Israel’s Bar Ilan University: letting the side down yet again

Professor Hanoch Sheinman is one of Israel’s most distinguished legal philosophers. Like many thoughtful Israelis, he deplores the illegal and oppressive aspects of Israel’s foreign policy.  He is not shy about this. During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Sheinman introduced a bland housekeeping email to his law students by saying he hoped it,

‘finds you in a safe place, and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during, or as a direct result of, the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.’

Many of Sheinman’s right wing students were enraged. How dare a professor express political views in a work email? How dare a Jewish law faculty employ such a person? How dare anyone suggest the moral equivalence of innocent Israeli and innocent Palestinian lives?

Bar Ilan University’s Dean of Law, Shahar Lifshitz, sided with the outraged students, announcing that their complaints were justifiable: ‘[The] Letter from Professor Sheinman – both content and style – is contrary to the values ​​of the University and the Faculty of Law.’ He continued, ‘This is abuse of power by a lecturer who exploits his position as a jurisprudence teacher to send messages reflecting his views, which are highly offensive to the feelings of students and their families. ‘ Lifshitz promised to deal with Sheinman in due course: ‘I assure you that the matter will be handled with the appropriate seriousness.’

Now one might debate whether a politically charged email is protected by academic freedom. Still, it seems to me that I should be permitted to introduce an email by writing, for example, ‘I hope this finds you healthy and well, and that you have not been driven to food banks as a result of the Government’s policies on student loans.’ That might be gauche or inappropriate—I imagine that my Conservative students and colleagues might think so—but it would be ludicrous to say it amounts to an ‘abuse of power’ or the ‘exploitation’ of a professor’s position.

In any case, even if Professor Sheinman’s comment was not protected by academic freedom, Dean Lifshitz’s threat was condemned by it. For it is clear that by ‘appropriate seriousness’ Lifshitz did not mean ‘the degree of seriousness appropriate to an otherwise innocent, one-off comment that gravely offends some students’ (viz: a degree of about zero). No; Lifshitz plainly meant a degree of seriousness that might warrant formal reprimand, or worse.   When Deans make threats like that, they do not need to carry them out in order restrict the academic freedoms on which teaching, learning and scholarship depend. That they show themselves ready to do so is enough. If there was any ‘abuse of power’ or ‘exploitation’ of one’s position in this matter, it was on the part of Dean Lifshitz.

As is common in cases like this, everyone could see that except the victim’s own colleagues. They mostly went scurrying for cover. (Advice to junior faculty: never get between your senior colleagues and their own self-image.) It fell to outsiders to defend Sheinman. Bad press, the intervention of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, pressure from hundreds of foreign academics, and threats of lawsuit eventually induced Lifshitz to think again. On reflection, he acknowledged that he had mis-spoken in promising the students that Sheinman ‘will be handled’.

A story at The Leiter Reports now suggests that Lifshitz has been having second thoughts all over again.  A poisonous atmosphere, angry students, and a truculent administration have paved the way for an  ‘interim review’ being imposed on the as-yet-untenured Sheinman.   His lawyers claim that this procedure has been set up without proper university authority, that it is imposed retroactively, and that Sheinman has not been given reasonable opportunity to prepare for it. I have been told by sources close to the Bar Ilan administration that they expect Sheinman to be in trouble on the teaching side. (It is inconceivable that Sheinman’s research could be found wanting; he is more able, and already much more distinguished, than all but a few of Bar Ilan’s tenured law faculty.) Given that outraged students led the charge against Sheinman in the first place, and that the Dean encouraged them, nothing would be less surprising than for Sheinman to be confronted with bad student evaluations. It is amazing that he even manages to continue his research in such a poisonous atmosphere.

