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A New Buddhist Ethics

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Chapter 9: Political Ethics

 Further material related to the issues raised in this chapter can be found in A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity, 8.c



Should we have governments, and if so, why? This is the most basic question to begin with in trying to work out the best attitude to take to political matters. Traditional eternalist answers to this have given government an absolute moral justification, for example by claiming that it is appointed by God. Nihilists, on the other hand, will claim that government is not a matter for moral justification at all, but just a convenient arrangement made between people for their mutual benefit.


Buddhism, as always, fits easily into neither of these camps. The traditional answer to the question is that governments are required to help create a stable environment where the dharma could be practised. Governments thus have a moral purpose, but only in order to support something else. They are not an end in themselves, and are not justified apart from the way in which they fulfil this purpose. The Buddha’s careful cultivation of the local kings in his time can be read in this light, as a highly pragmatic strategy which took into account the basic political conditions in which his sangha existed.


This may sound a rather narrow justification for government to modern ears. Can the justification for government be merely to support a religion? What about the general happiness of the people? However, the term “dharma” must not be interpreted too narrowly here if the claim is to be in accordance with the Middle Way. Governments exist, not to make people moral directly, but to create conditions in which they can develop morally and spiritually (in the broadest sense). For the most part, then, governments will not actually be concerned with the moral and spiritual at all, but with ensuring the many complex underlying conditions people need to do anything as complex and vulnerable as develop spiritually. In the Buddha’s time this would primarily just have meant keeping order, but since then governments have adopted a huge number of additional functions: economic regulation, education, social security, transport infrastructure, health, the environment, housing etc. All of these functions, however, could basically be justified in the same light. People find it much more difficult to develop spiritually if they’re constantly worried about invasion, crime, unemployment, starvation, ill-health, pollution, or homelessness. They’ll also probably get along a lot faster if they have education, opportunities to travel, opportunities for cultural and artistic development, freedom of thought and discussion, and enough income to meet these basic needs. Governments can help provide all of these.


This point can be strengthened if we consider how difficult it would be to make spiritual progress in a society where there is no government, or no effective government. A country in a state of anarchy, as for example Somalia is at the time I am writing, is one where everyone is subject to the power of anyone with weapons. There is no security of property, and travel and trade become much more difficult. The incentives for economic life break down, and people return to basic subsistence farming. But with even their food and land insecure, and no order within which disaster relief can be organised, people’s poverty gets worse and worse. Desperate people turn increasingly to theft, and to breaking whatever moral rules remain in the absence of law, leading to a spiral of decline. Children are not educated, and no cultural or religious activity takes place because people are too busy merely trying to ensure their survival.


This kind of breakdown could happen in any society, perhaps not immediately but certainly over a period of time, if the basic conditions created by government were not maintained. One does not need to maintain dogmatic beliefs either about the essential badness or the essential goodness of human nature, only to observe what tends to happen when government fails. There seems to be little doubt, in purely practical terms, that we need governments. If every person was much more integrated, perhaps we could manage without them, instead having a purely mutual set of reciprocal agreements which people would all follow voluntarily because they understood their value, and no higher authorities. However, this is not the practical situation, nor is likely to be in the foreseeable future.


Of course, governments themselves may not see their task in terms of moral and spiritual development, and even if they did, those involved would be likely to disagree on its nature. They are probably more likely to describe their role in terms of maintaining the people’s welfare or happiness. The problem with conceptions of happiness, though, as we have seen (in chapter 1 for example) in discussing utilitarianism, is that they tend to be fixed in terms of our present limited desires, rather than allowing for the fact that our desires may change as we move on. Governments in Western democracies have to fulfil at least some of the people’s desires, however limited they may be, to stay in office, so their goals tend to be fixed primarily in economic terms. They see their purpose as supporting the prosperity of the people, as underlying their immediate sense of happiness, rather than their spiritual development.


Fortunately for Western Buddhists, there is quite a lot of overlap between the conditions required for prosperity and those required for spiritual development. However, the tensions between these two goals do appear. From a Buddhist perspective, then, we could either say that we do not support the existence of government because its goals do not correspond closely enough to Buddhist ones, or say that they do support the existence of government, because, despite some divergences from our values and some faults in Western democracy, there is enough overlap between the existing government and the Buddhist justification for government to make it much better to have such a government than not to have it.


