Joseph Carens | Politics, Principles, and Open Borders

By Joseph Carens

My remarks come in two parts. The first part focuses on two different ways of thinking about the ethics of migration, using a discussion of refugees to illustrate the issue. The second part focuses on the legitimacy and importance of asking certain fundamental questions about migration. If we ask those questions, I argue, we will see that justice requires open borders.

Part 1

To oversimplify quite a bit, we might distinguish between two ways of thinking about normative questions. The first asks us to focus on the question of what policy or course of action we ought to adopt in a particular context, all things considered, while the second abstracts from questions about immediate political feasibility and simply asks whether a policy or course of action is right or wrong in principle.

Let me elaborate. Let’s start with the first way of thinking about ethics and consider the issue of refugees. I take it to be a fundamental requirement of political ethics that when engaging in political action and making political choices, we should always take into account risks, probabilities, and consequences both of what we are recommending and of the likely alternatives. In actual politics, it is almost never enough to focus only on the intrinsic merits (moral or other) of a particular course of action.

From this perspective, the key normative question is not ‘what is right in principle?’, but rather ‘what is the best we can realistically hope for under this particular set of circumstances?’ If one is interested in influencing public policy, it makes sense to focus on policies that are on the table (or at least on the side cupboard), not on ones that have no chance of adoption (regardless of why they are not feasible). And one may want to shape one’s criticisms to foster the best possible outcome rather than to draw attention to the ways in which the best possible in a given context falls short of the best possible in principle. Focus on the latter may be demoralizing for those trying to work within the limits of the currently possible.

If we adopt this sort of practice oriented approach, when people are upset, we will pay attention to what is upsetting them. For example, in thinking about what policies to adopt with respect to refugees, even if we think (as I do) that justice requires admitting refugees and providing them with a new home, we should pay careful attention to what the citizens of a given democracy are willing to do to help them and what they are not willing to do.

Let me give a concrete example of what this approach might entail. A few years ago, Angela Merkel adopted policies that permitted a million refugees to enter Germany. The backlash to that decision led, at least initially, to a significant increase in support for a right wing party in Germany which is deeply hostile to migrants. If that party (Alternative for Germany) had actually gained power, then we might have said that from a theoretical perspective concerned with choosing the morally best policy among feasible alternatives, Merkel had made an ethical error in opening the door so wide to refugees because this ultimately had led to a situation in which fewer refugees gained protection than would have been the case if she had been more cautious. I am glad that I can put this in hypothetical, counterfactual language because, as far as I can tell, the threat from Alternative for Germany has diminished greatly along with a significant reduction in the hostility toward the people who arrived in Germany as a result of Merkel’s policies. So, in terms of protecting as many refugees as possible, Merkel made the right decision. The key point, however, is that it was the right decision because it was based on an accurate assessment of political possibilities and likely consequences, not just because it was the right thing to do in principle.

Now consider the issue of refugees from the second way of thinking about normative questions,  the one that focuses only on questions of principle. In my view, even if we assume that states are normally morally entitled to control immigration, refugees who have no reasonable prospect of returning home in the relatively near future have a strong moral claim to gain admission to some other state where they will be given an opportunity to build new lives as full members of the political community to which they have been admitted. This is a responsibility that ought to be shared among all states. I should mention that taking this view of the claims of refugees does not commit one to endorsing open borders as a general phenomenon. Indeed, it implicitly treats refugees as a special case.

For the moment, and for the sake of understanding this argument about the different ways of thinking about normative questions, let’s just assume that I am right about these claims. From this perspective, the United States has failed abjectly to meet its responsibility.  Most of the rest of the international community has failed abjectly as well. Indeed, one might argue that even taking in a million refugees did not fully meet Germany’s obligations given the size of its population and the wealth of its society and the extent of the refugee problem. After all, Lebanon and Jordan are both much smaller and much poorer and both of them are hosting over a million refugees. The key point is that the failure of others in responding to the claims of refugees does not relieve us of our own responsibility.

Note that it is possible to hold this view of our responsibility to refugees while acknowledging that there is very little likelihood in the near future that the United States (or any other rich democratic state) will come close to meeting its obligations in part because most people do not share this view of what justice requires but, more importantly, because what is required (on this account) is so much in conflict with the interests of the state and its current populations, at least as most people understand their interests. The fact that a state is not doing what it should does not change what it should do.

It is important to see that the two ethical perspectives that I have identified are not in contradiction with one another. You can think both that we have very extensive obligations to refugees in principle and that at a particular moment we should adopt a more restrictive policy than another that might be available, out of fear that a backlash to that less restrictive policy will lead to even greater restrictions in the long run. What is important is simply to be conscious of the perspective that one is adopting in a particular discussion. That will help us to avoid talking past one another and thinking that we disagree when in fact we are simply asking different questions or taking different perspectives.