You may be tempted to roll your eyes and say, as Rick does to Ilsa in Casablanca, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’ But it is precisely because academic life in Israel has become so crazy that this matters so much. Bar Ilan’s image problem is nothing new. After all, its law faculty is the alma mater of Itzakh Rabin’s murderer; it is a university where male students can be kicked out of lectures for refusing to wear a kippa, where the administration can demand that faculty defend the contents of their books, and where gay students are prohibited from holding events on campus. Life in the bush league, you say? Maybe; but put this in the national context. Israel’s universities are all struggling to resist the academic boycott movement. Bar Ilan is, shall we say, not exactly helping the cause. Many Israeli academics feel under intense pressure to show that they are not just lackeys of Brand Israel. The Bar Ilan law faculty are doing nothing to help them either.

The latest criticism has now elicited a ‘reply’ from nine of Bar Ilan’s tenured law professors.   Their letter is embarrassingly irrelevant.   Were it a first year student’s answer to a statement of claim it would get a failing grade. It does not even notice, let alone answer, the gravity of the charge: that, as applied, this particular review is unfair and is motivated by Bar Ilan’s desire to silence faculty who, like Sheinman, infuriate their right-wing students. Instead, they irrelevantly say that other law faculties have interim reviews, and they reaffirm their touching faith that ‘Prof. Sheinman’s political views will have no bearing on the committee’s evaluation of his performance. Neither will the letter that Prof. Sheinman sent to students during the 2014 war in Gaza.’

Clap your hands if you believe.




The UK government’s policies, in style and substance

We have been absolutely clear: it is right that we ring fence national security and investigatory powers, even if many oppose us on an industrial scale, depriving as they do hard-working families of choice in striving for British values in a high wage, low-welfare economy, where never again need anything but English votes stand in the way of a truly seven-day NHS, an end to failing schools, and a reformed Europe. Also, we love Scotland.

Wednesday’s Child: My job description grows again

Every year, my job description gets longer. Research and teaching, obviously, and a share of university administration ancillary to that. (For instance, preparing the Law faculty’s REF submission and, more dangerously, chairing my college’s Coffee Committee [OfCoff!].

For the professoriate, these things have always come with the territory. Now, however, I am also drafted as a delegate authority to assist the government in implementing its political agenda. The UK’s self-destructive policies on migration, including the admission of foreign students, are to be monitored by people like me. I have a duty to report how often I lay eyes on my visa students. (What if Oxford students are not really having panic attacks in the library but are actually off in Isis training camps?) I also have a ‘prevent’ duty to make sure they aren’t being sucked into terrorism. (What if they come to believe John Locke’s claim that one may make a violent ‘appeal to heaven’ whenever the rulers try to govern without consent?)

My own view—I wish the Vice Chancellor would endorse it—is that these new duties must not only be ‘balanced against’ my duty to support academic freedom and my Public Sector Equality Duty to advance the status of protected groups—they must be subject to them.  Academic freedom and social equality should be side-constraints within which any ‘prevent’ duty or duty to monitor migration is exercised. Otherwise, the essential bond of trust between teacher and student will be ruptured, and the status of our universities will be undermined.

Consider this. If I do not see a postgraduate student at least three times in eight weeks, I need to report that to the administration.   If I have concerns about why I have not seen her, I need to report those too.  If I fear a student is being ‘radicalised’ I also need to report that. How will I know? The University has a duty to train me: ‘We would expect appropriate members of staff to have an understanding of the factors that make people support terrorist ideologies or engage in terrorist-related activity.’ Of course, the University can’t know what ‘factors’ cause support for ‘terrorist ideologies’ until it knows which ideologies are actually ‘terrorist’. No worries— ‘BIS offers free training for higher and further education staff through its network of regional higher and further education Prevent co-ordinators. ‘ I am not making this up.

Today, I learn that the government is pressing ahead with legislation to ensure that the security services have access to a year’s worth of our online data, including a complete list of every website you accessed. (If you haven’t done so, download Tor now, and browse with nothing else until this legislation is repealed or, if you are in Scotland, until independence frees you from still more English insanity.) The availability of this information will feed into the duty to monitor migration and prevent terrorism.

