Pandaemonium

ON THE ETHICS OF IMMIGRATION

The politics/philosophy blog Crooked Timber, is organising an online symposium on Joseph Carens’ superb book, The Ethics of Immigration. The opening post was by Chris Bertram. Others will post their responses through this week. This is my contribution to the symposium.  I will publish a post next week with links to all the various symposium posts.  Joseph Carens will himself respond in time to the symposium, and all the contributions will eventually be bundled into a e-book. I will publish details when that happens.


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 rightwing, 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’ 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’ 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’ 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 expore the nature and extent of the limits justice imposes on immigration policies within a more “realistic” framework’. [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, 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’ 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’ approach does brilliantly is both lay out the arguments and suggests 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’ 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 Godhart 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’ ‘dual perspective’. I have, as I have already suggested, great sympathy for this approach. It also, however, against this background of social anxiety, poses 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’ 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 my many, that has made immigration such a toxic issue. Without addressing the breakdown and that disengagement we cannot address the anxieties about immigration or open borders. The promise of Carens’ 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.

11 comments

  1. De Te Fabula Narratur

    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.

    The most fundamental moral principle of all is that the elite should decide, not the majority. If the majority had had their way in the UK, US, France and every other ethnically-enriched Western nation, we wouldn’t have been ethnically enriched. And what would have been moral — or indeed democratic — about that?

    It adroitly reveals, too, that what we blandly call immigration controls are highly coercive instruments that brutally restrict basic freedoms.

    Indeed. After all, if we’d have “immigration controls” in the UK on the entry of Muslims and “brutally restricted” their right to enter our racist and xenophobic nation, what would have happened to free speech? Or the chance for under-age “white” girls to experience female rights à la Islam? Or the vibrant democratic practices we can see in Tower Hamlets and many other enriched areas of the UK? And just think: as the Muslim population grows, Britain will be even more enriched. We may even gain such non-coercive, non-brutal basic freedoms as this:

    Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti has been shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad. He was travelling to work through a residential district when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets, police said. Mr Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian minister, had received death threats for urging reform to blasphemy laws. In January, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had also opposed the law, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards. The blasphemy law carries a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say it has been used to persecute minority faiths.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12617562

    • Ah, yes, I forgot that Britain was such a paradise of free speech, democracy and equality until ‘the Muslims’ put an end to all that…

      • De Te Fabula Narratur

        Thanks for reply. There has never been a “paradise of free speech, democracy and equality” and probably never will be.* But Britain comes a lot closer than any Muslim nation and certainly a lot closer than Pakistan and Bangladesh. It follows, then, that mass immigration from Muslim nations will not be good for free speech and democracy in the UK. And that is exactly what we see. The more Islam, the less free speech:

        BIRMINGHAM: Up to 25,000 British Pakistani men, women and children from across the UK gathered in Aston Park here to express their love for Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) and to call on the British government to introduce legislation that bars Islamophobes from insulting Islam under the garb of the freedom of speech. Thousands rally in UK

        *See Kant and “crooked timber of humanity.”

        • The fact that Pakistan and Bangladesh have a worse free speech record than Britain tells us, well, that Pakistan and Bangladesh have a worse free speech record than Britain. It tells us nothing about ‘mass immigration from Muslim nations’. I have already replied (below to Joe) to the idea that mass immigration is responsible for deterioration in freedom.

  2. Joe Tatchell

    Hi Kenan,

    We shouldn’t blame everything on Muslims.

    Having said that, I must insist that blame should be apportioned where it is due – and it remains an incontrovertible fact that, over the past twenty years, being gay has become an identity fraught with danger in certain parts of London. Likewise, it remains a fact that those who intimidate, humiliate, persecute and rutinely beat up gay people in East London are predominantly Muslims.

    There is simply no getting around it.

    I know, because I’m gay and I used to live in Tower Hamlets until the daily harrasments and the ever-present threat of violence made me turn tail and run.

    Over the past 20 years, 75% of the gay pubs/clubs in east London have closed down. This demonstrates that the gay population of east London is only 25% of what it was 20 years ago.

    This also means that when people say that the homophobic assaults reported in Tower Hamlets are lower than e.g. Westminster (Soho) or Lambeth (Vauxhall) it is misleading, unless it is seen against the relative numbers of manifestly gay people in those areas. And how is someone most easily identified as gay? By seeing them going in or out of pubs/clubs. My friend who was queer-bashed by a gang of 12 muslims was on his way home from a gay pub; the manager of one of the gay pubs that closed down said that it was because his customers were being attacked on leaving the pub. When Oliver Hemsley was attacked by a gang of 8 muslims, and left paralysed for life, it happened outside a gay bar. When one of the 8 was sent to prison, a much bigger gang returned and attacked the bar & customers with baseball bats. It is acknowledged that the vast majority of attacks on gay people are never reported to the police.