The second, pro-government, option does not of course preclude participating in the processes of democracy in an attempt to improve the nature of the government and the extent to which it fulfils Buddhist values. Anyone seriously considering the first, or anarchistic, option should perhaps be shipped off to spend a spell in Somalia, probably to return with slightly more pragmatic attitudes.


If you do not live in a Western-style democracy, of course, the issue of whether you should recognise and obey the government may be a much more immediate and important one. We will be considering this kind of issue later when we look at rebellion.


A much bigger question as regards the relationship between Buddhism and government is the more abstract one of what the ideal government would look like. Here we are in the realm of what ideals we should work towards rather than immediate issues, so I shall just give some brief suggestions. A government that called itself Buddhist would not necessarily fulfil the ideal role, as a look at the histories of Buddhist states in South East Asia, or Tibet, will show. From the standpoint of the Middle Way, the ideal government, broadly speaking, would be one that follows the Middle Way, regardless of whether it calls itself Buddhist. It might even be better for a government that addresses all the conditions best in a country of mixed religion, not to identify itself with Buddhism and thus become partisan between religious communities, but to retain the ideal of the secular state in which those of all religions can participate equally. Probably the most deeply Buddhist ruler of a South-East Asian country in modern times, U Nu of Burma, made the basic mistake which led to the overthrow of his government when he slipped into this kind of partisanship against the minority Muslim population in Burma.


How can a state be secular and yet still work on the basis of the Middle Way? This is a straightforward matter, because the Middle Way does not have to be explicitly identified with the Buddhist religion, being rather a balanced approach to judgements which is aided by Buddhist practice and Buddhist commitment, but which can be understood distinct from that practice. Rather than working on the basis of utilitarianism, then, the ideal government from a Buddhist standpoint might need an intermediate philosophy, which one might call secular non-dualism. Secular non-dualism would retain a distinction between religion and state for pragmatic reasons, and yet allow what is valuable in the Buddha’s teachings to be applied in the political realm. A secular non-dualist political party, say, could be actuated by the core teachings of Buddhism and yet not insist that all its members be formally Buddhists: this would be a matter for individual choice.




If you do live in a democracy, should you vote? In a few countries, voting is compulsory, so you get little choice, unless you want to protest by breaking the law (see below). In most, however, it has the character of a moral decision. There are several ways of thinking about the importance of the act of voting.


One of the most basic, promoted recently by a UK government alarmed at falls in turnout, is to think of voting as a way of supporting democracy. If you have decided that you prefer democracy to any other available system, then this view suggests that you will be stating this preference by voting (regardless of who you vote for), and if you do not vote, undermining it. To some extent this seems to be correct, for a low turnout is often interpreted in terms of voter disenchantment with the democratic system, and one could imagine anti-democratic movements (such as Fascists) taking advantage of low voter turnout. However, it can also be interpreted in terms of disenchantment with the particular type of voting system, or with the range of candidates on offer. In some circumstances, not voting, whilst writing to your representative to explain why you are not voting, may be an effective form of protest against a specific problem with the voting system, including corruption.


Alternatively, voting can be seen as a way of contributing to the election of one’s preferred party. It is easy to feel that one vote makes no difference to the outcome in this regard, but this feeling is based on a dogmatic individualism which involves not facing up to the conditions around us. If we vote for a particular party, and discuss what we are doing and why with others, this is likely to influence at least a few other people. The act of voting also contributes directly to the closeness of the result, even if your candidate loses and there is no system of proportional representation to make sure your vote still “counts”. A change only in the amount of the majority can contribute to gradually changing political priorities in the area. Voting also increases one’s own sense of participation in the community, with further possible effects on one’s interactions with others. In short, voting, like other actions, is far more inter-related with the actions of others, and has far more effects, than people usually take account of.


Unless you are specifically engaging in some form of protest, then, the Middle Way would suggest that voting is worth doing. This then leaves us with the bigger question of whom to vote for.


The general principle of the Middle Way can be put quite clearly in theory here, though it is more difficult to apply. If the ideal government (as I suggested above) is one which follows the Middle Way by addressing the conditions best, not handicapped by dogma, then our voting behaviour should attempt to contribute to bringing such a government about. This means that we should vote for the party which is most likely to address the conditions effectively, and which is least blinkered by dogmatic ideology. It does not matter whether this ideology is Fascist, Conservative, Liberal, Green, Socialist or Marxist: if it is adhered to in a way which is likely to prevent politicians understanding the complex social context they are working in, from responding to new conditions flexibly and recognising their own mistakes, then it is dogmatic.


