The morality of nations

On September 4th, upwards of 1000 refugees embarked on foot on a gruelling journey towards Germany. The night before, Gleisdreieck Park in Berlin had played host to hip-hop group the Antilopen Gang. A British friend of mine, accompanying German revellers to the week-long Radioeins Festival, recounted the scene. The crowd struck up a chant: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”

Public displays of compassion are welcome news after a summer marked by headlines vilifying the same nation’s leadership during the Greek crisis. Germany is now held aloft as the example of saintly behaviour. Oddly enough, in February 37 per cent of German respondents told a poll that immigration was the biggest challenge facing the EU, compared with 38 per cent of British respondents. But Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet appear determined to set a beneficent example, amid a sequence of crises throwing Europe’s place in the ethical universe into stark relief.

Cue a tide of moral introspection in the UK – the minimal extent of our action so far, as Polly Toynbee put it, ‘shames us all’. But underlying the outrage, grief and bewilderment is a tangled web of delicate issues. Political questions have ranged from linguistics – ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’? – to the duplicity of the tabloid press (perhaps the least surprising insight). At the heart of the crisis is the fundamental question: what do we owe to the rest of the world? What moral reasoning, if any, can we look to for guidance, while still more bereaved Syrians, Eritreans and other refugees arrive every day?

Many columnists insist that ‘common humanity’ is the foundation of our duty to take in refugees. Equating roughly to some sort of Kantian imperative to curb egregious suffering, this argument has held a lot of sway, and rightly so. Under such a view, nationality is rendered irrelevant to morality. But the awkward truth is that many in the public find such cosmopolitan principles abrasive. Opponents, generally on the political right, feel that the needs of our fellow nationals ought to come first. Might then we assume that the competing projects they have in mind aim to assist the very worst off in our own society – like the 21.6% of UK households in absolute poverty in 2013-14? (I’m unsure if most warrant the benefit of the doubt.)

However, the point remains that global ethics are typically murky even for the left. Only when the burden of hardship is so clear, and basic human conditions so evidently compromised, for those outside our borders are commentators so adamant that more should be done. A good deal of rage has been generated by the obvious reality that Western audiences are moved more by media-ready microcosms – the body of young Aylan Kurdi on the beach at Bodrum – than by a general sense of suffering elsewhere in the world. This goes for the commentators themselves, too. Many criticise European citizens for struggling to connect with issues which ordinarily seem so distant, and of which the scale is so difficult to comprehend.

Syrian and Iraqi migrants sleep on railroad tracks waiting to be processed across the Macedonian border Sept. 2 in Idomeni, Greece.
‘Syrian and Iraqi migrants sleep on railroad tracks waiting to be processed across the Macedonian border Sept. 2 in Idomeni, Greece’ – Photo/Freedom House

But it has often been thus. Whatever one’s view of the perpetrators’ true identity, worldwide horror at the Markale marketplace massacres was critical in generating public support for NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. It is not unusual for vivid images to convey a sense of urgency that statistics often lack. Action taken once that urgency is made tangible might be a superior demonstration of morality.

Nonetheless, one can scarcely believe David Cameron’s bald assertion that ‘Britain is a moral nation’. Carefully sculpted for the press release, such brazen talk flies in the face of current British policy. So I find it relevant to ask: by what metric are we moral? Perhaps Mr Cameron means that our society is characterised by a particular set of morals: relatively individualist liberal principles. But in this situation a claim like this is mostly meaningless. So surely he is insisting that we have the courage to take action on our moral convictions – on the sense of empathy we feel for Europe’s refugees. In which case the paltry commitment to accept on average 4,000 asylum-seekers a year for the next five years is really quite an embarrassment.

We must remember that Mr Cameron’s claim predated by three days the decision to use our international aid budget in Britain’s ‘national interest’. The morals he speaks of are apparently rather inward looking. So it is a bad joke to pretend that Britain is doing well in the ethical rankings, given the issue at hand is one of international suffering. And the can of worms opened by the prime minister goes further still. The government swears its commitment to tackling the root causes, or ‘push factors’, of the numbers fleeing countries in the Middle East and Africa. One might suspect our leaders of deliberate irony, given the cumulative contribution of Brits to both oppression, in colonial form, and destabilisation in these regions over the past century. And it is easier for patriots to fortify our borders against refugees while asserting the fundamental morality of our overseas crusading. The editorial stance taken at The Telegraph betrays an instance of such thinking.

This craven tendency is of course part of a wider issue – how should ethics stack up against high politics and national economics? For sure, the German example is not as crisp as it might first seem. Robert Peston of the BBC has rightly pointed out that the nation’s demographic trends motivate the need to accept young, determined workers. And he ponders the moral comparison between accepting migrants who have already made the perilous journey, and extracting refugees from Syria’s camps (as Mr Cameron vows to do). The latter might indeed be the more admirable move if attempted on something like the scale, even in per domestic capita terms, of asylum applications now faced by Germany.

In sum, we should be alert to the fact that couching morality in terms of the national interest is surely a false and lame justification for policy. And when mired between moral compassion and fears of (un-quantified) resource scarcity, Europeans must beware these meaningless claims. Let’s ensure our convictions hold our leaders to account during this essentially human crisis.


2 thoughts on “The morality of nations

  1. Thank you. I enjoyed your ponderings. I have been pondering myself to a virtual standstill but have yet to write anything other than increasingly wild notes. I was interested by your reference to unquanitified resource scarcity. Having spent the last ten years following a selection of writers in the world of Limits to Growth who do an awful lot of quantifying and pondering about just this, I have been particularly interested to see how they reacted to this first little inkling of what life for us all will look like over the rest of our lifetimes. As Paddy Ashdown recently stated this is very much just the beginning, but the shock for me of seeing the reactions that it has caused in myself and in millions of others has been revelatory. This Professor of Philosophy casually dismisses ‘excess people’ from nations whose ‘folly’ has been to have high birth rates as being unwelcome. Even Mr. Peter Singer says in his most recent piece about the situation ‘Turning away people who manage to reach one’s country is emotionally difficult, even if they are being sent to a safe haven.’ He doesn’t posit how much more emotionally difficult it might be if they are not. Certainly there appear to be other philosophers who don’t see why we should help refugees at all
    Moral compassion is clearly relative.

  2. Pingback: Thenance's Blog

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