From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

Ben Smith has a good suggestion, but I think I can improve it. The conservatives he wants to call ‘liberty conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-freedom conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘freedom conservatives’.) The conservatives he wants to call ‘freedom conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-liberty conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘liberty conservatives’). [click to continue…]

My apologies for the delay in posting the second half of my reply to the symposium. I was traveling. Let me repeat at the outset my deep appreciation for the insightful comments provided by the contributors to this symposium. This is the sort of exchange that makes intellectual life rewarding. Given the delay since the original postings, I did not want to assume that readers of this post would remember what was said in the earlier ones, and I’ve tried to write this in a way that will be intelligible on its own. I take up here the six contributions that I did not discuss in the previous post. I’ll begin with David Owen, Michael Blake, Kieran Oberman and Ryan Pevnick, all of whom have related concerns. At the end, I’ll discuss the posts by Brian Weatherson and Patti Lenard.

In various, sometimes overlapping ways, David, Michael, Kieran and Ryan have raised questions about my theory of social membership. To recall (or, for those who have not read the book, to summarize), the central claim of that theory is that immigrants become members of society over time and their social membership gives them a moral claim to most of the legal rights that citizens enjoy and eventually to citizenship itself. It is important to note, however, that I do not start with a general theory of social membership that I try to justify on the basis of abstract principles and then apply to particular issues. Rather I start with the actual practices of democratic states and ask whether these practices seem to make moral sense. It is only after I have explored arguments about particular practices that I try to show that the idea of social membership is a common thread in many of these arguments. Moreover, my theory of social membership is not presented as a full account of why immigrants are morally entitled to legal rights. I contend that immigrants also have claims to legal rights based on the duty of every state to protect the human rights of anyone within the state’s jurisdiction and based on other considerations like reciprocity and proportionality as well. I think that this way of doing political theory “from the ground up” differs from the approach of some of my interlocutors, especially Kieran and Ryan. My approach is likely to be less systematic and involve more balancing of competing considerations, but I think that it is more closely connected to ordinary moral views, even when, as in the open borders chapters, it leads to radical conclusions.
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It is an author’s dream for his or her work to receive the sort of wide-ranging, substantive, thoughtful and generous reactions that this symposium on my book has elicited. So, I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to Chris Bertram for organizing the symposium and to all of the contributors, including Chris, for their comments. Among other things, I felt that all of the contributors understood my project and discussed it in a fairminded way, whether they agreed with me or not. That is not always the case in these sorts of exchanges, and I feel fortunate to have had this set of interlocutors.

I am dividing my response into two posts. In this first post I will respond to Chris Bertram, Jo Shaw, Kenan Malik, Sarah Fine, Phil Cole and Speranta Dumitru. I choose these six because all of them are concerned in one way or another with the approach that I use in my book and several of them are concerned with the open borders issue. The next post will be concerned with the moral significance of social membership (David Owen, Michael Blake, Ryan Pevnick and Kieran Oberman) and with the reasons why free movement within a state should be seen as a human right (Patti Lenard and Brian Weatherson). Although I agreed with much of what the different contributors said (especially the nice things they said about my book, of course), I’ll devote most of my time to their challenges and disagreements.
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The Ethics of Immigration symposium: index

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2014

The first part of our symposium on Joseph Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration is now concluded. While we wait for Joe to compose his reply, here’s an index of the contributions:

So why did the organisers of this symposium also offer the opportunity to a European Union lawyer – not a theorist mind, but a vanilla lawyer – to make a comment on Joseph Carens’ magisterial book on The Ethics of Immigration? It should have been obvious that I could add nothing to the excellent contributions by other normative theorists who are commenting directly on these aspects of Carens’ work. So it must have been for some other reason.

It was presumably in order to provoke a reflection upon the peculiarities of the EU’s own combined system of internal soft borders (‘free movement’) and external hard borders (‘Fortress Europe’, some might say) in the light of Carens’ arguments about the ethical demands of states in relation to borders and migrants. To that extent, my reflections are less about the book than about the issues which the book is helping me to think through – and for that I am very grateful to Joseph Carens for his wonderful text and also to the organisers for indulging my preferences.
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The Ethics of Immigration symposium: On Method

by Phillip Cole on June 2, 2014

The appearance of Joseph Caren’s book, The Ethics of Immigration, has been a long-awaited event and it does not disappoint. The breadth and depth of its vision is extraordinary and it will shape the debate for many years to come as an indispensable text. It also gives those of us who teach the ethics of migration on our courses the chance to introduce our students to that vision in its entirety, instead of guiding them to glimpses of it in journal articles and book chapters.