It isn’t hard to see where this could lead.  I’ve only seen a visa postgraduate twice in eight weeks? Her email says she is away conducting research in Washington. But we can check to see if she has accessed our servers, and from where, and what she is searching for.  We have a duty to keep that data.   A student used to favour power-sharing in Northern Ireland but now jokes that the DUP needs a whiff of gelignite?  I can alert the university to check out his Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Indeed, I must. The statutory guidance says:

‘Radicalised students can also act as a focal point for further radicalisation through personal contact with fellow students and through their social media activity. … Changes in behaviour and outlook may be visible to university staff. Much of this guidance therefore addresses the need for RHEBs to have the necessary staff training, IT policies and student welfare programmes to recognise these signs and respond appropriately.’

It is clear that this government cares little about academic freedom, civil liberties, or social equality. More surprisingly, they seem to care little about the competitive position of our leading universities. (Our opposite numbers at Yale or Harvard are not burdened by any of this–nor by REF or TEF.)   So where are our senior administrators on the issue?  Where is UUK? Where is the professoriate of the ‘elite’ Russell Group of British universities?  I guess they are all off at free BIS training sessions on how to recognize and prevent radicalization among  students.  Or perhaps at job interviews at U.S. universities.

Germaine Greer is right about trans-women

Germaine Greer does not think new clothes, new hormones, or sex-reassignment surgery can turn men into women (or, I assume, women into men).   She is right about that, and a Cardiff University controversy about her planned lecture this month is a tsunami in a teaspoon.

Of course gender is not fixed at birth. Simone de Beauvoir was right that no one is born a woman. Possibly, no one is even born female. Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept.  Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.

But gender has another interesting feature.  It is path dependent.  To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.   In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

The path dependence of gender is not unique. Many social categories are shaped by the way they come to take hold. It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert. Admittedly, it would be silly to say that fluent learners of English are utterly different from native speakers, that millionaire parvenus have nothing in common with trust-fund babies, or that converts are simply not Jews. These things aren’t black or white. But by the same token it would be just as silly to say they are all simply white. And that is the sense in which MTF transgendered people are not women.

But that is Greer’s point. She says, ‘I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. (…) I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman.’ People focus on her first sentence at the expense of the second. Greer is not saying that MTF people are stuck being men, no matter how they feel, what they choose, how they are seen, or how they are treated. She is not saying that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women.  She is saying that ceasing to be a man does not make one a woman. These things aren’t black or white.

Obviously, the fact that something is true need not stop people taking offense at it. But there is actually no evidence of widespread offense at Greer’s remarks. I called the controversy a ‘tsunami in a teaspoon’ because, contrary to what you might suppose from the press, the students were mostly untroubled by Greer’s comments. Not one in a hundred even felt moved to click on an anti-Greer petition. No serious opposition was mounted; no policy of exclusion was formulated. There was no ‘hecklers’ veto’; in fact, there was a pretty effective hecklers’ veto veto.

So this is all rather puzzling. Greer’s remarks are correct and are neither dangerous nor hateful. The number of critics of students who supposedly want to ‘no-platform’ speakers dwarfs the number of students who want to ‘no-platform‘ anyone.  Maybe the transgender tsunami hit the press, not because of some seismic event in our universities, but because commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.   And what safer, softer, target than an imaginary recrudescence of virulent PC-ism in our student unions?

The real reason there are so few women judges

British lawyers and the British public are angry with Lord Sumption’s urging to go slow on sex equality to avoid the ‘appalling’ consequences to our legal system that could come from striving to get more women on the bench.

How out of touch can a Supreme Court judge get? (That is not a trick question.) Many people are appalled by the things Sumption explicitly says. I am as troubled by what he implies and—especially—by what he presupposes.

Sumption says that: the reason there are so few women judges in the UK is that female lawyers make a ‘life style choice’ to avoid the kind of work that would make them eligible to become judges; that the English Bar that provides such work is ‘a very meritocratic institution’; and that fifty years would be a short time to wait for sex equality on the bench.  The first two claims are false or misleading; the third is repugnant.

Sumption implies that: there is not now a large enough number (NB: not percentage) of women making that ‘life style choice’ for things to improve any sooner, and that there is serious suggestion of a remedy that could lead to ’85 percent’ of appointments going to women.  I’m sure those claims are  implied and not asserted because to assert them would call attention to their absurdity.

Sumption presupposes that: judicial office is something that should only come ‘at the end of a successful career at the Bar’. One should do it as a kind of personal sacrifice, out of loyalty to ‘a long cultural tradition which is genuinely based on public service’.

Never mind that, in Britain as elsewhere, desire for a judical appointment is as often based on personal or political ambition as on noblesse oblige.  More important is this:

Why presuppose such things about a judicial career? Shouldn’t judging be a job whose pay and conditions enable people to do it without having already banked a fortune as a successful lawyer? Why presuppose that a certain kind of practice is a desirable, let alone necessary, qualification for appointment to the senior judiciary? Sumption himself says that this kind of practice involves ‘frankly appalling’ working conditions. So why presuppose that a high-stress, narrowly focused, socially prestigious, financially lucrative career–often in London–is an ideal qualification for being a judge?

When we think of the appeals courts in particular, and the sort of decisions needed there—decisions about delicate questions of law that could reasonably go either way, decisions that require a sense of judgment and justice,  decisions that profit from broad knowledge of our society and from ordinary human empathy—these are not things for which high-pressure, high-salary, super-lawyers have any special qualifications. Perhaps the contrary.

Brilliant judges—including brilliant women judges—could easily be found amongst in-house counsel, lawyers who went into business, lawyers in public service or in small firms, perhaps even amongst law teachers in universities.

The presumption that the tiny circle of our elite Bar is the best or natural training ground for judges is one of the things that entrenches the sexism of our courts. The main problem is actually not the attrition of women from the careers that Sumption thinks make for good judges; it is presuppostion that those careers make for good judges.

Wednesday’s Child: The New vs The True

A paper by a junior scholar greatly impressed me. I thought it should be published. A distinguished philosopher did not share my view: ‘It’s warmed-over Rawls,’ he wrote, in a curt letter of rejection.

Now, I could see for myself that the central claim of the paper wasn’t completely new. But it was, I thought, completely true. And its case for a familiar truth was different from—though not inconsistent with—other arguments to the same conclusion.  So why the obsession with the new?

This misery has company elsewhere, including in the social sciences.   I do not only mean that, when others try to replicate famous ‘findings’, they cannot get the same results. I mean that hardly anyone tries to replicate anything.   You can see why. Replication is expensive and unoriginal. Editors do not fight over a paper that argues that the findings of an earlier paper are all correct. Hence, there is a high prior probability that a lot of what finds its way into print is rubbish. (And then that rubbish is cited, and the citations re-cited, by philosophers who want their work to be ‘continuous with’ the advanced social sciences.)

In the humanities we do not have the excuse that originality is cheaper than replication. Admittedly, some of our work is not truth-apt, and some that is truth-apt is not truth-oriented (for instance, because it is bullshit). But I imagine that most of us hope that our claims about things like justice or law are, if not true, then true-ish.   Yet our collective behaviour reveals a strong preference for the new over the (merely) true.

In my own fields, the pursuit of novelty has bad effects: one can be pretty sure that the next general theory of law will be more daft than the last one. And in moral and political philosophy writers continually ‘discover’ principles that no one in the history of humanity ever heard of.

The novelty-fetish has further  knock-on effects.   It isn’t enough for ideas to be new; others need to acknowledge that they are new, so small novelties get over-emphasised, and the errors of past writers exaggerated. No longer are others merely mistaken, misguided, or muddled—their claims must be ‘ridiculous’, ‘disgraceful’, or ‘ludicrous’. These epithets have various meanings, but they have a common use. They are all ways of pleading, ‘Don’t read him! Read me, me, ME!’

