Moral Intuition and the Migration Crisis: A Tail Wagging the Dog


By Adam Whitcomb
Washington DC– The migration crisis happening in the Middle East and Europe has been catastrophic and monumental, comparable only to the mass-migrations after WWII. Leaders have been reacting with policy changes to help their own people and to some extent the migrants seeking refugee status. These policies are polarized depending on the country in question but one common thread connects them all, they are based on reactionary moral intuitions.

The field of moral psychology can explain why leaders chose to enact policies at that time and can even predict future changes with a given leader.

Policy changes have largely happened after specific events during this crisis, on September 2nd, the body of 6 year-old Aylan al-Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore, having drowned along with his brother and mother from their overcrowded boat capsizing. This image spread across the internet overnight, putting a singular image to the atrocities of the refugee crisis. On September 8th, PM Merkel announced that Germany would accept up to 500,000 refugees in the upcoming year.

Across the bond, the American SAFE Act was passed in the House of Representatives on Thursday November 19th, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks the previous weekend. This is the act that would essentially stop Syrians and Iraqis from gaining refugee status in the United States.

To explain this we turn to psychologist Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia who came up with the Social Intuitionist Model. It claims that moral judgements (accepting migrants who are fleeing persecution) are based on instantaneous, moral intuitions and then are backed up ex post facto by moral reasoning. In essence, our snap moral decisions have more influence than our reasoning; a tail wagging the dog.

Now this explains how morality-based policies are made, but can psychology dictate what direction policies will follow, whether it be shunning or taking in more migrants? To an extent, yes.

For this we turn to how individuals form their social identity as an “in-group” and how they define the character of an “outgroup.” In this case, the migrants seeking refugee status are the out-group and the citizens and policy makers are the in-group. Psychologists Michael Parker and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman conclude in their study that within morality based groups, outgroup hatred is just as binding as in-group unity.

“Support for the harm-based characterization of moral convictions is also evident in work on moralization, for attitudes become moralized through their association with harm-doing, and greater perceptions of harm lead to stronger moral convictions”

This conclusion can be exemplified by the two events mentioned previously, the picture of Aylan Kurdi and the Paris terrorist attacks. The death of Kurdi solidified the moral emotion that refugees are suffering and need the help of hosting countries, hence PM Merkel’s policy to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees in the next year. The out-group was perceived as the moral victims, and the right thing to do was accept more. However after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the perception of the out-group was dramatically tarnished. The association between large amounts of refugees and the prevalence of terrorist attacks became intertwined, resulting in the American SAFE act being passed by the House of Representatives. Even though the attackers in Paris weren’t foreign refugees, the moral intuition of policy makers spoke louder than stated facts, an emotional tail wagging the dog of US policy.

Despite all this, vetoing this act and accepting thousands of refugees into the US won’t solve the crisis at hand. The only lasting resolution will involve a political solution in Syria between the people and their government. However a more sustainable, immediate solution to the migrant problem in at hand Europe and the Levant does exist, a few hundred miles to the South.

When researching how many Syrians have migrated to the Gulf, finding a specific, reliable number is difficult to find. Western outlets criticized the Gulf countries back in September for not accepting one Syrian refugee. This fact remains true, but that doesn’t mean there are no Syrian migrants within the Gulf.

The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which defines the rights and criteria for someone to obtain refugee status in another country. Saudi Arabia has supposedly accepted 2.5 million Syrians since 2011, but the UNHCR recorded that only 500,000 Syrians are located in Saudi Arabia. They are allowed residency and given work permits, however because they are not legally defined as refugees, Saudi Arabia is not required to give them adequate housing or food.

The Saudi ruling family has a history of covering up reputation-legitimizing events, like the recent Hajj disaster. An estimated 2,400 people were trampled to death during a stampede, and still the Saudi government reports only 1,100 deaths. The Gulf nations have no desire to take more Syrian refugees because they share the same fear and out-group hatred that far-right politicians have been developing.

Isolationist policy in the face of mass migration helps neither side. Merkel realized that no amount of border control or refugee cap would stop the flow of migrants coming from the East, therein lying her charitable policy. Migrants fleeing violence and oppression are leaving because where they currently reside can no longer be considered sustainable, whether it be in war-torn Syria or a refugee camp in Jordan.

Leaders suffering from the burden of migrants should urge the GCC to take in more migrants until the proxy-war ends in Syria, to decrease the human suffering around the world to their Arab brothers and sisters.

Adam Whitcomb is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs

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