Against Culturally Biased Ethics

I am a big proponent of “universalist” ethics, i.e., finding ethical principles which can be shared by all people in the world. Thus, it is important to try to find some common core deep in us all about what might be called good or bad. The hedonist will, of course, claim that the intuition that pleasure is good and pain is bad is the most plausible candidate for that common core. There might be some people who simply do not have this intuition – they might not see anything “bad” in experiencing pain or seeing someone else experiencing it, or anything “good” in experiencing pleasure – but I think it is still the most widespread intuition among human beings.

However, people have other intuitions too, and many philosophers today believe that we must take account of many intuitions, and attempt to achieve some balance between them. (The good thing about hedonism, on the other hand, is that there is just one fundamental intuition, so there is no other no need to find a “balance”.) One risk with this methodology is that it is no longer universalist, or at least not as universalist as it could be. This is because intuitions about what is good and bad are often strongly affected by our own culture (something which the hedonist principle presumably is not, or at least to a lesser degree than other candidates).

A recent reading of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics made me contemplate examples of culturally determined moral intuitions. Spencer, for instance, observes that many cultures have been extremely aggressive, and some have seen murder as perfectly honorable. Common have also been practices like slavery (including kidnapping women to “marry”), cannibalism, and different forms of stealing and robbery. It seems that thieves – at least successful and cunning ones – have been admired in many cultures. Two among the many examples of the latter are an African tribe called Waganda, in which “[T]he distinctions between meum and tuum are very ill-defined; and indeed all sin is only relative, the crime consisting in being detected”, and the Fijians, among which “[s]uccess, without discovery, is deemed quite enough to making thieving virtuous, and a participation in the ill-gotten gains honourable”. We see, then, that moral intuitions about property rights are very different across cultures.

Even more conspicuous are, perhaps, the differences in sexual mores and family relations. We know that polygamy (and sometimes even polyandry) has been very often approved of. Among some peoples adultery has been accepted, and it is reported that “among the Esquimaux it is considered a great mark of friendship for two men to exchange wives for a day or two” (and they were not the only people doing this).

One could go on indefinitely recounting examples of customs that are very different from the ones we take for granted in our own societies. The point I wanted to make is that people in other cultures throughout history probably felt as strongly as we do that their way of doing things is intuitively correct, and if they were to develop ethical systems built on the methodology that all intuitions should be respected they would simply end up by justifying the existing customs of their own culture. And something seems to be wrong with this approach to ethics. Surely, it cannot be the task of ethics to simply affirm the prejudices and inherited conceptions of our own culture.

In short, when developing an ethical system, one should not assume anything, except the assumptions that are necessary to establish any ethical system at all. And it should be clear that the assumptions of the latter kind are assumptions, and not “truths”. In other words, we cannot simply accept our culturally biased values, unless we can justify why they are acceptable on a more fundamental (“universal”) level. If you disagree with the tribes and peoples who think that killing, stealing, prostitution, or polygamy is honorable, don’t simply assume that they are wrong and that you are right. Demonstrate how they are wrong (and how you are right) with appeal to culturally unbiased arguments. (The same should, of course, hold for those who disagree with you.)

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On Laziness

To find out what (if anything) is immoral about laziness, we must first try to define it. On Wikipedia laziness is defined as “disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. This definition may not be totally adequate, since people would probably not call someone lazy who works all day with things they really like (i.e., it would not be “exertion” for them). If we, on the other hand, were to say that they are nevertheless “exerting” themselves in some way, despite the fact that they are thoroughly enjoying they work, we would have to concede that very few people are actually lazy, since we would not be able to distinguish this kind of exertion from paradigm cases of laziness, such as lying on the couch watching tv all day. The only significant difference between a film critic (who loves her job) and an unemployed movie buff (let’s say that the latter person also writes about movies on his blog)  might be the fact that the film critic gets paid. In this case the laziness of the movie buff, thus, cannot be constituted by the difference in “exertion”. Still, if we were to insist in calling the movie buff lazy anyway, we would have to concede that all people who have enjoyable jobs are lazy too. But that seems wrong.

A way of getting out of this dilemma would be to specify the nature of “exertion” in some way. We might define laziness as “disinclination to unpleasant activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. In this way we couldn’t really tell (without further information) whether the film critic or the movie buff were lazy or not. In order to know whether someone is lazy or not they must be put to the test by being asked to do things they do not enjoy. Unfortunately, this leads to other problems, since, presumably, virtually everyone has a disinclination to do things they do not enjoy (i.e. find positively disagreeable). This would mean that almost all people are lazy.

Still, many people do things everyday that they find disagreeable, like going up too early in the morning, commuting to work, doing the work itself (which is usually a mix of agreeable and disagreeable tasks), cleaning the bathroom, shopping for groceries etc. (of course, some people genuine enjoy things like cleaning or shopping, but you catch my drift). One paradigm case of laziness seems to apply to those who are not willing to do those everyday unenjoyable things that most other people do. We might, for instance, think of unemployed people in countries with generous welfare provisions – at least those few who are unemployed because of their laziness.

So the difference between laziness and non-laziness does not seem to consist in differences in “inclinations”, since most people are disinclined to do unpleasant things. The difference seems to lie in the actual doing of unpleasant things. Most people are “lazy” in the sense that they would refrain from doing unpleasant things if they could, but the genuinely lazy people are those are actually not doing unpleasant things, while the industrious (let’s say that that is the opposite of lazy) are actually doing them.

If this account is reasonable we would have to say that, for instance, a rich heir who is never doing anything unpleasant is a lazy person. Maybe some people would be inclined to call such a person lazy; but when laziness is used in a pejorative sense (which it usually is) the idle rich are usually exempt from that sort of criticism. Poor people, on the other hand, who are avoiding unpleasant activities as well, are often called lazy, even in spite of the fact that rich people are able to avoid unpleasant activities to a higher degree than poor people. So it all seems to boil down to on who’s expense you are leading your displeasure-avoiding lifestyle. If you are living pleasurably on other people’s taxes you are condemned as lazy. If you are living on your own money (which we assume have been earned in an “honest” way) you are not condemned as lazy (although we might not call you industrious either).

But I don’t think this is the whole truth about laziness. If common language does not seem to condemn the rich heir as lazy on account that he is not being idle on someone else’s expense, he might nevertheless be called lazy for other reasons. For example, he might justly (again, according to common language) be called lazy if he refuses to fulfill certain social duties that may be unpleasant for him. If he prefers to stay at home relaxing with a drink by his swimming pool instead of helping out with certain arduous arrangements for his uncle’s funeral, then his family would probably be warranted in calling him lazy (among other things).

And now we may have struck at the core what what laziness and industriousness is all about. It seems to be mostly about fulfilling certain (unpleasant) duties – duties which might be of various kinds, but often social or economic. The reason, then, that some of the unemployed might be called lazy seems to be that they fail to fulfill a presumed duty to share the burdens of economic life and to contribute to the economic stock of riches that they themselves are drawing from (again, we are assuming the context of the welfare state). The reason why the rich heir discussed above is called lazy is that he fails to fulfill his duty as a member of the extended family. Another example might be a priest who declines to preform important (but arduous) rituals because he would rather do something more pleasant.

So, let’s proceed from the latest definition of laziness, i.e., that it consists in the non-performance of unpleasant duties, to the question of whether laziness is really immoral or not. Evidently, it depends on whether one thinks that we have any moral duties or not. If you, for instance, believe that we only have negative duties, i.e., duties to refrain from doing certain things to others (for instance, harming them physically or taking their property), then it seems hard to call laziness immoral. No doubt, a person might violate negative duties out of laziness. A person might, for instance, turn to robbing because she finds that less unpleasant and time-consuming than working. But the person who subscribes to this libertarian philosophy would probably not call this a problem of laziness, because laziness seems to imply non-activity and non-performance. When a duty is unfulfilled through activity and performance people would probably avoid the label laziness (laziness, in other words, is about not doing things). I suspect that a firm believer in negative liberty would mostly use that label to describe the reasons that some are poor and others rich etc., because according this worldview people only get what they deserve. If you are lazy you will simply become poor, and if you do not fulfill your social duties you will simply become lonely. And if these are your choices, that is up to you.