Though not excusable, this is understandable. Most of us write for a serious audience of a few hundred, of whom maybe a couple of dozen actually engage our work. (Legal and political theorists who imagine they have ‘impact’ in the halls of power, or even literature, mostly live in a hall of mirrors.) To lose a few precious readers to the judgment that our work is warmed-over Rawls (or Mill, or Marx…) feels like an amputation without anaesthetic.

We need to get over that.   David Hume exaggerated when he wrote of political philosophy that, ‘New discoveries are not to be expected in these matters.’ But he was not ridiculously, ludicrously, or disgracefully mistaken.   Here as elsewhere, Hume was mostly right—though with some one-sided over-emphasis.   And there was nothing new in that either.

Wednesday’s Child: The Teaching that Students Pay For

The universities minister, Jo Johnson, criticizes the ‘lamentable’ teaching some UK undergraduates receive. He is determined to ‘drive it out’: by subjecting universities to for-profit competition, by letting weak universities go under, and by imposing on everyone another costly and destructive regulatory scheme, the threatened ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.

Never mind that there is no empirical evidence that bad teaching is pervasive. Never mind that our leading universities compete in a global market against peer institutions that do not waste time on ‘Excellence Frameworks’. Never mind that the best teaching is expensive, and  if there are to be more contact hours, more feedback, and more Nobel laureates in smaller classrooms, someone will need to pay —if not the public, then students.  But another reporting scheme, in which first prize may be permission to raise regulated fees by no more than inflation, will make teaching worse, not better. Hundreds of millions of pounds are already wasted in a national research evaluation scheme whose benefit has never been tested, let alone demonstrated.

Of course none of this is about empirical evidence. The government is worried about optics: ‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of £9,000 a year actually pay for…,’ says Johnson.

It varies, but at my university (of which Mr Johnson is actually a graduate) one thing tuition fees do not pay for is the cost of tuition. We subsidize that, by spending our endowment to the tune of something like £8,000 per year per undergraduate. Yet there is no scenario in which the government will allow any university to let tuition fees rise to £20,000 or £30,000 a year. (Nor, in my view, should it.)

What then are students ‘unclear about?’ The answer is obvious. It is unclear to them why they should be paying even £9,000 a year when their counterparts in excellent German or Scots universities are not. It is unclear to them whether they should be going to university at all, since the economy is not producing enough graduate-level jobs for all who graduate.

We could clarify their minds about that without yet more bureaucratic regulation:

(1) They are paying tuition fees because they (mostly, their parents) voted for political parties who think higher education should be paid for privately and not publicly. (I set aside the massive charge on the public purse that will be racked up through unpaid student loans.)

(2) Their degrees are worth less because the economic value of going to university, though still significant, is lower than it used to be.  A degree is in part a ‘positional good’. The more graduates there are, the less valuable it is to be a graduate. And as long as the austerity-cult continues to depress the economy, even the few who graduate from elite universities now compete for fewer good jobs. (I set aside the bullshit jobs created by the regulatory schemes themselves.)

But maybe I oversimplify.  Perhaps the unclarity in students’ minds is of a different kind.  Maybe they are asking, ‘What am I doing here anyway?’ or ‘What’s the point of education if it doesn’t land me a better job?’  If that is a widespread worry then it is a sign, not that university teaching is failing, but that it is succeeding.

Top-25 US Philosophy Placements by PGR Rankings

There is an informative table here showing where the 2015-16 tenure-track  appointees to the top 25 US Philosophy departments did their doctoral work.  (This is interim data; I’ll do this again later.)

I excluded foreign graduate schools (which are ranked in their home jurisdictions, not against US programmes) and then did a multiple regression of placement numbers against inverse 2006 and 2014 PGR ranks  (recklessly treating these, I know, as cardinal variables).

