Should the EU act to save illegal immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean? Superficially, this question sounds a bit like one of those dilemmas presented by moral philosophers: do you switch the path of the runaway train so it kills one old man instead of a family of six?
But in this case, the question is not a like-for-like, life-for-life comparison. Instead, it boils down to whether we
- save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
- try to save a few million Euros of costs incurred by the Italian navy
… and I suppose, a few million more Euros caused by the inconvenience of being stuck with a boat-load of Africans without identity documents.
Students in ‘Introduction to Ethics’ seminars should not find this example particularly troubling. Since we are not weighing up human lives, a few humane heuristics will see us through. One of those is that if its a choice between people and money, you save the lives. When confronted with someone in clear and present danger, and the power to save them, we should not sit on our hands and watch them drown.
Really, what is so hard about that?
No, this is not equivalent to the many other ways in which foreign policy might save African lives, such as (for example) intervening in a civil war, investing in the economy, or funding disease prevention measures. Nor can it be compared to the choice of whether to fund expensive cancer treatments. In all those cases the cost-benefit analysis is more difficult to perform. Without making a judgement about any of those policies, The fact that we do not always intervene to “save lives” is not an excuse to ignore a more obvious chance to help humanity.
So I am flabbergasted that this question has arisen at all. And I am appalled that the British government appears to have endorsed the EU’s choice to leave the people in the water. How have we become so morally lost?
We could simply assume that our fellow citizens are inherently selfish, and condemn them for lacking simple empathy for other human beings. But in my view, that is a lazy and unsophisticated analysis.
My theory is that collectively, we cannot bear to admit that a problem has outmanoeuvred us. Immigrants on sinking ships is an endgame in a long and difficult chain of events and choices. The ‘moral peril’ (i.e. The perverse fact that rescuing those in distress might actually encourage more illegal migration) is not an isolated issue that can be easily fixed—it has been centuries in the making. So solving the problem means reforming our entire approach to dozens of huge policy issues like immigration, international economics and development aid. This is not an idea most people want to entertain, and it’s not attractive to politicians on a four or five year election cycle.
I think we saw a similar psychology at work earlier this year (and in 2012, 2009, and 2006) during the Israeli strikes on Gaza. The asymmetric warfare of Islamic militant groups manoeuvred Israel into quite shocking acts of military aggression against civilians. The logic of Israeli military commanders was that ‘the militants are hiding among the civilians, so we must bomb the civilians’. This attitude reveals the Israeli leaders’ failure to realise that Israel had been morally ‘cornered’, so-to-speak. Like a businessmen throwing good money after bad because he cannot accept the sunk cost, Israel could not revise their strategy for dealing with Hamas.
I think a similar mentality is at play with the issue of the illegal immigrants on sinking boats. Although we’re not at ‘war’ with the concept of illegal immigration, but circumstances have nevertheless aligned to place us in a losing position… And rather than accept it, we appear to be digging ourselves deeper into a moral hole.
In 2002, I wrote a ranty piece for the LIP Magazine, urging a culture of acceptance of the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers:
In the meantime, we have to accept that dealing with immigrants will cream a percentage of our taxes off the top of the Treasury pot. And gee shucks, the trains might well be late, again. That is the price we must pay for living as privileged, Platinum-Plus humans.
I think this holds for the current scenario. Until we as a species sort out the international inequalities, those of us in rich nations have to accept that some money will be spent dealing with refugees and illegal immigrants. Hauling people out of the sea is just another cost of doing business. It’s not something we can choose not to do, no more than a Sunday driver can choose to reverse back up the motorway when they miss their exit junction. If you do that, the results are inevitably hideous.