This means that the values of political justification are thoroughly pragmatic. Though the term “pragmatic” can be abused to mean “opportunistic” or “inconsistent”, short-term self-serving is not true pragmatism. If we are to do what is useful in the long-term, this requires a reflective understanding of conditions, including the behaviour of people and the political conditions on which power depends.


It can be argued that the political parties sometimes judged most idealistic are in fact most pragmatic in this sense. Green parties, for example, often draw attention to environmental issues that require thoroughgoing, long-term solutions that other parties are neglecting. The fact that they are doing this, even if there are other aspects of their policies you are less happy with, might provide a strong reason for voting for them. On the other hand, a mainstream party which makes a point of addressing conditions that it has previously neglected (such as the Labour government in the UK in the late nineties doing better than its predecessors by ensuring economic stability before increasing public spending), may be worth encouraging in this process. But these are only examples: every election for every individual throws up new issues and requires a new balancing of judgement. No Buddhist ethical guide can prescribe exactly how to vote, but at the same time Buddhism is far from apolitical, and the way in which one goes about deciding how to vote is morally crucial if we are to address some of the major problems the world is facing today.


Political Office


Should one take one’s involvement in political life further than this? Should Buddhists involve themselves in political parties and put themselves forward for political office? The dangers in this are obvious: political power could seduce one away from Buddhist practice and even the most basic balanced judgement. On the other hand, the benefits of more integrated, spiritually and morally aware people taking office could be enormous. We are thus considering a risky venture, but not one that should be necessarily rejected because of these risks.


There cannot be any duty to put oneself forward for political office, because not everyone is suited to it, and not everyone’s talents would be best employed in political life. There is no moral benefit in having rulers who merely have good intentions but lack the aptitude, the political skills or the moral status to be good rulers. Rulers need to want to be rulers in order to engage with the process of getting elected, but at the same time to avoid being corrupted by that desire for power and attention.


The key to avoiding such corruption, from a Buddhist perspective, must be, not disinterestedness or lack of desire to do the job (as Plato claimed), but one’s degree of integration. An integrated ruler is one for whom there is no conflict between personal desires and the moral requirements of his/her position. At the extreme such conflicts can give rise to gross corruption, but further down the scale they can also create stubborn clinging to a position which is defied by the evidence, prejudice against others who could be helpful to the state, hypocritical concern with appearances rather than realities, etc.


An integrated ruler would not get far at the head of an unintegrated government, though, for his/her instructions would be misinterpreted and ill-applied. The integration of other members of the government (cabinet members, civil servants etc.) is a vital element of their capacity to work together with the ruler to address the conditions at work. The same will apply to any kind of political officer with authority.


Buddhist practice is not the only way in which integration can be developed, nor, as I have mentioned, would integration be enough by itself unaccompanied by political skills, but the value of integration in political office should be sufficient for us to encourage Buddhists with suitable character and skills to put themselves forward. We do not have to appeal to culturally remote concepts like the Bodhisattva Ideal to see why it would be valuable for them to serve the public by doing so. It is an immediate implication of integration that outward conditions as well as inward desires are brought into harmony, and it is only by changing the world around us positively that we change our place in it. A truly integrated ruler creates the conditions which allow many others to follow the Middle Way, which again in their turn benefit the ruler and add to the success of the state he/she becomes responsible for. Finally, a Kantian test might also show the objectivity of a decision to pursue political office if one has the skills: one would want other people who were in a similar position to do so. Since one would also prefer those who do not have the skills or do not have the integration to avoid seeking political office, this also puts a corresponding responsibility on those who do to fill the gap.


Government employment


To work in government employment is to enter, not just the civil service, but any other area of the public sector: education, local government, police, armed forces, prison and probation services, social services, (state) universities, libraries etc. If the government itself is on balance morally justified, then one might assume that working in its service is too. However, there are a number of possibly problematic areas that might arise in relation to such employment.


One is that the state might require one to commit acts of violence in its service. This obviously applies to the armed forces and the police. I will defer discussion of this issue until the next chapter, which focuses on violence and the law.


