Trump, Greenland, and the morality of respect

Donald Trump is upset. He is now playing the offended party in a dispute with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. In a turn of events that would be too far-fetched even for the Danish television political drama Borgen, Trump accused the Danish leader of making “nasty” comments in response to his desire in having the United States purchase Greenland.

Donald Trump’s lack of diplomatic skills is well documented, but someone in the US Department of State should have alerted him to the fact that Greenland is an autonomous constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark, with its own parliament.

Home rule came into effect in 1979, and today Greenland has sovereignty on a number of key areas, including environmental policies and education.

Donald Trump’s suggestion that the United States could purchase Greenland is grossly disrespectful to the people of Greenland, and Denmark. Respect is a moral concept, and Trump’s latest outburst reflects badly on his fundamental ignorance of some of the most basic principles in moral philosophy.

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, Immanuel Kant famously said that all things have either a price or they have dignity. What has a price has a kind of value that may be sacrificed or traded away for something else having an equal or greater value.

But unlike price, dignity is a value that is absolute. Dignity cannot be measured against other values; it cannot be sacrificed or traded. Kant goes on to explain that human beings, unlike objects, have dignity, not a price.

This is why, for example, slavery is morally wrong: putting a price tag on a person is to turn them into an object, a commodity, which takes away their humanity.

Trump’s grand idea to purchase Greenland puts a price on a piece of land, but indirectly it also puts a price on the 60,000 people living in Greenland, with their distinct history, language, identity and culture.

Suggesting that Greenland, and its people, can be bought is deeply disrespectful precisely because it strips Greenlanders of their dignity.

What Trump fails to realise is that his suggestion that an autonomous country can be bought not only smacks of arrogance, but it is also a form of colonialism in everything but name.

In Trump’s eye, the value of something is the same as its price. But he is wrong. Some things have value precisely because they don’t have a price.

While for many centuries the preferred means of colonisation was through military conquest and other violent means, in the epoch of advanced capitalism colonialism comes in the shape of a cheque-book.

But even Trump should know that colonialism is profoundly wrong, politically and morally. As the Canadian political theorist Margaret Moore explains in her book A Political Theory of Territory, colonialism is wrong because it disrupts our social attachment to our land, and in the process undermines our self-determination.

The question of self-determination is crucial here. According to Moore, self-determination justifies two moral rights: the individual moral right to residency, and the collective moral right to occupancy. Self-determination is necessary to our autonomy and our identity, both personally and culturally.

There are many reasons why Donald Trump may want to take over Greenland. International law is very vague on the question of who has a right over the Arctic, and of course there are many valuable resources under the ice in Greenland, but as every five year old knows, just because you want something it doesn’t give you the right to grab it, and it also doesn’t give you the right to offer money to buy it.

Some things are simply not for sale, like our dignity.

Dr Vittorio Bufacchi is Senior Lecturer in philosophy at University College Cork, and author of three books on the concept and ethics of violence, including ‘Violence and Social Justice’ (2009) and ‘Violence: A Philosophical Anthology’ (2011). He is also the author of a book on ‘Social Injustice’ (2012). His work has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Polish, Slovene and Chinese.

His research interests include all aspects of democratic theory as it applies to national and international events. He has written on issues of inequality and social injustice in Ireland, Brexit in the UK, American politics (Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and Italian politics. He is currently researching the phenomenon of post-truth, populism, and the problems with neoliberalism.