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.

Despite the fact that I have been arguing for the ethics of open borders and that Joseph’s work has had a foundational role in those arguments, I have always been aware that there is an area of difference, and it is one that he reflects on in his book, especially in the Appendix, where he discusses method. That difference is whether as theorists we should argue directly for open borders, or whether we need to get there step by step. I have taken the direct position, while, despite the fact that we agree on the ultimate destination, Joseph has taken the view that we need to move more slowly.

His book follows that pattern, with the first ten chapters addressing the ethical dimensions of specific issues such as the status of temporary workers, irregular migrants and refugees, and the last three arguing for the ethics of open borders. The first ten chapters do not rest on any arguments for open borders, and indeed Joseph says that in those chapters he is working within the framework of what he calls the Conventional View, one that presumes that states have the right to discretionary control over who crosses their borders. In the last three chapters he argues that this Conventional View is wrong, but it is possible to accept all of his arguments in the first ten chapters without abandoning it.

Joseph explains why he takes this approach in the Introduction and the Appendix. He is, he argues, doing political theory from the ground up. By this he means that he is not working from any specific theoretical framework about justice or democracy or human rights, but instead is drawing on widely shared democratic ideas and principles that he finds in the major liberal democracies in the world today. He is relying on an “overlapping consensus” about what democracy requires (p. 9), a consensus that includes political theorists and ordinary democratic citizens. What emerges is a “general account of how democrats should think about immigration” (p. 10).

Part of this approach is to work with the Conventional View for as long as possible because that is certainly part of the overlapping democratic consensus – those theorists and democratic citizens who believe in freedom of international movement are out on a very isolated limb.

There is a pragmatic element to this approach: “…if I am to have any hope of persuading people of the merits of my views on the other issues that I discuss…, I must not tie those arguments to the case for open borders” (p. 11). I have certainly felt the force of that pragmatism when debating the ethics of migration in the public sphere, most recently when a discussion I was engaged in about what a just immigration policy would look like came to a sudden end when my opponent noticed I was prepared to argue for open borders – there was no longer any need to take my arguments seriously even though none of them at that stage rested on the open borders position.

But Joseph insists this is not only pragmatism – it is “a principled commitment to a certain kind of dialogue” (p. 11). Democratic deliberation as a practice involves adopting moral views that are widely shared in the democratic community, even when we as participants may not agree with those specific views. Otherwise democratic dialogue could not take place, as my experience shows.

In the Appendix Joseph elaborates on this method. He makes it clear that all debate requires presuppositions in order to start, even though those presuppositions may well be questioned at another stage – we cannot question everything at once. To illustrate this he draws a continuum between what he calls the Just World presupposition (p. 301) which takes very little as morally given, and the Real World presupposition (p. 303) which addresses questions of justice in the context of the world as we more or less find it, morally and institutionally

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, but Joseph believes there is a third way, which he calls the Democratic Principles presupposition (p. 306). All that is presupposed here is a commitment to democratic principles: we can address issues of migration by thinking about what justice requires in terms of the principles we find in the contemporary democratic tradition.

The question of where we start the argument, what presuppositions we hold and why, is a very complex one, and Joseph’s method is attractive in that it enables us to avoid the need to establish controversial foundations. As he points out, the Just World presupposition (which most closely captures my own approach) forces us to address some fundamental theoretical issues which require a wider moral theory or moral theories, such as a fully worked out theory of human rights. If we take Joseph’s approach we can take human rights as we find them in liberal democratic theory and practice, and discuss the ethics of migration in that context. If we take my approach, as I am all too painfully aware, we need to more or less start again.

However, there is still a misgiving I have about Joseph’s alternative. The Just World presupposition, at least as I understand it, is built upon a commitment to moral equality, the equal moral worth of all human beings. But this commitment does not appear out of nowhere, not least within the Just World – it is already here, embodied in the democratic principles that Joseph makes central to his work. The critical point is that this commitment to moral equality is not fully worked out in democratic practice as we find it. If it were, we would move directly to a recognition of the right to international movement, because it is only in a political order which embodies that right — amongst others – that moral equality is fully realized. The dialogue we are engaged in, then, is to draw out the contradictions and arbitrary limitations upon the force of that democratic principle until we arrive at the ethical position of open borders. What we are doing is placing contingent and arbitrary features of the political world such as national borders, nation-states and national identities against the non-contingent moral equality of the migrant, and pointing to the moral force of the latter.