Part 2

Most people just assume that, with a few qualifications, it is morally acceptable for states to adopt immigration policies that favour the interests of the members of their own political community. And what lies behind that assumption is the further assumption, often only implicit, that it is morally acceptable to divide up the world into independent political communities with these sorts of powers over immigration as well as these sorts of collective motivations. These are the assumptions that I want to challenge.

Here is the alternative perspective that I want to propose. First, there is no natural social order, and so the way that the modern world is organized can be subjected to critical moral scrutiny. Second, it is worth thinking about this topic from the perspective of the second approach outlined above, i.e., the perspective of principle rather than immediate political feasibility. Third, in order to be morally justifiable, a social order must at a minimum be good for most people, or, to put it another way, it must at least serve the interests of most people better than possible alternatives.  Fourth, dividing the world into independent political units with the kinds of powers that modern states possess does not meet this requirement. Fifth, if a just world has independent political communities (and it might), there would be mechanisms to ensure that the inequalities between these communities did not grow too large over time and individuals would normally be free to move from one political community to another.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me make it clear that I am not defending an extreme cosmopolitanism.  In my view, human beings have some legitimate moral claims that arise from universal principles, others that arise from particular connections, and others still that arise from a combination of both. Often these legitimate moral claims are complementary. The particularistic claims can co-exist with the universal ones. Sometimes, however, these universal and particularistic moral claims conflict with one another, and then the challenge is to balance competing considerations fairly. I do not assume that moral claims based on universal principles should always trump moral claims based on particularistic ones.

Let me be more concrete about my own position. I love my sons and in various ways I put their interests ahead of those of other people’s children, I care more about the wellbeing of my friends and colleagues than I do about anonymous strangers, I feel an attachment to both Canada and the United States, the two countries in which I hold citizenship that I do not feel in relation to other places, and so on. So, particular connections matter to me, and I do not regard this as in itself morally problematic. A just world would include many institutional arrangements and social practices in which particularistic attachments would be given great weight.

On the other hand, the weight that is to be given to particularistic attachments is not unconstrained. I love my sons, but I do not think we should perpetuate a social world in which they enjoy advantages because they are white and male. That is something we should seek to change. Similarly, I do not think that particularistic attachments can justify most restrictions on migration. Existing practices of state control over borders give far too much weight to the interests of the few, and far too little to the interests of the many. That is why what justice ultimately requires is open borders, at least for the most part.

Let me briefly elaborate upon this drawing upon arguments elaborated in chapter eleven of my book. Borders have guards and the guards have guns. This is an obvious fact of political life but one that is easily hidden from view – at least from the view of those of us who are citizens of affluent democracies. Most of those trying to get into affluent democracies are ordinary, peaceful people, seeking only the opportunity to build decent, secure lives for themselves and their families. On what moral grounds can we deny entry to these sorts of people? What gives anyone the right to point guns at them?

To many people (though perhaps not participants in this seminar) the answer to this question will seem obvious. The power to admit or exclude non-citizens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community that seeks to exercise self-determination. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise control over admissions in pursuit of its own national interest and of the common good of the members of its community, even if that means denying entry to peaceful, needy foreigners. States may choose to be generous in admitting immigrants, but, in most cases at least, they are under no moral obligation to do so. Notice that this assertion is not an appeal to political realities, to claims about what people and states will or will not do. It is an appeal to principle, to what they are morally entitled to do.

This is what I call the conventional view because it reflects what most people think is right. That is the view that I want to challenge on the grounds that there is no reason to believe that this way of organizing the world serves the interests of most people. On the contrary.

In many ways, citizenship in Western democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal class privilege – an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances. To be born a citizen of a rich state in Europe or North America is like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages (even though many of us belong to the lesser nobility). To be born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is like being born into the peasantry (even if there are a few rich peasants and some peasants manage to gain entry to the nobility). Like feudal birthright privileges, contemporary social arrangements not only grant great advantages on the basis of birth but also entrench these advantages by legally restricting mobility, making it extremely difficult for those born into a socially disadvantaged position to overcome that disadvantage, no matter how talented they are or how hard they work. Like feudal practices, these contemporary social arrangements are hard to justify when one thinks about them closely.

Reformers in the late Middle Ages objected to the way feudalism restricted freedom, including the freedom of individuals to move from one place to another in search of a better life – a constraint that was crucial to the maintenance of the feudal system. Modern practices of state control over borders tie people to the land of their birth almost as effectively. Limiting entry to rich democratic states is a crucial mechanism for protecting a birthright privilege. If the feudal practices protecting birthright privileges were wrong, what justifies the modern ones?

