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Germany vis-à-vis the ideals of Immanuel Kant in light of the current European refugee crisis

By Tsegai Berhane (PhD), Mekelle University, School of Law
Tigrai Online, September 17, 2015

Watching the current heart breaking scenario of the European refugee crisis on the international media, reminds me Germany’s most superb gifts to humanity—the philosophy of Immanuel Kant we read with my students in the legal professional ethics course in my Law School. It also reminds me the hypocrisy of the West, especially the double standard and rhetoric of human rights.   


Unlike economists who are obsessed with cost benefit analysis, Kant is not satisfied with instrumental accounts of what it means to act rationally. For him, the instrumental accounts of reason are not fit for human beings rather they are fit for dogs and robots (lately drones). For humans, Kant argues, morality should not be the result of dogma but of pure reason. In short, Kant argues we should not treat human beings as instruments (means) but as dignified human beings irrespective of their monetary values. Of course, this is what human rights are for, as the West preaches to us.

Kant’s moral philosophy demands that as human beings we should undertake actions when generalized which yield coherent outcomes. For instance, lying is not a rational choice because, if universalized and everyone is to lie all the time trust in what others say would disappear. Of course, it is good to note that many people may refrain from lying for the fear that they will be found out. However, Kant does not consider such instrumental reasons as fully rational. For Kant, the rational and the moral merge when we develop a capacity to act on the so-called categorical imperative—acting in an universalizable manner independently of the consequences. Hence, Kant is different from the Utilitarian’s who emphasize on the consequence of an act rather than on the motive (duty). Of course, proving a motive is very challenging as we shall see below in the case of Germany.  

With regard to the refugee crisis in Europe, I believe taking refugees should be a universal act by all European countries especially, when refugees (desperate women, children and young people) are fleeing for their lives. In such a very desperate situation Europe should not take refugees because of what it expects to gain or stop taking refugees because of the burdens it may incur.

As Kant would argue, the fact that Europe may gain or burden itself from taking desperate refugees should be irrelevant. Europe as it preaches should act out of humanity. In other words, Europe needs to stop the hypocrisy and start walking the talk. It looks gone are the days of preaching, it is time to act. History will judge Europe on the basis of the immediate action it takes to avert this human catastrophe.

Of course, I must confess that, I am not in a position to prove that German solidarity to the refugees (taking the highest number of refugees up to 800, 000) is solely based on the Kantian moral ideals, and no instrumentality issue is involved. For, as I have tried to address above proving motive is a very serious challenge. However, I would give the benefit of doubt to Germany and convince myself that something similar to Kantian reasoning is at work in Germany. At least, I would like to believe so.

Finally, it is my firm belief that the current refugee crisis in Europe is a real challenge to the integrity and reputation of Europe. It really tests the humanity and rationality concept of Europe as advocated by Immanuel Kant. To me, it looks that the acts of most European nations and their governments have failed to meet the ideals of Immanuel Kant—Humanity and rationality. I strongly argue that some of the incidents like: closing borders, stopping trains on their ways and treating desperate refugees as existential threats are some of the glaring examples of this failure. Will Europe succeed to emerge from this failure? It remains to be seen. Let us keep our fingers crossed.

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