Another problematic area concerns ways in which one might be obliged to promote or apply a government policy which one believes to be morally wrong. For example, teachers often have to teach a standardised local or national curriculum, and are legally obliged to promote certain attitudes. Very often in modern democracies government policies are based on well-intentioned requirements derived from a moral concern (e.g. equal opportunities requirements), but sometimes applied narrowly or in neglect of important conditions. Sometimes this arises from a hasty government response to public concern about a particular issue, e.g. if children are abused because social workers don’t act quickly enough, the government may introduce new legislation to put pressure of social workers to act more quickly in taking vulnerable children into care. However, in this example to apply the law literally would not be in children’s interests because many would be taken away from their parents unnecessarily. Usually there is a way out of this by giving clear support to the general principle, in agreement with the government line, but improving upon it as far as possible in one’s individual application of it. So, the social workers, knowing that the law errs in one direction, will move in another to counter-balance it.


However, sometimes this is not a possible response to such tensions, because the management of the issue does not give such freedom to the judgement of the employee. Being over-managed could be a problem in any kind of employment, but public employment is particularly prone to bureaucratisation, because politicians feel under increasing pressure to demonstrate to the public that their money is being well spent. Too many detailed instructions telling you what to do in standardised, impersonal language remote from the specific situation you’re dealing with, and too many forms to be filled in checking that you’ve done it properly, can be both demoralising and alienating. Employees can react to this in an eternalistic way, taking it all as absolute law and trying to follow it to the letter, or a nihilistic way, cynically seeing the controls as empty of all value and not acknowledging the good purpose behind them, so in response doing the minimum possible to keep up the appearance of complying. The Middle Way here would be to try to acknowledge the good purpose behind the controls and fulfilling it as far as is compatible with the total conditions (which would include the balance between one’s work and the rest of one’s life), but no further.


Bureaucratic approaches tend to derive from the utilitarian justification behind the modern state, whereby it is the function of the state (and of the state’s employees) to bring about general public happiness. Public employees will then be given a task to perform which has been prescribed after (often) careful research into the conditions of society in which it will be performed, but not nearly so much investigation into the way the task will be performed or of the relationship between the people who perform it and the task. This is typical of the weakness of utilitarianism that I noted earlier, namely that although in theory it takes into account all the conditions at work to promote the best outcome for all, in practice those using it often do not take into account their own limitations and ignorance. Just as in scientism (see chapter 7) an observing scientist fails to take into account their own framing of the observation, so in bureaucratic government, which is often also scientistic, the managers often fail to take into account the people who are doing the job, who will be affected by it and make their mark on it.


This could also be described as “The myth of state neutrality”. A policeman is working for the state, which isn’t racist, but on the other hand perhaps the policeman himself is racist. The examiner is supposed to award marks strictly according to an agreed scheme, but sometimes her personal judgement on the script in front of her may completely diverge from that scheme. In such circumstances government employees are supposed to leave their individual personalities behind. If they actually do this, the result can be an alienation in which the employee gradually ceases to be aware of his/her own emotions, emphatically working against integration. If they do not do it, they may endanger their jobs.


Clearly the best response to this from the public employee involves the Middle Way. It is vital to hold onto a sense of integrity, and probably better to lose a job than to lose that. On the other hand, it is often possible to channel one’s own character to fit the role to some extent, by reminding oneself of the positive reasons for fulfilling that role, and by arguing honestly with managers about the positive reasons for doing it differently. To adopt subterfuge, formalism or alienated indifference, however, is fatal to the development of genuine values sustaining any organisation, as it undermines both individual integration and collective harmony.


Taxes and benefits


One interaction which most people have with the government (at least of a developed country) at one time or another is either to give it money or to receive money from it. Cultural attitudes to such transactions vary enormously in different countries and between communities, with some where paying taxes is taken for granted and benefits are only claimed where necessary, whilst for others, individual interest is the only basis of judgement and the state is seen as a perfectly legitimate object for cheating, so long as this remains undetected.Whilst gross fraud might well be detected at some point, stretching one’s relationship to the state by, for example, claiming slightly dodgy expenses against tax, or claiming welfare benefits when one’s entitlement to them is a bit ambiguous, is unlikely to be detected and is more a matter of conscience. What moral attitude should we take to this?


