Thinking & Feeling About the Migrant Crisis

29 September 2015

By Professor Paul O’Grady, Head of the Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin

The sheer scale of the migrant crisis is one which induces feelings of helplessness. The images of endless files of people coming in line, boats overflowing with desperate parents and children make one want to do something – but what? The image of the soldier holding the dead toddler is graphic – like the famous image of the young girl in Vietnam fleeing from napalm, it stands for a multitude of other similar stories and demands a response.

In our academic community here at the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy at Trinity we have people who have devoted their research to topics of migration, conflict, policy, international development. Like everyone else we all feel an equal helplessness but our research can help put some shape on events, to try to get a strategic overview on these historic movements which we see live on our screens, to begin to think of ways of responding.

One thing that is clear is that this seismic event was the product of various policy decisions emanating from the developed West. Our political scientists can demonstrate how various historical policy decisions led to destabilisation in the regions where most refugees come from and how the West’s reactive and disorganised response led to increasing trafficking, instead of strategic and effective interventions. Our sociologists can chart the different kinds of categories and representations at play in these events – the distinctions between migrants, illegals and refugees, the kinds of policy on admissions, borders, passports which dictate who can and who cannot move legally into and within Europe;  and the flouting of international law and conventions which feature large in governmental responses. Our economists can put it in a global context and show how, despite the overwhelming nature of the crisis to us in the West, it is a tiny proportion of the global scale of the problem of refugees fleeing violence. And there are strong economic arguments to liberalise labour market policies. The analyses put forward by these scholars are backed by solid research and empirical data. So what can one do with this information?

A clear theme emerging from the empirical research is that policy is a factor in the rise of this phenomenon and has to be the major plank in the solution. Policy is the collective decision of governments and international alliances to deploy resources and shape events. And policy is governed by values, whether explicit or implicit, which is where philosophical reflection can help. In the current crisis a clear conflict of values is in play. On the one hand there is the impulse to help, to do something to alleviate the plight of the refugees. This might be more theoretically expressed as a commitment to global justice, to universal human rights, to a hierarchy of needs, to the thought that Western tourists holidaying next door to Syrians fainting of thirst on a Greek island is just wrong. On the other hand there is the need to protect one’s own resources, to maintain social and political stability, to not have one’s state overwhelmed. Accepting that we owe different duties to different people is pretty basic to humankind – for example our duties to family are different to those of complete strangers. Various religious teachings propose the ideal of taking in the refugee and stranger, but Western politicians are mindful of the need to protect their own patch. Furthermore, many will point to our own problems of homelessness or our shameful treatment of people in direct provision as examples of how we can’t even fix pre-existing problems.

But getting clear on values is one way of galvanising policy change. An important element in thinking about acting morally is motivation. What motivates one to act or to change? Appealing to reason is certainly part of this, but a realistic moral theory is one which also makes space for emotion. The groundswell of public opinion, which is ahead of politics on this issue, has been generated by peoples’ felt responses to the images we face. Indeed to be unaffected by these images would seem to indicate a blunting of moral sensibility, akin to that of those highly educated and cultivated persons who efficiently administered brutal regimes throughout the last century. Visceral reactions, arising from a shared humanity to this refugee crisis seem to have catalysed the will to start effectively tackling homelessness and direct provision at home. While not an immediate solution, it is the ground of solution. Ethicists as diverse as Hume, Aristotle and the Buddha agree that appropriate emotional reactions are essential to morality. Hopefully they will motivate us to respond to this crisis so we will not be ashamed to tell our own children when they ask us in the future.

This article was written by Prof O'Grady on the occasion of a public discussion hosted by the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy entitled The Migrant Crisis: A Critical Discussion on Monday, September 28th, 2015. Read more here.

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