Debating the Morality of Immigration Restrictions

Olivia Goldhill had an interesting rundown of different philosophies on immigration in her Quartz article “Philosophers can’t agree on how much we should help refugees—or even whether we should.” It won’t surprise any of my loyal readers that my position is closest to Joseph Caren’s position in the passage Olivia quotes:

Citizenship in Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent to feudal privilege—an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances. Like feudal birthright privileges, restrictive citizenship is hard to justify when one thinks about it closely.

Peter Singer’s position, as explained in 16 paragraphs in “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle,” also has a lot of merit to it. A Utilitarian counterpart argument that comes to the same conclusion is that, even if one puts a welfare weight on distant strangers that is only a fraction of the welfare weight one puts on oneself or on people in one’s own community or nation, there are many people in such desperate straits that it makes sense to do a lot to help them. 

Because there are so many people who need help, it makes sense to look for ways to help that will leaves one still in a position to help yet more people. Relatively open borders are exactly such a way of helping one set of people while maintaining the ability to do more to help yet others. So Peter Singer’s position comes closer to Joseph Caren’s practical recommendation than might be immediately apparent. The general principle is that helping others by giving them more liberty (in this case, the freedom to cross national borders) is a way of helping that replenishes itself.