Again, we have to go back to the basic question of whether we support the existence of the state. If we do support its existence, and want to benefit from its services in any way, then we need to give the financial support without which it could not operate. Another way of testing the objectivity of one’s attitudes here is to use a Kantian test: would one want everyone to avoid paying their taxes? Obviously, if everyone did this, there would be no state and we would have none of the benefits of a state. The situation is slightly different if the state is grossly corrupt and if you would actually prefer people not to pay their taxes so that it collapsed and was replaced by a different arrangement (see section on rebellion), but in most of the Western world, at least, this is not the case.


Exactly the same point applies to benefits, since if benefits are paid falsely, the state loses money just as much as if you had failed to pay the same amount in taxes. If you think that people generally should be helped by being able to claim the benefit you are claiming, then there is probably no problem with it. On the other hand, if you wouldn’t like everyone to make the same slightly dodgy claim you are making, perhaps resulting in less money for those who really need it, then you shouldn’t be making the claim.


Classic excuses for defrauding the state involve the claim that the state is a different kind of body from an individual. You wouldn’t cheat an individual because it would have a bad effect on them and on your relationship with them, but in the case of the state people often feel they are only dealing with a faceless, bureaucratic cipher. This is one of the drawbacks of the myth of state neutrality mentioned in the previous section. However, if one faces up to the reality of what the state is like, it is actually run by a number of individuals and stands to benefit a lot of other individuals. As in other problems of this kind (like the case of voting or of causing pollution) where we feel that our individual contribution is too small to make a difference to the whole, we should not underestimate the effects of our actions, or think only in terms of individual actions deceptively cordoned off from other conditions. One person fiddling taxes or benefits makes it more acceptable for others, and can contribute to a culture of corruption. On the other hand, a person making a point of being honest, even in a generally corrupt climate, can inspire others to do so, or at least offer a challenge which alters the climate slightly. Defrauding the state even of a relatively small amount of money can be seen as that amount of money not spent by the state: even if it is only the cost of a school-book or an hour of police overtime, that expense can now not be afforded as a direct result of your actions.


The main argument here involves asserting the Middle Way by recognising more objective conditions, against a nihilist tendency not to recognise the value of the state. However, there is of course an opposite extreme here, which would involve the pursuit of correct (or even excessive) tax-paying as an end in itself rather than for the sake of the benefits the state can provide. The tax-inspector who becomes over-attached to being a stickler for bureaucratic accuracy, or the tax-payer who writes constant letters to the newspaper defending their investment against what they rather narrowly see as waste, probably fall into this category. There is in general, though, probably little danger of many of us getting over-enthusiastic about taxes. It is better simply to pay them with honesty and then move on to other more interesting matters.




The movement of people from one country to another, to permanently settle in the new country, is, for all sorts of reasons, becoming an important political issue. Unlike the other sections in this chapter, this does not so much concern individuals’ moral relationship to the state as such, as to that shadowy construct which gives identity to the state, the nation. Should we be morally concerned with the identity of our particular nation in its relationship to ethnicity and culture?


Migration particularly raises this issue, because it has done much to transform nations which were once relatively homogeneous into heterogeneous and multi-cultural ones. In modern times a large process of migration began with European colonialism and the settlement of excess European population in places like The Americas, Australia and South Africa, with a small European ruling class also being installed in much of the rest of Asia and Africa. Following the decline of this colonialism, this flow began to be reversed, with Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Asians migrating to Europe, as well as to North America and Australia. The contemporary situation creates very strong pressures for migration, with a declining population in many parts of the Western world and a young, growing population in the developing world which is under constant economic pressure. Add to this situation improved communications, making people increasingly aware of the opportunities in other countries, and increasing ease of transport, enabling people to make the passage, and there are obvious reasons for a strong pressure for migration from the developing to the developed world.


The instinctual response of many people in the developed world to this situation is a defensive, egoistic one. We do not identify with the immigrants and find them culturally alien, so we want to erect barriers to keep them out. This situation precisely reflects the psychological position of the ego which I outlined in the last section of chapter 1. We want to keep out the “foreign” desires and beliefs from the rest of the psyche, but actually our reasons for doing so are entirely illusory. We have nothing to fear from people who are merely strange and unknown, other than fear itself, and if we have the courage to be open the barriers can be removed.


