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Rifts along the lines of politics and religion have torn the world apart and pitted different groups of various backgrounds against one another, as world leaders and think tanks shed some light and argue at length about the array of issues facing the world and its many parts. One such issue is the mass migration of Middle-Eastern and Northern African Muslims from their countries of origin and their deluge into the European Union as refugees and asylum-seekers. The question often raised by intellectuals and thinkers is whether or not this poses a threat to the political, as well as moral, establishment that is a traditionally Christian Europe. Founded on a western value system that has leanings in the direction of gender equality, sexual liberation, and significant freedom of religion, a growing few say that because the central values carried on by Islam are diametrically opposed to that of Europe, a laissez-faire policy in granting asylum left and right to these refugees is playing a dangerous game. Those that take the anti-immigration stance hold that while they empathize with the migrants in seeking asylum, they are nonetheless the proverbial rats fleeing a sinking ship and could bring with them the plague that is Islam, with terrorists following the trail. While most European countries are far-removed from this far-right Islamophobia, this movement to stop Muslim immigration into the EU has gained momentum and some world leaders are starting to lend them their ear. While these right-wingers have made the claim that the moral character of these immigrants in desperate need of shelter after the implosion of their native countries is faulty and not at the standard necessary to assimilate into European society, the philosophy of virtue ethics can argue the case differently, and perhaps demonstrate that the brazen acts of a few bad apples does not mean the whole tree is rotten to the core.
Virtue ethics can be defined as a moral code “that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism).” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Though it doesn’t dismiss the other aforementioned approaches, and recognizes they all can play a role in an individual’s morality, it simply gives one’s moral character the lead. Rather than say that virtues are this because of that, virtue ethics asserts that virtues and vices in themselves lay the groundwork from which subsequent ethics will be structured on. Virtue in this context refers to a commendable trait in one’s character and is considered a predisposition as opposed to a habit in that it is innate vs. picked up on later in life. A virtuous person is someone who doesn’t justify a virtue through consequences of its vice, or upholding another value alongside it, but because to not practice a virtue would be unvirtuous in itself. Since this, one should be honest or kind to others simply because to not do so would be the opposite i.e. dishonest, or unkind. Virtue is also in degrees, and while only a few possess a predisposition to perfect virtue, the rest of us fall short and our virtues are a constant work-in-progress. Another relevant offspring of virtue ethics is phronesis, or moral/practical wisdom, which a lack of will lead those in pursuit of full virtue astray. European leaders must strive to exercise this moral or practical wisdom in their policy and decision-making and pay no mind to the extremism of an insignificant few skewed towards xenophobia and racism. Migrants from Muslim-majority countries are trying to escape from the radical Islamists and oppressive governments of their countries, not impose these on the countries they hope will take them in for asylum.
Anti-immigration activists attest that “the migrant crisis of 2015 was unexpected” and that “laws to combat anti-Islamic hate speech tend to clamp down on free expression and worsen the tensions” (Murray). A couple of unhappy truths, these are only broad strokes that haven’t hit on all the details of this migration crisis, such as how recent terrorist attacks were not from migrants themselves, but from their children born-and-bred in Western countries such as Britain and France, raised in a climate of politicized anti-Muslim sentiment and educated on the horrors of Western interventionism in Middle-Eastern affairs. This brews resentment, and the moral character of this individual slowly erodes, and not soon after sees a friendly face in ISIS and al-Qaeda and finds himself recruited to their cause. Does the blame necessarily fall on these migrants uprooted from their homes and looking to these high-income countries for aid or should the EU and other Western countries share some of the blame in underscoring this suspicion of brown people through their own social channels. Virtue ethics states that in order to acquire virtue, we must put it into practice. So, while European leaders are closing their borders and capping the population of refugees accepted to appease the few citizens whose bark is bigger than their bite, what does that say about their moral character? Virtue ethicists would call on these leaders to look to the moral character of these migrants as a whole, who are suffering, have committed no crimes thus far, and shouldn’t be judged based on the heinous crimes of the few that decimated their countries.
Virtue ethics “gives us a guide for living life without giving us specific rules for resolving ethical dilemmas” (Business). The migration crisis of hundreds of thousands of panicked Northern Africans and Middle-Easterners is a complicated issue that many parties quibble over how to manage and ultimately resolve as soon as possible. However, it can be agreed that these migrants are indeed in crisis, “risking death in the flight from Syria are fleeing circumstances that are morally objectionable.” (Blake) We should share our sympathies with them, as it would be immoral for us not to. From there, would it not also be immoral to do nothing when we are capable of doing something? Needless to say, this is where many diverge. Compassion as a virtue, European leaders ought to practice it in the hopes that it will strengthen their moral code and the virtues they hold to esteem. European movements against the mass migration of these groups into their native land and so close to their homes could justify their rationale for closing their borders by saying that states are under no moral or legal obligation to accept immigrants, and that such acceptance is to their discretion. But what if refugees are put into a separate category, as displaced peoples and victims of oppressive regimes? Virtue ethics would maintain that regardless of how you compartmentalize them, these migrants have a strong moral claim to beseech help from these countries and that exclusionism will inevitably lead to the degradation of the basic human virtues of which these European leaders propped themselves up on. It will be an empty promise made to open their countries arms in response to the devastation wrought on these people and their homelands if they continue to reject them at every turn.
Prominent persons who spearheaded the early movement of virtue ethics, such as Plato and Aristotle along with their flock of ancient Greek thinkers, had it set in their minds that one’s moral character is defined through their virtues and vices, and that the whole of human experience is to overcome this inner struggle in aspiring to attain virtue with the temptation of vice always whispering in your ear is the key to achieving full virtue. If they were alive today, they would put their virtue ethics to good use and rationalize the case of welcoming the Muslim migrants in. Plato’s idea of a philosopher-king who embodies these high virtues should extend to the world leaders today who are shrugging off this moral obligation, meanwhile far-poorer countries are bearing the brunt of this burden and have taken it upon themselves to extend kindness to these destitute migrants stuck between the rock that is their former lands overrun with terrorists and corrupt governments, and the hard place that is these shining, prosperous lands slowly putting up walls especially for them.
As a philosophy of politics, virtue ethics lends itself as a credible alternative to the rash of anti-immigration voices yelling for the EU to turn away these Muslim migrants in the fear that Europe will be completely Islamized in the next 40 to 60 years. Virtue ethics promotes impulse control, empathy for others, and highlights the idea that morality is reflection of acting on one’s virtues and/or vices. World leaders ought to unite on this front and receive these migrants on the grounds of their indisputable moral obligation, the stronger moral claim to charity by the displaced migrants from Africa, and the overall moral character of these migrants and their chance to flourish in the new world beyond the borders that stand firm in their path.
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