The Ethics of Immigration symposium: Communities, social anxiety and open borders

by Kenan Mailik on May 28, 2014

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]

For Carens, the two perspectives reveal the distinction between a moral inquiry in an ideal world and one that is framed by the political constraints of the contemporary world. In the early chapters, Carens ‘take[s] the existing international order as a given because that order is deeply entrenched and it is the context within which moral questions about immigration and citizenship first arise for us.’ Because the conventional view is so ‘deeply entrenched’, only by adopting it can one hope to persuade people of the merits of other, related issues such as citizenship or irregular labour. It allows him ‘to explore the nature and extent of the limits justice imposes on immigration policies within a more “realistic” framework’. [p 11]

This dual perspective is one that Carens has adopted throughout his work. The aim of morality, Carens suggests in his 1996 paper ‘Realistic and Idealistic Approaches to the Ethics of Migration’ ( _International Migration Review_ , 30, pp 156-70), is to guide action; if the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is too great, then moral claims will appear implausible to most people. Such claims cannot guide action, and so fail to function as moral prescriptions. Hence the need for a realistic approach.

Yet, Carens observes, without going beyond the realistic approach to an idealist one, one can never challenge the status quo. Once, slavery was regarded as a ‘realistic’ institution, in the same way as closed borders are today. A realistic moral approach would never have been able to challenge that intuition – or that institution. Hence the need for an idealist approach.

Both realistic and the idealist approach, Carens argued in his 1996 paper, are necessary, in constructing an ethics of immigration. They offer not ‘logically incompatible positions’ but ‘differing sensibilities and strategies of inquiry’. There is ‘no uniquely satisfying perspective on the ethics of migration’; the realistic and idealist perspective each ‘has something important to contribute’.

Carens’s dual perspective argument is particularly important at a time when, in response to growing support, particularly in Europe, for populist, anti-immigration parties, many on the left either dismiss such support as racist, and therefore refuse to engage with the concerns of these voters, or engage with them by conceding the arguments, by pandering to prejudices and by stoking anti-immigration fears. Both strategies have been visible over the past week, in the wake of the success in the European elections of groups such as the Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party.

The importance of _The Ethics of Immigration_ is in laying out a model of how to engage in debate without jettisoning one’s principles. By accepting conventional constraints, Carens argues, we can engage in conversation with those – the majority – who accept the necessity for controls; through such engagement we can show what the democratic norms that most people accept really demand of  immigration and citizenship policy. At the same time, we can use ‘cantilever arguments’ to show how that the conventional view of immigration is incompatible with these democratic norms; such norms require the opening up of borders.

What Carens’s approach does brilliantly is both lay out the arguments and suggest a means for engaging in argument. The dual approach does, however, pose a number of problematic questions. One was raised by Chris Bertram in his opening contribution: to what extent do those voters who are drawn to, say UKIP or the Front National, accept the same democratic norms as Carens does? Or, to put it another way, in engaging with the concerns of such voters, is Carens’s the best starting point? We can pose another question, too, not about the starting point, but the end point: how do we move from one perspective to the other? If the only way to persuade people to take action is by adopting a realistic approach, by accepting the constraints of conventional views on the rights, duties and obligations of states towards immigrants, how do we ever create a world in which ideal morality holds sway?

What the dual perspective expresses is the complex, and often fraught, relationship between morality and politics. In a world in which social structures are given, in which the possibilities of social transformation seem remote, then the moral question people ask themselves is ‘What claims are rational or reasonable given the social structure?’ Morality can only be about defining right and wrong behaviours or policies within a particular structure of a society – or else must appear impossibly utopian. This was the case for much of the premodern world.

But in a world in social structures are contested, politically and physically, then ought is as much a political as a moral demand. This was the change wrought by modernity. The recognition that society can be transformed, and the emergence of social mechanisms for effecting such transformation, has transformed also the meaning of morality. How society ought to be has become defined by the political possibilities of social change. People have to ask themselves not simply ‘What moral claims are rational given the social structure?’, but also ‘What social structures are rational?’. What kind of society, what types of social institutions, what forms of social relations, will best allow moral lives to flourish?

Today, elements of both these worlds co-exist. Few imagine that social structures are fixed or inviolable, and yet there is little belief that much can be changed. Social movements have eroded, social democratic parties have cut their roots with their traditional constituencies, and there is a widespread sense of political disengagement and voicelessness. The consequence is that many perceive society as changing at bewildering speed, but feel also that they have no control over the manner of that change. Immigration has become symbolic both of unacceptable change and of the inability to effect change. And in becoming so, it has transformed also many peoples’ understanding of what morality requires.

