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Johnson, Matthew Honors Thesis

An Application of Three Ethical Theories to the United States’ Response to the Syrian
By: Matthew Johnson
An Honors Thesis in Leadership Studies
Submitted to Dr. McManus
Marietta College
Spring 2018
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An Application of Four Ethical Theories to the United States’ Response to the Syrian
The Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian failure of the modern day. As the rebellion continues
to fight for a peaceful democracy, the Syrian government exerts more military force. Displacing
over 11 million refugees both internally and externally, the crisis has quickly expanded beyond
the influence of the state. As a result, refugees have flooded the international system.
Neighboring states directly feel this pressure through the physical presence of refugees and have
acquiesced to offer refuge at a mass level. The European itself has mandated an equally
dispersion of refugees among member states. However, the United States, separated from both
the physical and geographical pressure of refugees, has only offered refuge to approximately
50,000. This paper analyzes the current situation of the crisis through the application of three
ethical lenses to determine how the United States should ethically respond. The three ethical
lenses include Kantianism, Utilitarianism, and Rawlsian ethics. The applications suggested that
from an ethical perspective, respect for humanity and human rights, a much more engaged
response is not only necessary, but ethically required of the United States.
Thesis Committee
Dr. Robert McManus, Chair
Dr. Beverly Hogue, Member
Dr. Alexandra Perry, Member
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Chapter 1: Overview and Definitions
On September 3 of 2015, a three-year-old Syrian by the name of Aylan Kurdi
washed up to shore, drowned, fleeing persecution. The toddler was wearing a red t-shirt with
blue shorts and Velcro sneakers and was found face down on a Turkish beach. The image is truly
haunting. Lamentably, the distress does not end here. Aylan's brother, Galip, at the age of five,
was also found alongside their mother, Rehan. The father, Abdullah, was the only survivor. The
family was part of a group of 23 trying to reach Kos, a Greek island. Five children in total were
reported dead (Bloch 2013).
Unfortunately, this is not the only story of millions that illustrate the agony,
mistreatment, and extreme circumstances that Syrians are experiencing in pursuit of safety. The
Turkish hashtag, KiyiyaVuranInsanlik" offered a clear understanding of the death, "Humanity
Washed Ashore" (Bloch 2013). The father's recount of the situation is heartbreaking and difficult
to swallow:
The Turk [smuggler] jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I
grabbed my sons and wife, and we held onto the boat. We stayed like that for an hour,
then the first [son] died, and I left him so that I can help the other, then the second died,
so I left him as well to help his mom, and I found her dead. ... What do I do? ... I spent
three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were
all fake…My wife is my world, and I have nothing, by God. I don't even think of getting
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married again or having more kids. ... I am choking; I cannot breathe. They died in my
arms. (Bloch 2013)
Kurdi, a barber, was fleeing Syria in hopes of finding refuge in Canada with his sister. Following
the inception of the war, Kurdi moved the family from Damascus to Kobani—a highly contested
city between Kurds and ISIS. Kurdi is reported having paid $6,100 for a place on the vessel.
Parents and humanitarians reacted appalled to the photo, but Peter Bouckaert, emergency
director at Human Rights Watch, argues that such anger is displaced. He states, "It's a very
disturbing photo, but I think we should be offended that children are washing up dead on our
beaches because of the failure of our politicians to provide safe passage [rather than by the photo
itself]" (Bloch 2013). At the time, 2,500 had lost their lives from risk sea travels. Today, the
total number of deaths of refugees fleeing Syria is undoubtedly above that. Bouckaert has one
message, refugees from Syria are legitimate and should be welcomed in the world. The death of
this little boy is no responsibility other than the failure of the international community to provide
safe passage and refuge (Bloch 2013). Three years later and the death toll rising far above one
million, one can only imagine what he would have to say today.
The research question that this proposal seeks to address is: How should the United
States’ respond to the Syrian refugee crisis? To explore this question, I will explain the current
Syrian refugee crisis and apply four different ethical approaches to the situation: Kantianism,
Utilitarianism, and Rawls Theory of Justice. Finally, I will suggest what the United States’
policy should be towards Syrian refugees based on the ethical theories explored.
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The cry for global leadership has never been greater as the international system is
entering an era of tremendous global movement. Sixty-five-and-a-half million people; this
number represents how many people, worldwide, have been—and remain—forcibly displaced
following the beginning of the war in 2011; 22.5 million refugees; and 10 million stateless
people (UNHCR). Collectively, these numbers represent nearly 1 billion internally and
externally displaced persons, only 189,300 of which have resettled. With such an astronomical
displacement into the international system, state actors are faced with a daunting political and
ethical decision: How, and to what extent, are we ethically and politically responsible for
accepting, providing, and facilitating refuge and asylum for refugees?
Research into this topic has never been more relevant as recent developments in the
international system suggest a contradicting ideology between pro-nationalists and those that
maintain a more globalized political agenda. The former favoring conservative ideologies that
promote attention to domestic issues and stricter foreign policies, while the latter recognizes the
value in increased international relations and globalization. Though globalization is developing
at a rapid pace, the entire institution is challenged as more and more refugees enter the global
world, forcing political leaders to make a controversial decision. These decisions lead the
populace to wonder what factors influence their behavior, how they evaluate the polarizing
politics of protecting national interest at the expense of millions of people's lives, and what forms
of ethical decision-making one ought to consider in response to such an imminent and growing
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The decision to deny or accept refugees, and the subsequent choice of how many refugees
to take, primarily results from a leader's cost-benefit analysis of the best course of action. This
course of action carries significant ethical weight for the leader and ramifications not only for the
refugees but also for the citizens of a state who believe that the admittance of refugees is a
gateway for terrorism and civil unrest. The rational actor theory would suggest that leaders and
policymakers will always make logical, beneficial decisions based on deliberation of the choices
available. However, one's understanding of what is valid and rational varies, thus promoting the
need to understand these decisions through an ethical lens.
The approach of this research is to provide an in-depth analysis of four ethical
perspectives (1) Kantianism, (2) Utilitarianism, and (3) Rawls Theory of Justice and view the
refugee crisis through the lens of each approach.
Kantianism: Kantianism branches from the deontological focus on rules. Deontologists
contend that actions are inherent in specific human actions makes them right or wrong.
Kant provides with two categorical imperatives through which an individual should
always act: (1) Always act in a way that should be a universal law and (2) Always treat
people as ends in themselves and never as mean (Kant).
Utilitarianism: The utilitarianism perspective branches from teleology as a goal-based
perspective. Actions are judged by the consequences that the actions produce rather than
a determination of right or wrong. This perspective is commonly referred to as the
greatest good for the greatest number of people principle. Naturally, this approach is
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highly subjective and dependent on the actor’s understanding what constitutes a ‘good’
Rawls Theory of Justice: For justice to be truly just, everyone must be afforded the
same rights under the law. Rawls Theory of Justice is founded on his theory of the Veil of
Ignorance and Original Position. The original position suggests that you know nothing
about yourself, nothing of your sex, race, nationality, etc. To achieve ‘justice as fairness'
a society must design their social contract behind a veil of ignorance which prevents one
from knowing their place in their established world. The social contract would serve as
principles of just and fair value. Though intricately defined, Rawls is making the
argument of impartiality, independent from personal convictions or privilege which may
cloud one's judgment of justice (Rawls).
This strategy will offer an insight into the divisive and challenging process of a world leader’s
response to the refugee crisis through an understanding of these various ethical perspectives.
Supplemental material derived from news sources on current events will be used to assist in
understanding the application of these theories. I will include a chapter on each ethical
perspective, concluding with a chapter on my suggestion of an appropriate response from the
United States. This approach will evaluate the complexity of executive decision-making, with a
particular focus on the factors that have guided the refugee crisis within the international system,
the evaluation of national versus global interest, and the ethical responsibility of state actors to
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As is demonstrated in recent media outlets, the impending—and perceived threat—of
refugees is challenging world leaders to consider their stance on the refugee crisis. Leadership,
in a variety of facets, deals with ethical issues and complex situations. It is only through this
process that an individual may weigh their responsibility as a leader to address this humanitarian
crisis in light of domestic and international interest. In this thesis, I argue leaders consider the
ethics behind their decision-making processes. My research will not only illustrate through
which ethical lenses past leaders have calculated their decisions but suggest an ethical
prescription for future leaders.
Terms and Definitions
To clarify terms used in this chapter, I will define the International System, Rational
Actors, States, Refugees, Ethics, Morals. I will also explain their significance to this paper.
International System
The international system is defined as the collective body of all recognized and legitimate
organizations, countries, and individuals that act within the global world. The international
system has no judicial, legislative, nor executive authority. The term exists as a way to discuss
all actors as a collective unit and is used primarily in the political science discipline. It should be
clear that "International System" has no reference nor connection with the United Nations. The
UN exists as a unified body with signatories and a ratified constitution; the international system
has no such unity. It is merely the system of global communication, cooperation, and action.
Rational Actors
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The theory of rational actors assumes that all human beings calculate circumstances from
a cost-benefit analysis, thus being rational. Rational actors apply to the context of ethics as many
theories imply that humans are rational. Though there are many criticisms and disagreements of
this assumption, the idea widely used in political science and alluded to many ethical and moral
States are central actors in the international system rather than individuals or
organizations. States, otherwise known as countries, have recognized sovereignty from other
states, territory, government, and peoples. States are the governing body of people with the
ability to protect rights and action within their recognized borders. Though used interchangeably
in most literature, political science considers ‘states' to be of higher political order with the added
component of sovereignty. A country is a country whether recognized by others or not, such as
Palestine. A country is a state when other states recognize it as having authority within its
For this research, I will use the UNHCR's United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees definition of a refugee. “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are
defined and protected by international law and must not be expelled or returned to situations
where their life and freedom are at risk” (UNHCR). Refugees hold a particular status within state
governments, affording them the right to receive refuge, financial, and nutritional support.
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Ethics is a system of well-founded standards of right and wrong that describe or tell
humans what they ought to do, usually regarding rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness,
or specific virtues. Ethics is a broader definition of ‘morals,’ as ethics are applied as general
principles of behavior.
Morality is similarly defined to ethics, yet it remains difficult to define. The best
approach is to consider morals to be a person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what
is and is not acceptable for them to do. Morality as a system seeks to define a set of behaviors or
beliefs to guide human behavior but are not necessarily applied as general principles to guide
governing systems. Morals are concerned with individual decisions, actions, and principles.
Limitation of the Study
As with all studies applying ethics, the paper is highly subjective. It is evident that the
theory and application assumes an inherent negative bias toward the current treatment of
refugees. As a result, each ethical application, though objective in practice, is biased. Similarly,
this limits the amount of consideration given to the argument from the other perspective. It is
also difficult to fully apply each ethical theory. The theories discussed are both intricate and
complex and as such require a significant amount of consideration before applying. Considering
all approaches are so multifaceted, fully applying each would need a separate document itself;
this research is a comparative study as opposed to an in-depth application of a singular approach.
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The following portions of this thesis will analyze the Syrian refugee crisis and outline the
ethical and moral failures of the Assad regime and actors in the international system. The
following chapter will provide background for the crisis (Chapter 2) before delving into the first
ethical analysis of a Kantian application (Chapter 3), followed by a Utilitarian application
(Chapter 4), and ending with an application of Rawl’s Theory of Justice (Chapter 5). Chapter 6
will conclude the thesis with a prescription for the United States. This prescription will consider
each of the previous ethical theories to suggest ethical and moral action for the United States.
The entire thesis will draw upon actions, both historical and present, of other state actors as a
comparative analysis of differing responses.
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March of 2018 will mark the 8th year of the Syrian conflict, with over 465,000 killed in
combat, a million injured, and over 12 million displaced both internally and externally
(Aljazeera 2018). The impact on the global community and the apparent humanitarian
catastrophe has earned the legendary conflict condemnation from many global leaders. Perhaps
the most significant being the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' High
Commissioner Filippo Grandi, who stated that the crisis is the largest humanitarian and refugee
crisis of our time (UNHCR). Grandi went so far as to condemn the lack of support displayed
from actors around the world. While many may agree with the High Commissioner, others
validate their actions through protectionist rhetoric and nationalism. However, one has to wonder
what implication this crisis has on our ever-globalized world and our responsibility to others.
How are elected officials expected to evaluate such a global crisis and ethically respond? Before
we address this question, an understanding of the historical and current context is necessary.
Historical Context
The Syrian civil war was a component of a much larger revolutionary movement that
swept the Middle East as part of what has been termed “The Arab Spring.” Perhaps more
appropriate is the “Middle East Uprisings,” as citizens protested in many Middle Eastern states,
including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen. The cause of the uprisings is disputed,
with some suggesting political suppression while others argue a lack of democracy. Whatever
the argument, it is clear that these citizens were tired; tired of economic mismanagement,
corruption, the stifling of dissent, and the mounting cases of human rights abuses. With social
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media as a modern-day revolutionary tool, matched with a large and unemployed youth
population, states were well poised for an uprising. Frustrations were abetted by global
connections and aspirations for greater possibility ignited an urgency for change. This urgency
and vision of a better future spread like wildfire, particularly following the suicide of Mohamed
Bouazizi (International Relations 2018).
Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi is regarded as the catalyst for the Arab Springs,
following public humiliation by Tunisian police for not having a permit to sell his fresh produce
(NPR Staff). The account is best summarized by Rania Abouzeid who wrote an article for TIME
magazine titled “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire”:
Humiliated and dejected, Bouazizi, the breadwinner for his family of eight, went to the
provincial headquarters, hoping to complain to local municipality officials, but they
refused to see him. At 11:30 a.m., less than an hour after the confrontation with the
policewoman and without telling his family, Bouazizi returned to the elegant doublestory white building with arched azure shutters, poured fuel over himself and set himself
on fire. He did not die right away but lingered in the hospital until Jan. 4. There was so
much outrage over his ordeal that even President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator,
visited Bouazizi on Dec. 28 to try to blunt the anger. But the outcry could not be
suppressed and, on Jan. 14, just ten days after Bouazizi died, Ben Ali's 23-year rule of
Tunisia was over. (Abouzeid 2011)
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Beyond the symbolic element of his actions, Bouazizi was a martyr of the hundreds of thousands
of desperate citizens; many of which have college degrees yet lack access to sustainable careers,
forced to wander impoverished towns (Abouzeid 2011). Tunisians took to the streets and
protested against the policies of Tunisian President Zine el-Abedine Ben-Ali (International
Relations 2018). Ben-Ali’s regime was subsequently overthrown, and his attempted reform
faltered. As stated by Bouazizi’s nephew, “All he wanted was a pickup. Instead, he started a
revolution” (Abouzeid 2011). Unrest and revolts sparked in neighboring regions, engulfing the
Middle East in instability.
