Mary Midgley has lost count of the number of books she has written. “About eleven but I am not quite sure”, she said, pausing before crunching into a ginger biscuit over morning tea at her apartment in Jesmond.
One of the most eminent thinkers of our time, Mary may have lost count of books penned but she is undimmed by her 95 years; a moral philosopher and a national treasure.
Mary was awarded the Edinburgh Medal earlier this month. In her address, entitled Science, Scientism and the Self, Mary said the physical sciences are a source of knowledge but help little in understanding things that puzzle us in life such as warfare or ethics.
For all our cleverness, despite the elevation of reason and truth, barbarity is still utterly contemporary. Mary believes that we search out meaning because it’s the way that we deal with conflicts, and conflict is a fundamental part of the human condition.
Mary pointed to a newspaper photo of migrants being plucked from the Mediterranean. One thing is hardly discussed in the media: what we do to cause such tragedies? This requires a profound response. As Mary remarked, it really does look like one of those ‘we shouldn’t have started from here’ situations.
Mary noticed that David Cameron’s immediate response to the crisis was to say ‘it’s all right; we’ll send a battleship’ and added that battle-imagery has an obvious primitive appeal but we need better ways of thinking.
Evidence for the links between political instability, mass migration and environmental crisis has mounted for more than a decade so the smuggling business is not one that will easily be destroyed. EU leaders should beware of thinking a military mission against the smugglers is any solution or even one that will secure results, especially as global population migration is bound to increase.
The long-term answer for the boat people is to put global security and economic prosperity at the heart of foreign policy and, meanwhile, develop an integrated EU, if not international, resettlement programme.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights admitted that such tragedies “are the result of a continuing failure of governance accompanied by a monumental failure of compassion.” Dead on. To sharpen the failure, arms dealers and manufacturers are doing well from wars across the Levant. A democratic, peaceful Middle East and North Africa – from where so many of these migrants flee – would be far less profitable.
Mary talked about chronic self-deception; our deliberately living in a pretend world rather than the real one. There is a profound egoism when conviction is prized over facts; think of Bush and Blair leading up to war in Iraq.
In the foreword to The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch, Mary wrote that we need to look at the facts with just and loving attention. She describes the imagination as a vital organ, a workshop where we forge our view of the world and thereby our actions.
So look unblinkingly at these refugees. They are human beings looking for safety, a livelihood and a meaningful life. Imagine the extremes of their desperation. Surviving the Mediterranean is only part of their ordeal. Being herded onto a rickety overloaded boat must seem like the least bad option after conflict, exploitation, persecution, environmental ruin or starvation.
How brutal and dehumanising the world can be. We have a duty to shelter these people.
UN conventions say refugees are the responsibility of the country where they turn up. It is estimated that only 10-15% of migrants actually end up in Europe; more than 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries who can least afford to.
Germany and Sweden takes more asylum seekers than any other EU country. Hear this; Britain’s intake is pitiful.
The EU should be a model for how nation states can work together to make the world a better place. Beyond declaring abstract rights, we need the world’s resources to be shared to allow everyone the opportunity for a meaningful life.
I may have been a mediocre student of Mary’s all those years ago in the philosophy department of Newcastle University but I know whose door to knock on when we need to balance mind and matter, to align head and heart.