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The Ethics of Immigration


is the name of an important new book on a topic the author, Joe Carens, played a major role in bringing to prominence in political theory. His 1987 article begins thusly:

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 Western democracies. To Haitians in small, leaky boats confronted by armed Coast Guard cutters, to Salvadorans dying from heat and lack of air after being smuggled into the Arizona desert, to Guatemalans crawling through rat-infested sewer pipes from Mexico to California-to these people the borders, guards and guns are all too apparent. What justifies the use of force against such people? Perhaps borders and guards can be justified as a way of keeping out criminals, subversives, or armed invaders. But most of those trying to get in are not like that. They are ordinary, peaceful people, seeking only the opportunity to build decent, secure lives for themselves and their families. On what moral grounds can these sorts of people be kept out? What gives anyone the right to point guns at them?

That article goes on to attempt to demonstrate that anyone committed to a recognizable version of liberalism should find sufficient reasons to support open borders as a matter of justice already existing within their pre-existing commitments. Since then, he’s written dozens of chapters and articles exploring various dimensions of the ethics of immigration, the majority of which have been far more modest in aim and scope, often assuming for the sake of argument the discretionary right of states to attempt to control migration flows. My own writing on the subject (one slice of which I discuss here) has followed a similar strategy. But my worry, when I heard that his long-awaited (by the few hundred people with a scholarly interest in the ethics of immigration) book actually had a release date and would finally appear, was that it would a classic compilation of previously published material. Part of my fear was that I’d read most of them already, and I was looking forward to something new for my $35 dollars. But I was also unclear on his current relationship to the arguments he published almost three decades ago. I was delighted and relieved it was not. His commitment to the view that any defensible moral view demands open borders remains, and chapters 11 and 12 essentially supercede and substantially advance the arguments made in the 1987 piece. The first 10 chapters (which I have not yet read carefully, although I’ve dipped in here and there) discuss a variety of ethical issues that revolve around immigration even if we grant state discretion over admittance and membership.

Throughout, he uses a similar tactic as his article, not so much for liberalism but for basic democratic commitments he assumes to be widespread. On the one hand, I appreciate this: I think he’s basically right, and I think his democratic commitments have appeal beyond those who would identify as liberals in the philosophical sense. On the other hand, I think Chris Bertram is correct here:

Carens’s method of argument explicitly draws on Rawls’s idea of the “overlapping consensus”: the idea that reasonable people agree on a number of substantive propositions about the way in which a legitimate state should be organized, even if they disagree on their underlying moral and political justification. Areas of agreement include ideas such as that citizens should be equal before the law, that freedoms of religion, speech and assembly should be protected, that every adult citizen of sound mind should have a right to political participation, and so forth. Carens want to show his fellow citizens that the reasonable policies he favours on citizenship and integration are implied by principles they already accept. This is a rather different use of overlapping consensus from Rawls’s one. Whereas Rawls wanted to demonstrate the possibility of a legitimate liberal political order coexisting with the fact of disagreement, Carens’s argument is more pragmatic and his aim is more political. He wants to get people from principles they already accept to conclusions he wants to persuade them of. He leaves us in no doubt that he is making a set of empirical claims about what citizens of democratic states believe. For example, “on a wide range of topics there is no serious disagreement among those who think of themselves as democrats” (2-3) and “that conventional framework is one that most people in democratic states accept” (185). On the morning after the European Parliament elections it is hard to share his confidence in democratic consensus: the existence of “unreasonable people”, a theoretical problem for Rawls, is an immediately practical one for Carens.

The worry, then, is that the empirical claim about widely shared beliefs may be false. Carens may be conflating what electors in liberal democratic states actually believe and the story that liberal democratic societies officially tell about themselves: the civics lesson is substituting for political sociology.

The main point of this post is to direct any interested readers to Crooked Timber for the symposium on the book. Like Chris, I find little to disagree with; I don’t know who they’ve got lined up to comment on it but I expect there will be some sharp and challenging critics to help me see the book through a more critical lens.

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