Monday, August 20, 2007

"All the world needs is xenophilia, sweet xenophilia"

Many of us are aware that the United States is perhaps the stingiest of industrialized nations in terms of providing nonmilitary foreign aid. As Peter Singer aruges in his book, "One World", the fact that we spend several billion dollars on soda pop and movie tickets each year, and less than $20 billion dollars on helping to provide drinking water and medicine to the world, is a moral failing of our society.

But what about the Danish? They are among the most generous of the industrialized nations. And yet, they have the most restrictive immigration policies in Europe. This has lead to a phenomenon that some are calling the "Copenhagen syndrome"--the Danish want to help the poor of the world, as long as they stay in their own neighborhoods and don't come to Denmark. Helping a neighbor is important, as long as they don't come over for dinner.

The Copenhagen syndrome raises an interesting question about our global village: is it moral to help developing nations in a globalized world but, at the same time, prevent the free flow of immigrants into our society? The United States, of course, is not committed to either the aid or the free flow. Should it be?

Christopher Phillips, in this interview from Philosophy Now, talks about his new book, "Socrates in Love". Phillips says that the most important variety of love he studied in preparing the book is xenia, the love for strangers. He describes how this does not mean that we must actually care for each single person we encounter, but that having xenia means being open to the new experience that the stranger offers, including the possibility of wisdom.

We might say that the Danish fail by this standard. They are generous, but they are not virtuous, in terms of xenia, if they are not open to having strangers come to live in their midst.

How important, then, is the stranger to our moral development in a global village?

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5 Comments:

At 10:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) If our ability to act morally--globally or otherwise--entails an important epistemic component, I think it's clear that encounters with strangers play a very important moral role insofar as they act as a source of wisdom. Our *ability* to act morally seems to increase as our *ability* to handle and incorporate others epistemically increases. (I highlight "ability" because there seems to be a clear connection here with practical reason.) Observing children is a clear case.
Children start applying the Golden Rule and other basic moral concepts once they begin to recognize the moral status of the people around them and understand their wants and needs. And understanding and recognition are surely epistemic concepts.

2) While I doubt that the concept of a stranger is necessarily part of the physical definition of global (an area could be uniform throughout and only be covered with people of one type), it seems to be a part of the definition of a global culture that it include a certain level of alterity.

3) What do you think of the idea of unconditionality? Maybe I conflate it with impartiality too often, but I've always thought that it ultimately served, if not as a foundation, as a very important section of our moral web. But it seems to have practical (and theoretical) downsides that perhaps warrant us abandoning it as a central moral concept. Your thoughts?

Galen

(This has Gadamer all over it as well.)

 
At 4:46 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Is the stranger only epistemically important? Is this because they flex our brains in a way that allows us to take in more information? (This makes the experience of the stranger sound like a mental agility exercise. Some people do Sodoku or the crossword puzzle for such effects). Can the stranger be a source of moral value to us in its alterity? Levinas seems appropriate here, no?

 
At 11:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

But what if new epistemic experiences are necessary for new moral experiences? You're right that knowledge is insufficient for morality, otherwise we could just play Sudoku or do crosswords puzzles. But I think that moral growth has a necessary epistemic component, and from the way I understand Levinas, he would say so too. The moral relationship for Levinas is a relationship of infinity, in the sense of Descartes' ontological proof. Descartes believed that the concept of infinity had an external source. So likewise, Levinas claims that others are infinite or "Other," because we cannot capture them in our conceptual nets. They bring something new epistemically--they have their own wants and desires and beliefs--and in doing so provide the occasion for something new morally. If Levinas is correct and if morality comes through strangers, then there is a strong epistemic component present, especially when two distinct cultures interact. It's just a matter of showing whether morality can only come through "Otherness". I think the case can be made, if we translate out of Levinas' eccentric language.

-Galen

 
At 11:52 AM , Blogger Dap said...

I guess I'd say the Copenhagen Syndrome is moral if you believe in the moral correctness of the nation-state as a way of categorizing the world.

Also, I think, there's a required assumption that the people who share your nationality are more important than people who don't.

If those two fail, I don't see why restricting immigration is a good option - unless, of course, one wants to make some sort of utilitarian argument regarding the practical feasibility of trying to support X amount of people with Y amount of land.

On the other hand, I could also see this as a rational argument from self-interest on the part of the Danish (overtones of racism aside): while the Danish government wants the best for other peoples of the world, they are afraid that the quality of life of their citizens will decrease if too many immigrants move in. The solution is to figure out why people want to immigrate and then create those conditions in folks' respective home countries so they choose not to immigrate in the first place.

As for your actual question, I have one of my own: Is restricting immigration really showing a lack of xenia, or is it xenia bounded by the practical constraints of the world? Do the Danish refuse to learn from other cultures entirely?

 
At 4:08 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Galen: I tend to agree with your reading on Levinas here. This then touches on DAP's point: what is the way to experience the stranger practically? Is it enough to read and study about the other? I would tend to imagine that a more embodied experience is necessary. Otherwise travel would not be something so important to do to broaden one's horizons. (This summer I heard a presentation on Kant's racial theories at the conference in Morelia. Kant believed that black babies are actually born white and then become black later. The author surmised that Kant got this kind of information from travel books of the era. Its highly unlikely he ever saw a black baby in his life)

DAP: I think you point out some important assumptions about the Copenhagen syndrome. In an age of globaliztion, the relevance of the nation state is, in fact, very much up for consideration. This political construct has its own unique history and its design was for very specific purposes. We might ask now whether those circumstances that called for the creation of the nation state stlll obtain today and whether we need to rethink our political units. David Held's work on cosmopolitanism is particularly good on this.

About restricting immigrants to preserve quality of life: Peter Singer makes some good points that the quality life enjoyed by most of the industrialzed world is unsustainable and built on creating conditions in other parts of the world that instigage emigration. The Danish immigration policies might not be ethical under such an analysis. Definitely good points to consider!

 

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