The drowning season is an embarrassment because it threatens our moral complacency. We enjoy believing that we care about human rights and we have signed all sorts of treaties and agreements promising care to refugees fleeing lives of squalor, fear, and oppression. But we also have no serious intention of fulfilling our promises to help foreigners. That's why we make them climb into those leaky fishing boats to reach us.
Embarrassment is discomforting. How will we deal with it? By focusing on the deaths and who is to blame - the dastardly people smugglers, the under-resourced Italian navy, sclerotic EU institutions, Libya's warring factions, the foolish refugees themselves? Or by recognising and answering the moral challenge before us.
A Billion People Without Rights
Of course we don't want to keep our promise. We would have to accept that even according to our minimal moral standards over a billion people have a legitimate claim to our assistance. That includes:
- 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 regimes (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 even including some of central Europe's own Roma);
- Religious and ethnic minorities in intolerant countries (like Pakistan and Burma);
- All the civilians in war zones (like Syria and South Sudan);
- India's untouchables;
- Occupied peoples (like 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).
We who are lucky enough to be citizens of rich countries are understandably reluctant to live up to our moral standards once 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 think of ourselves as good Samaritans while studiously evading the opportunity to help others.
It is particularly hard to avoid recognising ourselves for what we are if we are directly confronted by people in need asking for our help. For then we would have to tell them 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 morally compromising situation. Thus, European governments on the Mediterranean have spent vast amounts of money in the last decades trying to prevent such embarrassments from occurring by bribing North Africa's autocrats to 'deter' refugees from ever setting off. That particular dirty hands policy had some success, until the Arab Spring removed several of those dictators.
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 more manageable, less afflicted, class of people.
Given this, it is easy to see why news of mass drownings causes 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 to ourselves that such events are merely individual tragedies, dramas of human suffering that play out with the inevitability of fate, simply one more aspect of the human condition. And in a sense that is true. As long as unlucky people refuse to live in squalor and oppression, and as long as lucky people like us refuse to let them share in our good fortune, refugees will continue to drown. But preventing the 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 about all this is how easily we inter-nationalise our supposedly universal moral standards. The suffering of people who happen to belong to 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. Levels of international aid, for example, are a tiny fraction of what we are willing to spend to help needy members of our own society. (I think that even our cows get more in subsidies than we spend to meet basic human needs in unlucky countries.) Helping our own is a matter of justice and a real moral priority; helping foreigners is an afterthought at best.
It is as if our moral concern for strangers ends at our borders. Hence the peculiar fact that it is only when refugees actually manage to cross over 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 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 our system of nation states. In particular, they're better at achieving 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 is best explained at the level of the state: the evil, incompetence, and corruption of many national governments.
Inter-nationalism doesn't offer very clear moral guidance in such cases. The people born into awful states hold the losing tickets in a birthright lottery that seems morally arbitrary. Can one seriously claim that Malawians don't really want or deserve things like dignity, nutrition, education, safety or justice because their parents were Malawian citizens? (I mention Malawi because I was born there; of course my parents' passports gave me an entirely different set of life chances than the babies in the cribs next to me.)
The obvious way to deal with large scale human suffering would be to address its causes by fixing the world's monstrous or broken governments. But inter-nationalism itself makes such outside interventions politically and practically difficult, as in Syria. And reform hardly seems much easier from inside, as the many failures of the Arab Spring remind 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. We would support their specific human rights by upholding the meta-right to migrate to a state that does work. Instead of forcing them into leaky fishing boats run by criminal thugs, 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 same ferry to Europe that we take home from our holidays.
Of course this is politically unthinkable on any scale. Even America's commitment to ideological one-upmanship couldn't sustain such an open doors immigration policy for Cuban refugees once they started arriving in large numbers. 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 which country you would get 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?
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. Sometimes when our moral standards don't fit with how the world works it is the world that we should change. Even if that takes a long time and a lot of work.
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 not social constructs. Questioning them was ridiculous; ending them was 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 all 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. Will we be able to defend the justice of an international birthright lottery to our grandchildren? Or will our sense of embarrassment finally turn to shame?
The case for migration rights has received its most systematic expression in Joseph Carens' The Ethics of Immigration. His arguments are still mostly unknown. 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. The logic is clear. The only way to reconcile a concept of universal human rights with a world of sovereign nation states is by guaranteeing the right to migration, the right to have rights, as Hannah Arendt noted in discussing the fate of the Jewish refugees in the 1930s whom no country would accept. We know this. It's why we signed all those treaties. Just because implementing the right to migration is unthinkable with the way the world is now set up does not make it any less our duty to bring that world about.
-This essay was revised and republished April 2015
-Brett Stevens on my comment policy
-Brett Stevens on my comment policy