One of the key arguments against open borders is that advocates fail to recognize the social bonds that hold people together in communities, and which are disrupted by too great an influx.  So, David Goodhart in his response to my review of his book _The British Dream_ , suggested that to defend mass immigration is to ‘adopt a sort of methodological individualism – there are only individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything’. This, he suggests, ‘is the left’s equivalent of  “there is no such thing as society”’.

It is an argument perhaps most eloquently put by Michael Walzer, who argues in that without tight control of borders there can be no possibility of creating what he calls ‘communities of character’, that is ‘historically stable, ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life.’ For Walzer, ‘the distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure and, without it, cannot be conceived as a stable feature of human life’. [ _Spheres of Justice_ , 39]

Carens robustly challenges Walzer’s view, asking for instance, ‘Why focus on the defensive measures (closure) needed to sustain a community under pressure from an unwanted influx of migrants rather than on the positive measures that would make closure unnecessary?’ [262] There is, however, a deeper issue here. A communitarian, such as Walzer or Goodhart, thinks of a community as being constituted through history and bound primarily by its past, ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’, as Edmund Burke put it. Values, from a communitarian perspective, are defined as much by place and tradition as by reason and necessity. Hence a highly particular notion of ‘the distinctiveness of cultures and groups’ (a notion into which Carens, too, to a degree, buys).

We can, however, acknowledge the social embeddedness of individuals in a different way, in terms not of the constraints of history but of the possibilities of change, in terms not of tradition but of transformation. Movements for social transformation are defined less by a sense of a shared past (though most draw upon historical traditions) than by hopes of a common future.

These two ways of thinking of communities and collectives usually co-exist and are often in tension with each other. The idea of a community or of a nation inevitably draws upon a past that has shaped its present. But the existence of movements for social change transforms the meaning of the past, and of the ways in which one thinks of identity.

One of the key consequences of the decline of organizations for collective social change, and the growing sense of political disengagement, has been that many people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do we want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The first question looks forward for answers and defines them in terms of the commonality of values necessary for establishing the good life.  The second generally looks back and seeks answers – and defines identity – in terms of history and heritage.

Michael Walzer argues that open borders will create a balkanized society. Unless states take measures to ‘restrain the flow of immigration’ at the national borders, the result,  he insists, will not be ‘a world without walls’ but rather societies broken into ‘a thousand petty fortresses’ as every group or neighbourhood takes matters into its own hands and imposes informal controls to preserve its ‘distinctiveness’. The only other alternative in a world of open borders, he suggests, is the creation of ‘a world of deracinated men and women’. [ _Spheres of Justice_ , 39]

In a sense we already inhabit such a world. European societies, in particular, have over recent decades become both more socially atomized and riven by identity politics. Atomization has played into the hands of a deracinated middle class. Identity politics have helped foster communities defined by faith, ethnicity or culture. For many working class communities, however, these two processes have both corroded the social bonds that once gave them strength and identity and dislocated their place in society. And they have helped turned immigration into a symbol of that corrosion and dislocation. It is not the case, in other words, that mass immigration has created ‘a thousand petty fortresses’ and ‘a world of deracinated men and women’. It is rather that the creation of a thousand petty fortresses and a world of deracinated men and women has helped turn immigration into a symbol of much of what is wrong in such a world.

All this brings us back to Carens’s ‘dual perspective’. I have, as I have already suggested, great sympathy for this approach. It also poses, however, against this background of contemporary social anxiety and the reasons for it, some deep problems about how to address the question of immigration. So, let me conclude with three points that set out some of these problems:

1. Concepts of morality are inseparable from the attitudes to social transformation. As perceptions of social transformation change, so do people’s views about what is and is not morally acceptable. This is why the norms that Carens takes as widely accepted may not be; not because people are being unreasonable, irrational or immoral but  because that which is regarded as reasonable, rational and moral has changed as perceptions of social possibilities have changed.

2.  Given the symbolic role that immigration plays today, it is unclear to me that the strategy of extending the logic of democratic norms, of using ‘cantilever arguments’, will, of itself, have the desired effect.  Open borders, not controls, have, for many people, become expressions of the failure of states to live up to their professed democratic norms.

3. What is missing in the debate, and what is necessary to link the realistic and idealistic perspectives, is a narrative of social transformation. This is not a criticism of Carens’s argument.  _The Ethics of Immigration_ sets out to do establish something different, and in that it brilliantly succeeds. It is, however, an observation about the immigration debate as such. It is the breakdown of traditional mechanisms for social change, and the consequent sense of political disengagement felt by many, that has made immigration such a toxic issue. Without addressing that breakdown and that disengagement we cannot address the anxieties about immigration or open borders. The promise of Carens’s dual perspective is that it allows us to engage in debate about norms with those who are hostile to the idea open borders. The danger is that, in the absence of new mechanisms for social change, the consequence may be to entrench the idea of the current system as ‘realistic’ and the open borders argument as utopian.

