What Is To Be Done? Philosophers on the Refugee Crisis

In the current issue of Germany’s philosophie magazine, 27 philosophers consider the country’s situation with relation to the crisis in refugee policy.  Hartmut Rosa addresses the question: "Is the concept of “global responsibility” necessarily too much to ask?".

von Hartmut Rosa

Artikel "Was tun? Philosophen zur Flüchtlingskrise" aus dem Philosophie Magazin Februar/März 2016. Foto: plainpicture/Westend61
Article “What Is To Be Done? Philosophers on the Refugee Crisis” in February/March issue of “Philosophie Magazin”. Photo: plainpicture/Westend61

The term responsibility suggests a clear, individual attribution of consequences of action. As such, the concept of global responsibility is not only too much to ask, it is even dangerous nonsense. It is a symptom of a problem that makes us despair in the world. Anyone hearing he or she bears responsibility not only for the wellbeing of the people in Germany and Europe, but also for those in Africa, Asia and Latin America and on top of that for the global climate, the polar bears and the life possibilities of future generations, can’t help but feel they’ve been asked too much. It is not just consequential but nothing less than a moral imperative to refuse to accept all these responsibilities.

The effect of this overload is an experience and a feeling of atomized isolation. We experience ourselves as a separated, isolated part in a huge, cruel, cold and above all incredibly complex world, in which we interact only causally or instrumentally with everyone and everything. I have no idea whether my refusal to buy a phone here in Europe made using coltan from Africa will really save a child there or lead to that child starving in the end because her exploiters no longer need her. We have long since been living in a highly dynamic world, in which we are fundamentally unable to accept clear responsibility for ourselves any longer. But that must not, cannot and may not stop us from feeling connected to others, to all others. I am not responsible for that child in Congo. But I do feel connected to her. Her fate is not of no concern to me, it does matter to me, it touches me, it’s important to me that she leads a good life. I can feel almost physically how the rejection of this thought leads to a mental hardening and thereby to a change in my relationship to the world, and precisely this hardening exposes me directly to the overloads and excessive challenges of everyday life as a separated individual. A wave in the North Sea is not responsible for the tides in the Gulf of Mexico, but they are both parts of the ocean. If we perceive ourselves as part of a live entity, we think, feel and act differently. We no longer experience newcomers, refugees as problems or cases requiring care, to whom we owe something or for whom we are responsible, but as relatives who are of direct concern to us and in whose eyes a call for encounter reaches us. Connectedness is not the same as responsibility; it possesses not primarily and not only an (abstract) inherent obligation, but above all a (direct) motivation to consider global contexts in our actions. What we do bear co-responsibility for, however, is whether we understand ourselves as separated or as connected.

This article is published in Philosophie Magazin Nr. 2/2016.