Thus, laziness only seems to appear as a moral problem if we actually think that people have positive duties. Let’s take the example of the unemployed. If you, like me, are a hedonistic utilitarian you will think that people have a duty to contribute to maximizing pleasure, or, perhaps more practically relevant, to minimizing pain. One way of doing this could be to taking an ordinary job. Obvious examples of professions who contribute to reducing pain are doctors, nurses, or firemen; but most professions contribute to it in more indirect ways by making our everyday lives run smoothly.

It seems, then, that a conscious choice to live on unemployment benefits, in spite of the fact that one would be able to find a job, may be immoral. In other words, it may be a case of immoral laziness. I say that it “may” be so, because it is still possible for the unemployed to engage in other sorts of activities instead of paid work which could contribute to the well-being of other people. In other words, since unemployment (even voluntary unemployment) does not by itself constitute laziness, the moral status of the unemployed depends on how they actually spend their time. It is still possible for them to fulfill the duty which consists in doing what one can to maximize happiness in the world. (Needless to say, most cases of unemployment are not voluntary, unless we are taking “voluntary” in a highly formalistic and morally useless sense.)

When it comes to other kinds of social duties, whose neglect is commonly condemned as laziness, we would have to examine the purpose of those duties in order to resolve the moral question. In some social settings the neglect of social duties might be a valuable protest against unreasonable demands. In other words, as a hedonist one cannot accept a “duty” that does not, in fact, contribute to enhanced well-being. Nevertheless, refusing to fulfill a “false” duty does not get one off the hook when it comes to participating in fulfilling the real duty of maximizing happiness. You might be warranted in skipping some religious social requirement if you think that this requirement is only making the world worse; but then you should find something more productive to do instead than sitting by the pool all day.

The main thing for the hedonist is that you should find some time to make yourself useful for other people (in the sense that you should contribute to making their lives happier). If you are not fulfilling that duty then you may rightly be condemned as lazy. Of course, this does not mean that you should devote all your time to the service of others. After all, your happiness is also a part of the total sum of happiness. And we all need some recreation in order to fulfill the rest of our tasks in an efficient manner. Furthermore, there are many ways of contributing to happiness in society. The obvious ways are doing volunteer work to directly help the less fortunate, but one one can also spend time educating oneself in order to contribute to the betterment of society in more structural ways, or composing music or writing poetry for others to enjoy etc. etc.

Now let’s return to the case of lying on the couch watching TV all day. Would the hedonist say that this constitutes laziness and worthy of moral condemnation? In many cases, yes. No doubt, there are many valuable things one can learn by watching TV which might be of profit in one’s work as a pleasure-maximizer, but it would be hard to claim that a lifestyle dominated by the television is the most efficient type of lifestyle. And it would be hard to claim that watching television all day is such a blissful activity for you that the pleasure of it outstrips all other things you could have done for the benefit of other people. If we replace television with computer games it is even harder to see how more than a very modest amount of time per day could be reasonable.

Of course, I do not want to scare  anyone away from hedonism by claiming that you should devote a lot of effort to the improvement of society. If you already work full-time and have children to take care of it might be hard to squeeze in a lot of such activities on top of the necessary time for recreation for yourself, and that is understandable (besides, working hard to earn money to give to charity or the taxman is not a bad way to contribute). But the least one can do is to try to be noticeably less lazy than the average person in your circumstances. If your perception is that most people who work as much as you do, do five hours of charity work per year, then try to do seven or eight yourself. If the average person reads half a book on politics per year, try to read two or three yourself. There is always something you can do instead of being lazy.

Using Slippery Slope Arguments in Good Faith

A slippery slope argument goes like this: Action A leads to consequence k. Consequence k will, in turn, make consequence happen, and will make consequence happen. While is not an obviously bad consequence, l is somewhat bad, and m is potentially catastrophic. Thus, action A should not be done, because it will eventually lead to consequence m.