Like many others, the protest in Syria began as a response to the Arab Springs. In March
of 2011, protests erupted following the detainment of 15 teens and children for writing graffiti in
support of the Arab Spring (Aljazeera 2018). The demonstrations were relatively peaceful until a
13-year-old boy was killed by extreme torture tactics; effectively making the boy a martyr for
further action. The graffiti called for democratic reform and the removal of the Assad regime
following years of high unemployment, widespread corruption, a lack of political freedom and
state repression (BBC 2016). These long-standing grievances paired with motivation from the
Arab Spring and murder of the 13-year-old triggered nationwide protests for President Assad’s
resignation (BBC 2016).
Assad responded with plans to appease the citizens, offering state employees an
immediate salary increases and the lifting of Syria's extended State of Emergency law. The
President even announced plans to license new political parties (CNN 2018). On April 21, he
succeeded in lifting the 48-year-old state of emergency and abolished the Higher State Security
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Court. Perhaps the most impressive, and retrospectively most ironic, was a decree that regulated
the right to peaceful protests as one of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Syrian
Constitution (CNN 2018).
It appeared that the protests were working. The government was contemplating initiatives
to appease the revolutionaries, and, for a moment, it felt that they were being heard. But by April
of 2011, President Assad’s façade collapsed, and orders squashed the rebellion through coercive
force, killing hundreds and imprisoning others (Aljazeera 2018) (Rogers et al. 2015). The
protests had devolved from peaceful demonstrations into a “violent insurgency” that expanded
beyond the borders of Syria (Gilsinan 2015). By mid-2011, thousands of Syrian soldiers had
defected from the military and had begun launching attacks against the government. In
December, the United Nations stated violence, categorizing the state as "being on the verge of
civil war" (Rogers et al. 2015). In response, an opposition coalition was formed called the Free
Syrian Army (Aljazeera 2018). The opposition forces were arming themselves.
The conflict has expanded into a full-scale civil war with a multitude of actors. While the
Syrian war started as a conflict between citizens and the government, it has escalated into a
Sectarian and Proxy War, pitching the two largest sects of Islam—Sunni, and Shia—against one
another. The Proxy War, which is essentially a war that is indirectly fought amongst players,
includes the U.S. and Gulf States against Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah (Gilsinan 2015). With
continued support from the United States for anti-Assad rebel groups, the Russian-supported
Assad government increased military efforts through untargeted bombings and illegitimate
killings. Schools were bombed at random, opposition-held hospitals were demolished, and tanks
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opened fire in remote areas (BBC 2018). Based on UN and activist data, this retaliatory effort
left 90,000 killed in 2013, a number which quickly escalated to 250,000 by 2015 (BBC 2018).
Unfortunately, the resolution efforts are fading quickly. The United Nations Security
Council has attempted to curb the violence multiple times with little success. On April 12 of
2017, the Russians vetoed a resolution that condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria
(Amnesty). The resolution called for those responsible for the chemical to be held accountable.
Later that year in November, the Russians also vetoed a resolution that would have mobilized the
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the use of chemical
weapons in Syria (Amnesty). This is an unfortunate circumstance as parties on both sides of the
fight are supporting opposite proponents. The Russians are backing the Assad regime while the
United States continues to supply the rebels with military weaponry. As members of the five
states with veto capabilities, a peaceful resolution that is favorable to all parties is hopeless.
On April 4th of 2017 that sad truth was realized. A chemical nerve agent sent hundreds to
the hospital in Khan Sheikhoun while 80 others lay dead—many of whom were children (BBC
2017). Despite repeated statements insisting that the Syrian regime had nothing to do with the
chemical attacks, reports from the ground tell a different story. Residents state seeing an aircraft
drop a bomb on a local building at 6:45 a.m. or so, releasing a chemical known as Sarin.
Colorless, transparent, tasteless, and without odor, volunteer and medical personnel rushed to the
scene only to fatally fall themselves or join the patient ranks. The victims experienced redness of
the eyes, foaming at the mouth, constricted pupils, blue facial skin, severe shortness of breath
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and asphyxiation (BBC 2017). Children, who were the most susceptible, were found choking in
the streets, their lifeless bodies filling the beds of rescue trucks.
The pro-opposition Edlib Media Center (EMC) reported that though the projectile was
unclear, the warplanes were targeting clinics. The ultimate objective was to weaken the Syria
Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets (BBC 2017). A non-aggression alliance, the White
Helmets work to recover people—alive or not—after a bombing. They put themselves in the
middle of the attacks to limit casualties. President Bashar Al-Assad was quoted suggesting the
attack was merely fabricated by the West, "Our impression is that the West, mainly the United
States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story to have a pretext for
the attack" (BBC 2017). Contrarily, U.S. intelligence agencies believe the attack was not only
organized but intentional. Military radar systems monitored a Syria aircraft take off from
government-controlled Shayrat at both 6:37 a.m. and 6:46 p.m. (BBC 2017).
The Assad regime refused to back down, despite a joint report from the UN and
international chemical weapons inspectors that found his administration responsible for the April
2017 sarin attack. Nearly a month later, the UN body unanimously approved a 30-day ceasefire
in Syria, without specifying a start date (CNN 2018). Unsurprisingly, these resolutions were
futile. The humanitarian violations from the Assad regime are mounting and the crisis—without
any near end in sight—has reached a state of global catastrophe. The Syrian government has
carried out indiscriminate and direct attacks on civilians, obliterated homes, hospitals, and other
medical facilities, and damaged opposition artillery through air strikes (Amnesty).
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The Syrian government has also violated the law against medical neutrality. Outlined in
the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, Rule 25 states that "Medical personnel
exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances"
(ICRC). Medical neutrality promotes a principle of "noninterference" with medical personnel
during war times as doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are trained to treat anyone,
regardless of politics, race, or religion (PHR). Medical neutrality ensures the following four
principles based on the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols; (1) the protection of
medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference; (2) unhindered
access to medical care and treatment; (3) the humane treatment of all civilians; and (4)
nondiscriminatory treatment of the injured and sick (PHR). Any attacks or action against this
principle is considered grave breaches of international law.
From a medical perspective, it is the ethical responsibility of personnel to provide
healthcare services during times of both war and peace. Precedence dating back over 2,300
years, the laws of war protect the sick and wounded and encourage physicians to provide them
with neutral and ethical care (PHR). Government infringement on the duties of such
professionals is considered unlawful from the United Nations, thus such targeted attacks are
violations of internationally recognized human rights (PHR). Michele Heisler, a researcher, and
professor at the University of Michigan interviewed with Syrian doctors. Dr. Heisler’s interview
on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) shed light on the reality of these violations.
The attacks have been those of a nightmare. Apart from the standard missile, bombs, and
rocket attacks, the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs. Barrel bombs are filled with
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nails other items designed to shatter on impact. The explosion results in shrapnel that penetrates
throughout the body. Injuries following a barrel bomb are extensive, deadly, and difficult to
treat. As of February 2016, PHR has documented 358 attacks on medical facilities; 91 percent of
which were by the Syrian government and Russian forces (PHR). When asked if such targeted
attacks are congruent with historical precedence, Heisler responded with a tragic truth:
What we're finding is that this is increasingly becoming the new norm. Since the Geneva
Convention in the late 1800s, there was a period in which medical neutrality was
observed, though there were other atrocities. But today we're seeing increasing
violations...in terms of the scope and scale of attacks, there really hasn't been anything
like Syria, where attacking healthcare facilities and killing doctors is really part of a
systematic strategy (Research Gate 2016).
The situation is so gruesome and unpredictable that international organizations like the Red
Cross find their presence more of a target than a shield (Research Gate 2016). Unfortunately,
medical targeting is merely a single variable in a long list of international humanitarian law
To put the crisis in perspective, over 500,000 Syrians have been killed, approximately
more than 11 million have fled their homes as of 2018, and 13.5 million are in need of
humanitarian assistance (Syrian 2018). Such a mass movement of people has caused a global
crisis, placing a significant strain on neighboring states. The majority have sought refuge in
neighboring states such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, while one million have
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requested asylum in Europe (Syrian 2018). The European Union has also mandated a percentage
of refugees be admitted to each member state. While a significant portion of refugees has fled
Syria, 6.1 million are internally displaced while 2.98 million are in besieged and hard-to-reach
areas (UNHCR). The crisis is challenging the espoused values of states and demonstrating our
attachment to a national identity.
The election of President Donald Trump in the United States and his isolationist rhetoric,
the succession of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and the rise of nationalist
parties in Germany and France illustrate how the presence of refugees has radically shaken
states; this is mostly attributed to the fear of terrorism, uncertainty, and cost (Davis and Jordan
2017). The most recent declaration of President Trump's plan to cap refugee admissions at
45,000 ignited a wave of debate among members of the administration and international
organizations. Military and foreign policy officials suggest the decision goes against the nation's
security interest and moral imperative to resettle more refugees. Trump's decision sets a
historically low limit on how many people can resettle in the United States (Davis and Jordan
2017). Members of refugee assistance groups reacted to Trump’s plan by calling it a ‘departure
from the American tradition of welcoming immigrants in times of need.’ Similarly, Linda
Hartke—the president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service—commented on the
decisions’ stark contrast to the ‘American legacy and promise of protecting refugees’ (Davis and
Jordan 2017). The Vice President of the United States International Rescue Committee, Hans
Van de Weerd, questioned the future image of the United States, calling on Congress to oppose
the plan as ‘an abandonment of U.S. global and strategic leadership, and decency.’ Thirty-four
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senators wrote to President Trump suggesting that the global humanitarian crisis ‘…requires
strong American leadership’ (Davis and Jordan 2017). Trump's decision was influenced by his
desire to follow through with election promises to reduce refugee admittance, a pledge grounded
in an understanding of refugee presence as costly, burdensome, and a drain on American
resources (Davis and Jordan 2017).
Similarly, the United Kingdom's recent referendum to leave the European Union was
motivated by disagreement about the number of refugees allocated to the UK as part of the EU
guarantee of a ‘free movement of people.' The referendum revealed a dissenting reaction to the
refugee crisis. Such a decision will afford the UK reinstated sovereignty and authority to regulate
the number of refugees; rhetoric perpetrated by the United Kingdom Independence Party. A
professor at the University of Kent stated, "When Vote Leave said, ‘take back control,' it tapped
into that sense that in a globalized world, we no longer have control" (Urquhart et al. 2016). The
United Kingdom--as one of the wealthiest states within the EU--felt the relative contribution
inequality among other state actors. The largest of these inequalities, coming as a result of the
European migration crisis (Urquhart et al. 2016). “Around 3 million citizens of other EU states
live in the UK while 1.2 Britons live elsewhere in the EU” (Urquhart et al. 2016).
Ramifications of the crisis are present around the world. Greg Ip discussed the end of
globalist rhetoric from national leaders. Specifically, he addressed the same case studies that will
be analyzed in this research: The United States of America, France, and the United Kingdom.
The premise of his article suggests that the backlash to globalization arises from cultural
apprehension, not a state’s economy. He finds that people still care about their national identity
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and mistrust global institutions. The progression of nationalist rhetoric is far reaching as
globalism continues to threaten the borders of nation-states and the diffusion of those borders.
To many citizens, borders mean something.
Tara Van Ho, an international attorney working at the Essex Business and Human Rights
Project (EBHR), has worked at the global level for over five years advising governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and IGOs on issues related to business and human rights
(Van Ho 2016). When approached about the prospect of ever-developing globalization within
the current international system, Van Ho respectfully challenged the concept. She suggested that
the world was not developing a new form of globalization, but instead returning to an early form,
"In my work...there has been a significant pushback to globalization 3.0 (g3.0), as states,
businesses and even a lot of NGOs want the state-centric approach” (Van Ho 2016). She further
explains that the realization of g3.0 is challenged by the perception that states and communities
must protect themselves and the belief systems unique to their cultures.
The return to nationalism that is sweeping the West raises an essential question for
globalist leaders, suggesting that the enforcement of these values is not developing the world
into a more inclusive and permeable global society, but rather a recession back to a system
dominated by the nation-state. Progressing events provide clear evidence of the backlash to a
globalized system where national norms and values are dissolved. What is even more concerning
being how much of this pushback stems from the dissatisfaction of providing asylum or refuge
for individuals whose government engages in direct warfare with them. The United States,
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separated by sea, stands in an advantage to deny refugees having only accepted approximately
33,000 to date, while its neighbor, Canada, has taken 54,000 (Connor 2018). The Middle East
experiences the highest volume of asylum seekers with five million living in disproportionately
in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. Europe sees around one million, with Germany fronting
half of that responsibility (Connor 2018).
Where do we go from here? The European Union has already begun to express
sentiments of difficulty integrating refugees and relocation, while the Middle East lacks the
infrastructure to sustain such an influx of refugees. These economies are overwhelmed, and
tensions continue to escalate. The United States—arguably one of the best-positioned states to
assist—remains out of the conversation for “protection.” Now that we have set up the crisis
outlined the factors that have led to the current issue and discussed some of the responses seen
from the around the world, we will analyze the situation through the four ethical lenses
mentioned earlier. The subsequent chapters will set up the ethical framework, provide context
through each state response, and then apply the ethics.
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Rawls Theory of Justice
Plato and Aristotle are well known for their designs of ideal societies. Plato’s The
Republic is a piece of ethical, political philosophy, addressing a wide range of areas from
metaphysics to epistemology. The Republic is developed from a question posed by Socrates
"What is justice?" Plato and Socrates, along with others, engage in a thoughtful, complex, and
fascinating dialogue to answer the seemingly simple question. Most of the dialogue attempts to
provide an answer to the virtue of justice asking two central questions: "Is the just person happier
than the unjust person?" and "What is the relation of justice to happiness?" They agree that being
is to be ethical and to be ethical is to have a happier life. This truth is questioned; can people
truly be just even if given the potential to perform unjust acts? This is a question that many are
asking today. Even Plato struggled with making a sound argument. He resorted to using
allegories and metaphors to create a just city which required necessary and essential components.
This may little hope that a just society can truly exist, much less hold justice at the core of its
virtue. If so many elements are required for justice to exist than can justice truly ever exist?
Aristotle provides a different perspective on the virtue of justice. Rather than suggesting
that justice is the ultimate good of society, Aristotle recognizes that justice is multifaceted and
not universal, but also particular. Universal justice is a state of a person that is lawful and fair,
whereas particular justice refers to the distribution of justice, often focused on one person's gain
at the expense of another's loss. Aristotle argues that justice ought to be equally distributed.
What is most interesting is his assertion that political justice is governed by the rule of law,
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relying on the notion that natural rights are the same for all. Justice means the restoration and
maintenance of balance.
