Empathy Beyond our Borders

There are two separate issues I would like to address when it comes to how we should  extend the Empathy Principle to cover people from outside our country. In my previous post, I addressed the particular issue of how we should approach the issue of immigrants within our own country. However in this post I’d like to address a difficult question, which the very existence of the world outside our borders raises for the empathy principle: to what extent does our duty to prevent impossible situations extend to the citizens of other countries? According to the Empathy Principle, do we have a duty to help everyone who arrives in our country out of their impossible situations? Do we have a duty to actively go beyond the borders of our country and help those in impossible situations all over the world? On the one hand, it seems impossible, in practical terms, to end the impossible situations of the whole world. On the other hand, it seems unfair to deny our help to someone merely because they had the misfortune to be born in a different country from us.

It might of course be argued that we do not have duties to those outside our borders. We are ultimately talking about the UK government here, and the UK government has a duty to care, perhaps exclusively, for UK citizens. I believe however that if we truly wish to follow the Empathy Principle, we cannot follow this line of thinking. Peter Singer has written a short and very convincing article about the moral imperative to help those in dire need, wherever they are in the world (P. Singer “Famine, Affluence and Morality” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, 1972) (Here is the Wikipedia page on the article that condenses Singer’s argument quite nicely:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famine,_Affluence,_and_Morality). Singer’s argument is that, if we were to see a child drowning and were able to save them with minimal effort on our part (perhaps only the dirtying of our clothes) that we would consider it morally abhorrent to refuse to give aid. He then argues that distance should make no difference to our obligations, and so that, given people frequently die in impoverished countries for want of resources which we could buy with no significant moral loss on our part (we would not have to sacrifice anything nearly so important), we really have a duty to give far more than is the norm in affluent Western societies to help people in poorer countries. Whilst Singer is talking about personal donations to charity, I believe this can also be applied to to the duty of governments to contribute to international aid. In fact, I believe that, in reality, governments have a far better chance of actually carrying this off.

In this post, I don’t want to talk directly about dealing with any poverty so dire as famine. However, I believe Singer’s article illustrates nicely that it is possible to have moral duties to those outside our borders.

To relate this back to the particulars of UK politics, I think it is very appropriate that our most pressing question in the field of immigration and international redistribution comes from our membership of the EU, and particularly how we are to deal with poorer countries such as Romania and Bulgaria entering the union. I believe that the EU is a perfect model for how we ought to extend the Empathy Principle beyond our national borders without extending it to cover the whole world. The EU joins together a significant mass of many of the world’s wealthiest countries into a single unit with one of the largest GDPs of any political body in the world. Progressively, more countries are allowed to join, some of them considerably poorer than the average within the EU. (For example, the GDP per capita (before purchasing power parity is taken into account) for the EU as a whole is $33,000, compared with $6986 for Bulgaria and $7,942 for Romania). The wealth level in these countries is raised both by the simple redistribution of wealth within the EU, such as on projects to boost agriculture in Bulgaria and Romania, and by the opening of the entire European labour market to the citizens of these countries.

The criticism I expect here is that the free movement element so integral to the EU actually creates a worst-of-both-worlds situation when wealthier and poorer countries are joined, as the citizens, most significantly those with a high level of education or skill, or with the potential to achieve a high level of education or skill, will move from the poorer country to the richer country in an effort to sell their labour at a better price. This leaves one country without the skilled workers it needs to develop, and the other with a flooded jobs market and high unemployment. This seems to be born out in the figures I can find on this matter, which show that Bulgaria, for example, has one of the highest percentages of students studying abroad in the EU (http://www.asecu.gr/Seeje/issue17/makni.pdf) with around 9% of Bulgarian students graduating abroad in 2005 (article is very out of date, but was the best I could find via a quick Google)(http://paper.standartnews.com/archive/2005/09/14/english/bulgaria/s4557_2.htm) whereas Britain sends only 1 student abroad for every 15 international students it receives (http://chronicle.com/article/Britain-Adopts-New-Strategy-to/141911/), with around 2% of students studying abroad. (my choice of these two countries is based on my personal attachment to both, but they form particularly striking opposing examples.)

I suppose my answer to this is that I expect this to be a short term problem and a long term gain, for both countries involved. Strong pull factors, such as the simple desire to live in one’s home country, close to one’s family, in a land which speaks your mother tongue, should draw many home. At the same time, the long period of time spent studying a foreign country will mean many also wish to stay. I believe this will lead to the benefits being shared, so that the country of origin will benefit from the education of those who choose to return, and the university’s country will benefit from access to the talent pool of the country of origin, in the form of those who choose to stay. Based on an (admittedly unscientific) straw pole of the international students I know, this 50/50 split is accurate. However, if this does not bear out in fact, it should be possible to counter the brain drain effect in specific areas in which employees are in short supply, such as teaching or medicine, with financial incentives, either by the national government or on the level of the EU. Far from a worst-of-both-worlds situation, I believe we will therefore see a best-of-both-worlds situation, with everyone benefiting from the diversity of places in which it is possible to study and the diversity of people it is possible to employ.

Admittedly, the spending of development money in practice is often criticised as being ineffective at actually bringing about the development which it aims towards. But the point I wish to make is that the EU is, I believe, an excellent model for how we ought to extend the Empathy Principle beyond the scope of our own country without creating such huge demands on our own resources that we ourselves are impoverished. This obviously makes the question of which countries and when should be allowed to join the EU into a very complex economic question. But I also believe that we must not be too conservative in admitting new, less wealthy countries, or else we will not be achieving the target I have laid out here at all, or else the EU will merely be a political block of wealthy countries serving their own interests. I suppose my final point would merely be that, whilst some in the UK, for example, complain that membership of the EU is not beneficial for their country (which I believe to be false anyway), this argument, on my view at least, is somewhat irrelevant. The EU is not for our benefit.


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