Sometimes slippery slope arguments are simply dismissed as fallacies, but it is obvious that they are not inherently fallacious. However, the strength of the argument is very dependent on the strength of the empirical evidence that the consequences one invokes will actually occur. Such evidence is often lacking, and that is why slippery slopes are often dismissed.

As a consequentialist I am very open to slippery slope arguments. If I, as a hedonist,  make an argument about an action or a policy, and if someone can credibly claim that the action or policy in question will probably have bad consequences down the line, – even though the immediate consequences may appear good – then I would be perfectly willing to drop my argument.

Nevertheless, I am somewhat reluctant to take slippery slopes seriously if they are raised against me by people who are not consequentialists themselves; because even if I could counter the slippery slope with better evidence that removes the slipper slope, my antagonists would, presumably, not change their minds anyway, since their arguments do not depend on consequences at all. A parallel would be a scientific discussion where a pseudoscientist who rejects naturalism argues that the scientist’s naturalistic evidence is wrongly interpreted. However, if the pseudoscientist rejects naturalistic evidence altogether we would fell disinclined to take him ot her seriously in the first place.

I do understand, however, why non-consequentialists are eager to use slippery slope arguments, because it is mostly a win-win situation for them. If the argument is convincing, the consequentialist will have to drop her position. If the argument is unconvincing, the non-consequentialist can just fall back to her non-consequentialist principles and disregard the empirical evidence. For the consequentialist, it is, however, a lose-lose situation, since the non-consequentialist does not have to endorse the consequentialist’s position even it the slippery slope is successfully disproved.

In short, please bring up slippery slope arguments if you want, but do so in good faith. Be prepared to change your own views if the slippery slope does not pan out they way you thought in the first place. Otherwise, it is just like pseudoscientists (and similar folk) who argue against real scientists  by invoking empirical evidence, while they themselves refuse to state clearly which empirical evidence might falsify their own position.

A Reasonable Doctrine of Personal Responsibility

I do not believe in the existence of free will in any deep sense. Everything we observe in nature happens because of some prior cause. A puddle of water cannot decide to freeze; it is, rather, caused to freeze when reaching a certain temperature. Human beings are products of nature as well – simply a collection of atoms (note that there is no valuation implied in this use of the word ‘simply’), although our brains are infinitely more complex than a puddle a water, which means that most of our actions are infinitely more unpredictable than the ‘actions’ of most other objects in nature. So even a determinist (i.e., those who do not believe in the existence of free will in the abstract) should concede that, in practice, there is not much difference between a belief in free will and determinism.

Some would, however, claim that it makes a great moral difference whether you believe in free will or determinism. On this account, we cannot punish or reward anyone if they are not acting out of free will. As a utilitarian hedonist I must disagree with this statement. If the consequences of punishing or not punishing someone were the same, then it would not matter what we did. But the consequences are (almost) never the same. Even if the actions of a ‘rapist’ were determined by prior processes in the brain (i.e., they were not the result of ‘free will’), it still makes a difference whether we punish him or not. Among the most important consequences are that the streets will be safer with the rapist behind bars, and that other potential rapists will be deterred from raping. The last point is especially important; it indicates that our actions (even if they, in turn, are not the result of free will) can create new determining factors for the behavior of other people.

Thus, I view the question of punishment, blame, reward, and praise as wholly separate from the question of determinism or free will. Even though we could, at least in principle, describe everything that caused someone’s actions, we can still discuss how much this person should be blamed or praised, or how much personal responsibility we should ascribe to them. A general rule might be that the more we can actually assess the determining factors of someone’s behavior, the less responsibility we can ascribe. For example, if I were to watch someone get pushed into the street in front of a car, I could easily predict that this person would get involved in an accident, and so I could not ascribe responsibility to the person being pushed for the consequences of this accident. I could, however, ascribe a heavy responsibility to the pusher, because I could not predict her actions at all (unless, perhaps, there was another pusher behind her).