    So, there are going to be far more gay people to be attacked in places like Westminster and Lambeth than are to be found in Tower Hamlets now.

    East London is now a Gay Free Zone.

    You can see here a video of a gay man talking about the attacks on one of the last remaining gay bars in east London: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IZY-USdLXl4

    The gay media have ignored this subject (bar owners probably told them not to publicise it, as it would drive away customers, and lead to a further decline). The mainstream media have completely ignored these attacks.

    Britain may not have been “a paradise of free speech, democracy and equality until ‘the Muslims’ put an end to all that,” as you so facetiously put it. But the huge influx of reactionary immigrants, mainly with a Muslim identity, actually does make the late ’80s seem almost semi-paradisical to those of us who remember them. Especially us gays.

    So Kenan, is our loss of free speech and equality a small price to pay for mass immigration? I think not, but apparently you differ

    Joe T

    • Joe
      I’m well aware of what is happening in parts of East London (and not just to gays). However, I would make three points:

      1. The problem is not ‘Muslims’, any more than in the days that I had to organize street patrols in East London to protect Asian families against racist attacks the problem was ‘white people’. The problem comes from certain sections of Muslim communities, mainly Islamists, whose reactionary attitudes are indulged both by many Muslim leaders and by non-Muslim liberals. I have written often of how the pusillanimity of liberals has allowed the reactionaries to flourish and undermined the progressives within minority communities.

      2. Neither is the problem primarily the ‘huge influx of reactionary immigrants’. Again, I have written many times of how different Muslim communities were, say, 30 years ago. I grew up in communities, and in a generation, that were broadly secular (East London Bangladeshis were in fact probably the most secular of all Muslim communities in Britain); communities in which Islam, while deeply embedded, was never all-consuming – indeed, communities that had never thought of themselves as ‘Muslim’, and for which religion expressed a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. Today, when people use the word ‘radical’ in an Islamic context, they usually have in mind an Islamic fundamentalist. Thirty years ago radical meant the very opposite: someone who was militantly secular, self-consciously Western and avowedly leftwing. Someone like me. It is the rise of identity politics and of multicultural policies that have helped transform the cultural and political landscape. It is not from first generation Muslims, but from the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s, a generation that, ironically, is far more integrated than the first generation, that the Islamists and reactionaries draw most of the support.

      3. One cannot defend the rights of one group by restricting those of another. We absolutely need to defend gay rights, both politically and physically. But we cannot do so shutting the door on immigration or by demonising all Muslims.

      • tamimisledus

        ” One cannot defend the rights of one group by restricting those of another”.
        Impossible to determine whether this was written by someone with the moral capacity of a thirteen year old and the mental capacity of a twelve year old, or by someone with the mental capacity of a thirteen year old and the moral capacity of a twelve year old.
        Of course the rest of this post gives us no clues. And I believe I am on very safe ground in predicting that neither will the response to this reply.
        And let us be clear, apart from making a virtue out of necessity (” …. defend gay rights ….”), the rest of the response shows a complete failure to apply any intellectual filter to what is nothing more than vacuous propaganda.

        • Oh, Lord, save us from those who think that throwing around a bucketful of gratuitous insults makes for an argument. Or is an improvement on the mental capacity of a twelve year old.

      • De Te Fabula Narratur

        One cannot defend the rights of one group by restricting those of another. We absolutely need to defend gay rights, both politically and physically. But we cannot do so shutting the door on immigration or by demonising all Muslims.

        That’s theology, not philosophy. Free speech exists exactly because there was no mass immigration by free-speech-hating groups into northern Europe. Ask Theo van Gogh. But you’ll need a ouija board. No one is “demonizing” all Muslims. But as a group they are disastrous for free speech and for democracy. Pakistan has a blasphemy law, even though not all Pakistanis want it or agree with shooting dead those who question it. It’s a question of “average” and “tendency” — concepts that liberal theologians such as yourself seem to have great difficulty with.

        • That’s theology, not philosophy.

          Actually it’s neither. It’s a political stance.

          Free speech exists exactly because there was no mass immigration by free-speech-hating groups into northern Europe.