In both cases, justice is analyzed within the existing context. Plato and Aristotle both
value justice but do so in conjugation and relation to a society that they know already exists. But
how would society consider justice if we did not know what made a society? If we could look at
society absent of what we already know, absent of our existence, what laws and truths would we
want everyone to follow? This is a loaded question to be sure, but it's precisely what John Rawls
suggests is necessary for determining ethics. Rawls suggests that to construct a society with a
just set of rules and principles, it must be done objectively. Think of yourself as an omnipotent
of your society where you have full control, and once it is designed, you will also be placed in
this society. However, the qualities that you currently possess may or may not be the same. You
have no way of knowing your race, sex, socioeconomic status, sexuality, even your history.
Rawls’s Theory of Justice, to date, is one of a kind. Rawls recognizes that each of us is
products of a context that is shaped by years of oppression, conquest, and death. By innate
societal assumptions, people are incapable of recognizing their own bias as they currently exist.
As a citizen of the United States, and a white male at that, I benefit from an enormous advantage
of the unconscious privilege. Though some may think that white men are superior by natural
order, in reality, they only experience a disproportionate amount of privilege by history.
Women, for example, were not viewed as inferior to men until after the industrial revolution in
Britain. Before this, both sexes were expected to work at home and provide for the family and
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relatively equal levels. It was not until the work moved away from the home that separate sphere
ideology promulgated the assumption that women like to take care of children, while men are
naturally suited to compete in the world of work. There is nothing natural about this, yet we still
see it subconsciously influencing our societies. This is true for the struggle for racial equality,
socioeconomic status, and even sexuality. Anything less than the self-proclaimed "natural order"
is inferior.
Even at the international level, a racially diverse, sexually explorative, American woman
of a lower social class is afforded greater status than the average citizen in the majority of the
developing world. With this ambiguity and uncertainty of where one may fit into this new
society, what moral rules and principles would be expected to exist? It is likely that the society
would be constructed in such a way that allows anyone to prosper regardless of who they are.
This objective, hypothetical contract is called The Original Position. The Original Position is
meant to be a point of view that is both impartial and fair in developing our reasonings for the
fundamentals of justice. This position would then logically suggest that all principles agreed to
will be just (Rawls 118). The distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of
ignorance,” which states that following the deprivation of all knowledge about one's
characteristics and social/historical contexts, one will not know their place in the new society.
The veil of ignorance attempts to strip individuals of their own biases and begs the question
whether one would agree to racial discrimination without knowing their position in such a
society. Rawls is asking us to develop a social contract (Rawls).
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If it is not apparent yet, this is a social experiment. Parties placed in the original position
are provided the central conceptions of justice as defined by social and political philosophy.
Once analyzed, participants are asked to choose the concepts of justice that best advances their
interests in developing a society that allows them to achieve their fundamental interests. Rawls
suggests that parties will agree to two principles of justice, the liberty principle and the
difference principle (Rawls).
The liberty principle guarantees that each person has an equal claim to equal fundamental
rights and liberties. The difference principle ensures fair, equal access to educational and
employment opportunities, permitting all to fairly compete for power and position. This
principle also secures a guaranteed minimum of means, including income, wealth, power, and
self-respect, needed to pursue their interests as free and equal persons (Rawls).
It’s important to fully understand Rawls theory before it is applied to the refugee crisis.
‘The Greatest Equal Liberty Principle,' provides an understanding of what a just society would
be. This is perhaps the most significant strength of Rawls theory, the easiest to understand, yet
the most difficult. The principle is straightforward; to ensure that all citizens are afforded
fundamental liberties in such a way that they do not infringe on the basic liberties of others.
Rawls justification as a politically moral theorist suggests that this principle will grant all citizens
access to a scheme of rights that would allow democracy to remain neutral. Liberties would
include freedom of expression, due process, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech. It is
easy to understand how this principle would derive from Rawls exercise in the original position.
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If all citizens had an equal share of the good and could exercise their right without
infringing on another’s right, the threat of living in a system as a current underprivileged
minority is diminished. Such a system would allow citizens to pursue a life that they define as
‘good,’ unimpeded by systemic, social barriers. Minorities and underprivileged citizens would
have the right to be self-determining. Classifications such as race, socioeconomic status,
nationality, gender, and so on would not determine whether an individual has the right to vote,
marry, or participate in government. It is clear how this addresses the current broken system that
operates based an unequal distribution of rights and liberties. Individuals are evaluated initially
on factors such as race, nationality, and gender. Often these are enough to set disadvantage a
person until more layers are exposed to introduce socioeconomic differences, sexuality, and so
Rawls recognized the significant pitfalls that currently inhibit our society. Using "the
privilege walk" as a visual illustration of these setbacks, one can see how these factors affect our
starting point. The privilege walk is an exercise that asks a group to stand in a line and hold
hands before running to a finish line. There is no order, no specifics directions, just hold the
hand of whoever is next to you and wait for the "Ready, Get Set, Go!" Easy enough, right?
Except there is a catch. One by one, the facilitator will ask a series of low risk questions such as
"If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step
forward." He or she will slowly progress to high-risk questions such as "If you were ever called
names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back."
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These questions will advance others while forcing others to take multiple steps backward. As the
activity progresses, the participants begin to notice that they are unable to keep their hands
locked. At the end of the activity, the facilitator asks everyone to look around and recognize their
place and consider what it means; what does it say about privilege, how can one's status be
leveraged to elevate others? The facilitator sounds the whistle, and the participants take off;
those in the back working twice as hard to catch up to those that were many steps ahead to begin.
If the privilege walk were executed under the terms of the liberty principle, it is the
assumption that all people would start at the same place, taking equal strides towards their selfdetermination. As a follower in this scenario, it sets one up in such a way that allows them to
focus on pursuing their good, not the good that they must accept. But as leaders striving for such
a society, they have a responsibility of promoting this idealized system and establishing
international harmony. Justice as it currently exists--to Rawls--is only a fraction of what it
should be. Agreeably, most people standing behind the veil of ignorance would agree to such a
principle of equality and fairness. If you do not know where you will be when you step out from
the veil of ignorance, you are likely to ensure a system that is fair for everyone. The concern in
this approach is how to achieve such a fair system where the veil of ignorance does not exist.
This question will be addressed later in the chapter.
As we have discussed, Rawls' Difference Principle is understood to argue for changes to
our most basic institutional structures to improve the livelihood and prospects of the least
advantaged in society. The difference principle differs from the liberty principle not only in its
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complexity but its application. Reiterated, the difference principle--also referred to as the
difference and equal opportunity principle--states:
...social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (2) reasonably
expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to
all. (Rawls 53)
The aim is clear, equal respect for persons. Under the current economic system, wealth is
designed as a form of motivation where those who are more productive earn higher incomes.
Even more, the wealth of an economy is influenced by a variety of factors related to economic
growth. Such factors include technological advancements, policy changes such as subsidies and
production limits, and more. Developed countries have demonstrated how this component over
the last couple of centuries, standing as the focal point of a mostly capitalist system. The
consequences are an international system with staggering economic and social chasms. Power,
wealth, development, and social programs are disproportionately distributed with little chance of
progression as each level of development for one state is contingent on the development of
developed states. Such a system is often referred to as dependency theory, where the more
powerful in a system construct a system to ensure their continued dominance. Unfortunately, this
phenomenon can be examined at various levels.
Referring back to the privilege walk, Rawls recognizes that the current distribution of
disproportional power and wealth is not a result of individual merit, but perceived natural
superiority. The difference and equal opportunity principle attempt to address this reality. Rawls
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believes that social stability is achieved by, in essence, benefiting the least advantaged to elevate
them to a status of equal worth within a society. It is important to remember that this principle is
a likely conclusion made by those in the original position attempting to create a system that
would be the most advantageous to anyone, regardless of individual characteristics. Rawls
believes that distributive justice is secondary to the primary principle, liberty. Distributive justice
holds that the wealth and income of the most advantaged be distributed to the least advantage to
create an equal playing field. Distributive justice is meant to make the worst off in society as
well off as possible.
The secondary component of Rawls’s second principle is that of equal opportunity. The
principle argues that opportunities should be designed in such a way that allows people to
compete on fair terms with one another for social positions. Rather than influenced by social
class and background, jobs should be formally open and allocated by merit with a fair chance to
attain them. For Rawls, an individual has a fair and equal chance when prospects in the pursuit
of such positions are a function of aptitude. In essence, social class and family background
should not be obstacles in achieving success. Under such a structure, the only obstacles that may
be prohibitive are innate, including having fewer native abilities or less willingness to cultivate
them than others. Rawls suggests that this system purely be meritocratic, only after the liberty
principle and the difference principle have been fully realized.
In Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to respond to what such a society would and ought
to represent. He does so by asking himself ‘what would make for a just distribution of the social
good within a society?' It is Rawls understanding that a society can only be a just society when it
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is a fair society. It is important to clarify that Rawls’s theory of justice is not theorized for
individual responsibility, but rather political. The basic structure of society, its institutions, and
the people within it ought to be governed by these strong ideas of equal liberty, fair opportunity
for everyone, and an economy that is arranged so that the worst off are as well off as possible.
For a society to truly be just, individuals should be competing at the same level and on the merits
of their skills and attributes as opposed to social factors of class status, sex, and nationality. It is
clear that much of Rawls theory is reliant on the assumption that the participants behind the Veil
of Ignorance are rational. He assumes that people would not still attempt to gamble their fates in
favor of a particular attribute or that they are even capable of removing their biases.
Rawls’s Theory of Justice provides a framework for political societies but is also
abstractly applied to the international system. Fortunately, Rawls’s Law of Peoples supplements
this need, providing an ethic for global justice. As interactions become more complex and are no
longer linear—between countries—a consideration for a global ethic is increasingly necessary.
The Law of Peoples has stimulated conversation around prominent issues leading to questions
such as: What principles should guide international action? What responsibilities do we have to
the global poor or in need? What types of foreign policies are consistent with liberal principles?
What constitutes a ‘just’ world and what is our responsibility in ensuring that vision? Modern
events have played an enormous role in promoting these philosophical inquiries. The Syrian
Refugee Crisis is no exception.
Before defining the theory, it is first prudent to clarify the terminology. Rawls makes a
clear distinction between what constitutes global justice and what constitutes international
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justice. The latter is focused on the state as the central entity while the former is concerned with
justice among human beings, primarily what fairness among human beings consists of as agents
of a broader system. Both have a role to play in the application of our context. International
justice argues that states owe one another, as international law requires states to act in such a
way that promotes justice. Global justice narrows the focus on individuals to question what
responsibility individuals have to others. However, Rawls neglects to address the issue of
immigration in Laws of People, as logical as it may be to expect that given the volume of
migration throughout history and today, a discussion on international and global justice is the
appropriate forum to discuss immigration policies and the duties that liberal democracies have
towards refugees (Reinhardt).
Karoline Reinhardt wrote that Rawls work on foreign relations in liberal democracies is
valuable when considering the moral and ethical challenges of migration. Reinhardt proposes
three assumptions analyzed through Rawls’s theory of global justice in Laws of People: (1)
Migrations exists as a result of religious persecution, political oppression, ethnic minority
persecution, famines, and political pressure which are linked to the injustice of domestic political
institutions (2) Each person should have a right to the limitation of immigration and (3) should,
therefore, allow for a reason to emigrate.
The principles that are most relevant to this study are the second and third. Rawls argues
that there is both a rational argument for limiting the admittance of refugees as well as a logical
argument for the acceptance of asylum seekers. Rawls states that the resources of a very wealthy
state may be overburdened by a certain number of immigrants (254). This is illustrated in a
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hypothetical situation where an economically smaller state such as Liechtenstein receives an
influx of 15 million refugees. In a case like this, Rawls makes the argument that because the
political structure is threatened, it is the responsibility of the international system to assist in the
resettling of refugees. The third proposal of Reinhardt's argument is complex and unclear how it
relates to the second.
Nonetheless, Reinhardt states that Rawls would agree to the right of an individual to
immigrate. These rights are best demonstrated in the eight principles of global justice:
1. Peoples (as organized by their governments) are free and independent, and their freedom
and independence are to be respected by other peoples.
2. Peoples are equal and parties to their agreements.
3. Peoples have the right of self-defense but no right to war.
4. Peoples are to observe a duty of nonintervention.
5. Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.
6. Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions on the conduct of war (assumed to be
in self-defense).
7. Peoples are to honor human rights.
8. Peoples must assist other people's living under unfavorable conditions that prevent they're
having a just or decent political and social regime (46).
It is clear that Rawls values high regard for the protection of human rights and even seems to
suggest that people have a responsibility to assist others. This is Reinhardt’s adaptation of the
original position into an original international position. The issue that arises in this context is the
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protection of national borders and the recognition of cultural practices. For this reason, Rawls
values basic human rights as a fundamental requirement for human existence, as such rights
transcend cultural or ethnic traditions. An important distinction that Rawls does make is that
such a responsibility is not extended to inter-society injustices. Each society has internal
requirements of distributive justice, but not inter-society. Vast inequalities of resources are not a
basis for prejudice according to Rawls, but the violation of valued principles that ensure a just
society is.
There are a lot of objections to Rawls’s Law of Peoples. Primarily, philosophers and
scholars find his theory to be far too accepting of global inequalities. Significant inequalities
within the international system are not a result of the poor development of such nations; rather,
history makes it clear that wealthier powers that experienced development first have designed the
system to ensure a constant state of exploitation and dependency. Does it not seem, then, that the
vast inequalities among states should benefit from a system that secures justice and equality?
As a hypothetical social experiment, Rawls theory of justice has undoubtedly received
much criticism. In particular, the original position and veil of ignorance pose particular
challenges for the application. If Rawls theory is constructed and supported by the assumption
that people are rational creatures, then there are a few questions that must be considered. Is it
ever possible to truly absent from inherent biases? Realistically, such an experiment is
impossible. We are never free of our own biases and self-interests and can therefore never truly
develop a just and equal system. This poses a problem for the practical application of the theory.
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Without a clear understanding of how to create a realistic veil of ignorance, people in the original
position are only ever capable of institutionalizing an appropriated and diluted version of Rawls
vision. Even more, is it not naive to suggest that people will not gamble the chance of ending up
on top of a system?
Rawls has a rational response to this. He recognizes that his theory of justice is a thought
experiment rather than a guidebook. The purpose of the theory is to encourage policymakers and
others to use this position as a framework. If utilized correctly, Rawls argues that an individual
would play it safe:
The aim of the contract doctrine is to account for the strictness of justice by supposing
that its principles arise from an agreement among free and independent persons in an
original position of equality and hence reflect the integrity and equal sovereignty of the
rational persons who are the contractees. (Rawls)
The possibility of being disenfranchised by an exploitative and disproportionate system should
deter such gambling. He argues that because people in this position are rational, it would be
irrational to take considerable risks. As a result, people are likely to play it safe and emphasize
the value of basic human rights.
