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The migrant crisis has presented us with a moral duty that is impossible to fulfil

4 September 2015

5:37 PM

4 September 2015

5:37 PM

The migrant crisis raises the largest questions about our basic public creed, our ideology, secular humanism. Normally we pay little attention to this creed. Yes, yes, we affirm the ideal of universal human flourishing, the equal worth of all human beings, human rights. But do we believe it? This crisis forces us to wonder.

As Matthew Parris says here this week, we simply do not know what our moral obligations are in relation to these people. Should we love our neighbour as ourself, and rush off to help them? How can we reconcile our universal humanism with the need to prioritise the welfare of our own tribe? Isn’t Western morality just too demanding? Its excessive demands on us leave us without a sensible, moderate, realistic sense of our moral duty.


Left-wing pundits tend not to notice any such problem. They suggest that secular humanist morality just needs to be implemented, in the face of right-wing opposition. But Zoe Williams showed a flicker of insight into the issue earlier this year. We must be vigilant against language that dehumanizes the migrants, she argued, even if this means admitting an element of hypocrisy.

Compassion is such a rich part of the human experience and yet such a shaming thing to express, because you will always fall short of what your own words demand from you. You will never do enough. It makes you wonder how the concept of human rights was ever born.’

This is an important admission: secular humanist morality is impossibly demanding. It demands more of us than we can really deliver.

This is an important insight into our public moral creed, to which we normally pay so little attention. It is incredibly demanding – it goes against human nature. We would far rather pretend that secular humanist morality is just normal, the default position of civilised people. But secular humanism is not just normal human morality. It is a particular tradition, which derives from the Judeo-Christian vision of universal human flourishing, of justice for all. There is an intensity, an absoluteness, a perfectionism here, lurking under the surface.

This universalism is maddeningly impossible, for we cannot help putting our own tribe first, and our own selves first. In other words, this supposedly secular creed remains irritatingly religious, in that it presents us with a moral duty that is impossible, that accuses us. Can’t we limit this moral idealism, make it more realistic, pragmatic? No. It inherits, in diluted form, the duty to treat all humans as brothers and sisters. In which we will fail.


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