George Packer and his problems

by Henry on May 28, 2014

George Packer’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is largely based around an argument taken from Max Weber.

Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. … he type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau … In the famous hotel-room interview in Hong Kong that revealed his identity on video, Snowden said: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large pay cheque for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” It sounds like the quiet desperation Thoreau attributed to most of his fellow men. But if, like Snowden, you can’t rest until you’ve tested the courage of your conviction by taking radical action, then “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” …

Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” called “the ethic of ultimate ends,” in contrast with “the ethic of responsibility.” There are many reasons to criticise this ethic and the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a badge of honour, but one has to admit that the issue of mass surveillance in America would not have come to public attention without a type like Snowden. … Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment.

There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that it misstates the arguments of Max Weber. The second is that it grossly misrepresents the position of Edward Snowden.

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Debate about immigration usually takes place in one of two registers: the economic and the social. Arguments in favour of immigration are generally couched in economic terms. The social impact of immigration, on the other hand, is all too often seen as negative. As a result of the debate being framed in this fashion, the pro-immigration argument is often portrayed as right-wing, while those who wish to defend working class communities, rights and living standards are often hostile to immigration.

Against this background, the significance of Joseph Carens’s work in insisting on a moral approach to immigration cannot be overstated. _The Ethics of Immigration_ superbly develops the argument that there are fundamental moral principles that should frame our attitude to immigration and shape the immigration policies of democratic nations. It adroitly reveals, too, that what we blandly call immigration controls are highly coercive instruments that brutally restrict basic freedoms.

Yet, if Carens’s argument shows the need for a moral approach to immigration, it reveals also the difficulties in pursuing such an approach.  The striking aspect of _The Ethics of Immigration_ , as of much of Carens’s work, are the two distinct perspectives that he brings to bear upon the subject. In the first 10 chapters, he grants the ‘conventional view’ on the framing of immigration,  presupposing ‘(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.’ In the final chapters, he ‘challenge[s] the conventional normative view on immigration’ arguing instead that ‘discretionary control over immigration is incompatible with fundamental democratic principles and that justice requires open borders’. [p10]
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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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