There is even more extensive debate regarding the (three) principles that define his
theory. If you recall the privilege walk as an example of an equal society, it sets the stage for an
equal start based on meritocracy; however, others believe that it may also have the potential for
restricting liberty and reduce competitive economic markets. Strict Equality Principles are rarely
favored by scholars, likely due to the absolutist dystopias designed by authors such as Ayn
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Rand’s Anthem, or Stalin and Mao’s collectivist society. It is important to recognize that Rawls
does not suggest that the distribution of goods need to be in a constant state of equality. Rather,
he argues that access and exercise of liberties ought to be designed in a such a way that prevents
discrimination and division among unchangeable factors. The use of a meritocratic economy
would, in theory, allow all members to compete and engage in self-determination as fair as
possible. It is also important to mention that Rawls is not opposed to inequality so long as it
promotes the stability of the least advantaged in society. If a system of strict equality maximizes
the absolute position of the least benefited in society, then it advocates strict equality. However,
if raising the absolute position of the least advantaged is attainable through some inequalities of
income and wealth, then inequality is accepted up to the point where the least advantaged can no
longer be raised.
The Equal Opportunity Principle is largely undisputed for its emphasis on equality, but
others criticize it for its lack of truly institutionalizing equality of opportunity. ‘Formal' equality
of opportunity rules out formal discrimination on grounds such as a person's race, ethnicity, age
or gender. The concern of a society lacking any formal equality of opportunity is rooted in the
belief that because a person's gender or race are elements that people have no control over, it
should not affect their lifetime economic prospects. Rawls' claims that a society structured
around the current ‘natural model' lottery where such factors have such fundamental effects on
people's lives is immoral when a fairer mode of opportunity is available. However, people have
argued that factors that people have no control over remain an obstacle regarding economic
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Rawls theory does not address disabilities, ill-health, or other unfortunate health
impairments. Under Rawls's theory, they would be placed at an equal place in society as
everyone else. Is it not ethical that they should receive compensation for such inequalities? It is
clear the difference principle will help individuals that fall into this category, but the help is not
proportional to their needs. As it is designed, such people would logically fall into the least
advantaged category, but Rawls falls short on discussing how his proposed system would help to
alleviate their disadvantages. However, it is probable that Rawls would look favorably on a
compensatory institution. As has been iterated earlier, the system should work to elevate the
least advantaged people in a society as far as it does not provide an unequal advantage.
With a thorough analysis of Rawls's theory of justice, it is now time to ask ourselves how
we, as citizens, followers, and leaders of the world, would apply his philosophy to the Syrian
Refugee Crisis. To do this, we will first place ourselves in the original position behind the veil of
ignorance. The principles and emphasis of fairness will be applied to ensure an outcome that is
favorable to both citizens of a host country and that of a refugee.
Reflecting on Rawls concept of the original position it is important to put ourselves
beyond what we currently know of the situation. In this position, it is possible that our position
in the world could be favorable, or it could be unfavorable. Perhaps a better question is to
consider what would constitute justice in a situation of international unrest.
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It is clear that awls did not address the status of refugees in his theory. Rawls did clarify
that the responsibility of non-state actors is to assist in the creation of a just society for others.
However, this philosophy does not account for the extent of violations seen in Syria, particularly
after attempts were made to establish a just government, which begs the question: What action
would Rawls suggest is just in such extreme circumstances? Considering his emphasis on liberal
democracy, fairness, and equality and his recognition of human rights as values to be protected,
one may infer that Rawls would suggest a just and ethical response. In the Law of Peoples,
Rawls appropriate the original domestic position within the international system, which is where
we begin.
The refugee crisis has already placed 12 million Syrians in refugee camps and asylum
throughout Europe and the Middle East, a million injured, and over 465,000 killed (Aljazeera).
Syrians utilize conventional, political avenues for advocating change and were met with
unprecedented violence from the very government that was meant to protect them. With vast
amounts of military weapons aimed against the citizens, they had no other choice but to defend
themselves or seek refuge to flee persecution. The Assad regime, unable to discern the
insurgents from the pacifist, targeted all citizens, besieged cities, bombed hospitals, and
exercised chemical weapons. Many of these actions, as articulated earlier, are clear violations of
human rights, which Rawls states, in his seventh principle, goes against global justice.
Using Rawls’s theory of the original position, what institutions would likely arise as a
result? It seems that these principles are clear. These citizens have had their human rights
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stripped are placed between a rock and a hard place. On one side, their government aimlessly
assaults, bombs, and murders them while the alternative is an international system that has either
reached their limit of refugee asylum or is unwilling of accepting any. Refugees have sought
extreme measures for securing basic needs, exploited by human traffickers, piled on unsanitary
wooden ships and sent off to sea without food and water. Many states have responded with
resounding support—Turkey resettling 3.4 million, 1 million in Lebanon, and 530,000 in
Germany—while others have not, the United States only resettling 33,000, and various European
countries similarly impacted.
Geographically separated from the conflict, the United States does not feel the immediate
pressure to accept refugees in masses; no refugees stand at our border, and no surrounding
countries are bursting at the seams. Does our separation afford us an advantage in dealing with
the crisis, or do we have a responsibility to not only the refugees but the international system as a
whole? Rawls would say yes. He argues that the same principles that were founded under the
original domestic position would apply to the original international position. Unaware of our
position in the world, individuals would be no more likely to gamble their rights in designing a
fair and just system. Instead, it is in our best interest to set out a liberal foreign policy that aims
to create a permanently peaceful and tolerant international order. Rawls suggests that there is
validity in limiting immigration into one's state because too much migration would disrupt the
social and political order, yet Rawls also argues that it is the responsibility of other states to
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ensure a political system within all governments. The question is, is the United States fulfilling
its duty?
The United States policy on refugee admissions is as follows:
The first step for most refugees is to register with the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) in the country to which s/he has fled. UNHCR has the mandate
to provide international protection to refugees. UNHCR determines if an individual
qualifies as a refugee and, if so, works toward the best possible durable solution for each
refugee: safe return to the home country, local integration, or third-country resettlement.
A small number of refugees will be allowed to become citizens in the country to which
they fled, and an even lower number — primarily those who are at the highest risk —
will be resettled in a third country. (U.S. Department of State)
At face value, it seems that the United States is pulling its weight in the distribution of refugees
throughout the world. The Refugee Processing Center claiming that less than 1 percent of all
refugees eventually resettle in a third country, two-thirds of which have been resettled in the
United States, a number that exceeds the amount of all other resettlement countries combined
(RPC). Although these statistics are true, they do not provide a clear depiction of the current
refugee crisis in the Middle East. The demographics find that the three million refugees that have
been resettled in the United States since 1975 derive from a multitude of regions. However, the
breakdown of these demographics proves a significant limitation of refugees annually resettled
from large portions of the Middle East. Considering the magnitude of the current refugee crisis,
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this is unprecedented and represents the failure and neglect of the United States to share the
As referenced above, this disproportionate distribution of refugee's defiles Rawls's
theory of global justice. Defined in his eighth principle of global justice, all members of the
international community are responsible for ensuring a just system. As it currently stands, the
states with an overwhelming number of refugees are unable to sustain the grievances of such a
large mass of people; we will use Lebanon as a case study for this application. Ranking only
second to Turkey's 3.4 million refugees, Lebanon has offered refuge to over 1 million refugees.
The presence of refugees in Lebanon has placed a significant strain on a country that was already
experiencing difficulties in its political, social, and economic development.
Lebanon struggles from an uneasy balance of ethnic, national, religious, and political
values. Although there has been minimal action towards an internal attack or guerilla tactics, the
likelihood of dissident unrest and eventual revolt will continue to grow as marginalized groups
feel increasingly underrepresented and denied rights. As of July 2016, Lebanon’s population was
estimated to be approximately 6,237,738, with 87,8% residing in urban areas. The state is
comprised of 18 religious sects including 54% Muslim (27% Sunni, 27% Shia), 40.5% Christian
(21% Maronite Catholic, 8% Greek Orthodox, 5% Greek Catholic, 6.5% other Christian), 5.6%
Druze, and smaller numbers of Jews, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons (CIA 2017).
Although the data does not make distinctions for individuals not claiming residence
within the state, as a refugee, one needs to consider the additional representation of Syrian and
Palestinian refugees. Palestinians make up around 10% of the population while a third is Syrian
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(CIA 2017). Though once considered to be an effective example of power-sharing, the state's
consociational structure has established "an ethnic definition of politics" which may be
disastrous as altered demographics also alter the power among elites (Snyder 331, 2005). The
structure is based on the representation of groups in the population, giving the most power to
individuals of the larger ethnic group whose preferences normalize beliefs, values, and language
(Snyder 36, 2005).
On Monday, February 6th of 2017, the World Bank earmarked $200 million to be spent
on upgrading the road network in Lebanon. The assistance titled the ‘Roads and Employment
Project’ will also provide more low-skilled jobs to the unemployed Lebanese citizens and
refugees, repair over 312 miles of roads, while also developing the state’s rural and urban areas.
The United States stressed the importance of Lebanon regaining public confidence through
rebuilding infrastructure in their 5-year plan to provide $510 million in aid (Associated Press
2017). The funding was given in response to Lebanon’s ‘unusual social and economic duress’
due to the refugee crisis. The World Bank’s Director for the Middle East, Ferid Belhaj, praised
the newly elected president, Michel Aoun, and his administration for providing a service to the
international community, “By hosting refugees, Lebanon is offering the international community
a global public good. International financial support needs to increase to match its generosity”
(World Bank 2017). The director further expressed his sentiment for their distress by stating that
the aid was given to help Lebanon continue to provide basic services to the refugees in the
country and its citizens.
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The maintenance and rehabilitation of the existing road network is only the first phase of
a larger plan to strengthen the state's infrastructure holistically. The other phases include (2) The
improvement of road safety systems; (3) The purchase of equipment for emergency roadworks;
and (4) Capacity building to improve management and efficiency in the sector (World Bank and
Daily Star 2017). On top of improved transportation, the investment will also increase
connectivity, resulting in a reduction in transportation cost, and provide greater ease of access
for rural communities to markets.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, though recognizing the added value of the aid, argues that it
isn’t enough to compensate for the tremendous burden of the refugees on the state’s social and
economic standing. Hariri has turned to the international community, particularly the World
Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, to request an increase in financial
support (Perry 2017). With the largest per person refugee population in the world, the
administration fears the state has reached a ‘breaking point’ that may destabilize the delicate
sectarian balance through an increase in civil unrest and the deprivation of economic resources
(Blanford 2017). The Prime Minister’s fear of unrest is in response to escalated tensions among
refugees and surrounding communities; the refugees feel they lack sufficient aid, while the
Lebanese citizens are directly affected by the reallocation of funds in support of the refugee’s
asylum. The situation has placed the administration in a difficult position as they struggle to
avoid a repeat of the 1975-1990 civil war.
The crisis also further incapacitates the state’s economic capability to provide funding for
social and economic programs, slowing the state’s economic growth to 1% from 8% (Aljazeera
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2017). Unable to reassess inadequate infrastructure, the schools have grown over capacity. As a
result, many Lebanese students have been denied an education while refugees take their place.
Poverty within the state is expected to worsen among Lebanese citizens in addition to increased
income inequality. The World Bank found that the crisis has pushed approximately 200,000
Lebanese into poverty, an addition to the 1 million already living in poverty (World Bank 2017).
Even more, it has been estimated that around 250,000 to 300,000 Lebanese citizens will become
unemployed in the coming year, with a deceleration of GDP growth to below 1.3% (World bank
2017). The Lebanese government issued a statement announcing that the total accrued cost of the
crisis in the state was $18.15 billion in 2015 (Perry 2017). Progression along this path will lead
to more eliminations of social programs due to lack of funding, elevated grievances toward
refugees from Lebanese citizens, higher unemployment, weakened GDP growth, and increased
inequality (Perry 2017).
Hariri’s proposal outlines a binding contract that would commit the international
community to a five-to-seven-year aid plan. He argues that although Lebanon has generously
accepted the 1.5 million refugees, it is the failure of the international community to find a
solution to the crisis, “The international community can’t put this burden on us… a solution in
Syria should not be the responsibility of Lebanon in taking care of these refugees” (Blanford
2017). The request would increase current refugee funding from $1000-2000 to $10000-12000
per refugee (Aljazeera 2017). The increased support would boost the local economy, improve
infrastructure, and fund improved educational programs for the refugees—a solution to the
current overpopulated system. The assistance would also provide room for the government to
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launch public, sector-led social and economic programs. With such an increase in aid, the
government would be able to reevaluate their current economic structure and reallocate their
spending back to the state’s development and address the perceived inequalities among citizens
and refugees.
Lebanon is just one example of how the presence of refugees in neighboring countries are
drastically affecting the host state’s political, social, and economic infrastructure. Prime Minister
Saad Hariri's statement addressing the international communities lack of response to the crisis,
further burdening Lebanon is a real consequence of failed ethical collaboration. Rawls's theory
of global justice applied to this scenario would not only relieve some of this burden from states
like Lebanon and Turkey, but it would also enhance the situations of the refugees. As it currently
stands, refugees are sheltered in inhospitable living conditions with minimal nutritional support.
As referenced in the earlier chapter, many states have denied access to assistance and refuge,
leaving refugees metaphorically placed between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the
ones that are lucky enough to escape have nowhere to go, whereas the alternative is filled with
uncertainty and violence from a government meant to protect them.
Rawls Theory of Justice in this context would disperse the refugees throughout the
international community, alleviating the strain on states that have been overwhelmed by
refugees, while also elevating the livelihood of refugees. As members of an international order,
it is the responsibility of all members to ensure that a just society is established and maintained.
Currently, states that may have once been just are now disrupted and juggling a delicate balance
of protecting Syrians while maintaining normative daily life. Arguably one of the strongest states
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with access to vast amounts of resources, the United States response has been disappointing.
Having permitted less than 50,000 refugees to date, we have turned our backs to the largest
humanitarian crisis of our time. According to Rawls, the United States should be engaging in
communication with other states to distribute refugees fairly.
This chapter analyzes Rawls’s Theory of Justice and his theory of global justice as
applied to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. A Rawlsian approach to the Syrian refugee crisis
challenges the audience to consider themselves integrated into a separate reality; disinterested in
the multifaceted intricacies of governments, Rawls simply encourages a political system defined
by justice as fairness. Rawls's ethics disassociates itself with individual values and cultures to
define the basis for a just and fair system of governance. This is applied through a Veil of
Ignorance, which strips the participants of their presence within such a society to ensure
objectivity. Rawls's social experiment provides a unique approach to developing a system of
Applied to the global context, Rawls argues that responsibility at the international level is
to ensure a just society throughout the international system. The objective here is simple; human
rights should be respected, and societies should be constructed to maximize justice and fairness.