Many of the arguments against immigration seem to be rationalisations of these kinds of fears. We are afraid that the foreigners will take our jobs, take our land, or dilute our cultural values. However, given how much of a disadvantage immigrants are at when they arrive in a strange country, even if they have useful skills and a grasp of the language, it is most unlikely that they will take jobs which natives actually want. It is more likely that, in encountering a new society with fresh eyes, they will also see opportunities for economic activity that natives have not seen, and create jobs for themselves. And if “cultural values” just mean limited cultural values that we identify with so far, traditionally identified with a particular nation or ethnicity, then these values will certainly be challenged by the arrival of immigrants. However, this will usually lead to the strengthening of the culture as its takes into account conditions from which it had previously shut itself. Confronted by contrary practices, we are obliged to reflect upon and defend our own, also leaving open the possibility that our own may improve if we cannot defend them sufficiently.


Even if it were shown to be the case that immigrants generally take resources from the countries they enter rather than contributing to its welfare, there would still be no reason why we should refuse them admittance. If these resources are unequally distributed, there is no particular reason why people of my own race or nation should have them rather than those of another. If we had the courage to allow unrestricted immigration, this would also probably be far better for the world in general in the long-term. Supposing, for example, the EU made a collective decision to allow unrestricted immigration from Africa. In the short-term the results of this might horrify Europeans: millions of Africans might well cross the Mediterranean, many of them poorly educated. Europe would become overcrowded, and its welfare systems would be put under severe strain. However, in the longer term, most of those Africans would probably gain a reasonable life, a decent education, a familiarity with the workings of democracy, etc. Many of them might then return to Africa carrying these new skills and expectations: the fastest way by far to positively transform the state of African society.


The step involved here is simply one away from the mentality of fear, exclusion and defensiveness to openness, risk, and an awareness of the wider context. Such a mentality is by far the best way to avoid future conflicts and address the whole set of conditions in the world. Of course, along the way will be problems as people respond egoistically to one another: there will be communal tensions, racism, even riots. However, for each of those problems caused by migration there will be many others solved as people broaden their grasp of conditions, increasing their objectivity perforce through the encounter with alternative attitudes, and as resources locked up by one possessive group are shared so as to be more effectively used.


You may well feel that I am still neglecting some important conditions here: those created by human egos. Some may envisage, as the right-wing British politician Enoch Powell did, “rivers of blood” from unrestricted migration. Of course it is possible that defensive responses could dominate, or that the developed world could become a series of ghettos at war with each other. However, we have to compare this risk with the alternative of building a fortress with increasingly high walls, trying to keep out a relentless pressure from humanity stranded beyond it, especially if environmental conditions deteriorate further. Such a fortress would create huge resentments through its exclusion of the needy, until when the conditions became so extreme they could no longer be ignored it would dramatically collapse, as though it were only a sand-fortress on the beach with the tide coming in. It is then that the results would be much more likely to be disastrous.


The alternative advocated by many current politicians, of controlled immigration which only allows in skilled workers, is in many ways the worst option, for in addition to excluding those who most need to migrate, it robs developing countries of the skilled workers they can least afford to lose. In many ways the West’s policy on this, particularly in attracting skilled medical personnel away from where they are most needed, is a form of theft. There may be some case for limiting the inflow of numbers of immigrants to ensure that they can be absorbed gradually and sustainably by the host countries, but not on the basis of skills alone.


This then, appears to be one area where the Middle Way would lead us to what many would regard as radical conclusions, simply because it requires us to face up to conditions rather than maintaining artificial barriers where there is not in fact any absolute basis for identification. The widespread current attitude to migration in the West is strongly nihilist because it involves a complete lack of concern for conditions beyond the boundaries we have set up. To de-restrict immigration would not take us to the eternalist extreme of an idealised solution because it is within our power and would actually be a way of resolving important difficulties in the world.


All of this, of course, primarily lies within the realm of government policies, on which we can have some personal influence in the ways I outlined in the earlier sections of this chapter. However, there are also ways in which we as individuals can reduce barriers to migration. This is, of course, by pursuing friendly inter-cultural contacts in which we both give and take more objective understanding of the world. This action in itself helps to create the conditions in which immigration is no longer seen as such a threat by others.


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