On Being Afraid: The Morality of Fear and European Migration Crisis

by Vaiva Adomaityte

Even unwillingly when talking about the refugees the analogy of the Trojan horse comes to my mind. As back then the Trojan people could not resist receiving the gifted horse, so the EU did not dare at the very beginning of the crisis to be brave, strong and tell that we are not responsible or committed to save the whole world and we cannot accept each person willing to gain access with our open arms. The opposite was done. I think no one has forgotten the famous invitation for the refugees by A. Merkel to come to the EU. The chancellor of Germany has motivated her invitation as an expression of Christian compassion (while in reality, she just solved the demographic problems of her aging country). How many times everybody repeated the same – it is rude, after all, to refuse to help the ones in trouble. Yes, it is rude, but it is even ruder to disregard the safety, interests and opinion of own citizens. (Valentinas Mazuronis, a Lithuanian politician of the Labor Party in the European Parliament)


Refugees, fear and/or compassion?

Mr. Mazuronis compares refugees to a Trojan horse, symbol of immanent threat, something we should fear because it will destroy our nations from within. He also mentions another motive that can inspire a human response to current situation – compassion. Both of these sentiments were and still are widely present in political rhetoric and media coverage. What we should take from this quote is that we should take seriously the emotions surrounding the upheaval caused by the new and continuous wave of mass migration and should discuss the role they play in the moral realm. Fear seems to come easy, compassion less so. On the 12th of January KU Leuven and UGent will confer a joint honorary doctorate on Angela Merkel, “for her diplomatic and political efforts to develop the political strength of Europe, and to defend the values that allow our continent to find unity in diversity.“ From the beginning she has fought the feelings of fear the refugee crisis has provoked in many by countering it with a posture of compassion and hopefulness. Fear must be taken seriously, though, and worked through.


Fear as political emotion

For defining the contours of fear, the American moral philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum offers helpful insights in her book The New Religious Intolerance. Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012). Nussbaum’s philosophical diagnosis of fear as a political emotion starts from the basic presupposition that emotions are not accurately understood as irrational feelings: they have a cognitive content and this content is morally-laden. Emotions reflect our values and so our moral characters. Basic fear or startle is, indeed, a hardwired instinct for self-preservation, a defense mechanism evolutionary geared for survival. Yet, Nussbaum points out, if we want to think of fear that operates in a distinctively human context of social life, it is clearly more than a simple biological startle reaction to, for instance, shapes of snakes and predatory animals. For Nussbaum, human fears are stemming from and dependent upon our conception of well-being.

“[F]ear is about potential damage to one’s well-being, a conception that corresponds to one’s deepest values.” (p. 33)

This corresponds to the analysis of theologian Susanna Snyder in her book Asylum Seeking, Migration, and Church (2012), in which she defines the largest areas of fears regarding immigration as the perceived threats asylum seekers and refugees pose to our national identity, welfare, and security: they all have to do with a conception of the good life.[1] We can find the same intuition about the connection of fear and a conception of well-being in Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Fear (2006) where he argues that we live in a culture of fear and that

“[i]n fear we are met by something outside ourselves, and what we meet is a negation of what we want. We fear the important things in life being destroyed or taken away from us, such as our freedom, dignity, health, social status and – taken to its extreme – our lives. We fear not only for ourselves but also for others, and especially those dear to us. When any of this is threatened fear is a normal reaction.” (p. 12-13)

When commenting on today’s crisis, Bauman suggests that refugees embody the danger of losing everything and living in a permanent state of insecurity. Refugees bring this bad news to our proximity, to the cities we live in – we can’t avoid the presence of someone who embodies and signals all our fears.[2]

Dealing with fear, seeing the other

This presence leaves us restless. For fear not to turn to paranoia, Nussbaum writes, “people need to have a well-thought-out conception of what their welfare consists in.”(p.32) Our identity, our social and economic welfare and our security are certainly fundamental parts of our well-being – but as she points out, we often “make many mistakes about what is conducive to these ends.” (p.32) This requires a serious intellectual and moral scrutiny on the personal and political levels.

Next to the insights on the complex cognitive content of fear that is active in society, Nussbaum suggests an additional insight: fear is also problematic due to the perspective on the world it offers. Fear is a particularly self-referential emotion. With its focus on what threatens the self and what is dear to the self, fear has the tendency to make the self the prime concern and to remain blind to the existence, needs, and even reality of the other. Fear can be seen as a form

…of exaggerated self-love, a ‘fog’ that stands between us and the full reality of other people.” (p. 57) Moreover, in fear “people have great difficulty seeing other people as fully real and worthy of genuine concern – because they are wrapped up in themselves and see others only through the obscuring haze of their own needs and plans. (p. 57)

The opening quote by Mr. Mazuronis is a telling example of fear narrowing our perspective. Refugees are seen as another problem threatening an already burdened society, not as the people who suffer and may need our help. If we reason only from fear’s perspective, it will threaten or prevent love, Nussbaum suggests. There is no claim that fear cannot be evoked in political and civic rhetoric at all – fear can at times be valuable and it is some instances correct. The problem is the adequate usage of fear rhetoric and in Nussbaum’s judgment it is rarely used in a constructive way. Such a rhetoric will always lack the perspective of the other and I suggest that to make the best moral and political decisions we need a balance of being reasonably cautious and benevolent. Precisely benevolence in a form of empathy or compassion provides a moral insight that may help us to get a handle of our fears. But taking the complexity and cognitive content of fear seriously demands that we do the same for empathy and compassion. These are not simple emotions or practices either and need moral work as well.



[1] see Fear, faith, asylum seekers, a blogpost on RelationVulnerabilityLove2016.

[2] see'Zygmunt Bauman: Behind the world's 'crisis of humanity' on Talk to Aljazeera, 23 July 2016.