Rawls makes his point clear that his theory is not concerned entirely with intersocietal injustices.
Rawls is concerned for the individual and believes that the most ethical way to address this is
through the political structure. As it currently stands, the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest
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humanitarian crisis today; millions are displaced internally and externally while millions more
have been killed as a result of the conflict.
From where does the unethical dilemma stem? There are two areas. The first comes from
Syria itself; Assad has violated the most basic of human rights, as defined by the Geneva
Conventions. The actions that his government has taken to protect themselves is not only
unprecedented but egregious. Rawls's original position and veil of ignorance applied to this
context would provide legislators and foreign policy actors a frame of reference influence by
values of justice and fairness. Principles of fairness and justice are currently nullified, but
Rawls’s approach would institute laws to protect not only the individual but also the
government’s credibility and reputation.
The second comes out of the international system. The number of refugees that have
found refuge in neighboring of states is disproportionate. Millions are resettled in countries that
are still developing themselves and lack the resources to provide for them truly. Using Lebanon
as an example, the president himself has remarked on the political, economic, and social strain
that refugees have on Lebanon. Wealthier states with far more resources are using nationalistic
rhetoric as a mode to oppose the influx of refugees. This reality not only harms the states that are
taking in refugees, but those refugees are not receiving the most appropriate care; housing
conditions are poor, education is lacking--if offered at all--and the food is rationed. Rawls's
suggestion? Disperse refugees throughout the international system. The larger states that
dominate the system with their wealth and power should take its fair share of the crisis. The
United States, for example, has the resources to alleviate some of the struggle faced by Egypt
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and Lebanon. It is unethical to watch from across the sea and refugees are shuffled around like
inferior humans, while they are merely fleeing lethal persecution without cause.
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Let’s engage in a brief thought experiment, the Trolley Problem. You are hiking along a
trail when you stumble across a railway and notice a runaway car barreling down the railway
tracks. Five members of the trek are walking along one trail and slip, unable to move. The car is
headed straight for the larger group. You are standing away from the scene, next to a lever. If
you pull this lever, the car will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there
is 16-year-old whose foot is stuck. You have two options:
1. Do nothing, and the car kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the car onto the side track where it will kill the teenager.
Which is the most ethical choice?
Let's approach this from multiple perspectives. First, you flip the switch to maximize
well-being--five people survive while one dies. This decision certainly protects the greatest good
for the greatest number, though at the expense of one. At the surface, this decision warrants less
harm to the greatest number of people. However, let’s assume that the 16-year-old was on an
advanced track for a college degree and would become a world-renowned physician that would
find a cure for HIV/AIDS, undoubtedly saving the lives of millions of people around the world.
With this added knowledge, the decision to flip the switch no longer achieves the greatest good
for the greatest number. Unfortunately, moral decisions are not always made with all of the facts
and are often gambles. As a principle, the theory of utilitarianism suggests that decisions are
made in a way to ensure the greatest utility.
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When some are approached with the Trolley Problem, they reject the assumption that
actively switching the lever to kill a single individual, who was otherwise out of harm's way, is
ethical. Rather, they believe in the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to
the rightness or wrongness of the consequences. This is deontological perspective representative
of the previous chapter about Kantian ethics, a moral philosophy governed by principles. When
approached with ethical dilemmas these are the conscious battles that we put ourselves through.
When discussing ethics, it is important to understand the distinction between the multiple
modes of thought. Some moral philosophies are concerned with acting according to set virtues
(virtue ethics), while some focus on duties and principles (deontology), and others are interested
in the consequences of certain actions (teleology). Utilitarianism is the latter of the three options,
asking the question: Which action maximizes utility and minimizes harm for the greatest number
of people? This modus operandi encourages the user to deliberate ethical and moral
considerations on the grounds of optimal utility. In the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, the facts
are known, and the consequences are relatively calculated. This chapter will outline the historical
theory of utilitarianism, a critique of the theory, and specific considerations as they apply to the
refugee crisis.
Utilitarianism has existed for centuries, contemplated by Greeks, Buddhist, and the
Chinese. Greek philosophers of the 3rd century B.C.E., Richard Cumberland of the 15th century,
and John Gay of the 16th century set the groundwork for the moral theory used today. The first
systematic approach to utilitarianism was printed in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and
further by John Stuart Mills as a normative approach that suggested the morally right thing to do
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is the action that produces the best, or ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number' (Mill
1993). This good, according to Mills and Bentham is pleasure.
As Classical Utilitarian’s, Bentham and Mill were concerned with legal and social
reform. Primarily, the fundamental motivation that encouraged the development of this classical
utilitarianism was the desire to change useless, corrupt laws and social practices (Crimmins
2017). This goal required a normative ethical theory to be accomplished. The theory itself was
developed from influences of strong views about what was wrong in society. Bentham argued
that lack of utility, or the tendency for actions to end in unhappiness and misery without adjacent
happiness, is what made them bad. If a law or an action doesn't do any good, then it isn't any
good. In Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he argued that
the utility has to be maximized for the greatest number of people and that this philosophy is
important as both an ethical and legal framework (Crimmins 2017).
Bentham’s theory is defined by his ‘greatest happiness principle.’ This principle states
that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to
produce the reverse of happiness" (Crimmins 2017). Utility, as defined by Mill, is happiness
with the absence of pain. Utilitarianism holds that moral actions are those that promote the utility
of the general public under the Greatest Happiness Principle. However, action must minimize
pain while increasing utility, an action alone does not imply a moral action without this factor.
This calculation was defined as the Felicific Calculus, which describes the dimensions of the
value of pain or pleasure. These dimensions are defined based on their "intensity," "duration,"
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"certainty or uncertainty," "purity--or the chance of action not to be followed by similar
sensations," and "fecundity--or the probability of actions to be followed by similar sensations"
(Crimmins 2017). In the majority of cases where ethical actions involve a group, the calculus
factors in an additional circumstance; that is, the “extent” of persons that are affected by the
pleasure or pain of an action.
It is important to mention that Bentham recognizes the impracticality of applying this
calculus. Apart from the inability to quantify qualified data such as the intensity, duration,
purity, or fecundity of actions, Bentham states that neither an individual nor a legislator can
follow his process (Crimmins 2017). Rather, the felicific calculus serves as a model of an ideal
calculation. Bentham stated, "as near as the process pursued on these occasions approaches to it,
so near will such process approach to the character of an exact one" (Crimmins 2017).
Nonetheless, the calculus may still be operational. The various dimensions outline a cognitive
calculation that can more easily be applied to actions and their consequences. One can
reasonably calculate these dimensions on the basis that they understand what consequences will
Take, for example, a criminal robbing a jewelry store using the felicific calculus. The
intensity of pain felt by the store is immense as immeasurable valuable goods have already been
purchased yet have no prospect of receiving a return on them. This pain is felt both concerning
reputation, finances, and perhaps even physical security. The duration of the pain exceeds far
beyond the initial realization as the store works to recuperate itself in the following months. A
robber may even calculate how long they have until the owner is aware that any such goods have
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gone missing, assuming that the longer they have, the more time they have to get away. Even so,
the perpetrator may wish to rob other jewelry stores in the future for a great return of pleasure,
despite the high potential for pain.
On the flipside, decisions made under the felicific calculus may elicit a favorable
utilitarian outcome. For example, consider donating clothing to charity. Running through the
calculus, the expected intensity, duration, and length of pain the donor may receive from losing
the items is far less than the amount of pleasure received by the purchasers of the good. This
calculus warrants a positive ethical consequence. Each of these examples operationalizes the use
of the felicific calculus and provides a very basic understanding of what principles one ought to
use when operating under Bentham’s utilitarianism. We will return to this approach in the
application section to visualize its outcome as it applies to the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
It is well known that John Stuart Mill, a British historian, derived much of his
philosophical thoughts from Bentham, leading to Mill’s publication of utilitarianism. Mill's
publication was a response to critics of Bentham who suggested that his theory was ill-defined
and incomplete. For example, Bentham held that no qualitative differences existed between
pleasures. Simple pleasures such as drinking alcohol and sensual/sexual pleasures were regarded
with the same caliber as more sophisticated and complex pleasures. This view also opened the
door to criticisms which suggested Bentham viewed humans as animals, with the former's
delights consisting of equal value to those of animals. However, most people agree that though
harming a puppy and a human are both bad, harming a human is worse. Mill's work is a response
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to these critics, further developing Bentham's ethical theory. Mill's distinction of a hierarchy of
pleasure is what championed utilitarianism as a legitimate contemporary theory. Mill is known
for the following quote:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates
dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is
because they only know their side of the question. (Mill)
It is his view, along with many others, that intellectual pleasure holds a higher moral sort than
those that are merely sensual.
Both Bentham and Mill sought to use utilitarianism as a method for evaluating and
informing law and social policy. However, Mill's version of utilitarianism differed from
Bentham's due to its emphasis on the effectiveness of internal sanctions like guilt and remorse.
What this means is that Mill believes that humans have social feelings, feelings for beings other
than ourselves. Because we care about others, when we perceive that harm has been done, we, in
turn, feel pain. This philosophy suggests that when we are the instigators of that negative
consequence, guilt and remorse serve as internal sanctions.
Mill also recognizes that conscience and a sense of justice are natural features of human
psychology. In other words, our ‘enlarged' cognitive capacity allows us to consider the welfare
of others into our ethical and moral calculations to make intelligent decisions. We have a
tendency and desire to punish those who have harmed and sought systems that prevent the
recurrence of those actions. This argument supports his aim of increasing happiness. Mill holds
that we have certain rights, but those rights are influenced by the utility. Existing rights that
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harm others are shown not to be genuine. From a utilitarian perspective, all rights and actions
should do elicit the greatest good with the least amount of harm to others. This idea is very
similar to that of Rawls's the Greatest Equal Liberty Principle, which will be discussed later.
Mill demonstrated this principle through his work for women’s rights, published in his
book The Subjection of Women (Mill 2017). He believed that the traditional practices of society
infringed on women’s ability to cultivate a life of purpose at the hand of men. Improving
women’s social status was important because denying them access to education and other
opportunities for development was a violation of their ability to achieve a significant source of
happiness. Considering these institutions that prevent women from indulging in opportunity for
education, self-improvement, and political expression derive from male motives, the pleasures
received do not justify the pain experienced. Further, both Bentham and Mill attacked the use of
social traditions as justification for behavior, considering utility ought to be the modes operandi
Though Bentham and Mill are both giants of the 18th and 19th centuries, modern
theorists like Peter Singer have added new layers to the approach. Singer, likely most known for
his contributions to altruism—an ethical philosophy interested in the selfless concern for the
well-being of others—has made sizable contributions to the application of utilitarianism. In
particular, Singer's applications are considered by some to be extreme, a few examples being his
belief that one should donate the majority of their money to the poor as opposed to purchasing
that new car, all on utilitarian grounds (Singer 1993). He asks the following question: If you see
a child drowning in the river would you save her? Or would you walk by and not risk your own
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life at the expense of others? Singer holds that most of us would likely save her. Likewise, when
this is applied as a global code of ethics, we should do the same. Does it matter that the child is
not standing directly in front of us?
Singer thinks not. He is suggesting that just as we are responsible for saving the child
from drowning, we are equally responsible for saving others (Singer 2013). As Americans, we
benefit from one of the wealthiest economies in the world and a relatively high gross national
income (GNI) which ought to be used to maximize utility for others. Apart from suggesting that
each of us calculate the lowest means necessary for us to live and donate the rest to charity, he
uses the example of a seeing-eye dog. The average cost for a guide dog is approximately
$50,000 with an annual $1,200 maintenance charge, for a total of $59,600 for an eight-year time
span. A hefty price without a doubt (Singer 2013). Singer argues that rather than investing all of
your resources to donate to a guide dog, the money could be allocated to curing blindness in
patients with trachoma for only $50. The total utility here for the same expense is 1,000
trachoma patients cured in underdeveloped states compared to a single man with a guide dog
(Singer 2013). This argument is, without a doubt, utilitarian.
Utilitarianism is commended for its attempt at creating a theory that is based on a simple
calculation of positive utility. Most people can agree that actions should be taken so that they
achieve the greatest good with the least harm. However, utilitarianism is not easy and runs into
complications, the most obvious being how to define the “greatest good.” The “greatest good” is
easily defined when the factors involved are known. For example, if I have $20 and I have to
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decide to give my money to either a homeless man on the street or a homeless family, I would
give it to the family. Conversely, the Syrian Refugee Crisis is not as easily explained. From one
perspective, the greatest good is defined on the grounds of humanity and justice or the fight
against social injustices. On the other hand, the greatest good is defined as the protection of
one’s country against a potential outside threat. Reconciling the two is not an easy task to
achieve and often leads groups to abuse utilitarianism or justify actions based on perceived
Perhaps the other more problematic aspect of the theory is the difficulty in its application.
Bentham and Mill suggest that utility is founded by pain and pleasure, yet the varying degrees of
pain and pleasure are not easily quantified or, from Bentham's perspective, not quantified at all.
How can one make an ethical calculation when the calculations themselves are blurred? How can
one calculate the consequences of their actions if there is no system to calculate the level of
pleasure and pain which may follow?
The absence of moral consideration for the harm done at the expense of achieving the
greatest good is not thoroughly discussed. Why is it morally appropriate to do what benefits 51%
of the collective if the other 49% are disenfranchised? How is this morally justified? The theory
gives little weight to the “pain” felt by those that do not fall into the category of the greatest
good, it merely implores that actions provide the maximum utility with the least possible pain.
Many people take issue with this. Utilitarianism works as a quick principle, but it fails to provide
adequate direction for complex situations. The theory offers too much ambiguity and room for
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Shifting gears to the Syrian refugee crisis, from a utilitarian perspective we need to ask
ourselves what, or who is the greatest number of people and what good is applied to them? In
other words, this application will serve as a case for why the United States should allow for
refugees into the country, a case for open borders. The question above can be answered in a
multitude of ways. Primarily, the question may be viewed from a humanitarian perspective. The
refugees are citizens of not only Syria, but the global world, and as such, they fall under the
umbrella of responsibility that Singer was referring to in his application of utilitarianism.
Refugees, by virtue of being refugees, are in need of humanitarian aid and support. The
casualties and threats that face them on a daily basis raise the level of pain to an astronomical
level. Applying this perspective as a government, the ethical action that should be taken is
allowing greater access of refugees to the United States as the alternative is likely death or severe
Conversely, the other perspective holds that the nation ought to be protected from the
Middle East. Under this umbrella, the greater good is defined as American citizens protecting
itself and its citizens from outside threats. One may see the connection that Singer made about
turning a blind eye to the drowning girl. To permit refugees into the country would elicit turmoil,
racism fueled by xenophobia, and an increased potential in terrorist activity from the assumption
that many Middle Easterners are jihadists. This is the side of the argument that does not support
the call for open borders, and the perspective should not be easily invalidated. States as
sovereign entities of the world have a right to protect themselves from threats; whether the threat
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is physical or concern for lack of infrastructure. However, when analyzing the situation, the
‘greatest number' in the Syrian case needs to be better analyzed.