Kenan Malik‘s books include The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (2014) and From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy (2009).



Rakesh Bhandari 05.28.14 at 3:48 pm

Open borders could lead to more brain drain, given who could afford to take advantage of open borders. Could that lead to ethical problems? Why is the focus mostly on the balkanization of the wealthy countries, not the possible effects on the poor countries?


BenSix 05.28.14 at 9:53 pm

Movements for social transformation are defined less by a sense of a shared past (though most draw upon historical traditions) than by hopes of a common future.

Do you have any examples of such “movements for social transformation”? I am no historian but cases of mass movements pursuing a collective future that spring to my mind involved people who found their circumstances intolerable. I doubt that in the absence of such pain most human beings are so ambitious as to be inspired by dreams of future societies. Most people are so wrapped up with their daily lives that they cannot even bring themselves to care about dire warnings of environmental devastation.


bjk 05.28.14 at 10:54 pm

Kenan Malik, by the way. What’s the point of immigration if it won’t destroy the host community? Isn’t that the whole point? Destroy racist, sexist and backward traditions? Faster please! Kenan Malik gives the immigration opponents far too much credit. Destruction is the program, not an unfortunate side-effect.


P.M.Lawrence 05.29.14 at 12:54 am

Yet, Carens observes, without going beyond the realistic approach to an idealist one, one can never challenge the status quo. Once, slavery was regarded as a ‘realistic’ institution, in the same way as closed borders are today. A realistic moral approach would never have been able to challenge that intuition – or that institution.

Sure it could – and very often did. For instance, in the case of slavery, a large part of the driver for its abolition in many times and places was that it was ceasing to pay (see Nassau Senior’s classic work on Wages for some contemporary remarks on this).

So an idealist with those values should work with this in a number of ways:-

– by bringing out the changing realities and so reducing the lag time until understanding changed;

– by working to change the realities; and

– by being aware that the changing realities might also bring about other areas in which ethical problems could arise (e.g. the coolie labour system that replaced slavery in much of the West Indies) and working to nip those problems in the bud.


Metatone 05.29.14 at 8:49 am

I think it’s possible to miss something by leaping to “a thousand petty fortresses” as a metaphor.

As I mention on a previous thread:

The burghers of Princeton, NJ are fine with an “open border” with Trenton, NJ – but there are a bunch of rules, enforced by “men with guns” about settling down in Princeton. There is not “open settlement” and certainly would not be any tolerance of a shanty town/favela…

It seems to me the open borders case too often relies one of two unspoken assumptions:

1) A Manifest Destiny style belief that all those empty bits of land are just open space, waiting to be colonised.

2) A belief in a version of Say’s law – “supply creates it’s own demand” – that if people can move into economies, the economies will simply absorb them and grow.

I do think this is worrying, esp. as so many base the “moral” case on assumptions about the relative ease of solving the practical problems.


David 05.29.14 at 10:20 am

As BenSix says, it’s hard to think of genuinely popular and widespread movements for social transformation, as opposed to narrower demands for the simple remedying of social and political grievances. In practice, most social transformations are either elite driven (such as the forced move from the countryside to the town in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) or the results of demands from below by social or ethnic groups which consider themselves disadvantaged. Indeed, much of the political ferment in Europe at the moment is a reaction to the social transformations directly and indirectly imposed from above by neoliberal elites, and the desire to retain what they can of a sense of collective identity which goes beyond that of being simple consumers.
As Metatone says, traditional thinking about immigration relies on a series of unspoken assumptions, which, to be fair, largely held true up to the 1970s. The principal ones were that the host economy was growing, that there was a labour shortage, that immigrants would bring new skills and economic benefits, that they could begin by doing menial jobs and better themselves, and that they would eventually take their place at all levels of the host society. This is no longer true. In France, for example, the economy is no longer growing, there is huge unemployment and a massive labour surplus, and recent immigrants have little opportunity to work except illegally. Many immigrants, such as those recently arrived from Mali, are also illiterate (two-thirds of the population according to the World Bank) and have no skills of any kind. They are driven from their countries by poverty and conflict. They have no money, and may be in debt when they arrive. Interestingly, many French people (including some who voted for the FN) are not anti-immigrant as such, but see immigration rather as a weapon deployed against them by elites.
Which leads me to wonder whether the admirable ambitions of those who make the case for less restrictive immigration controls may not, in fact, simply become co-opted for the use of these same elites. We have surely learned, by now, to reflexively question the idea that such terms as “open” and “free” are automatically good, and will benefit everyone. “Free markets” and “freeing businesses from regulation” for example, are recognised to be codes for measures which clearly benefit certain sections of society but not others.

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