Can We Afford to Help Refugees?

[This a translation of an old post from my Swedish blog]

For a few (mainly among the Sweden democrats, I presume), the refugee question may be about protecting Swedish “culture” or “identity”, but for most people it mainly seems to be a question about costs: can we afford to help a lot of refugees or not? For that reason, I would like to contribute with a few theoretical comments about what it might mean to say that one can or cannot afford something (discussion about our actual national accounts I leave to others).

When is it possible to say that one person definitely cannot afford to help another person? There are possibly saint-like people who would dispute the following answer, but it seems reasonable to assume that someone who does not have food, clothes, and shelter for oneself cannot afford to help someone else (it is, rather, precisely those people who need help from others). It is rather pointless to share one’s last piece of bread with someone else so that both get too little food and perish.

But the further one progresses from the satisfaction of those basic needs, the less meaningful it gets to claim that one “cannot afford” certain things. Of course, one could always use the expression in a technical sense, – Bill Gates might afford to buy 100 luxurious houses, but he “can’t afford” to by 101 – but for a well-to-do person it is more apt to talk about priorities. I think most of us would claim that a parent who says he cannot afford a winter coat to his child, although he has just bought a new hi-fi system for himself, can actually afford the coat, but has prioritized something else.

There is no doubt that Sweden can afford to help more refugees than the numbers that have already been helped. The question is if we want to prioritize it. Many Swedish households seem to have a lot of money to spend on travels, home improvement and interior design, electronic gadgets, restaurant meals etc. This is obviously something they prioritize above helping strangers in need.

Why, then, is it the case that some people still claim that we cannot afford receiving refugees? Apparently the affordability answer is simply a pretext. There must be some other real reason. The main candidates for such a reason, I believe, are: (i) a moral conviction that we do not have any economic responsibility towards strangers, (ii) the nationalist argument mentioned above, or (iii) pure unreflective egoism. It would, thus, be good if those who claim that “we can’t afford” openly state which of these viewpoints they actually endorse.

(Then there is of course the question of how one is supposed to help people if one actually wants to prioritize this – through taxes or through individual actions. That question is too complex to discuss here and now.)

The (Un)Importance of Intentions in Ethics

It is sometimes discussed whether people’s intentions are irrelevant or not when it comes to comparing seemingly identical consequences. Many people seem to think intentions and motives are highly relevant, for instance when it comes to assessing collateral damage in warfare; Hitler killing 100.000 civilians is simply not the same as Roosevelt or Churchill killing 100.000 civilians.

As a consequentialist it is, however, hard to attribute any intrinsic value to intentions. And if we contemplate the morality of an action that seems to be, so to speak, a one-shot activity, the intentions become basically irrelevant. We might, for instance, imagine someone who because of temporary desperation attempts a burglary and tries (but fails) to pick a lock, which wakes up the person in the apartment, who would otherwise have died because of an undetected gas leak. The consequences of this action would be the same as if the mailman put mail through the mail slot in a loud fashion, which wakes up the person inside. The mailman acted on perfectly legitimate intentions, while the burglar, presumably, did not. But if we assume that the burglar got so nervous from this attempt that he decides never to try something illegal again, then the intentions seem rather irrelevant when it comes to assessing the consequences. The failed burglar never actually does anything bad (or at least nothing illegal) in his whole life, and he saves one person from dying; and we could say the exact same thing about the mailman.

In reality, however, intentions are usually valuable when it comes to predicting the future behavior of a person. After all, a burglar will usually make more than one burglary in his life (perhaps we wouldn’t call him a “burglar” if he only does it once in his life…). If we fail to blame someone who by mere chance does something good while intending to do harm, we increase the chance that she (or someone else) will try to do something harmful in the future. By the same token, blaming someone for accidentally doing harm when aiming to do good would perhaps make people reluctant to attempt to to good in the future. Intentions are, in other words, almost always important because of their connection to actual consequences.

Intentions in themselves, however, should be irrelevant. We could even imagine cases where it would be good to have what is normally regarded as wicked intentions, i.e., where bad intentions are actively utilized to get good consequences (as apart from the gas leak example above where the good consequences were accidental). For instance, there are rare cases when it would be justified to torture someone in order to save lives, and in such cases one may have to employ a torturer who doesn’t care about saving those lives, but who enjoys torturing people. This would be someone who does (overall) good for what is ordinarily regarded as the wrong reasons, but we would not blame him for it.

One can also image someone who has the best of intentions but mostly does harm instead. A general who works for the UN to stop genocides and other gross human rights violations, but who uses his troops and resources in a thoroughly incompetent way, which leads to many unnecessary deaths, should probably be blamed for his actions, even though his intentions were extremely humanitarian. Good intentions cannot, in other words, always trump bad consequences, just as bad intentions cannot always trump good consequences.

The Meaning of Anti-Traditionalism

Yesterday was fettisdagen – translatable to Shrove Tuesday  – in Sweden. This day is traditionally the first day when it is allowed to eat a semla (plural: semlor), although nowadays there are, of course, no official ban on eating it before Shrove Tuesday (going further back, fettisdagen was the only day on which you could eat semlor). Even though semlor has been available in grocery stores several weeks before this day, some people still prefer to wait until Shrove Tuesday before they eat one.

This highlights a broader questions about traditions. Is it really rational to honor a tradition if there is no reason to do it other than the fact that it is a tradition? Why, in other words, wait until fettisdagen to eat a semla when there is no rational reason to wait? If you answer no to the first question you can probably be classified as an anti-traditionalist.

Personally, I am a anti-traditionalist in that sense. I see no reason to honor traditions that have no reason behind them. This does not mean that the reason must be very elaborated and foolproof. There might not be any “rational” reason why we should celebrate birthdays, but one might suggest – rightly or wrongly – that it is valuable to have some day where every person deserves some positive attention. It does not have to be the birthday, but since this tradition is established we might as well continue to honor it, rather than change it to some other day.

But there are other traditions where it is hard to find a good reason for keeping it going. Circumcision among atheist jews might be one example. If one does not believe that one must, literally, do it for God’s sake then some other reason for keeping the tradition going is needed. Now some might claim that it is for medical reasons, but I rarely hear Jews invoke that reason (and it would be a strange coincidence if peoples who have traditionally practiced circumcision uniformly praise the medical effects, while others uniformly do not). The most common reason seems to be because it is tradition among their people. The reason for continuing the tradition is, in other words, just the tradition itself.

Now imagine if I were to start a chess club. I would say to the potential members that to be a member of this club one must not only be interested in chess, but one must also chop off one’s left little finger. If people were to ask the reason for this, I would say because this is one of the two distinguishing marks of our association; we are the people who like chess and are missing one little finger, and that’s that. But I assume potential members would ask what the point is of chopping off the little finger. Chess in itself is, at least for potential members of this club, enjoyable or interesting, so it seems like a worthy cause to gather around. But chopping off little fingers only seems arbitrary and meaningless. The club would lose nothing of its substantial enjoyment value if the finger-chopping practice were discontinued.

Why does the traditionalist, then, want to uphold seemingly meaningless or arbitrary traditions? There are probably two main reasons. The first is that they believe that there are reasons behind most “meaningless” traditions that we cannot see. Traditions evolve for some reason, and to presume that we can discern the exact reasons behind this evolution is a sort of intellectual or rationalist hubris. The second reason is that they believe that having distinct groups in society is valuable and that it is good (or even necessary) for people to belong to groups. Exactly what traditions or distinguishing traits these groups have is of less importance than the fact that one must belong to some group in order to be a fully functioning human being.

The evolution thesis is not altogether unreasonable. If there is no obvious harm in keeping a tradition then perhaps we should not question it too hard. But when there is obvious harm in a tradition (for instance the harm of waiting for the semla or the harm of not having a foreskin or a clitoris), these harms should be weighed against the benefits of the tradition; and if no obvious benefits can be found then the tradition should be discontinued. What counts as benefits or harms is, of course, a topic for further dispute, but it is better that these disputes are had in the open rather than silenced because of the shibboleth of tradition.

When it comes to the second reason, it seems to be mostly a question for social psychologists. All I can say is that the view that people need to belong to (arbitrary) groups in that way seems very pessimistic about common people’s rational faculties and ability to embrace a truly individualist lifestyle. Perhaps this pessimism is warranted, but I find it hard to embrace it, since I am such a “rational” person myself. But that only means that you should not take me for an authority when it comes to social psychology.

Is Greed Good?

In a famous scene from the film Wall Street the character Gordon Gekko says the following: “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” But is greed really good? And if so, is it good in itself, or merely because it “works”?

I think it would be hard for someone else than Mr. Gordon Gekko to use the word “greed” in such a positive way (as far as I know not even followers of Ayn Rand seem to use it). Later in his speech Gekko equates greed with the search for life, money, love, and knowledge; but this seems to be a misuse of the term. Generally the term greed is not defined as a morally “neutral” quest for the aforementioned things. It is rather defined pejoratively. One online dictionary defines it as “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions”; another one as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed”. The pejorative meaning is, in both cases, especially marked by the word “excessive”.

Thus, greed in itself can hardly be called good, even though we can all have different thresholds for when we would call someone greedy. An extreme egalitarian would perhaps call someone greedy just for wanting more money than anyone else in the world, while a Randian (or “Objectivist”) would perhaps only call someone who violates anyone’s libertarian rights (i.e., kills them of steals from them) in order to get richer greedy.

But can we, then, say that greed is instrumentally good, i.e., good because it “works” in some way? And would the world not “work” without it?  If it is the case, for example, that entrepreneurs (who, among other things, create work opportunities for other people) are driven by greed – a selfish and excessive desire for more money than is needed – then perhaps we would all be worse off if they were to disappear. This conclusion seems to follow if we assume that most entrepreneurs are in fact driven by greed. But a world with non-greedy entrepreneurs would obviously work just as well – probably better, since more wealth would be spread around to those who need it more.

Thus, what Gordon Gekko should have said is: “greed is bad, but it works”. It works because we are in the hands of people who refuse to use their abilities for the benefit of other people unless they are excessively (i.e., demanding much more than what a relatively comfortable lifestyle would require) rewarded for it. If those people were less greedy (less bad or evil), the world would still work (and work better). So should we, then, make greedy people answer for their moral wickedness more often, or must we remain obsequious, in the way that a hostage might need to flatter his master in order to stay alive?