Today's post is by guest blogger Chong Choe-Smith.
In January 2016, Denmark passed a law allowing the seizure of jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers, possibly setting precedent for other states overwhelmed by the influx of asylum seekers from Syria and other parts of the world. Some are criticizing the law as an affront to dignity, reminiscent of how Nazi Germany stole jewelry and valuables from Jews en route to concentration camps. If Denmark’s law is also wrong, what exactly is wrong about it?
Let's consider the question from a Kantian perspective and begin by using Kant’s categories of perfect and imperfect duties. But before answering this question, it may be helpful to explain my use of the phrase “asylum seekers” instead of “refugees.” According to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), a refugee is a person, who is outside of his or her country and cannot return as a result of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” An asylum seeker is a person who is claiming refugee status, but whose claim has not yet been verified. Most of those who are fleeing Syria and other war-torn areas are asylum seekers and not refugees.
From a Kantian perspective, perfect duties can be characterized as duties to respect humanity in oneself and others that must be obeyed without exception. Perfect duties are duties of right, such as the duty to tell the truth. Imperfect duties can be characterized as duties with room for a person to exercise discretion or free choice (Metaphysics of Morals 6:390). Imperfect duties include the duty of beneficence (i.e., making the happiness of others one’s end) (MM 6:450). The duty of beneficence is a duty, but one has discretion as to how one goes about fulfilling that duty.
With this in mind, we can ask ourselves: Is Denmark’s duty to Syrian asylum seekers a perfect or imperfect duty? While it is not impossible to argue that countries have a perfect duty to Syrian asylum seekers, it would be difficult to prove. One could argue that a country has such a duty, for example, either because it is in some way responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria or because every state should take in a fair share of asylum seekers. Such arguments are difficult to prove because they rely on controversial facts or causal connections or particular conceptions of justice.
Denmark’s duty to Syrian asylum seekers, I think, fits more squarely in the category of an imperfect duty as a duty of beneficence. From a Kantian perspective, Denmark, as with other countries, have a general duty of beneficence to promote the happiness of others in need and, in particular, to help those in dire circumstances who are fleeing violence or the threat of violence.
Some may argue that what is wrong with the law is that beneficence and payment for services don’t mix. Even Kant explains that beneficence involves helping others “without hoping for something in return” (MM 6:453). But it also is reasonable for Denmark to say that helping with the Syrian “refugee crisis” is one thing and providing public services free of charge is another. Denmark can open its borders without hoping for something in return, but someone still has to pay for food, shelter, education, healthcare, and other services.
As mentioned earlier, an imperfect duty is a duty, but a duty over which one has discretion as to how one goes about fulfilling it. It is up to Denmark to decide the reasonable terms of fulfilling its duty. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy that provides universal services, such as education and healthcare, in exchange for relatively high taxes. Danes pay into a system and, in return, they receive benefits.
Syrians are entering Denmark and seeking shelter and services. Why shouldn’t they also have to pay in accordance with their ability to pay? If they have valuables worth over 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,453), under the new law, these valuables can be confiscated. Seems fair and reasonable, no?
Well, maybe Denmark is not out of the woods just yet. It is not clear how the new Danish law will be implemented, but let’s assume the reports are accurate that the law allows for the confiscation of jewelry and other valuables.
What I would suggest is that maybe what is wrong with the law has to do with how the payment is being collected. Kant says that humanity has inner worth, a dignity, and the proper response to dignity is respect (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:434-435). He also says that we have a perfect duty to respect humanity in others, i.e., to treat oneself and others as an end and never merely as a means (GMM 4:428). We respect humanity in others by treating them as ends, i.e., free and rational agents, who are capable of discerning the obligations of the moral law and setting ends for themselves. We respect humanity in others by allowing them to make their own decisions.
There were clearly many abhorrent things about Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, but one of the most generally repulsive aspects of it was the failure to accord them even a modicum of human dignity. Denmark is obviously no Nazi Germany, but the involuntary seizure of personal property is also an affront to human dignity, and an uncomfortable reminder that even generally humane nations can begin to lean in that direction.