You may be surprised to hear that Immanuel Kant, Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan belong to the same school of thought. Their shared belief is that each life has equal value. This belief is the foundation of Kant’s categorical imperative and the motivation behind the good works of the Gates’s and the Zuckerberg/Chans. Chancellor Merkel seems to be a fan.
That each life is of equal value is an absolute truth, one of the few existing, and one we tend to honour in the breach. The lives lost to starvation are as precious as ours, and although we could avoid such losses with virtually no impact on our own lives, we allow the dying to continue.
Although the principle that each life is of equal value is an absolute, the concept of doing good is fraught with relativity. The best illustration of this is the well-known question, most recently addressed in the film ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, as to whether the ship-wrecked can resort to cannibalism if this is the only way some of them can survive. Kant would have said no, I would say yes, because in the clash of two absolutes the result cannot be that both are lost.
But the most interesting feature of the relativity of good is not when it dents the absolute. The most interesting feature is that the requirements on us as individuals and as a society must become stronger and stronger as our wealth grows. In the past it was perhaps unavoidable that some would die from hunger, today it is not and hence there is a moral obligation on us to avoid it.
Sadly, the relativity of moral obligation has been turned on its head in the face of the overwhelming European refugee crisis! Instead of accepting that our affluence gives us much opportunity to help the stricken, we argue that if helping will affect our affluence significantly then we cannot help. Even those with the biggest hearts are starting to talk about ceilings on the number of refugees that can be allowed into the individual European countries. Yet, if we accept that each life is of equal value it is not acceptable to argue that we save some but not all, only because it starts to hurt.
Our prosperity gives us immense possibilities to help, and we are obliged to do so even if it strains the fabric of society! The Cologne sexual crimes that were perpetrated also by refugees is seized upon to argue that refugees should not be helped to the maximum extent. This is a fallacy! These crimes are unforgivable and should be punished severely. But you do not punish the innocent refugee for the crimes of the guilty one. Even in a crisis, the presumption of innocence applies, and for the great majority of refugees it is, indeed, true!
Moral imperatives aside there is also an egotistical reason for helping even when it hurts, and that is, that in the long run empires that are closed to the outside will fall. The Roman Empire was so durable because it allowed non-Romans to become Romans. Whether we like to think about it in this way or not, Europe is an empire of prosperity. Those not part of the empire, and particularly those who are willing to risk their lives to become a part, are looking carefully at our humanism, or lack thereof. If we are inhuman we will be repaid by inhumanity in the future. If we show compassion we will most likely be repaid by compassion. ‘He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind’ remains a fundamental wisdom. Do we want to reap a whirlwind of sympathy or a whirlwind of hate?