"When it comes to political deliberation," as the great pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty once said, "philosophy is a good servant but a bad master." Even though the discipline is equipped with an array of the finest intellectual concepts and arguments, it should always avoid recommending straightforward solutions.

This does not mean that we philosophers cannot take a stance in current existential emergencies, such as the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians or the global environmental crisis. On the contrary, it is our job to articulate the toughest questions in order to overcome indifference, prejudice, and fear - and to invite everyone to see the bigger picture.

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Humanity in crisis

If philosophers have begun to engage the ongoing refugee crisis, it's not simply because political leaders have proved incapable of forming a unified European Union to help the refugees, but rather because this is not a problem that can be solved with a short-term political solution.

Driven by climate change, mass migrations will increase drastically over the 21st century, not only in Europe - which has only recently begun to receive refugees in large numbers - but also in other regions of the world.

As the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman recently pointed out, there is no "shortcut solution to the current refugee problem. Humanity is in crisis - and there is no exit from that crisis other than the solidarity of humans."

Although not all philosophers follow Bauman's assessment, there is an overall consensus that the current refugee crisis is not simply a political problem, but rather an existential one that concerns all of us.

Two renowned contemporary philosophers, Peter Singer and Slavoj Zizekhave recently taken very different stances on how to confront this urgent problem, and both are worth considering.

Whether [helping refugees] is done through a utilitarian approach based on clarity and consistency in our moral thinking or a Marxist method that seeks to uncover the socioeconomic causes of the crisis is less important than the need for us to engage with an emergency that touches all of us.


Singer is an Australian philosopher known for his utilitarian approach, which seeks to minimise suffering and maximise wellbeing. In a recent article he suggested that affluent countries should not only take more refugees than they can currently accept, but also increase "support to less affluent countries that are supporting large numbers of refugees".

This support, according to Singer, will not only discourage refugees from risking their futures and lives in expensive and dangerous journeys, but also reduce the overall cost of relief. In Germany it costs at least $13,500 to support one refugee for one year, but in Jordan it is only about $3,400.

This rational solution is founded on Singer's belief that we have the same moral obligations towards foreigners as we have to our closest family.

As convincing as this solution sounds, one wonders whether it is even possible to apply a universal moral standard to the actions of peoples from cultures with different notions of morality.

For example, in spite of its alleged universalistic vocation, the EU seems to be incapable of responding to this crisis, demonstrated by the recent shameful bills passed to seize refugee assets (Denmark), construct fences (Austria), and send troops to its borders (Hungary).

It's the capitalism

Zizek, who has recently published a book on the refugee crisis, believes we must first develop a clear awareness of what is actually causing the ongoing emergency before we can do something about it.

According to the Slovenian philosopher, the current war in Syria is not the only cause of the refugee crisis. In addition to other Western military interventions (in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya), one must also take into consideration the social consequences of global capitalism.

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The current circulation of commodities through global markets is not a democratic system - with the same rules for everyone - but rather represents a network of political impositions and violations of workers' rights.

These are "accompanied by growing social divisions" that create tensions that often lead to military interventions with drastic consequences. The "true threat to our common way of life," Zizek explains, "does not come in the shape of refugees but lies in the dynamic of global capitalism," which can be overcome only through a "radical economic change that abolishes the conditions that create refugees".

Despite the differences between Singer's and Zizek's positions, both demand that we overcome our indifference, prejudice, and fear. Both ask us to look beyond our narrow self-interest.

Whether this is done through a utilitarian approach based on clarity and consistency in our moral thinking or a Marxist method that seeks to uncover the socioeconomic causes of the crisis is less important than the need for us to engage with an emergency that touches all of us.

We shouldn't wait for philosophy to give us the perfect solution to the crisis, but maybe it can help us propel towards it. Maybe philosophy can help us to engage, rather than avoid it. It is the task of philosophers to demand this engagement.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA research professor of philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera