• Moral Panics: Thoughts on Immigration

    There are many posts presently here at SIN written, or in the pipeline, on our series concerning moral panic, and nothing promotes moral panic quite as much as immigration. Immigration is a hot topic, particularly in the UK, where I live, but also within the wider context of Europe (and pretty much anywhere).  There are literally boat loads of people from Africa and the eastern end of the Mediterranean who are hitting the shores of Italy and Spain in waves of thousand upon thousand. Often, the end destination is seen as the UK with its perceived soft touch welfare system.

    This appears to have divided the population of the UK polemically, with the right-hand side of the political spectrum profiting greatly. UKIP are obtaining either landslide victories or are pushing the established party majorities to the minimal limit. The Conservatives are enjoying sustained popularity considering how far they are into their term of government. This, as far as UKIP are concerned, is entirely about immigration. It has to be, since UKIP has feck all else to offer which is robust or meaningful, or even sane.

    So the population is up in arms about immigration. I literally hear it on the streets, in family contexts. Everywhere. People are annoyed that immigrants are taking their jobs, are costing the NHS millions, and are draining the welfare system.

    The problem is that this appears to be, by and large, complete nonsense. It is misinformation, designed to play on people’s bad and cognitively biased intuitions.

    And this is the key.

    Immigration claims play on base human psychology. We have evolved in-group / out-group mentality. This means, in basic terms, that we are naturally xenophobic and racist. We are mistrusting of people who are not like us. We project ourselves on to the people around us in forming kin and socially cohesive groups. Anyone from outside of those groups is struggling to battle our evolved mechanisms which put those people at a distinct disadvantage when seeking social acceptance and parity. This social identity theory is described in easy terms by Simply Psychology:

    This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them).  Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image.

    The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.

    Prejudiced views between cultures may result in racism; in its extreme forms, racism may result in genocide, such as occurred in Germany with the Jews, in Rwanda between the Hutus and Tutsis and, more recently, in the former Yugoslavia between the Bosnians and Serbs.

    Henri Tajfel proposed that stereotyping (i.e. putting people into groups and categories) is based on a normal cognitive process: the tendency to group things together. In doing so we tend to exaggerate:

    1. the differences between groups

    2. the similarities of things in the same group.

    We categorize people in the same way. We see the group to which we belong (the in-group) as being different from the others (the out-group), and members of the same group as being more similar than they are. Social categorization is one explanation for prejudice attitudes (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality) which leads to in-groups and out-groups.

    The issue then becomes, if we accept that we have a tendency towards xenophobia and racist attitudes, can we have objective and intelligent conversations regarding immigration?

    This scenario is reflective of many moral issues concerning ideas based on social identity theory. For example, at school, and in society at the time, there was a prevalence for me and my friends to be homophobic. I partook in immature jibes and whatnot. It wasn’t until I met gay people and became more mature and knowledgeable that I could see that such attitudes were not rationally justifiable. But in order to be morally right in such social contexts, I have to fight hard for my rational tools, taken from my philosophical toolbox, to overpower my intuitive urges which are grounded in irrational psychological paradigms. Anone who is not like me, n psychological terms, is less than, or wrong, or not to be trusted.

    This is the tension in dealing objectively with immigration.

    As with any moral discussion, the first thing one needs to do is establish a moral philosophy or value system. That’s no small undertaking. If we were to assume some kind of consequentialism, since it is common in secular thought, then let’s see where that leaves us.

    This brings us to our next problem. Nationality and border in a global world. When we talk about what we should do, what our moral obligations are, are we talking about such obligations to our town, our county, our country, our continent or to our world? This changes the answers to such questions entirely. Consequences to our actions, however they are calculated, surely differ incredibly depending upon the group context which we are adhering to. What is ‘better’ for a country, such as the UK, may not be better for the world, especially since countries, like big corporations, are essentially competing against each other for economic prosperity, looking to lead the market.

    So to talk about whether immigration is good or not, we need to ask: good for what outcome? What is the goal of the world?

    This gets doubly complicated because, if we were honest with ourselves and asked “what would you do in the same situation?” concerning a Muslim African immigrant fleeing war-torn Sudan, the answer would most certainly be, “get my family and myself out to a better place, with good societal values, like the UK.” If we in any given situation would declare that, from the immigrant’s point of view, what they did was morally right and we would do it too, then on what basis can we condemn it from the point of view of being a member of the country to which they want to emigrate?