This section will apply the utilitarian perspective to the Syrian refugee crisis to answer
the question of whether the United States should implement an open border policy for these
refugees. Though the idea of “open borders” is relatively new and there is no real case of what
this looks like, the argument may be defined as the dissolution of state borders for the movement
of people. A case will be made for open borders as a way to increase the overall domestic and
global economy serves as the greatest good for both the Syrian as well as domestic citizens.
Double World GDP
The term ‘Double World GDP’ was coined by an economist named Bryan Caplan to
encapsulate the scope and scale of change involved in opening borders. According to Caplan and
literature from other authors, free mobility would lead to world GDP increasing by 50-1..
Accounting for the high possibility that these gains are overstated, open borders would still
produce sizable economic growth (Open Borders 2015). Take, for example, a 10% increase in
global production which translates into trillions of dollars of additional wealth each year. Despite
the personal trauma and the medical and psychological effects of warfare, refugees end up
adding more to our state’s social network and economic strength than they take (Open Borders
2015). But beyond this utilitarian argument is our moral stance that people should be free from
persecution and that we are willing to offer refuge to those who have suffered in support of that
value. However, it’s first important to recognize the systemic issues that affect the world today.
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This is an ideological war waging at the borders of each sovereign state of the
international system. As referenced in the chapter on the background of the crisis, many states
are experiencing a rise in populism and nationalist parties. Political theorists have long touted the
irreversible effects of globalism, their benefit to the international order, and the citizens of the
world. International organizations, coalitions, alliances, and treaties have secured trade among
states and have opened access to even the most remote areas of the world. However, on January
22 of 2018, Greg Ip from The Wall Street Journal challenged globalism by suggesting a
resurgence of nationalism in his article, “A Fractured World: Nationalism v. the Global Liberal
Order” (Ip 2018). Ip argues that nationalism is experiencing a dramatic increase despite years of
erosion. Supported by data on decreased freedom and rights, the article makes a case that
globalization has had negative effects on the national identity of some states [Ip].
The main premise of the article, as articulated by the title, is the prevailing of the “global
liberal order” against a rising resurgence of nationalism (Ip). Ip argues that this new wave of
nationalism has eroded global institutions and norms, damaged relations between countries, and
set the stage for nations to “rally supporters along ethnic and religious lines” (Ip). States such as
Hungary, Poland, France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom have witnessed
the most significant changes advances in nationalism; some have used nationalism as a tool to
erode democratic institutions, to justify their national xenophobia, and strengthen a rising need
for tribalism (Ip). Although nationalism at its core is necessary for a state’s identity, the
institutions that have governed the international system in previous years were founded on
globalist rhetoric. Ip states that nationalism has led to 143 harmful trade actions--up from 59%--
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with the Freedom House database reporting a decline in Freedom in the United States and large
portions of Europe (Ip). Nationalism is being used by states to protect against the fear of Islam
and refugees; the cooperative climate of our global world is deteriorating.
During the mid-19th to mid-20th century, 29 million South Asians began to mobilize for
better opportunities (Tignor et al. 668). Similar to the current context, many of these citizens
were not looking for a naturalization process or long-term residency. Most merely recognized
migration as an opportunity to achieve a better life than their current one, despite poor working
and living conditions (Tignor et al. 669). Governments did not impose controls on immigration
and migrants until the turn of the 19th century. The Qing government attempted to impose
restrictions into the Manchus' region while the United States was encouraged by mounting racial
fears that permitted legislation barring entry to almost all Chinese (Tignor et al. 669). Europe,
contrarily, had rather lax policies, other than possible deportation for foreign-born criminals.
Immigration was not considered undesirable, but highly beneficial. Migrants fueled economic
growth in the host country while setting the foundation for increased productivity in their home
country (Tignor et al. 669).
Refugees are facing a new age of old age practices. With the redacting of the DACA
program which offered temporary work and study visas to migrants of a certain age, the closure
of borders within the EU, and the resistance to perceived nationalist threats, the international
system is taking large steps backward. In the 1880s, discrimination was founded on the
grievances that people felt toward increased population diversity, resulting in significant racial
tensions. As areas urbanized, it became harder to define what it meant to be of a certain
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nationality; languages were different, various religions were practiced, and even general social
cues were indiscernible. Entering 2018, it appears that we have pushed the limits of our
tolerance. Our governments inculcate threats to national myths and deteriorating identities. This
rhetoric is encouraging nation-states around to fear migrants and the change that they might
bring to “how we do things.”
It's no secret that the United States has a divisive aversion to the presence of migrants and
refugees. Despite our own national identity being shaped by national myths of manifest destiny
and "the land of the free," the position of the current administration is clear--access denied.
Though the origins of this opinion are disputed as deriving from xenophobia, ethnocentrism, or
protectionism, Trump reinforces the threat that migrants and refugees have on the national
security, economy, workplace, and even the school system. However, on March 6th of 2018,
Elizabeth Chmurak used the DACA situation to negate these arguments in her article "The
Economic Impact of Losing DACA Workers" (Chmurak). Chmurak makes the case that DACA
recipients have not only been a positive influence on the national economy but add considerable
value. Chmurak references the CATO Institute to support the argument using research conducted
on economic projections if the DREAMers were deported (Chmurak).
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals--DACA--was put in place to grant people
that arrived in the U.S. as children a legal waiver. This waiver permits them both work and
attends to school following stringent background checks and renewal every two years
(Chmurak). Since the election, Trump has issued an executive order to redact the program.
Chmurak argues that migrants and refugees are not a drain on the economy. Conversely, the
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program prevents the ‘free riding' issue that many domestic citizens fear. They can go to school,
procure jobs, and pay taxes (Chmurak). Ike Brannon, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute,
states, "We expect in the next ten years if we allow the DACA recipients to remain in the United
States, that would add an extra $350 billion to the economy compared to excluding them from
being able to work legally" (Chmurak). Brannon also found that their presence would generate
an additional $90 billions of tax revenue. But this mentality implicates more than just the U.S; it
poses a serious problem for the international system. As other states are (un)willingly admitting
hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants, the U.S. neglects to alleviate tensions. Every
day, refugees are barred access from states that no longer have the capacity to take them, yet the
U.S. continues to tighten its borders (Parsons).
Chumrak provides insight on the economic benefit of migrants, but does this stand for
refugees? One argument holds that wealthier countries can afford the accommodation of large
numbers of refugees. The cost considerations are significantly less than the humanitarian benefit.
Defined by values of compassion and care, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article
14, states "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from
persecution" (United Nations, 1948). On the other hand, some contend that refugees cause harm
to their host countries, often communicate through the draining of resources. However, it is clear
that this position is influenced by ambivalence towards foreign cultures (Parsons). People with
these perspective reference threats to national and cultural identity and community safety as a
result of some unfamiliar group of people. The former perspective espouses a much stronger
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concern for humanitarian ethics, while the latter invites accusations of racism and xenophobia,
economics is merely the medium through which they express these views (Parsons).
Richard Parsons conducted a study to answer this question. Parsons' research was
conducted across four states, Australia, UK, USA, Canada, and the European Union. The aim to
was to gain a clearer understanding of how refugees impact a state's economy. His findings were
insightful, suggesting that the economic impact of refugees is distorted. From 1945 to 2011,
Australia has resettled over 700,000 refugees, 60,000 more from 2011-2015 (Parsons). The
Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 43% of refugees received work wages or salaries as
compared to the 39% government allowance/pension (Parsons). Other studies have found this
theory to be true, some suggesting this economic benefit can be achieved in only five years.
Each indicates that refugees do not make an initial contribution to a state, but a net economic
contribution. However, this contribution is lower than migrants because refugees experience a
variety of structural barriers that prevent their ability to work, including learning a new
language, low levels of education and literacy, and lack of knowledge or experience in the
Parsons states that studies that apply a broader definition of “economic” hold an even
more favorable view of refugees. This view suggests that benefits are not purely tax revenues
and government expenditures, but rather a variety of much more complex goods.
They note that economic impact is not exclusively about tax revenues and government
expenditures, but also about many other aspects that are more difficult to measure. RCOA
(2010), for example, identifies the following ways in which refugees contribute economically:
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Expanding consumer markets for local goods
Opening new markets
Bringing in new skills
Creating employment
Filling empty employment niches
Increasing economies of scale
Fostering innovation and flexibility
Supplying labor and stimulating labor markets in aging populations
Stimulating economic growth in regional areas
It is even found that the amount of remittances sent to home countries is higher than the foreign
aid received. In some cases, the remittances make up a substantial portion of the states GDP, for
example, 31% in Liberia and 47% in Tajikistan (Parsons). From a utilitarian perspective, this
represents the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Not only is the host country
receiving a return from the refugees, but remittances are also sent to support the livelihood of
family members at home. This money may even contribute to the establishment of development
and trade relationships.
For this reason, the only reason that refugees should be viewed as a burden or cost to a
national economy is if a strict view is taken. From a utilitarian analysis, the argument does not
hold. The burden of cost does not constitute a large enough impact relative to the humanitarian
failures of Syria. Constant persecution, death, and casualty do not justify the closing of one's
borders. The United States benefits from its geographical separation from Syria, making it easier
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to ignore the ongoing crisis at a humanistic level. Its response, along with many others to use
nationalism as a political strategy for denying refugees is likely a moral philosophy of ethical
egoism. As Singer would argue, just as we are obligated or responsible for aiding those in need
in our community, we are also obligated to aid those that we cannot see.
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Imagine you are the owner of a local market store. You treat your customers honestly.
You charge them a fair price for the sale of your goods, and you make a point never to exploit
your customers. Though it may be possible that your good nature stems from a personal
conviction, it is more likely that there is a tangible advantage involved. Perhaps your store's
reputation would suffer if customers were charged different prices, or maybe the credibility of
your goods would be contested. Kant suggests that it just so happens that this behavior is right
for your business, though it is not certain that, if honesty were no longer advantageous, the
behavior would prevail. It is more likely that you would adjust your business following what will
provide a higher financial return. Kant states,
He cannot, however, be assumed to have also an immediate inclination toward his
buyers, causing him, as it were, out of love to give no one as far as price is concerned
any advantage over another. (Kant 1785)
Here, Kant is making the point that, although you treat your customers honestly, it does not
necessarily mean that you do so as a result of appreciation, love, or fondness for the customers.
In the next example, Kant illustrates ‘happy philanthropists’ that are naturally inclined to
help others.
To help others where one can is a duty, and besides this, there are many spirits of so
sympathetic a temper that, without any further motive of vanity or self-interest, they find
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an inner pleasure in spreading happiness around them and can take delight in the
contentment of others as their work. (Kant 1785)
The question that we must ask here is now that the storekeeper has a genuine interest in
spreading happiness, are their actions, morally right? Kant argues that although the actions are
right and amiable, it still lacks actual moral worth. In other words, though acting from a positive
inclination of honor or sympathy, and the action itself is good and right, the action lacks moral
worth. Kant's perspective is explained as follows.
It stands on the same footing as other inclinations—for example, the inclination for
honour, which is fortunate enough to hit on something beneficial and right and
consequently honourable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem; for its
maxim lacks moral content, namely the performance of such actions, not from
inclination, but from duty. (Kant 1785)
For Kant, purely altruistic actions and the pleasure found in those actions are not acting from
duty. Action taken from well-intended inclinations are certainly commendable, but they still
stem from circumstantial reasons.
It is difficult to understand just what makes an action morally right from a Kantian
perspective. Kant offers a third example of a “sorrowful philanthropist” who does not seek
beneficent motivation for right guidance.
Suppose then that the mind of this friend of man was overclouded by sorrows of his own
which extinguished all sympathy with the fate of others, but that he still had power to
help those in distress, though no longer stirred by the need of others because sufficiently
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occupied with his own; and suppose that, when no longer moved by any inclination, he
tears himself out of this deadly insensibility and does the action without any inclination
for the sake of duty alone; then for the first time his action has its genuine moral worth.
(Kant 1785)
This example certainly stands in contrast to the previous two examples. In the case of the
sorrowful philanthropist, whose mind is clouded by personal grievances, he acts against his
original conviction and inclinations to perform a duty. His dispositions are set aside. For this,
Kant believes his actions are of moral worth. The lesson that Kant is trying to teach is that the
greater the desired one has to act in opposition to duty, yet has strong enough convictions to do
otherwise, the more esteem that person's actions should receive.
If it has not been made clear yet, Immanuel Kant is an example of deontological ethics
and morals. This mode of thought is defined by the relationship between duty and the morality of
human actions. Deontological ethics hold that an action is considered morally good because of
the action itself, not because of its consequence--as utilitarianism would suggest. In some cases,
deontological ethics holds that actions are morally required despite their consequence to human
welfare. The first great philosopher of deontological principles was, in fact, Immanuel Kant.
Kant was an 18th-century Prussian philosophy interested in both philosophy and scientific
inquiry, though he is most well-known for his publication Groundwork of the Metaphysics of
Morals (1785). A sizeable document, Kant introduces a breadth of moral and ethical principles
that deserve contemplation. This chapter will examine the concept of "acting out of duty," the
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categorical imperative, and the following principles of Respect for Humanity and Universal
Kant's ethics ask an important question about the morality of an action. What makes an
action morally permissible? Why is, does a distinction exist between action and one of moral
weight? A response to Kant's question suggests that the consequences of actions are not only
difficult to measure but based on chance. Similar to utilitarianism which argues that an action is
morally good if the outcome is good for the majority. In other words, actions are judged for their
value and utility. Using this modus operandi, an individual's moral convictions are not relevant,
but rather the choice they make. Kant takes issues with assuming that morality is not based on
moral motives, but probable chances.
Kant holds that only good will can be morally good, meaning that an individual must act
in accordance with and out of respect for their moral law rather than out of natural inclinations.
Kant suggests that a good will is not good because of its outcome, but because of its purpose to
achieve an end for its good volition. This is because our "good will" is in our locus of control,
whereas the consequences of our actions are not. The validity in this philosophy is evident. Why
should we be judged on the morality of actions that are undoubtedly out of our control? Kant is
merely suggesting that actions should be deemed moral for their inherent moral good.