For me, then, it is the commitment to moral equality that drives the argument and drives it to its moral conclusion, but the point is that this commitment is embodied in liberal democratic theory and practice – all we are doing is pushing for consistency.

So what disagreement can there be with Joseph Carens here? In many ways this is precisely what he is doing in his book. If there is a disagreement is it this (and I’m not sure it amounts to much): that what the principle of moral equality reveals from the outset is the case for open borders – therefore as soon as we point out the force of the principle, we can already see our destination. We cannot apply the principle of moral equality to specific issues — like the position of temporary workers, irregular migrants and asylum seekers — without revealing our ultimate answer. In other words, the Conventional View is already revealed to be mistaken.

The fact is that Joseph mentions the principle of equal moral worth on page 2, in the introduction to the book, as one of the democratic principles he is working with, those “broad moral commitments” that underlie and justify contemporary liberal democratic institutions. But it does not appear again until page 226 which is, interestingly, the beginning of the case for open borders. Equal citizenship does get discussed in the first part of the book, but the dialectic of the argument is surely that even at this stage the principle at work here is that of the equal moral worth of all human beings, not only our co-citizens.

And so the question is why the principle of equal moral worth is given as one of the basic democratic principles and moral commitments at the start of the book, but disappears from view only to re-emerge at the start of the section arguing for open borders? The answer may be that it does not disappear at all but gets disguised as the principle of equal citizenship, only to cast off that disguise at the opening of chapter 11. But this is to assume that the disguise is impenetrable during those first ten chapters. My point is that the import of the principle of moral equality is more obvious than that, such that we can see through the disguise from the outset – and by ‘we’ here I mean anybody committed to democratic principles.

This is, of course, a minor difference – perhaps not even a genuine one – and is based on a shallow reading of a book with enormous depth. It is one I shall be reading for many months, perhaps years, in order to fully grasp its arguments, and my respect and admiration for Joseph Carens can only grow with every reading.


Phil Cole teaches Politics and International Relations at the University of West of England, Bristol. He is author of Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh University Press 2000), and, with Christopher Heath Wellman,  Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? (Oxford University Press 2011).



Matt 06.03.14 at 10:47 am

The critical point is that this commitment to moral equality is not fully worked out in democratic practice as we find it. If it were, we would move directly to a recognition of the right to international movement, because it is only in a political order which embodies that right—amongst others – that moral equality is fully realized.

This is a helpful post. I can’t possibly reply fully to it in a blog comment, for reasons of both space and time, but I think it’s useful to get this claim out, because it does show a fundamental difference in some views. I’m not sure it shows the difference that’s claimed, though. I’ll admit when I’ve read Cole’s work, this has seemed not like an obvious point, but a huge and unsupported jump- the idea that moral equality requires open borders is, frankly, just not obvious. I’d suggest that it is, at best, at least as contentious as the idea that moral equality requires equality of resources, or of outcomes, or income, or that everyone take turns sharing different sorts of work. Maybe those claims are right, but they are very hotly debated among people who all share a good-faith commitment to the idea of moral equality. This tells us that we need substantive arguments as to _why_ moral equality requires the substantive arrangements in question, and this is what always seems to me to be lacking in the strong “open borders” arguments. Treating the claim as obvious is unhelpful because, clearly enough, it’s not generally obvious. What follows from moral equality is something that has to be worked out in careful detail, not something that can be merely known. For the open borders argument to work, it will have to take more care to show why this follows. (Importantly, it has to do more to show why it follows not just in “remedial” cases, but for everyone- why it’s necessary for, say, the middle-class citizens of Toronto, and not just for the bad off in the world.)


LFC 06.03.14 at 11:44 am

What we are doing is placing contingent and arbitrary features of the political world such as national borders, nation-states and national identities against the non-contingent moral equality of the migrant, and pointing to the moral force of the latter.

Much hinges on how one views the moral status of national identities, state boundaries, etc. (I haven’t read all the posts in the symposium, and this issue may be discussed in detail in one or more of the posts I haven’t gotten to. I know it has been mentioned in a couple of the posts, at least in passing.)

On a separate point, I’d be interested in what the author views as the other implications of the principle of moral equality. I would think it would require some basic changes in the current int’l political-economic order beyond (or in addition to) open borders.


Matt 06.05.14 at 3:01 am

Here is a new, very carefully argued paper that tries to work out when and why immigration restrictions are justified, without making the assumptions I thought were problematic above. I don’t agree w/ all of it, but it certainly pays careful study by those interested in the topic. (It’s written by a person who is quite knowledgeable of immigration practice and policy as well.)

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