Some will object that open borders would be contrary to our interests – and perhaps they are right. But if we want to act ethically, we have to give reasons for our institutions and practices and that those reasons must take a certain form. It is never enough to justify a set of social arrangements governing human beings to say that these arrangements are good for us, without regard for others, whoever the “us” may be. We have to appeal to principles and arguments that take everyone’s interests into account or that explain why the social arrangements are reasonable and fair to everyone who is subject to them. Claims about the moral importance of particular connections and communities have to take that form as well. It’s one thing to say that creating space for particular political communities to control admissions is good for all or most human beings, quite another to say that it is good for a small subset of human beings.

The New Yorker once had a cartoon that seems appropriate to mention here. It shows two kings, talking to one another. The first one says to the second, “Monarchy may not be the best form of government in principle, but it has always seemed the best form of government for me.” I am afraid that those of us who live in rich states today are a lot like that king. The way the world is organized may be hard to justify in principle, but it is good for us.

We cannot use our particularistic attachments to justify social institutions and practices that privilege those to whom we are attached at the expense of others. The king may love his son but that is not a good reason to perpetuate monarchy.

That’s a brief statement of the case for open borders. It can be challenged on the basis of principle, of course, and I’m happy to pursue that conversation in the seminar discussion. But in my conclusion, I want to focus instead on the question of why anyone would make an argument like this at all.

From a political perspective, open borders is a complete non-starter. Indeed, it’s worse. It is not an accident that Donald Trump kept saying that Democrats — who only wanted modest immigration reforms — were really for open borders. He knew that if he succeeded in linking them to this idea, they would lose most of their political support. Open borders is political poison. This connects back to the point I made above in my discussion of refugees about how important it is to pay attention to political realities when acting in the world. Most people in Europe and North America do not and will not accept the idea of open borders, even in principle, but many of them are opposed to religious discrimination in admissions (e.g., Trump’s Muslim ban), object to separating migrant children from their parents and/or locking them up in jails, have some sympathy for the idea that refugee claimants should be given a fair hearing, and so on. In that context, it would be both an intellectual and a political mistake to connect moderate ideas for helping migrants with the idea of open borders.

So, why make an argument for open borders at all if it is political poison? Part of the answer is that it is a requirement of intellectual integrity for political philosophers to tell the truth as best they can, especially in an academic context like this one, and I think the claim that justice requires open borders is true. In addition, however, I think that it is of vital importance to gain a critical perspective on the ways in which our collective choices are constrained, even when we cannot do anything to alter those constraints. Social institutions and practices may be deeply unjust and yet so firmly established that, for all practical purposes, they must be taken as background givens in deciding how to act in the world at a particular moment in time. For example, feudalism and slavery were unjust social arrangements that were deeply entrenched in places in the past. In those contexts, there was no real hope of transcending them in a foreseeable future. Yet criticism was still appropriate.

Sometimes we have to take social arrangements as givens for purposes of immediate action in a particular context. That is the perspective of a realistic ethics that I talked about earlier. But even then we should not forget about our assessment of the fundamental character of these arrangements. Otherwise we wind up legitimating what should only be endured.

Of course, most people in democratic states think that the institutions they inhabit have nothing in common with feudalism and slavery from a normative perspective. The social arrangements of democratic states, they suppose, are just — or nearly so. It is precisely that complacency that the open borders argument is intended to undermine. For I imagine (or at least hope) that in a century or two people will look back upon our world with bafflement or shock. Just as we wonder about the moral blindness of feudal aristocrats and Southern slaveowners, future generations may ask themselves how democrats today could have possibly failed to see the deep injustice of a world so starkly divided between haves and have nots and why we felt so complacent about this division, so unwilling to do what we could to change it.

The argument for open borders provides one way of bringing this deep injustice of the modern world into view. It is only a partial perspective, to be sure, because even if borders were open that would not address all of the underlying injustices that make people want to move. But it is a useful perspective because our responsibility for keeping people from immigrating is clear and direct whereas our responsibility for poverty and oppression elsewhere often is not as obvious to many people, even if that responsibility is real (as I think it is).

These are some basic, unavoidable facts: We have to use overt force to prevent people from moving. We need borders with barriers and guards with guns to keep out people whose only goal is to work hard to build a decent life for themselves and their children. And that is something we could change. At the least, we could let many more people in. Our refusal to do so is a choice we make, and it is one that keeps many of them from having a chance at a decent life.