As expected, the line slopes down slightly to the right–the lower-ranked a programme, the fewer people it placed in top departments.  But not by much.Version 2The  coefficient for the 2014 rankings is -0.15, and for 2006 it is -0.07, which you can pretty much see with your own eyeballs.  And none of this is  significant at p=.05, except the intercept (0bviously).

A couple of  comments. There are few data points.  They are placement numbers; not success rates. This does not test the predictive power of PGR rankings: we would need to know about lower-ranked departments and about rejected candidates.  We would want to add more independent variables.

Still, this does not suggest that well-informed departments, when hiring to the tenure-stream, are in the thrall of the PGR.  Apart from the very top-ranked departments–which, on anyone’s account are stellar and, whether by selection effect or treatment effect, turn out stellar candidates–lots of other places are about equally successful in elite placements.  Not that elite job placements are the only thing, or even the main thing, to think about in life.

You knew that already, right?





Occupy (the right aspect of) the syllabus!

Brian Leiter comments on the mindless identity politics among the Berkeley undergrads who demanded that a course on ‘classics of social theory’ (Plato to Foucault) should mirror the social justice interests of the privileged college students who chose it:

We must dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus. We must demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* authors on our curricula.”

They ask,

‘Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? … Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?’

First, as Leiter notes, there is the humiliating fact that these students seem unaware that Foucault was gay.  Not to mention the interesting case of Plato.  And all those confirmed bachelors among the tyrants.  Yet the students turn lavender contemplating their own firm belief that there are no ‘LGBTQ*’ authors on the curriculum.

They have a better complaint about sexism.  It is troubling that Foucault makes the syllabus while none of Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir or Arendt do.  Choices always need to be made, but to omit all of these is a poor one.  And I also share the view that ‘classics’ of social theory might include something from the Asian philosophers.

But a question: I take it that these students, or nearly all of them, want Asian philosophers translated into English, the lingua franca of the white male corporate plutocracy that runs their state and nation? (California is the home of the US “English Only” movement.)

As far as I can see, that is how they were served their Plato and Aristotle, their Marx and Weber–and their Foucault.  Or are Sanskrit, Pali and classical Chinese now more widely read among Cal undergrads than are Greek, German or French? Somehow I doubt it.

I have a feeling that the linguistic mono-culture of most American students is utterly invisible to them. That is how hegemonic blinders work.  White students don’t see their own race; American students don’t see their own language. They want their identities to be reflected in their syllabus.  But in one of the ways  most salient to the humanities and social sciences, they already are–and not to good effect.  Of course, ‘unilingual Anglophone’ is, for most American students, not a social ‘identity’ they are aware of, let alone one they care to reflect on and, perhaps, transcend.  (Ditto, of course, for social class.)

It seems to me that a college education that leaves students–especially in the humanities– linguistically crippled is an ‘epistemically poor education’ if anything is.  (I know: ‘What ableism!!)

It gets worse.

The students’ complaint is introduced, without comment, with this backgrounder:

“This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings.

At first, I thought OK that is a pretty good reason to ‘occupy a syllabus’.  Many American college students are racking up huge debts, and for what?  A ‘classics of social theory’ course in which the instructors’ main tool of assessment is multiple-choice quizzes? (‘Hobbes is the foundation for unbridled capitalism: (a) Yes; (b) No; (c) I couldn’t get the reading.’)

It is easy to poke fun at the narcissistic self-involvement of privileged students who think everything should be a branch of “me studies“.  In truth, thinking about one’s own identity can be a first step in thinking about others’ identities–and then  a further step up the ladder to thinking about social identity as such.  But not if you think the problem is just the poverty of the reading list, as opposed to one’s own  impoverished ability to read beyond it.







The Refugee Crisis is not about Fairness

Governments have been shamed into addressing the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. The ugly idea that most Syrians, Eritreans or Afghans fleeing persecution and disaster are anything other than Conventional refugees is dissipating.