What about the responsibility for poverty or unemployment, which might be important to assess in order to decide who ‘deserves’ assistance from the state? Here we must apply sliding scales, since it would be highly unusual to find someone who is not responsible at all for their situation, as well as someone who is completely responsible for their situation. Again, the test would consist in predictability. We might predict that someone with a certain disability can be expected to have a hard time finding a job, which means that responsibility for this unemployment cannot be total. On the other hand, we might be able to find a not insignificant number of people who have succeeded in finding employment in spite of this disability, which would mean that our ability of prediction will decrease (at least ceteris paribus), while the level of personal responsibility will increase.

While certain  disabilities would decrease the level of responsibility for unemployment drastically, there are other things which would increase it drastically. An example of this would be laziness. While it is certainly true that laziness, as well as other personal traits, are endowed to us by nature, it it still the case that we can find many examples of lazy people who are able to control or overcome their laziness in order to get a job. In other words, it is very hard to predict whether someone who exhibits lazy tendencies early in life will succeed in finding employment or not. Thus, when it comes to lazy people, their laziness does not remove very much of personal responsibility. Furthermore, while the lazy person might claim that he is lazy for certain reasons (that he cannot remove), we can create other reasons for him to counteract this laziness by, for instance, nagging at him or threatening to remove unemployment benefits. This does not exclude the possibility that we might find rare cases of extreme laziness that cannot be overcome by any means, but in such cases we would probably not call it ‘laziness’ anymore, but refer to it as mental disorder.

So my suggestion is that the level of predictability regarding people’s actions should determine the level of personal responsibility we ascribe. Right now I am just throwing this out as an idea which, in the end, might prove to be untenable. In any case, the theory seems to fall in line with many of our standard practices in deciding whether we should accept someone’s excuses or not. If you are late to a meeting and make the excuse that you were late because you had to finish playing a game on your phone, people would probably not accept your excuse, because they could point to so many examples of people who like to play games on their phone, but still manage to get to meetings on time. If your excuse is that your train was late because of a terrorist attack, we would accept your excuse, because it would be very hard to find examples of people who would make it to work on time under these circumstances. It would, in other words, be easy to predict that a person stuck on a train during a terrorist attack would not make it to work, while it would be extremely difficult to predict whether someone caught up in a game on her phone will manage to make the time or not.

I guess the obsessive phone gamer would be able to say that once she started to play the game it would be very easy to predict that she would not make it to the meeting in time, given that we know how long the game usually lasts. Thus, we should not ascribe much responsibility to her. Here one could probably reply that even thought it was predictable that she would be late once the game has started, it was very hard to predict that she would take up the phone and start to play in the first place. Thus she had a very large responsibility for starting to play in the first place. And since she, presumably, knew of the risks that she would be late if she started playing, the responsibility for the tardiness remains high.

In the end, however, it must be added that praise or blame should only partly be determined by level of personal responsibility. The most important thing is always the consequences of punishing or not punishing. If we see many good consequences of not reprimanding the phone gamer in any way, in spite of high levels of personal responsibility, then we should not mete out any blame or punishment. Conversely, the consequences might be such that it is beneficial to punish people in spite of low levels of responsibility (indeed, we do sometimes lock up people who are dangerous to other people, even though they are very mentally ill and not responsible at all for their actions).

What is “Leftism” and How Can it Be Defended?

Recently I have been doing some writing on the concept “leftism” (which will probably be available soon as a small book). It is, of course, hard to define exactly what leftism is, but most people probably have a rough idea about what it means. My own method has been to approach the term as an ideal type, i.e., a sort of loose definition which enumerates characteristics normally associated with the phenomenon in question. When talking about ideal types, it is important to note that not all characteristics need to be found in all individual cases. But it is hard to say “objectively” how many characteristics one must observe, or how strongly they must be manifested. Again, an ideal type is not a precise definition.

For the purposes of my own investigations – and my defense of leftist politics – I assumed that the most important characteristic of leftism is a defense of relatively high levels of economic redistribution. It would be hard to call someone a leftist if he or she did not want higher levels of economic redistribution (mostly from rich to poor, of course) than, for instance, conservatives or libertarians, no matter how many of the other criteria for leftism they fulfill. On the other hand, it would, perhaps, be hard to call someone a “pure” leftist if she accepts high redistribution, but rejects all other characteristics of leftism.

