Among ordinary folk the debate around accepting asylum seekers reduces itself to one of two propositions. Either one argues ‘do to others as you would have them do to you‘ or else ‘charity begins at home.’ Are either of these arguments intellectually coherent and morally compelling? My contention is that only the first of them can survive scrutiny and that consequently nations and societies are bound to welcome refugees.
There is little point in asking partisans of the second point of view where charity might go after its beginning. What they mean is ‘charity ends at home.’ The more productive question is ‘what do you mean by home?‘ Its obvious meaning would be that people should only help their own household which we might define as a person’s partner, children and parents. That, however, would exclude other family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances and indeed anyone from a person’s extended network. No well balanced human, therefore, would accept such a narrow definition of ‘home’ as the field in which to exercise charity (although followers of Ayn Rand might.)
The idea of ‘home’ for charitable purposes is perhaps conceded to be, at a formal level, ones fellow citizens, the people who hold the same passport as oneself. The right wing populist advocates of the proposition ‘charity begins at home’ however generally frame their arguments to mean that charity can only legitimately be given to ‘people like us.’ That is, not only fellow nationals but those who share our language, culture, skin colour and commitment to ‘working hard and playing by the rules.’ Of course the argument doesn’t bear scrutiny because taken to its conclusion it would mean, for example, that we would allow fellow citizens to starve to death or to become homeless simply for not being ‘like us.’ We would also, incidentally, virtually compel them to commit crimes of theft and/or violence in order to survive so that by keeping charity ‘at home’ we make our home a less secure place than we would if we were more generous.
There are a number of other flaws in the proposition. People ‘like us’ necessarily excludes animals. There is no logical reason why we should refuse charity to foreigners while lavishing it upon abandoned kittens or tortured battery chickens. Yet it is certainly the case in the English speaking world that charitable aid is lavished upon creatures who are most definitely ‘not like us’ and cannot be considered to be part of the home where charity is supposed to begin and end. It is also the case that, for example, in the United Kingdom if Gibraltar were to be occupied by Islamic State (which is conceivable) then the right wing populists who argue against admitting other foreign refugees would agitate in favour of Gibraltarians because they would be the ‘right sort of foreigner.’ On a similar basis the same populists argued to allow Gurkhas from Nepal the right to settle in the UK because they had served in the British armed forces and to allow in those Afghans who had acted as translators, guides or informants on behalf of the Crown Forces during the NATO occupation of that country. Here the definition of ‘people like us’ is extended to include non-nationals who do not share language, culture or skin colour with the majority of the population but are deemed to be of sufficient worth to render these things relatively unimportant.
At this point the proposition begins to resemble ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.‘ Clearly the idea that animals or allied foreigners qualify for sympathy and support when faced with torture, cruelty, mutilation or death cannot be covered by any reasonable interpretation of ‘charity begins at home.‘ Agreeing to such humanitarian actions must proceed from a different moral basis. I would argue that it arises from empathy and that this is a quality which all non sociopathic humans share. On that basis the idea that charity should only be provided to people ‘like us’ actually means that it should be available to creatures who experience suffering ‘like us.’ It is the business of right wing populist propaganda to convey the impression that foreigners or the long term unemployed or whatever group they choose to focus on do not experience suffering like ‘we’ do or do not love their parents and children like ‘we’ do and are not, in short, as fully human as ‘we’ are.
The strategy of de-humanising enemies in war time to make it easier to kill them is universally employed. Hence the emergence and use of such terms as Huns, ragheads, kafirs and so on. Precisely the same approach is adopted consciously or unconsciously by advocates of ‘charity begins at home.‘ By refusing to consider that refugees seeking to escape from torture or death are people in all essentials like themselves behaving precisely as they themselves would behave in a similar situation they can flatly decline to help them. But the reason why we should welcome refugees is to be found in the proposition ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.‘ They are people ‘like us’ and as we would like to be rescued by others if we ever found ourselves in a similar plight so do they. By refusing to consider them to be fully human we do not diminish their humanity we diminish our own.
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