The Stranger at the Door

What do we owe to those who are close and those who are distant?

Posted Oct 15, 2019

Immigration has been central to the issues that divide our nation and other liberal democracies into opposing camps. Stepping into this fray is Jonathan Haidt, noted NYU social psychologist who has written extensively on the different psychological and moral dispositions of liberals and conservatives.

“[G]lobalization and rising prosperity have changed the values and behavior of the urban elite, leading them to talk and act in ways that unwittingly activate authoritarian tendencies in a subset of the nationalists,” Haidt writes. “[I]mmigration has been central in nearly all right-wing populist movements. It’s not just the spark, it’s the explosive material, and those who dismiss anti-immigrant sentiment as mere racism have missed several important aspects of moral psychology related to the general human need to live in a stable and coherent moral order.”

Haidt’s point is that there is a tension between those values that are rooted in close relations and shared identities—as described by Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit as thick relations—and those that are founded in an expansive view that encompasses all of humanity—thin relations.

Politics aside, moral philosophy has grappled with this conflict between our duties to those who are dear to us and the obligations we have to those who are more distant psychologically at least since the time of Socrates and Confucius.

Philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre encapsulated the problem by presenting the anecdote of a man whose mother depends upon him for her care, but whose comrades tell him that he must leave her to resist the Nazi occupiers. Without his aid, his mother may well die. Without his taking up arms, his country may well suffer. Where does his obligation lay? To whom was he most loyal, his mother, or his country?

Under most circumstances, close loyalties outweigh more distant obligations. In the hierarchy of moral responses, close obligations come first. But sometimes circumstances require a different response. Many soldiers in wartime left their families in order to protect their country; cops and firefighters may well risk their lives for strangers, thereby leaving their families bereft.

Haidt shades the current political divide as one between nationalists and globalists. Referring to the wave of migrants from Africa and Asia in Europe, Haidt writes, "By the summer of 2015 the nationalist side was already at the boiling point, shouting, ‘Enough is enough, close the tap,’ when the globalists proclaimed, ‘Let us open the floodgates, it’s the compassionate thing to do, and if you oppose us you are a racist.'" In this take, globalists stake the moral claim to the thin obligations, while nationalists are claiming that the primary obligation is to fellow citizens.

Haidt writes “A liberal nationalist can reasonably argue that the debate over immigration policy . . . is not a case of what is moral versus what is base, but a case of two clashing moral visions, incommensurate (à la Isaiah Berlin). The trick, from this point of view, is figuring out how to balance reasonable concerns about the integrity of one’s own community with the obligation to welcome strangers, particularly strangers in dire need.”

What then is the balance? Sartre found his mother’s welfare and the preservation of his country equally compelling. In that instance, he said, you simply choose. Both choices are equally right—or equally wrong. Figuring out how to balance between preserving the integrity of one’s own community and the obligation to respond to strangers in need is complicated by the insertion of propaganda into the national discourse.

Today it is hard to sort out facts from fiction, real from fake, with trolls and propagandists everywhere. Although difficult, it isn’t impossible to sort the accurate from the false; it is possible to understand the difference between opinion and lies. More than ever, the right thing to do requires getting the facts correct, and there are reliable methods to sort through it all.

So what are the reasonable concerns regarding immigration? How many immigrants are seeking admission into the country? What and how much resources are needed to cope with them?

How dire is the situation from which they are leaving? What is the economic impact of accepting immigrants? What is the economic impact of not accepting immigrants? Is the impact different in different places?

The answers are important and need to be grounded in empirical evidence. At its base, though, is an ethical matter. A higher moral position can be reached if, and only if, both parties begin in good faith.

Compassion is the foundation of ethics. And without ethics, laws become bludgeons. But when we ourselves embody the spirit of open-heartedness, then our country can come closer to the ideal to which we aspire.

No law, no court, no politician can save us from ourselves. But we can save our country with the moral courage to reach out to one another in the belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being.

As philosopher Margalit pointed out, “We are suspicious of those who care for humanity but who do not care for any human being in particular. We should be even more suspicious of those who pay attention only to what they feel towards others but are incapable of paying attention to others . . .  We need morality to overcome our natural indifference to others. Indeed, we need morality not so much to counter evil as to counter indifference.”