Having a goodwill means doing what is right because it is right, not as means to an
ulterior end. Kant calls this "acting out of duty” or “acting from duty” (Kant 1785). This is
illustrated in the case of the shopkeeper mentioned earlier. The first example demonstrated a
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storekeeper who treats their customer with honesty and respect, but for a return of increased
frequency, credibility, and business. Rather than holding honesty and respect as a moral
imperative, it is viewed as a vehicle for an end. Even the second example, though much different
than the first, discounts the altruistic shopkeeper as acting from a strong moral duty. His or her
happiness is increased by the happiness of his or her customers. It is not until the third example
that Kant illustrates an individual acting out of duty. Despite the strong desire to act against what
he knows to be right, he follows a moral duty. An individual must have the right motivation
when acting, which Kant holds is in accordance with one's duty.
He saw the moral law as a categorical imperative and believed that the imperative would
be established alone by human reason. Thus, Kant’s supreme categorical imperative is: “Act
only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a
universal law...So act that you treat humanity in your person and the person of everyone else
always at the same time as an end and never merely as means" (Kant 1785). A categorical
imperative is an absolute moral requirement without exception. He is often quoted as saying that
the categorical imperative is a rationally necessary and unconditional principle that must be
followed regardless of natural desires or inclinations to the contrary. Kant's ethics is
unwaveringly obligatory, maintaining that moral duties are derived from absolute imperatives.
We will discuss the potential shortcomings of this duty in the following section.
Fortunately, Kant does not entirely leave us to define our categorical imperatives. Two
specific imperatives are considered the most important moral imperatives. The first moral
principle is the Respect for Humanity Principle which underwrites the moral duty always to
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respect humanity. The second moral principle is the Universal Law Principle, which offers the
user a moral test to determine when an action becomes a moral duty. Both principles provide a
groundwork for Kantians to establish and guide moral action.
The first moral principle is often referred to as "The Humanity Formula." The formula is
simply stated, "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your person or the
person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end" (Kant
1785). Intuitively, it seems wrong to treat human beings as mere instruments to a future end.
This principle defines the morality of treating beings with respect as fundamental. A clear
distinction to be made is that Kant does not explicitly rule out using humanity as a means to an
end. This would be counterintuitive as we do this on a frequent basis, e.g., the food we eat and
the clothing that we wear. Contrarily, Kant does rule out using humanity in such a way that we
treat each other as a mere means to our ends. The distinction here is that it is moral to rely on
humans so long as humanity is always held as an end.
Kant introduced a new notion of respect for the treatment of human life at the core of
moral philosophy. In large part because human beings are self-governing with individual goals.
Thus, a person’s autonomy should always be respected. To not do so, to exploit or used against
this imperative, is a serious violation of morality. As moral agents we are to be treated as ends
ourselves, “it is the presence of the self-governing reason in each person that...offered decisive
grounds for viewing each as possessed of equal worth and deserving of equal respect” (Kant
1785). However, Kant is not protecting human being’s individual, but rather the “humanity” that
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make us distinctly human. These features include our ability to engage in self-directed rational
behavior and pursue individual ends.
Another, less discussed formula is that of autonomy. Here, Kant encourages us to act so
that through our maxims, we could be legislators of universal laws. Differing from the Universal
Law Principle, the autonomy formula maintains that we are the givers of universal law rather
than its follower. This is the idea that if we are to order that all certain practice laws of morality,
we must also exemplify them. In other words, we are putting the source of our worth on display
to demonstrate that free and rational agents are the source behind the very laws that bind us.
The second principle sets the stage for the Autonomy Principle to exist. Here, Kant articulates
his most popular assumption that we should "always act in such a way that the maxim of your
action can be willed as a universal law of humanity” (Kant 1785). Regarding application, this is
perhaps the most important component of Kantian ethics. He is suggesting that our actions and
behaviors should be such that we would want others to adopt them. The Universal Law Principle
provides its formula for contemplating moral action. Before making a moral decision, one should
ask oneself if the subsequent action could or should be a universal law for everyone to follow, a
powerful point.
The Universal Law Principle, also known as ‘The Formula of the Universal Law of
Nature,’ outlines steps to ensure that one acts in accordance with one’s maxim (Kant 1785).
Logically, the first step is to establish a maxim that illustrates one's rationale for acting in a way
that should be universal. Second, appropriate that moral maxim as a universal law of nature that
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governs all rational agents, so that everyone, by natural law, must act as one themselves propose
to act in similar circumstances. Third, consider whether the established maxim is possible in a
world governed by the law. If this is affirmed, then the fourth step is to ask yourself whether you
could yourself to act on the maxim. If this is also affirmed, then the action is morally
A significant drawback of Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative and most
deontological ethics in whole is its unwavering neglect of the consequences of actions. If a
maxim is known not to be a benefit or good, how, then, is it considered morally right? Is it
merely because it fits the criteria set by Kant, or is Kant’s theory lacking an important element?
Utilitarian ethicists hold that it seems counterintuitive to offer a philosophy of moral behavior if
a duty knowingly produces less good when an action that could produce more good is available.
Kant recognizes this concern but holds that judging an action by its consequences is, in turn,
immoral. Moral obligations supersede utility. This is because an action could be immoral
regardless of its outcome, in other words, the ends do not justify the means as Mill would
Similarly, Kantian ethics would not allow for the distortion of moral imperatives to allow
for heinous crimes. Some actions, such as murder, stealing, and exploitation, are so morally
egregious that they should never be permissible, even if they generate better consequences. Take
a case of legitimate killing for example. Though the murder of Bashar Al-Assad may maximize
the utility of the insurgency and displaced refugees, the moral imperative would not permit his
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death. Kantianism is founded on its categorical significance, and as such, there are no exceptions
to the rule. It is precisely one's unwavering conviction to the imperative that makes it morally
right. The killing of Bashar Al-Assad holds human beings as a means to an end. Even if that end
is peace and stability, the method to which that outcome is achieved is immoral. Kantians insist
that people and their fundamental rights must be protected in all circumstances.
Kant's theory does not protect against, nor suggest, a way to deal with situations of
conflicting prima facie obligations. In other words, if a situation poses itself when two moral
obligations are present, on which moral imperative do you act? Kant's theory does not define a
hierarchy of obligations. If humans are free to establish individual moral imperatives without
suggesting predetermined categorical imperatives, it seems difficult to conceive of such a
hierarchy (Lam 2017). Even in situation when prima facie obligations are not in conflict, should
the moral rule ever be suspended? Take a situation to save your own life as an example. If
someone's life is contingent on stealing or lying, does it not seem logical that the moral rule to
always tell the truth and to never steal be suspended? Kant contends that it is the objective good
and moral right that makes the rule a categorical imperative (Kant 1785). If exceptions should
exist for the rule, then it fails to fulfill the four steps outlined in ‘The Formula of the Universal
Law of Nature.'
G. W. F. Hegel, a German philosopher, is well known for his criticisms of Kantian
ethics. One of Hegel's arguments addresses Kant's assumption that human beings, as rational
creatures, can separate desire from reason (Lam 2017). He holds that it is unnatural for humans
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to suppress in support of reason. As a result, Kant's ethics cannot give humans a moral reason.
Similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, criticizes Kantianism for its
blatant lack of application. Schopenhauer suggests, instead, that ethics should be practical and
reasonably apply to the real world to solve real-world problems (Lam 2017). Currently, the
theory is hypothetical and assumes all human beings are both rational and operate on strong
moral imperatives.
Even Nietzsche had contempt for contemporary moral systems. He argued that such
systems shared two problematic characteristics: (1) metaphysical claims about the nature of
humanity are too complex to explain reality, particularly when they must be accepted before any
normative force is granted; and (2) such systems often marginalize a population at the benefit of
another (Lam 2017). Nietzsche also rejects Kant's idea that valuing our autonomy means that we
must also respect the autonomy of others. Under Kant, reasons are a fundamental element with
the capacity to objectively consider situations apart from desire. Nietzsche conceives of the self
as a multifaceted intellectual system (Lam 2017). In other words, reason and intelligence are not
separate entities but exist in support of the other. Thus, when our intellect has made a decision
that contradicts our conviction, it is merely an alternative drive dominating another.
Nonetheless, Kant's moral philosophy attempts to define actions and behavior that are
both good and moral as opposed to consequentially good. Kant's ethics have validity in their
assertion that one should act in accordance with the maxims to which they would have been
universal. This principle is simple to the golden rule of treating others how you would want to be
treated and conversely, do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you. Both
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are categorical imperatives; the principal difference is Kant’s belief that such imperatives be
practiced without exception. It is also important to note that though the above criticism is valid,
Kant’s fundamental theory exists to ensure the proper treatment of humanity and their rights.
How does Kantian ethics apply to the Syrian refugee crisis? The theory can be applied in
a variety of ways, both from the perspective United States leadership and leadership throughout
the rest of the world. In particular, its application to the human rights doctrine which outlines
treatment of refugees, written and signed from 196 states. This is where we will begin the
The current refugee crisis in the Middle East is raging forward as the number of displaced
persons continues to rise. Since the inception of the Syrian crisis, journalists have been
documenting the progression of fatalities, displaced persons, and general lack of concern for the
Syrian people. The conflict is not only the largest humanitarian crisis of today but the largest in
decades. The deadly conflict is consistently destroying communities and families, so much so
that there is hardly a family in Syria that has not been affected by the catastrophe. Since the
progression of the conflict from a peaceful protest into a violent armed conflict, over a third of
Syria's population is living in "hard to reach and besieged areas" or has successfully received
refuge elsewhere in Syria (Rubin and Saad). The calamity has reached a point where
humanitarians should that that the United Nations, an intergovernmental organization whose
primary function is peacekeeping, contend with and protect the rights of these citizens under the
protection of their human rights. However, due to the intervention of two of the permanent five
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members—i.e., Russia and the United States—little hope exists for a policy that would
compromise between the values of either side. Particularly considering the Russian Federation is
supporting a government which is actively attacking its citizens (Rubin and Saad).
The citizens are not receiving the necessary attention required to limit the repercussions
of the Syrian conflict. As the International Committee of the Red Cross stated, “the conflict in
Syria is the largest and most complex humanitarian crisis in the world, with no end in sight”
(ICRC). Although the ICRC, partnered with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, have initiated 14
operations aiding around 16 million Syrian people, the crisis continues to grow at an alarming
rate (ICRC). The adversity endured by the Syrians who chose to stay in the country, and by the
millions of refugees who decided to flee the country will continue to grow more severe in future
years. Through analysis of specific treaties and articles discussed in the Geneva Conventions,
this paper will outline the contexts in which international humanitarian law applies to the Syrian
To begin, it's important to understand why the Geneva Conventions exist, the purpose,
and what applications they serve within the international context. The Geneva Conventions and
their Additional Protocols represent the core foundations of international humanitarian law, a
field of institutions which "regulate the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit [their]
effects" (ICRC). The conventions exist to outline the way warfare should be conducted. In other
words, they were established to limit what stakeholders in war can or cannot do and to protect
those who have no direct influence within the armed conflict. Such individuals are often deemed
as wrong targets or noncombatants in the political realm. The Geneva Conventions are defined
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by four different conventions that were established at different times. The first was established in
1949 to cover the care of the wounded and sick of armed conflict on land; whereas the Second
Geneva Convention covers the protection of the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked at sea. The
Third Geneva Convention outlines the treatment of prisoners of war. The fourth Convention, and
also the most relevant to this particular issue, concerns the protection of civilians in times of
warfare (ICRC).
Although the conventions were established to limit actors in warfare to protect all human
rights, it did not specify the treatment of those affected by armed conflicts without having direct
participation in the hostilities. To satisfy that need, in 1977 Additional Protocol II was passed to
cover the protection of victims during non-international armed conflicts, or intrastate wars
(ICRC). While many of the articles discussed in Additional Protocol II are applicable in many
intrastate armed conflicts, Article 4—Fundamental Guarantees of Part II—Humane Treatment
specifies the protection of citizens without direct involvement in the conflict. The treaty states,
All persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities, whether
or not their liberty has been restricted, are entitled to respect for their person, honor and
convictions and religious practices. They shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without
any adverse distinction (Protocol II).
As the Article states, the citizens of Syria, who aren't rebelling against the government,
should be warranted respect for their beliefs, honor, and religious affiliations. However, in the
case of the Syrian Conflict, the Syrian people prompted the rebellion against the government in
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hopes of achieving political reform. At this stage in the conflict, international humanitarian law
(IHL) would not be applicable since the issue falls within the sovereignty of the state.
Nevertheless, when Bashar Al-Assad actively opened fire against peaceful protesters in
2011, the issue quickly became a humanitarian concern (Rogers et al. 2015). Since 2011, the
conflict has grown into a brutal contest against the Syrian people, supported by Russia, Iran, and
Hezbollah (Gilsinan 2015). When the government began to implement these war tactics they
were unconcerned that the attacks were not only firing against the rebels but also wrong targets
who wanted no involvement in the rebellion. This act violates Article 13 which states that the
civilian population shall receive general protection from the hostilities that occur as a result of
military operations (Protocol II 90). Even further, "The civilian population…shall not be the
object of attack," imploring that the government shall not initiate acts or threats of violence with
the purpose of spreading fear and terror throughout the civilian population; such actions are
prohibited (Protocol II 90). Considering Assad's aggressive response to the protests was to force
the civilians to back down by showing them the power of the Syrian government. Foreign
leaders such as the U.S. responded to this injustice by providing support to the rebel groups, in
hopes that they stand a chance in defending themselves (Gilsinan 2015). As of 2015, the conflict
has extended beyond the borders of Syria with nine million refugees seeking asylum in
neighboring countries (Rogers et al.).
One of the most astounding issues with the conflict is the refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria.
Aleppo is one of the largest cities in Syria; as such, it became home to hundreds of thousands of
refugees. However, half of the city had been claimed by the rebel factions as their headquarters.
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With Assad’s government fighting tirelessly to stifle the rebel forces, a bombing damaged the
remaining hospitals. The bombs, which were launched by the Syrian government, severely
damaged two general hospitals that were providing trauma care in the war zone, while also
hitting the only children’s hospital in the area. The destruction not only seriously hindered the
progression of the rebel group against the dictatorship, it “left more than a quarter-million people
in eastern Aleppo without hospital care” (Rubin and Saad). Considering this specific attack was
targeted at rebels who were actively engaging in hostilities against the government, it does not
violate the humanitarian treaties. However, the repercussions have immobilized the humanitarian
aid that was assisting the refugees in Aleppo, violating Article 17 (90).
The last major violation, following the escalation of the conflict, is the treatment of
women and children. As of 2015, over 250,000 Syrians have been killed, approximately more
than 9 million have fled their homes, while women and children make up ¾ of the refugee
population (Rogers et al.). These refugees are not only living in cruel conditions, but they have
also been displaced from their homes and refused asylum by a large majority of neighboring
states. Point three of Article 4 states:
Children shall be provided with the care and aid they require, and in particular: a) they
shall receive an education, including religious and moral education, in keeping with the
wishes of their parents, of those responsible for their care. (Protocol II)
Although the government itself is not assisting in protecting the children—as mentioned above,
they have done quite the opposite—humanitarian efforts have intervened through the refugee
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camps. Available options are open to children to receive education at the local school districts
near the camps; however, even attending these schools pose a risk to the children as many of the
students are forced to walk through areas who citizens may be unaccepting of their presence
(Rubin and Saad).