    When I was younger, I was very anti-immigration. Not from a racist stance, but from a traditionalist stance (as well as a deep green stance, though in retrospect that may have been post hoc rationalisation). I travelled and lived widely around the world, and yet had a lot of respect and admiration for the make-up of Britain, its values and its seemingly quaint, middle-classed sensibilities. Of course, Britain is and was a whole lot more complex and varied than the privileged context which I had known and grew up in. But there was a sense of wanting to preserve that, as well as being a hypocrisy of thinking could emigrate anywhere wanted, and yet I wanted Britain to remain this chocolate box nation I had in my head.

    In this internet age the world has got a whole lot smaller, and I see myself now as a global citizen. That I was lucky enough in the natural lottery to have been born into a comfortable and liberal country does not give me any more right to that privilege, in stark philosophical terms, than any other human on earth. A lion and its pride has no more intrinsic right to its territory than any other lion or animal in the natural world. It is similar with us, though we build up legal structures and invisible borders on the backs of imagined, yet equally invisible, rules and rights.

    We have global problems, and they require global solutions.

    The flipside to this, though, is that if we just opened up the doors and invited the whole world in, we would get a chaotic influx of people, and pragmatically speaking, the country would collapse. This would, I posit, be a detriment to the global situation. So there needs to be a sensible middle road. But what that might be is difficult to work out, because it is essentially arbitrary as there are no robust calculation mechanisms or techniques to evaluating future unknowns on such large and complex scales. To try and work out the moral worth of a complex action now is so difficult on the basis that the moral value is derived from distant future (how far into the future?) consequences which we have little way of knowing or predicting accurately. And, anyway, no one has worked out what the goal is yet.

    This is crucial. We, as a global society, need to get together and ask, “What is the goal of our society? What do we want the world to look like in 100 years?” Only then can we mark out a road map to that goal.

    Personally, with my rather overtly secular outlook with liberal core values, when I look at immigration, I have a tendency to admit that I cannot rationally object to sustainable immigration (which, space aside, it would be [sustainable] given the fact that immigrants presently add more to the economy than they take out) of like-minded liberals. But this is a prime example, perhaps, of social identity theory in practice. Am I not merely selecting my in-group from immigrants by demanding they be like-minded? Am I not looking at those commonalities and intuitively acting on them?

    There are some differences. For example, my judgements are not based on race, gender or mere nationality, things over which the agent has absolutely no control. My judgements against certain types of immigrant are based on ‘chosen’ worldviews and their respective moral value systems. People who are not aligned to liberal, progressive values such as those which are embedded within our culture here should be at a distinct disadvantage when applying to live here. These are rational (or irrational oftentimes) positions, and the basis for rejecting applications from such people is slightly firmer. Allowing conservative religious types who think stoning is morally obligatory, or that homosexuality is an abomination when we are more properly understanding the biological and genetic components for it, allowing these people entrance is not good for social cohesion and will actually work to damage relationships between people with different worldviews, acting to further polemicise issues.

    The thing is, we do have borders and legal structures set up, and pulling them down, so to speak, would be counter-productive without very careful thought and planning for our global future. We need to work within the human rights and moral framework upon which our country is built. When it comes to policy on immigration, as with any policy, it needs to be based on the best available evidence and knowledge. The moral panic presently surrounding immigration debates and opinions partly arises because so few people seem to know the proper facts and figures and generally shoot from the intuitive hip – it’s their fault, you know, those immigrants. The correct knowledge needs to be urgently disseminated amongst the electorate, along with the understanding that our moral intuitions can be thoroughly irrational and erroneous.


    So to draw some kind of conclusion to my ramblings, immigration is tough. It is a complex mix of psychology, politics and philosophy. My main points would be:

    • We need to set out our morality, and the context of our decisions. Are we global citizens or national ones, and is there conflict there?
    • What is the goal we are aiming for, which will define the moral value of immigration policies in terms of evaluation?
    • Restriction of people on grounds of rational ascription to problematic worldviews.
    • Evidence-based approach to immigration policy.
    • Dissemination of facts and knowledge of immigration.
    • People should be made aware of their cognitive biases and psychologies.
    • Debate should not be stifled on account of potential for conflation with racism or xenophobia.
    • Likewise, racism or xenophobia (or any intuitive urges) should not drive any policy or voting on immigration.

     How we formulate these ideas into a workable immigration policy is perhaps, then, a subject for another post.


    Category: FeaturedPhilosophyPolitics


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce