By Mohammed Elzubeir
Faced with waves of migrants risking their lives in the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better future, the member states of the European Union have struggled to find an equitable manner win which to share the cosmopolitan responsibility1. At this time of seemingly impassable deadlock, scholars are turning to the arguments of earlier thinkers to try and find a solution to the standoff. One such thinker is Kant, who in his 1795 piece titled “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”, explained that for peace to exist, it must be “formally instituted”2. By this he meant that individuals must agree upon common governing principles. Kant proceeded to outline three definitive articles which he claimed would allow for the cessation of all hostilities, and thus lead to perpetual peace in the world. In the second of these articles, Kant put forth the argument that “peoples who have grouped themselves into nation states may be judged in the same way as men living in a state of nature”3 and that “each nation, for the sake of its own security, can and ought to demand of others that they enter along with it into a constitution similar to a civil one”4 leading to the establishment of a federation of free states. Upon analyzing this line of argumentation, one finds the unambiguous assumption that in the pursuit of peace, nation states and individuals are alike in that both must agree upon constitutions with others of their like to govern interactions. This is pertinent because the application of this underlying assumption to the case of the modern refugee crisis may lead to a solution in the case of the aforementioned impasse.
Whilst Kant’s argument is compelling, he does not provide empirical evidence to solidify his claim that individuals and states are alike in their actions. However, this evidence may be found when one analyzes the actions of individuals, and states when faced with responsibility.
In the case of individuals, it is fair to hold the axiom that individuals are against taking on unnecessary responsibility true as it is well-documented in both psychology and economics that individuals are commonly risk averse – they will not take on risk when there are others present who can do so. A well-known and pertinent demonstration of this is the social psychological phenomenon of bystander apathy in which individuals are less likely to offer assistance to a person in need when others are present as individuals generally do not want to attach themselves to the risk. For example, an experiment by Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged around a woman in distress showed that when people were alone 70 percent called out for assistance or went directly to help the woman after they had been led to believe that she had fallen and was injured. When there were other people in the room the percentage of people who offered to help had fallen to 40 percent5.
When one analyzes the general case study of the European refugee crisis and specific scenarios such as the Aquarius incident6, one begins to find striking similarities between the behavior of individuals as documented by the bystander effect and the actions of nation states when they are faced with situations in which individuals or groups are in need of assistance. In the 2018 Aquarius incident for example, Italian authorities did not allow the Aquarius vessel to disembark on Italy’s shores as they believed that the onus to assist the refugees was not solely theirs. In other words, they believed, similarly to individuals, that assisting the refugees was not their responsibility as there were others present who could do so. Another country, Malta, also did not allow for the ship to dock as it believed that the responsibility should fall on Italy as it would be easier for the migrants to integrate in to Italian society due to the country’s larger population.
If it were the case that Italy or Malta were the sole country that could provide assistance to the refugees, then it is reasonable to assume that it would be more likely that it would take on the responsibility of assisting the migrants. A demonstration of this probability may be found in the case of the vast number of Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Rakhine State, Myanmar and were granted refuge in Bangladesh. The assumption of the cosmopolitan responsibility in this case may be explained by the geography of the region. Rakhine State is bounded by the other states of Myanmar in the north and east, surrounded by the Indian Ocean in the south and flanked by Bangladesh in the west. This necessitates that Bangladeshi authorities take charge of their cosmopolitan responsibility and provide assistance to the Rohingya as there are no other potential helpers. The cases of Bangladesh, and Italy and Malta are both large scale demonstrations of the Latané and Rodin experiment indicating that nations do in fact behave like individuals when faced with the responsibility of assisting individuals.
Now that these parallels have been empirically proven, we are led to ask, can a fair distribution of responsibility be determined from the same principles of Kant’s earlier argument? If nation states must, to avoid conflict, organize themselves in a manner analogous to the way in which individuals do then perhaps one can infer from Kant’s comparison that states should determine the assignment of responsibility in the same manner as individuals for the reason that that this is already deemed working solution by the social order.
Within the context of society, we do not expect specific individuals to bear the full responsibility of assistance or even hold them to account when they are confronted with situations in which they are present within a group that may help an individual. In other words, we do not expect persons in danger to be assisted solely by the direct intervention of individuals. We also generally tend to endorse detour intervention – we sanction actions such as alerting the relevant authorities to situations in which we find individuals in need. Of course, individuals in society should be allowed to intervene from their own good will, but we do not necessitate this. From this analysis, it is reasonable to draw out the conclusion that we ought to hold states to the same governing principles that we deem just in the microcosm as we already deem them workable principles.
It is therefore inconsistent to have the belief that the governing principles we have formally instituted for individuals in society to abide are just and to have the normative view that states such as Italy and Malta are doing an injustice by not assuming their cosmopolitan responsibility in the case of migrants seeking refuge in Europe.
The solution to impasse of distribution lies in the conspicuous difference between the case of individuals and that of states — the response of the overarching authorities. In the case of individuals, the overarching authority i.e the government, via the emergency services, is directly responsible for providing assistance to individuals in need and this is made possible by the taxes that each individual contributes which are directly proportional to their means. In the case of states, the overarching authority, the federation of states, usually assigns responsibility to one of its members usually based on factors such as proximity to the individuals in need. For example, in the case of the Aquarius incident the European Union, expected Italy or Malta to accept the migrants. If this same strategy were applied to the microcosmic case of individuals it would be as
if the government’s only response would be to tell individuals to help those in need just because they are nearer to them than other potential helpers.
The solution may be in that we should model the response of the federation of states in the same manner as the response of the government in the case of individuals. Rather than assigning responsibility based on proximity to those in need of help, a collective approach should be adopted and countries should contribute to the cause of aiding the refugees based on their means. This would not only provide an equitable solution to the distribution of the cosmopolitan responsibility, but it would also allow for a sustainable solution in which refugees on the Mediterranean are not mired in uncertainty.
In Summary, Kant’s underlying assumption that individuals and states are alike in that both must have constitutions governing interactions between themselves and others of their like leads one to examine the possible extension of this analogy to the actions of states and individuals when faced with people in need of help. It is found that the actions of states and those of individuals can both be explained by the bystander effect, and that the actions of states such as Italy and Malta are not unreasonable. It is then argued that because these similarities exist, the determination of the burden of responsibility that falls upon states in handling migrants in need ought to be determined by the governing principles that we already abide by in determining responsibility when individuals are confronted with people in need of assistance. In other words, a collective approach should be adopted in which the contributions of states to the handling of migrants in need of assistance is determined by their means, rather than by their proximity to those in need of assistance.