The conflict in Syria is a difficult situation to analyze, specifically considering the
conflict is not only fought between the government and rebellious citizens, but also between
external factors. However, the intrastate war violates a variety of articles as outlined in
Additional Protocol II. The conflict infringes on the respect and protection of civilians, the good
protection of civilians during hostilities, as well as the proper treatment of children. Although the
state is not considering these Articles, humanitarian organizations like the ICRC are doing what
they can to offset the calamities of this situation.
From a Kantian perspective, does the United States and others have a responsibility to
offer refuge and asylum to those seeking it? From a Kantian perspective, the United States has
signed a treaty committing itself to the values found in that treaty, including the provisions that
apply to refugees. Applying Kant's Respect for Humanity Principle, it is only logical that one
may suggest it is a categorical imperative for the United States to protect the governing body of
laws that exist to protect refugees precisely during situations as this. The Humanity Principle
holds that we should always behave in a way that treats humanity as an end rather than a means
to that end. In the context of the refugee crisis, the refugees are not viewed as ends, but rather a
means to safety and security. In the United States, this end is achieved through the denial of
refugees within the state. If we are acting on the moral law of respecting humanity, we are sorely
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failing. Refugees face persecution from their government on one side and an international system
shut off by national borders.
A categorical imperative has no exceptions. As such the United States behavior is
inexcusable. Our nation was built on the foundation of manifest destiny as an end; the dream was
built from the hope for not only a better future, but an escape from war, persecution, or a poor
foreseeable future. America has long been seen as a land of hope against tyrannical control, a
land of hope and acceptance. As reported by the United States Department of State, this trend is
not necessarily unwavering. We have resettled approximately three million since 1975. In
response to the statistic of the current twenty-three-million refugees around the world, the state
department states:
The vast majority of these refugees will receive support in the country to which they fled
until they can voluntarily and safely return to their home country. A small number of
refugees will be allowed to become citizens in the country to which they fled, and an
even smaller number — primarily those who are at the highest risk — will be resettled in
a third country. While UNHCR reports that less than 1 percent of all refugees are
eventually resettled in third countries, the United States welcomes almost two-thirds of
these refugees, more than all other resettlement countries combined.
However, of the eleven million displaced refugees, the United States has only admitted under
50,000 as of 2018. From a Kantian perspective, the statistics fail to meet the “exception”
requirement. As a categorical imperative, the argument holds that if the United States is a state
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that welcomes refugees, it is required to accept all refugees. The government has denied refugees
from Syria due to their nationality—this behavior is immoral.
This chapter applied Kantian ethics to the Syrian refugee crisis. The theory holds that
actions are the perpetrators of morality, rather consequences. Kant holds that actions hold certain
moral worth when they are held as categorical imperatives. Categorical imperatives are morals
that are applied in every context with no exception. Such laws are good because they are maxims
and have inherent worth. Kantian ethics contrasts with the utilitarian view that consequences
should guide behavior—as suggested in the following chapter. Kantian ethics also maintains
humanity as an end itself; any behavior or actions that view humanity as a means to an end is
immoral. Kant contends that for an action to be a categorical imperative it must always be
applied whether for the benefit of humans or not.
Kant himself defines the respect for humanity as a categorical imperative. When applied
to the refugee crisis, the United States also espouses a clear value for all human life and
humanity. However, further analyzed, it becomes apparent that this is likely not a categorical
imperative. Considering the number of refugees displaced as a result of the Syrian war, the
United States has failed to follow through on both its national and international values. Rather
than holding humanity as an end to which no one should be inhibited from achieving, we deny
refugees necessary humanitarian aid and assistance. Denying access to refugees is means to
ensure the safety and unity of the nation at the expense of another.
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The United States has already adopted an imperative of respect for humanity. This
respect is evident in the state department’s refugee statement and their signature ratifying the
Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law as a moral, ethical, and legal document.
We currently lack an imperative of justice and morality in our nation. Kantian ethics must be
applied to guarantee that the actions of our nation are maximizing itself while acting on the
universal maxims that it would want others to also act by. If Americans were in the same
situation, we would want other states to offer us refuge, so why deny this security to others?
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Chapter 6
This thesis has analyzed the Syrian refugee crisis, introduced three ethical theories, and
applied them. The crisis began as a branch of the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle
East. States were revolting against tyrannical and autocratic rulers in favor of democratic and
liberal policies. The Syrian government’s response to the protests quickly alerted the
international community to the humanitarian calamity that was to follow. Attacks on civilians
with no affinity for or against the revolution were injured while the tanks and other military
forces were dispersed to the more remote areas of the state. As the crisis grew and other parties
began to get involved, Syria had the world’s attention. Social media allowed for those trapped in
besieged war zones to film their experiences in hopes that the heart-wrenching reality would
spark change.
It’s 2018 and seven years later the war continues, and little hope exists for Syrians. Most
have been either internally or externally displaced. Whole cities leveled by the amount of
bombing from either side. One’s mere presence in Syria is a risk. The Assad regime has
expressed no interest in ending the assault and supporters on both sides are no closer to reaching
an agreement. The state violates international law and international humanitarian law, to which it
is a signatory, on a relatively frequent basis. Reports of chemical attacks are mounting, and the
number of fatalities and casualties continue to rise to astronomical levels.
However, this thesis is not about the Assad regime, nor is it about the white helmets.
Truthfully, this thesis is not even about The United States. This thesis is about humanity. More
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importantly, how we as a nation and global community have responded when someone else’s
humanity has been taken from them. Syrians have been forced from their homes in fear of being
murdered. Parents subject their children to risking their lives on a migrant boat because the
alternative was somehow less favorable; others make month-long journeys to neighboring states
in hopes of finding refuge. Yet they are met with contempt and denial.
The international system has failed to ethically respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. This
failure is indicative of The United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave European Union. As
mentioned in the second chapter, this vote was propelled by the disdain for the EU’s supremacy
policies. EU holds that all of its laws supersede national laws and as a member of the EU, states
benefit from four freedoms (Foster 2016). These four freedoms are the free movement of goods,
services, currency, and people. BREXIT was built on the contempt that people had for the free
movement of people. More particular, the movement of refugees (Foster 2016). Refugees have
flooded Europe since the war began and the current laws allow them to freely travel within all
member states. The UK was fearful of how this may impact their social, political, and economic
life. Most supporters of BREXIT find merit in the single market economy and if given the
opportunity, would prefer to remain an EU member and benefit from the other three freedoms
(Foster 2016). However, this is not a possibility. It is unfortunate that years of membership in the
EU can be thrown away because people are irrationally fearful of Middle Easterners.
The United States itself experienced a majority vote in response to the refugee crisis with
the election of President Donald Trump. In September of 2016, President Obama announced
plans to admit 110,000 refugees, increasing the number of refugees by 60% of the previous year
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(Rhodan 2016). The announcement was part of a large plan of world leaders to accept
approximately 360,000. Following the announcement, now President, Donald Trump, was
reported calling Syrian refugees the “trojan horse” of our time (Rhodan 2016). President
Trump’s son tweeted an image comparing the crisis poisoned candy, “If I had a bowl of Skittles
and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee
problem” (Rhodan 2016). Xenophobia affects a sizable majority of our society, instilling
irrational fears of not only a nation but a worldwide religion. This xenophobia is indicative of
President Trump’s original ban on Muslim’s before the judiciary failed to let the executive order
The United Kingdom and The United States are not the only states responding like this.
Other European states are experiencing a rise in national parties. These parties often support a
state’s nationalism, typically in response to a perceived threat to their national identities. In this
case, refugees are the threat. Misconceptions and longstanding societal racism have perpetuated
a fear of Muslims as terrorists. Extremist jihad groups have become the identity of Muslims
everywhere. What does this mean for Syrians? They have nowhere to go. Syrians do not receive
protection from the state, they receive bombs and chemical attacks. As international law states,
refugees fleeing persecution should receive refuge. Instead, refugees are met with rejection. The
wealthiest states in the international system refuse to do their duty in alleviating the tragedy;
instead, neighboring developing countries have admitted millions, piling refugees into camps.
Resources are appropriated accordingly, diminishing the overall value of IGO or NGO
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assistance. The value of living is not humane. Education is limited, living conditions are less
than favorable, and tensions are rising (UNHCR).
Why did this research decide to apply ethics to the crisis? Currently, politics are guided
not out of rationality or concern for humanity, but from self-interest. States legislate on behalf of
the greatest benefit to their society. However, this perceived benefit is often distorted. History
proves that nationalism influences people to act in ways that they otherwise would not. Fear of
terrorism is not an irrational fear and is certainly relevant, yet this fear applied to an entire
religion and region of the world is unprecedented. The application of the three ethical lenses is
used to illustrate the foundation of human existence. Ethics defines action as good or bad,
providing the user a tool to ensure ethical behavior. It is the assumption of this thesis that
although governments have the interest to protect, the protection of human life and humanity is
also our concern. Nations are self-defined entities that do not give us the right to discriminate
another’s. We have a responsibility to humanity.
The following prescriptions derive from the results of my research applying Kantianism,
Utilitarianism, and Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Here is my prescription to the United States:
Respect Human Rights
Challenge Nationalism
Admit Refugees for Economic Growth
Be a Just Society
Each ethical holds a distinct conclusion for ethical behavior. Kantianism maintains that states
should develop categorical imperatives with no exceptions, while utilitarianism holds that ethical
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behavior is actions which provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people with
minimal pain to those that do not fall into the "greatest number" category. Rawls’ Theory of
Justice sympathizes with Kant in its assumption that ethics ought to be deontological; however,
Rawls contends that such laws should be designed in such a way that they promote justice as
fairness, designed in the original position behind the veil of ignorance. Yet while all theories are
distinct and different, they share similar foundational values. Respect for humanity is necessary
and actions should never be taken so that it harms another.
The remainder of the thesis will further address the above prescriptions in more detail.
Explanations and justification will be provided with the support of the three ethical theories
applied in this thesis.
Respect Human Rights
As previously mentioned, Kant values an adherence to categorical imperatives which are
to be followed in all circumstances with no exceptions. As a signatory of the Geneva
Conventions, the United States has pledged itself in promoting and securing humane treatment of
peoples. The current foreign policy of the United States does not align with the protocols
outlined by the international humanitarian law document. Refugees are fleeing persecution and
hostilities conducted by their own government. As defined in Article 13, refugees shall receive
refuge and protection against such hostilities. The United States values this article as
demonstrated by the state department’s own statistical and policy statements. However, what the
U.S. has demonstrated is clear neglect to assist refugees due to their nationality and geographical
location. The United States should respect the human rights of citizens in need of foundational
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human needs. The state needs to recognize that we do not have the authority to deny such
assistance out of fear of the unknown. This leads me to my next point.
Challenge Nationalism
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills outlined an argument for utilitarianism that
requires ethical behavior to be those actions which provide the greatest good to the greatest
number of people. This action should be so that it provides the greatest good with the most
diminished pain. Currently, the national government is distortedly applying the greatest good to
American citizens. While it is a state’s responsibility to ensure national security, the current
policy is doing so at an immense pain to others. We accept refugees from around the world with
a clear border around the Middle East. Nationalism is influencing multiple states to hold a
national identity at a higher ethical level than humanity itself. States in the international system
have accepted a huge burden with the presence of millions of Syrian refugees while the United
States has comfortably resettled less than 50,000. This argument may also be applied to the
argument suggesting that refugees are an economic drain.
Admit Refugees for Economic Growth
Many hold fears of Syrians but are only able to communicate a clear rejection based on
their economic strain, such an argument clearly does not hold true. It is clear that refugees
require a significant amount of financial support, which is often shouldered by the host state.
However, a plethora of organizations exist to subsidize some of the expenditures that a state may
incur. On the flipside, refugees have the potential of enhancing the size of a host state’s economy
by approximately 50-100% (Open Borders 2015). Refugees are permitted temporary work
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permits. This work allows them to be effectively weaned off dependence on charity and pay
taxes. The amount of taxes raised is projected to rise by $350 billion by migrant DACA
employees alone (Chmurak 2018). The remittances even have the potential of securing stronger
relationships between governments. In this scenario, there is a clear greater good for a greater
Be a Just Society
Rawls’s social experiment challenges us to place ourselves in an objective position to
define principles to govern society. He contends that human nature is too biased to properly
develop institutions that are just and ethical. The only way to attempt legislating just institutions
is to design them in a way that you may be impacted by them. Here, an individual is stripped of
the qualities that make them who they are and the privilege that they may or may not have. Then,
they are told that their position in the newly designed society will not be the same as it is now.
This Rawlsian argument challenges us to think critically about the laws that govern our society,
particularly those that have unforeseen, or intentional, discriminatory consequences. Rawls holds
that all principles formed in this position will be just and fair, judgments made meritocratically.
He further suggests that we also have a responsibility to the international system. This
responsibility is to work towards a just society in other states; by adjacency, it also means not to
impede of another state’s progress towards a just society.
Currently, there is a significant disproportionate distribution of refugees. Some states
have admitted millions while others have only accepted 50,000 or less. The presence of refugees
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in any state will cause social, political, and economic tensions and strain, even more so when the
number is in the millions. Societies struggle with maintaining existing social norms, while also
promoting the protection of refugees. The United States, as a powerful state, is responsible for
alleviating this unequal stress. All states should take their fair share of refugees so as not to
inhibit the development of a just society in other states. Rawls values the protection of principles
that promote the most good for the least advantaged of a society without impeding on the good
of others.
Concluding Remarks
The Syrian Refugee Crisis is in need of action, but not the kind of action that is focused
on the state. At this point, action needs to be taken to ensure that the indiscriminate civilians
affected by this crisis are receiving the support and humanitarian assistance afforded to them by
the international system. State actors should be evaluating policies that are designed to protect
the citizen while attempting to provide a resolution to the ongoing civil war. From an ethical
perspective, respect for the individual has been set aside for the lust for power.
It is time that we consider Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian that washed up to shore
alongside his older brother and mother. Refugees across the globe are faced with the same
choices of Aylan’s family. Unfortunately, this is there reality; the threat of perishing on a refugee
ship offers a more favorable outcome than either waiting to be granted asylum or risk staying in
Syria. The bright side? There is hope; hope in an international system that sets aside stereotyped
prejudice and challenges illegitimate fears founded in subconscious racism. There is legitimacy
in feeling uncertain about a group of people coming into one’s culture, but this uncertainty does
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not justify a human life. We are ethically responsible as states, organizations, and individuals to
provide a safe refuge to those in need.
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