Approaches to the Refugee Crisis in Relation to Ethical Theory

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In order to holistically evaluate the approaches taken towards the refugee crisis, we have chosen to look at the issue through three different ethical theories: Rights-based ethical theory, Ethical egoism and Utilitarianism.

Rights-based Ethical Theory

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Rights-based ethical theory is the basic concept that every human being is entitled to a certain set of rights as human beings, and these rights have to be upheld no matter what. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2012), Article 14 states that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. It is a basic human right granted to everyone. Following the idea of rights-based ethical theory, the only ethical approach to the refugee crisis would be to grant the refugees their wish, allowing them to take refuge in the country. Denying them entry would be denying them of their basic human rights, which would be violating this theory and thus be unethical. However, the simplistic nature of rights-based ethical theory only provides a one-sided view into the issue, and does not take into account the sleuth of impacts refugees bring with them. Thus, rights-based ethical theory alone is not adequate to justify any approaches taken towards the refugee crisis.

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism refers to the ethical theory that it is morally right for someone to place their own self-interests first. From such a standpoint, countries will have to look at the impacts that refugees bring with them and evaluate whether they bring benefits or detriments. For example, a study recently conducted in Germany has showed that migrants may have fueled the rise of violent crime, in which of a 10.4% increase in violent crime 92.1% of the increase could be attributed to migrants. From an ethical egoist point of view, Germany should not have accepted any refugees at all as it has intensified the violent crime rates, which is detrimental to the country. Ethical egoism is effective in evaluating situations where there are clearly defined impacts. However, such issues are rarely black-and-white, more often than not falling into grey areas. Take for example Germany again, though the acceptance of refugees may have caused a rise in violent crime, it is also able to counter the projected decline in the labour force due to aging. It is now difficult to evaluate the refugee crisis using ethical egoism as it is hard to define which course of action is in the country’s self-interest. Thus ethical egoism is not capable of capturing the full scope of the refugee problem.


Therefore we have decided that the best viewpoint to analyse the refugee crisis is from a utilitarian standpoint. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which places the interests of others first, in which the quality of happiness is placed in higher regard than the quantity of pleasure. Through the utilitarian viewpoint, we would be able to evaluate the refugee crisis objectively and consider the needs and feelings of all parties. There would be no bias as everyone would be treated the same when calculating the total happiness created by our actions. However, the utilitarian mindset may contradict other moral obligations in the pursuit of the greatest happiness. One famous example would be the thought experiment, the Trolley Problem. In this thought experiment, you have a choice between allowing a trolley to kill five people, or switching the tracks such that the trolley kills one person. Purely from a utilitarian standpoint, the obvious choice would be to let one person die as more people would be saved, resulting in greater overall happiness. Despite this, we still feel that a utilitarian mindset is the most effective way of looking at the issue.

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