as morality this comes down to, "I got mine, Jack".

The problem with such an argument is that while it succeeds in explaining our attitudes to illegal migrants, it doesn't justify them. A justification is an argument that others could in principle accept. John Rawls' veil of ignorance is a good tool for illustrating the difference. If you didn't already know what country you would have to live in, would you choose a world with this kind of inter-national birthright lottery? And if you yourself wouldn't choose to play such a lottery, how can you claim that other people should be content with their losing tickets? Sometimes, when our moral standards don't fit with how the world works, it is the world that we should change. 

Perhaps there are better moral arguments for immigration controls that I don't know about - perhaps some form of communitarian/cultural identity argument that isn't racist. But I doubt it. If we who live in the lucky countries really had good moral reasons for keeping poor oppressed people from sharing our good fortune, we wouldn't be so embarrassed by their presence that we would pay dictators to keep them away. 

The grandchild test for bad ethics


Does it have to be this way? Will it always be this way? Slavery, torture, racism and so on are all now condemned around the world. Yet there was a time when they were each seen as natural, proper, and right, even by the foremost intellects of the age. They were entrenched in how the world worked and conceived as natural facts - ending them seemed unthinkable. Might there also come a time when the very idea that a person's right to a decent life could be determined by what country they happened to be a citizen of - whether they had the right pieces of paper - will seem like a piece of craziness from another world?

Are those who went along unthinkingly with evil practises like slavery and torture morally culpable? Perhaps not. Yet there must have been a point, when counter-arguments began to be made and promulgated, at which those who went along could no longer shelter behind their ignorance of the immorality of their actions. It may be unreasonable to condemn the Romans for slavery, but one can certainly condemn those in mid-19th century America who cleaved to racialised slavery despite the abundance and superiority of the abolitionist arguments. Those who go along with injustice when they know, or should know better, are complicit in it.

Our treatment of animals seems another case in the making. Humans have long taken for granted our right to use and abuse animals to serve our interests, including the aesthetic pleasure of eating meat. That complacency cannot be sustained in the face of the increasing visibility of counter-arguments, like Peter Singer's. Our practices stand in need of explicit defence or else rejection. Otherwise we may find ourselves struggling to explain our personal complicity in a great evil to our more enlightened - vegan - grandchildren, whose history books put us in the same category of monsters as white apartheid South Africans. Call this the grandchild test for bad ethics.

The grandchild test is a means of separating explanation from justification. With the way things are it seems unthinkable that people could be allowed to move freely between countries. But imagine a time 50 years from now. Do you want the children who grow up then to live under the same birthright lottery? Imagine talking to them about it. It is one thing to have to explain to your grandchildren the shameful fact that we used to have a birthright lottery in the olden days. But I think it might even be worse if it the birthright lottery were still a fact of their world and their lives. In that case our political failure to imagine a better world would have committed our grandchildren - presumably living in the lucky countries - to complicity from birth with a great injustice. 

Immigration control hasn't yet had its Peter Singer. Or perhaps we aren't yet even willing to hear the arguments being made by moral cosmopolitans. Yet one can already suspect that when such arguments become visible and inescapable the status quo will not have much to call upon to defend itself. Merely because ending immigration controls is unthinkable with the way the world is now set up does not make them right. Will we be able to defend the justice of an international birthright lottery to our grandkids? Or will our sense of embarrassment finally turn to shame?

4 comments:

  1. What would the developed nations have to give up in order to lift the underdeveloped nations to a more comfortable level? Are these steps under the control of governments or individuals?
    In your philosophy should public issues be bunched together or attacked individually? I mean, political philosophies like Marxism and liberalism make broad approaches toward social problems as a whole.
    I'm curious as to your thinking on this problem
    Thanks
    Howard Berman

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  2. On moral cosmopolitan duties

    See Peter Singer on duties as an individual
    See Thomas Pogge on duties as a citizen (via the state)

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  3. Some people would kill a person if they were sure that by doing so they would save the lives of N people (Put any number you'd feel comfortable with instead of "N").
    So I have a solution for world poverty which doesn't require killing anyone: Deny the right to procreate to those people who we are 90% (place your own percentage) sure will produce more suffering souls.

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    Replies
    1. 1. My essay is about living up to our moral standards against oppression.

      2. Oppression has nothing much to do with population levels

      3. Invading countries to forcibly sterilise their populations is not in keeping with our moral standards. It would turn us from hypocrites into oppressors in our own right.

      Delete

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