At the same time, another unhealthy idea emerges. It is the overweening concern with fairness. Not fairness towards refugees, but fairness among countries able to resettle them. It is a concern with who is doing more, or less, than their proper share as judged by some metric—by population, by GDP, by religious or ethnic makeup, or by geographical location. ‘Unfairness’ of that sort is the last thing we should be worrying about now.

Complaints of unfairness were first heard from front-line countries like Italy and Greece, and then Hungary, where the arbitrary fact of proximity to refugee-producing states was said to give them unfair burdens. The second wave of complaints held it unfair for Europe to shoulder a burden when rich countries in the Middle East—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—do so little. And now, perhaps most odious because it is the most trivial, Britain complains that, since it is not a member of the passport-free Schengen zone, it is unfair to expect it to help coordinate a resettlement scheme with other EU countries.

All of these complaints treat fulfilling one’s moral (and legal) duties as an unwelcome burden that is tolerable only if it is shared according to some comparative measure. The fairness-obsessive cares more about the relative burdens on rich countries than he does about the absolute burdens his inaction imposes on those fleeing persecution and destruction.

The resettlement of refugees is not a public good in the economists’ sense. It is not something like clean air, which requires the cooperation of many if it is to be produced at all, and not something like national security, which is open to all if it is provided for any.

Fairness does matter in addressing problems like that. For example, no one country or small group can halt destruction of the environment. Efforts short of a certain threshold are ineffective and pointless.  If a large group enters an effective treaty, then any other country can benefit without pitching in. To get around this we need to change the situation; but no one would agree on a mechanism to do that unless its terms were fair. For instance, no poor country would agree to accept perpetual poverty just because rich countries had already used up the allowable quota of fossil fuels.

Settling refugees is not like that. Any country can be effective on its own. If Canada had admitted Aylan Kurdi’s father (his aunt was already living in British Columbia), Aylan would be alive today. And in due course, his parents would be working, watching TV, buying food, paying taxes, and so on—in one of the richest and least populous countries in the world.   But wouldn’t that mean Canada had paid an unfair cost? If Canada resettled the Kurdis, the United States could have taken a free-ride on Canada’s generosity. And so it is with respect to all other refugees and all other countries.

But that is a repugnant way of looking at things. First, it is unclear that there are long-run costs to resettling refugees. New residents who are eager, ambitious and grateful to be here are an asset, not a liability. Second, even with respect to short-run adjudication and settlement costs, the relative burdens among countries are unimportant. What matters is the absolute ability of any country to assist. It is relevant that Greek government is in such a parlous state that it cannot cope with the influx. Greece can hardly cope with anything. But it is not relevant that the Hungarian government is in a weaker fiscal position than the German government. It matters whether a country is able to take refugees; it does not matter whether other countries that are equally or more able are doing as much.

Consider an analogy. Any swimmer able to help has a moral duty to save a drowning child. He may not look around the pool to see whether the rescue would be less of a hassle to someone else, and he may not let one child drown on the ground that he already saved one yesterday. If he can effectively help, he must.

Coordination among refugee-accepting countries is often required—but by effectiveness, not fairness. What matters is getting refugees settled, not how the costs of doing so are distributed (except, of course, where that is instrumental to getting more people resettled quickly).

According to the Dublin Regulation, refugees arriving in Europe must claim asylum in the member state in which they first land. The idea is to provide a determinate adjudication of their claims, and to ensure that applicants are not passed around among states. (There is always one ‘first state’.) But the fundamental duty to address an asylum request rests with any state to which it is submitted. If another state is already adjudicating it, that relieves others of the duty. But they cannot otherwise shirk by pointing out, even correctly, that another state would be less burdened by adjudicating, or that, if they wait, someone else will do it instead.

Waiting for a ‘fair’ distribution of the burdens of resettling refugees is immoral. Those able to act must do so, without regard to what others are doing save where coordination is needed—and they must do so now.