In my travels abroad in Europe I cannot help but noticing the more disturbing features of an otherwise aesthetically-pleasing continent. Yes, most of Europe’s great cities contain centuries of art and architecture; yes, Europe’s nation-states boast advanced social programs and tourist industries to support the cost of these programs; yes, Europeans are, in general, less banal and vulgar than Americans such as myself. I am in awe, but also unsettled, for standing side-by-side these shining examples of civilization is squalor. It is hard to erase from my mind the families with small children, living and begging on the streets of Paris.
It is hard to soothe my anger at the number of (mostly women) migrants attempting to separate tourists from the money at all costs in Venice. These things are as much a feature of Europe as the glittering canals or the indomitable monuments.
Perhaps I am a bit saddened by the situation; my knowledge of history permits me a memory a do not have in fact, that of a Europe recovering from – nay, striving after – two World Wars and all the rape and destruction they entailed. Just as it seemed as if the Old World had finally healed over those scars indicating once-suppurating wounds, they have been reopened by self-induced bloodletting. Millions of migrants have poured into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, the result of the Syrian War, rise of ISIS, and generally unfavorable economic conditions. The people I have seen on my sojourn through Europe are the fruit of these catastrophes and the Willkommenskultur – “welcome culture” – peddled by heads of state such as Angel Merkel.
The most obvious question before us is:– Whether we want these kind of people here? Do we really want people who consciously decide to reject the moral alternatives to swindling – honest work – in favor of the immoral act of deceiving to obtain money from someone else, often unsuspecting tourist-ingénues? Even begging is a virtuous alternative to the straight dupery practiced in the plazas of Paris and Venice: he who begs is at the mercy of the masses, a sheep below the sheep, rather than a wolf preying on the flock. And this of course goes without mentioning other acts committed by migrants– mass sexual assault à la Cologne, child sex rings in the fashion of Rothram, and terrorism across Europe.
“But what of the alternative thesis?” bleats the humanitarian, namely, the average European Millennial or their EU-technocrat parent. Haven’t forces beyond their control “forced” these migrants to do these things? Hasn’t war in Syrian or unfavorable economic conditions in North Africa propelled these men and women – nay, mostly men – to risk life and limb for a better life in not the New but the Old World? And doesn’t the understandable lack of language and job skills reduce these migrants to poverty, while “systemic Islamophobia” inevitably cause young men to radicalize?
Of the many rebuttals that could be given, one will suffice: it is still a choice to knowingly put your lifejacket-shorn life in a boat filled with hundreds of people, crossing the Mediterranean with near-certain hope that you will be saved if the boat sinks or capsizes only if you are found in time; it is still a choice to visit radical imams, receive training in Syria, and kills dozens of innocent people using illegally-procured weapons.
At any number of points the immense gravity of the journey on which the migrants are embarking is upon them; they do not become unthinking the moment they step on the boat or European soil – they are just as cognizant of their options as they are in the bombed-out and rubble-reduced neighborhoods of Aleppo as they are in any Western metropolis. Why give these men the benefit of the doubt we are unwilling to give Anders Behring Breivik or Dylann Roof? Is it racism, is it systemic suppression, real or imagined, that gives men with a little more melanin and the Islamic faith our sympathy? Political correctness and multiculturalism lead to an absurd double standard; in lieu of this “relativism for some, but not all” we ought to treat all people according to the same moral standard, pure and simple. Even the Königbergian, that moral universalist par excellence – Kant – is turning in his grave over liberal Europe.
But to return from my digression, this is not a question of sympathy, empathy, or humanity. Of course we can empathize or at least try to empathize with the migrant who by a series of events somewhat beyond his control, is forced to beg, haggle, or swindle in the streets of the great cities of Europe, immense and impersonal as they are; but this does not answer the question as to whether we want a Europe where these people find themselves begging, haggling, and swindling.
Anyone with a real eye to improving society – in a word, what philosophers such as Aristotle used to define politicians by – can see that the answer is a status quo-halting No. Reducing this rampant poverty and violence is as simple as reducing immigration. Eastern European countries have done it to much success; they are not fêted as much as they deserve in Western Europe for serving as a firewall against a threat Merkel and her ilk refuse to fully acknowledge. I was in Hungary at the beginning of this year and listened to a native of Budapest lament not the idea of helping refugees, but the fact that most of the refugees arriving in his country are young, dangerous men. Eastern Europeans see with a sober eye what Western Europeans cannot – and they understandably feel duped.
People become moral or ethical dilemmas when they at one’s doorstep. “Affluence, Famine, and Morality” (1971), Peter Singer’s famed essay about how proximity affects the perceived demandingness of a moral obligation correctly address a fact about human nature – how we feel – but it wrongly attempts to invalidate this feeling. Singer argues that there is no logical principle by which the person starving in front of us is in more need of the person starving in some far-off country; if we are obligated to save the one, we are obligated to save the other. Singer thus sets up a dichotomy between rational moral obligations and irrational ones; whoever thinks he is only obligated to save the person starving in front of him is not being rational in his moral evaluations.
But Singer, following in the tradition of Kant, is looking for a morality derived from rationality, and therefore most post-Kantian moral systems have been universal and therefore overly demanding on all individuals. Any reasonable person would recognize the impracticality and impossibility of helping everyone across the globe, even if this person were wealthy to some degree. Such an endeavor, while wholly moral, is impossible. Not even Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, who welcomes Syrians with open arms, can intervene across the globe – nor would he. Those who claim Europe has a moral obligation to assist those suffering in Syria – through lax immigration policies or direct intervention – are and always will be inconsistent. Their search for a “rational” morality cannot make them absolutely consistent in the practical, ethical sense.
What is needed instead is not some tectonic paradigm shift in moral thinking – everyone already implicitly (if not explicitly) subscribes to the idea that proximity matters. Before Kant Western morality was either religious (e.g. Christian) or based on some kind of virtue ethics such as that elaborated by Aristotle. The latter is especially appealing in light of the current migrant crisis, because Aristotle thought ethics was simply the best means of obtain human happiness or flourishing, what he called eudaimonia. In fact, he thought the maintenance of virtue at the public level to be politics itself. Ethics and politics both aim at human happiness, not universalizable maxims that transcend distance, blood, or nationality. If citizens and migrants alike suffer in Europe, it is the duty of Europe’s governments to alleviate that suffering and that suffering alone. But outside of those national boundaries? Resources are finite; to help Syria will not make us any more rational or just because we have not helped the Congo using the same logic. If Europe wants to solve the migrant problem, it must acknowledge that borders do make a difference. The happiness of a state’s citizens is the only thing that can and ought to matter to that state. Otherwise, like Chancellor Merkel we will be welcoming in more of an obligation than we can possibly fulfill.
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