However, my task here is not to praise Joseph and his book, but to raise challenges to which he can respond so that we can continue the dialogue he began in the 1980s. Therefore I have to do something that is very difficult and strange to me, and to write contra JosephCarens.
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This is a fantastic symposium inspired by a fantastic book, and it is clear that all the contributors agree on at least one key point: Joseph Carens’s majestic The Ethics of Immigration is an intensely important text and all of us are deeply in debt to Carens’s work on this crucial subject. There is no doubt that over the years Carens has done more than anyone else to bring the ethics of immigration to the attention of mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy, and he has set the agenda for the discussion for many years to come.

From that shared starting point, the commentators then fall into two groups. There are those who are in broad agreement with most of Carens’s conclusions and are generally sympathetic to his overall agenda (but may disagree with parts of his approach, and even may wish to push his open borders arguments further). And there are those who disagree with a number of Carens’s conclusions and are less sympathetic to his overall agenda. I fall in with the first group; my comment is intended as a friendly intervention, which also takes seriously some of the concerns of the second group (concerns not necessarily expressed directly in the symposium pieces, but which appear in writings elsewhere). And rather than go over terrain that has already been covered in the symposium, I want to concentrate on one particular point regarding Carens’s argument from democratic principles.
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Political theorists are much indebted to Joseph Carens for his 1987 article “Aliens and Citizens: the Case for Open Borders”. Written in a period of increased restrictions on migration, Carens’s article was pioneering in two ways: it introduced the migration question to political theory’s agenda and set the terms of the debate from the free movement side. Carens’s recent book, The Ethics of Immigration, is less pioneering. It explicitly aims to engage with the “conventional view of immigration” and to show that it can accommodate some measures which improve citizenship and admission policies. The open borders argument is not abandoned but is left to only one of the twelve chapters. Carens’s main concern, however, is to show that the open borders argument does not conflict with the measures he proposes.

It is possible to have the opposite concern: are the proposed measures a way to advance towards a  world of open borders? In other words, is Carens still advocating open borders? My analysis here will be limited to the first measure he proposes in the book, this is that “justice requires that democratic states grant citizenship at birth to the descendants of settled immigrants” (p. 20). Whether justice requires this or not, many “democratic states” already conform to this principle and my argument is not that they should stop. Rather, my worry is that such an argument is not a way to advance towards an open borders world.
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Joe Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration is just the book that the growing field of the political theory of migration needed. Rich in argumentation, wide in its coverage, fluently and reflectively written, it will act as a locus of, and focus for, discussion and debate.

It is also a book with a distinctive methodological structure. In the first part, Carens presupposes ‘(1) the contemporary international order which divides the world into independent states with vast differences of freedom, security, and economic opportunity among them and (2) the conventional moral view on immigration, i.e., that despite these vast differences between states, each state is morally entitled to exercise considerable discretionary control over the admission of immigrants’ (p.10) and seeks to reconstruct how liberal democratic states should, in acting on their own deepest commitments, treat immigrants. In the second part, Carens focuses on admission and in the final two chapters drops this presumption of state control and re-articulates his well-known argument for open borders. In this commentary, I will focus on the first part of the book.

The arguments of the first part build to Carens’s theory of social membership (chapter 8) on which I’ll focus but we should preface this discussion by noting how they build to this theory. Carens is committed to a contextualist form of political theory that works from the ground up. The discussions of birthright citizenship, permanent residents, temporary worker, irregular migrants can be seen as the cases from which Carens is attempting to reconstruct a norm of social membership that will make coherent sense of our democratic practices of social and political membership. The norm that Carens reconstructs is ‘that living within the territorial boundaries of a state makes one a member of society, that this social membership gives rise to moral claims in relation to political community, and that these claims deepen over time.’ (p.158)
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Apologies for vanishing and temporarily interrupting the capability project! I’m resuming my series of posts on the capability approach, which I expect to continue till mid-July (and afterwards we’ll see where we are). I am now turning to the capability approach as a theory of justice (social or distributive justice). This may require more than one post, and in this first one I want to discuss two meta-theoretical problems with the capability approach to justice. [click to continue…]


There is a wonderful passage in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, in which Barnes expresses his anger at a dismissive critic of Flaubert:

All in all, it seems a magisterial negligence towards a writer who must, one way and another, have paid a lot of her gas bills. Quite simply, it makes me furious. Now do you understand why I hate critics?

I have had this passage in mind while I have been reading Joseph Carens’s book. I have written several articles about Carens’s view of immigration, and much of it has been critical. I take it that Barnes’s point is that we must express a certain sort of respect towards those we make the subject of our critical attentions, given how much we would be at sea without them. This seems exactly right, given how much I owe Carens; I would never have started thinking seriously about immigration had he not thought so seriously, and so well, about it first. One way or another, Carens has paid a lot of my gas bills, and done a lot more besides; he has been more gracious, both in print and in person, than he has ever needed to be. His book summarizes and extends his thinking about immigration, and I have come to respect that view and its creator enormously. It is not my view, but it is the very best the field has produced, and I hope I have not treated it with negligence.

In what follows, I am going to ignore much of the dispute I have had with Carens over the moral permissibility of exclusion, and focus on a topic found primarily within the first half of the book: the idea of social membership, and what rights can be adequately grounded in that idea. My arguments here are going to be similar to those made by Ryan Pevnick in his own post, although I hope I will make them in a slightly different way.
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Why the case for open borders is crucial to defending the rights of resident migrants

Joseph Carens’s important, engaging and superbly written book aims to offer “a general account of how democrats should think about immigration” (p10) based on “fundamental democratic principles” that Carens believes most people in Europe and North America already hold (p5). This methodological stance dictates the structure of the book. What is most controversial is pushed to the back. Chapters 11 and 12 make the argument Carens is most famous for: the case for open borders. Chapters 1-10 set that all aside to address a range of everyday migration controversies, from naturalisation to religious dress codes, under the assumption that states have a broad right to control immigration as they wish. The boast of the book is that it can adopt this underlying assumption and still defend a set of progressive policy proposals requiring states to extend a variety of rights to migrants. The case for open borders is meant to be Carens’s encore – a treat performance once the main show is over – not a premise upon which the whole thing hinges. Does Carens pull it off? In my view, no. Most of the arguments that Carens makes for migrants’ rights in Chapters 1-10 fail unless the right of states to control immigration is called into question. Conversely, if one accepts not only the common assumption that states have a right to control immigration but also the common beliefs that lie behind that assumption, then one has reason to resist the extension of rights to migrants.
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Joseph Carens has written a brilliant and stimulating book. I can’t remember the last time I filled a book with so many marginal jottings, either because he had made a striking point that I wanted a reminder of, or because what he said was so thought-provoking, or, often, both.

I agree with the vast majority of Professor Carens’s conclusions. It would make a boring symposium contribution to just list points of agreement, so I’m going to spend a bit of time here on a few points where I don’t agree. Now I’m sure you’ve heard a philosopher give an introduction like that once or twice before, and it can sound rather trite. So I want to start with a couple more positive things.

The fact that the book is so rich, that there are things worth talking about on basically every page, means that it would be a joy to teach. I don’t think there are many philosophy departments around that currently have on the curriculum a course on the ethics of immigration. Here’s some free advice to my fellow philosophers: Add such a course, and have Professor Carens’s book be a central text in it. You’ll get a topic, and a text, that are interesting to people who normally wouldn’t take philosophy classes. You’ll get more topics for fruitful discussion than you can easily handle. And, especially in a university with any kind of diversity, you’ll get the chance for you, and the students, to learn from how the lived experiences of the different members of the class interact with the theoretical issues at hand. I know many universities have been adding, with great success, courses on the ethics of food. A course on the ethics of immigration could have a similar kind of success.

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This is the first contribution in a Crooked Timber symposium on Joseph Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford, 2013). Over the next week there will be a number of further contributions by guests and Crooked Timber bloggers, followed at some near but later time by a response to critics from Joseph Carens himself.

Some worries about Carens’s democratic consensus

Joseph Carens started the contemporary discussion of immigration and justice back in 1987 with his essay “Aliens and Citizens: the Case for Open Borders” (Review of Politics 49:2) and has pursued the topic doggedly since then in a series of books and papers. But we’ve had to wait until now for the definitive statement of his views. The Ethics of Immigration is a terrific book in various different ways. First, in assembling a challenging series of arguments around its core topic; second, in breaking new ground in how to do political philosophy; and third, in demonstrating that a work in political philosophy can be written with such clarity and can communicate with the lay reader without sacrificing rigour or philosophical depth. In this last respect it is astonishing: it is beautifully written, never hides behind jargon and engages with its readers without patronising them. In short, it is a great achievement.
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Henry has nudged me a little, every so often, towards participating more in the life of Crooked Timber—or participating at all, really, since it’s been almost four years since my last posting. Fair enough. And so now, without further ado: Here I am again, ready to complain.

The Marxist Internet Archive ( is a vast and growing resource, run entirely by donated labor, and as polylingual as circumstances permit. (Do they have Trotsky in Tagalog? Indeed they do.) Yesterday, a notice appeared in the Archive’s Facebook group, and also on its homepage, saying that Lawrence & Wishart’s lawyers demand removal of material from the Marx-Engels Collected Works: “Accordingly, from 30th April 2014, no material from MECW is available from English translations of Marx and Engels from other sources will continue to be available.”

Responding to L&W’s demand in a suitable manner would require someone with Marx’s or Engels’s knack for invective and scatology, and I’m not even going to try. But the idea that most of their work is going to be removed from the website on May Day is just grotesque.
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