          I assume, then, that it was mass immigration that was responsible for Britain’s blasphemy laws and D Notices? And that immigrant protests led to the prosecutions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Spycatcher? And that fundamentalist Muslims organized the campaigns against Oz magazine and James Kirkup’s ‘The love that dare to speak its name’?

          If you mean that the rise of a ‘multicultural’ sensibility and of the idea that one must not offend other cultures has led to greater restrictions on free speech, I would agree with you and I have written many times about this; indeed I have even written a book about it. But the issue here is not immigration as such, but certain kinds of public policies and attitudes. That is what needs challenging. Indeed, again as I have argued many times, such policies undermine what is important about diversity.

          No one is “demonizing” all Muslims. But as a group they are disastrous for free speech and for democracy.

          Surely even you must be able to see the wee contradiction between the claim in the first sentence and that in the second.

          Pakistan has a blasphemy law, even though not all Pakistanis want it or agree with shooting dead those who question it. It’s a question of “average” and “tendency” — concepts that liberal theologians such as yourself seem to have great difficulty with.

          Again, read the points I made to Joe above.

    • De Te Fabula Narratur

      Over the past 20 years, 75% of the gay pubs/clubs in east London have closed down. This demonstrates that the gay population of east London is only 25% of what it was 20 years ago.

      To give Johann Hari his due: despite his moral eccentricities, he was writing about this situation when others ignored it. That’s the only way I learned about it. And Hari was of course called “Islamophobic” by the likes of Richard Seymour:

      Hari went on to claim:

      “East London has seen the highest increase in homophobic attacks anywhere in Britain. Everybody knows why, and nobody wants to say it. It is because East London has the highest Muslim population in Britain, and we have allowed a fanatically intolerant attitude towards gay people to incubate there, in the name of ‘tolerance'”.

      Ava Vidal was pissed off with this, and wrote to explain that Met crime figures actually showed a reduction in anti-gay attacks in those areas with the highest Muslim populations. Hari snorted that she was “extremely unintelligent”. Can we finally talk about Johann Hari’s Muslim problem? posted by lenin

      Hari was right to snort. As you pointed out, if gays are being driven out by violence and harrassment, “anti-gay attacks” will obviously go down. Seymour labelled his post: “bigotry, east london, homophobia, islamophobia, oppression, racism”. I hope Hari enjoyed the sight of Seymour enduring similar accusations during the Affair of the Racist Chair.

      The gay media have ignored this subject (bar owners probably told them not to publicise it, as it would drive away customers, and lead to a further decline)

      If the bar owners are more worried about staying in business than the safety of their customers, that’s shocking. If the gay media are more worried about accusations of “Islamophobia” than the safety of gays, that’s also shocking. Of course customers will stay away if they know they’re at risk. That’s part of what the media, gay and straight, are supposed to be there for: to allow people to make informed choices about personal safety. They’re also supposed to put pressure on the authorities to act when crimes are being ignored. If the BNP or EDL were targeting gays in the same way, there’s no way it would be allowed to continue.

      Note that heterosexual males also experience the joys of vibrancy in East London, if they’ve got the wrong skin colour or behave in an inappropriate way:

      Four men launched a horrific attack on a teacher in which they slashed his face and left him with a fractured skull because they did not approve of him teaching religion to Muslim girls. Akmol Hussein, 26, Sheikh Rashid, 27, Azad Hussain, 25, and Simon Alam, 19, attacked Gary Smith with a Stanley knife, an iron rod and a block of cement. Mr Smith, who is head of religious education at Central Foundation Girls’ School in Bow, east London, also suffered a fractured skull.
      Four men slashed teacher’s face and left him with fractured skull ‘for teaching other religions to Muslim girls’

      Imagine the uproar if the members of the EDL attacked a Muslim religious teacher like that. Meanwhile, in another area enriched by mass immigration:

      Police warning to sex pests harassing Bradford University and Bradford College students

      Police have stepped up patrols around the campuses of Bradford University and Bradford College in an effort to cut down on harassment of students. In the past year there has been complaints over students being sexually harassed and intimidated during both day and night. After police learned of a student being harassed near the campus on Monday, they sent police to the area. One 21-year-old who made an “inappropriate gesture” to a female student was stopped by officers, who arrested him after finding out he was also wanted for a vehicle crime. Police warning to sex pests harassing Bradford University and Bradford College students

      No mention is made in the article of which group is behind the problem, but it’s not hard to guess. The comments will confirm your guess. And I believe France and Scandinavia are experiencing similar problems. And Australia.

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