What rights do humans have to refuge?
In 1945, as the Allied Forces discovered the concentration and death camps of Eastern Europe, humanity looked on in horror to the human price of turning away refugees. Over 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Many of those deaths could have been prevented.
The United States’ policies and public opinion toward Jewish refugees during the WWII parallel those of today toward Muslim refugees. Unfortunately, the horrors — immeasurable as they are — are beginning to parallel those sad times in our modern history. There are more refugees today than at any other time in modern history.
Ebensee Concentration Camp Prisoners 1945. Photograph from Wikipedia
The Trump Administration has failed our commitment to human rights
Laws stem from morality and morality can be developed from reason and science. What is ethical (at least in a consequentialist view) is based not in WWJD but in the question “what does society need?” As with all human questions, there are only optimums, not maximums, to be reached in these questions, and often the ‘right’ thing is determined not by right but by less wrong.
Consequentialism rates actions’ morality based on the consequences to well-being in society. The global optimum in well-being is the morally right act, the local optimum is more morally right than wrong and is a likely place for a law if the global optimum is unobtainable by the average man. Note, the optimum can be flipped to a reduction of unsatisfactoriness and we have Buddhist morality. In an interesting article in Tricycle, the author draws parallels between modern day readings of Buddhist karma and the tally across society of the consequences of moral decisions. In essence, morally optimum behaviors are equivalent to those that build good karma into the system and select the ethical for satisfactory futures (including enlightenment), morally incorrect behaviors will come back to haunt societies and individuals with bad karma and unsatisfactory futures (including recycling through rebirth as a dung beetle).
Consequentialism places liberty, self-determination, and equity in high regards for satisfactoriness. It is extremely difficult to weigh the factors objectively. Does government care for a “healthy” life outweigh our liberty to the “property” an individual taxpayer would give to ensure such a societal benefit? How to weigh societal gains versus individual rights? The thought-experiments of consequentialism often result in a different principle winning for different arguments, and only because the slope is less slippery. To highlight this, the right to own weapons is a right that rightly balances on the side of maintaining liberty at the consequence of greater societal violence, while universal healthcare, like is compelled in all other First World countries, is a right balance toward societal health equity at the consequence of less self-determination in property. That guns and health care could both be on the right sides of a consequentialist ethical argument shows its robustness and the difficulty of tallying principles and modeling outcomes in a consequentialist morality-experiment.
“Consequentialism places liberty, self-determination, and equity in high regards for satisfactoriness.”
A Real-Life Morality Experiment
Such a consequentialist thought-experiment, known as the drowning boy thought-experiment, is unfortunately playing out in real life in the Mediterranean today.
The drowning boy thought-experiment goes like this. Is it morally acceptable to forego saving a boy drowning in a shallow puddle (a puddle it is certain offers no danger to you)? How about if, as a consequence of your saving the drowning boy, you ruin a brand new pair of $200 shoes?
In either case, the failure to act, given little to no cost to your person or property, is seen as morally reprehensible. Inaction given proximity and cost-benefit would lead, assuming we make it a Kantian imperative, to societal minimums, a vicious cycle.
Now let’s pull on proximity. Is the moral indignation as clear if we fail to send the $200 to a foreign nonprofit with a perfect correlation of cash to rescue? In both cases, if a life can be saved for resources that do not threaten the benevolent life, overall societal unsatisfactoriness is limited by saving the life, and society should promote this direction. But should society compel this direction?
In the case of near-proximity, Good Samaritan codes and negligence laws are the rules governing the moral principle; while for far-proximity, the Effective Altruism campaigns have found little purchase in trying to compel good-will at a distance. Instead, what has been effective has been impact data, a compelling claim to the magnitude of impact you can have not simply in directly supporting altruism but by earning-to-give from the First World to the Third World where your money can save far more lives. The pragmatic argument than promotes the benefit (the number of lives saved), while reducing the cost (the opportunity cost of leaving the First World marketplace for a more altruistic job in the Third World), leading to reduced unsatisfactoriness for society even if you find less sense of purpose in helping indirectly.
Is there a corollary in refugee resettlement ethics and the laws these moral arguments compel?
The optimum exists in a society where we act as our brother’s keeperwithout our refugee brothers and sisters overstaying their welcome. This is an honest philosophical approach that protects those savaged by war and our ability to help them. This optimum can be improved — increasing the number of refugees resettled — by drawing on a principle of chemical reaction kinetics.
For those unfamiliar with the engineering of chemical reactions, their is a beautiful principle (even beautiful in its name) for the means to drive an equilibrium to greater production. Le Chatelier’s principle is manipulated to increase yields by removing products and forcing the reaction to again reach homeostasis. For example if 2 units of A are in equilibrium with 2 units of B, the removal and sale of a unit of B will drive the reaction to find its equilibrium and produce another unit of B. The clever chemist (or economist because the principle has been applied to the Nash equilibrium) can manipulate the equilibrium and reactant conditions in this way to increase yields (to the limit of raw materials and parameter manipulations).
Resettling and integrating refugees beyond the initial camps shifts the equilibrium from the burdensome to the benevolent. Refugees make terrific partners in this effort, wanting to be self-sufficient and blend their culture into that of their new home — the best of both. In First World societies, there are a great number of service-organizations (like Women of the World, the refugee service organization I co-founded), that at first serve the needs, than build the capacity to be self-reliant, and that finally, utilize the service of integrated refugees to restart the virtuous cycle. The equilibrium of those in close proximity to the war-torn region (like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) serving all refugees is unstable and unethical given that refugees (especially 2nd-generation refugees) contribute to society, industry, and humanitarian efforts to ensure the peace when their homes reach armistice.
“Resettling and integrating refugees beyond the initial camps shifts the equilibrium from the burdensome to the benevolent.”
Liberal Democracy vs. Nationalism
Why would the greatest, most idealistically advanced nation on the planet fail this most basic question of right and wrong? Fear. The people of America have been terrorized. Our enemies have mounted an attack that they cannot win without our help: starting with an understandable (although emotional) move to retreat into our own safety and ending in our moral negligence of our fellow man. It is undeniable that some component of increased scrutiny on migrants of all kinds and even of those that have lived and worked in our country for years is solely from a desire to increase the security of the nation as a whole.
There is every reason to believe that even in the best case of a flourishing and diverse liberal democracy at home and a foreign policy that builds schools and infrastructure while refraining from pre-emptive wars and escalations in drone strikes within sovereign nations, winning the war of ideas with Islamists will take decades; but a retreat from globalism, rule of law, and human rights is playing right into the hands of our enemies.
The rise of nationalism, first with Brexit, than Trump, and now in the rise of far-right candidates in Europe is partially in response to globalism and human migration. Isolation from the complexities of global migration or internal diversity is seen as a way to maintain a mythologized way of life and to freeze the labor pool that has suffered large losses, mostly from technological automation improvements. However, it is equally important to consider the other darker motivations like racism that have fueled nationalistic