The other characteristics or criteria that I include in my ideal type of leftism are support for: (radical) feminism, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action, immigration and (some sort of) multiculturalism, bottom-up globalization and special rights for workers, and participatory and majoritarian democracy. One could probably also add environmentalist concerns (and a particular view of the state’s role to meet those concerns) to this list, but for different reasons I will not include it in my book.

I defend leftist politics by appealing to my hedonist ethics. I believe that, for instance, economic redistribution from the rich to the poor, a kind of feminism that makes us see beyond culturally specific gender roles, or a state that does not privilege any particular ethnicity or lifestyle can be defended on the grounds that it maximizes pleasure and (perhaps more important) minimizes pain.

I do not, in other words, appeal to Marxism in any way to defend leftism; and I believe that extensive ownership of the means of production by the state (or similar collective entities) would be mistaken. I believe leftists has relied too much on Marxism and other related theories to defend their positions. Hedonism is a more straightforward idea and it does not suffer from the many weaknesses that can be found in most other theories used to defend leftism. Of course, some may claim that the hedonist defense of leftism is not left enough. In that case, I would only answer that that would be a problem for such “left-leftism”, not for hedonism – unless, of course, the critics in question are prepared to make a philosophically rigorous argument against hedonism itself (and make better arguments for another moral theory).

My Ideology: Anti-Egoism

I usually discuss my ethics and my political philosophy. But to discuss one’s political ideology is to move some steps toward practical politics, leaving a few of the foundational steps behind for the sake of simplicity. After all, it is rare that a “conservative”, a “liberal”, a “nationalist” or a “socialist” is called upon to explain the moral foundations of their political views, and that is why we call these views ideologies rather than moral or political philosophies (but they can, of course, be propagated as foundational philosophies, provided that enough theoretical effort is made). And in real life (outside of the ivory towers of academia or think tanks, that is), we usually see no problem with the propagation of a “truncated” ideology rather than a complete political philosophy. In real life there is, alas, not enough time for the latter, nor enough philosophical know-how among most people to understand the philosophies in question.

So after this apology for the use of ideologies I would simply want to state what my ideology is. Put briefly, I probably adhere to what one might call anti-egoism. My view is that you simply don’t have a right to take for yourself more than is necessary for a decent life. By this I mean that you have a right to procure the means to uphold your own life (which, of course, also means keeping some savings for unforeseen events) and the lives of people who are dependent on you. I also grant the right to procure means for a few pleasures and interests that are necessary for a psychologically and culturally decent life. But wanting to go beyond this I would call egoism, at least in a world where many people lack the means to live this kind of decent life.

Now this anti-egoistic position does not by itself entail any specific economic system. In a very libertarian society the non-egoistic ideal could flourish if most people subscribe to it. In a world where many people do not subscribe to it political means are necessary to correct people’s egoism – means which might have different characteristics, depending on the circumstances. Often, however, the problem seems to be one of “financial” egoism, which often necessitates various redistribute measures through the tax system, along with other “leftist” tools. In this day and age the “environmentalist” toolkit seems to be highly appropriate as well.

I am perfectly ready to concede that some people will be happy to be egoists and claim that you basically have a “right” to anything that you can take for yourself. In real life, such conflicts are unavoidable. The resolution of these conflicts can only be left to democratic decision. I suspect, however, that few people would argue that egoism is an “ultimate” good. Some people would, no doubt, argue that egoism is bad, but that it is unavoidable. There might, for instance, be innovative and creative egoists who refuse to render any services to society unless their egoistic cravings are satisfied. I am prepared to concede that to some degree these cravings might have to be satisfied. But to what degree is an empirical matter. Anyway, it is all too easy to start up with the bad-but-unavoidable sentiment and slip into a good-because-unavoidable sentiment. As long as one avoids that slippage I believe the dilemma of unavoidable egoists is fairly manageable. At least as long as the egoists are not the majority.

So, that was the simple story of my political ideology. Less egoism in the world, that’s it. Not a complicated message, one might think. Of course, I am always ready to defend this ideology on a more philosophical level, but in – what I have called – real life such defenses are rarely called for; and I am beginning to think I am wasting my time with philosophical details.

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.)