Our Opening Session

How should we approach immigration and citizenship from the perspectives of moral and political philosophy? Are the perspectives of moral and political philosophy separable or different? Our 2014 Amintaphil meeting, on immigration and citizenship, opened with three papers setting out basic moral frameworks for approaching these issues. In “A Moral Framework for the Immigration Issue” Ed Abegg expressed the views of a skeptic: there is no “cosmic” morality so each country is responsible for their own citizens. On Ed’s view, the best way to pursue global goals might be for one country to help other countries benefit their own citizens. Stephen Nathanson, in “Immigration, Citizenship, and the Clash Between Partiality and Impartiality,” employed rule utilitarianism to argue for a middle ground between extreme partialism and full globalization. Virtue ethics was represented by Kenneth Henley’s “Irregular Immigration from the Perspective of Humean Virtue Ethics,” which argued that the virtuous person should respond humanely to those fleeing circumstances of dire poverty. All three of these writers employed perspectives from ethical theory and much of the subsequent discussion pressed them on the importance of political considerations to their views.

Steve faced many questions about what rule utilitarianism requires. One set asked about the relevance of unfair divisions between states. Another asked whether Steve needed to take more seriously respect not only for political rights but also social and economic rights. Steve’s response was that he “draws a blank” about theories of rights independently of a rule utilitarian basis. (Judging from the direction of the discussion others around the table drew similar blanks.) Still another set of questions challenged whether Steve’s brand of utilitarianism really yields moderate patriotism—here the suggestion was that it might yield a new way of looking at partiality in terms of responsibility, what Singer called impartial partiality.

Win-Chiat asked Steve whether if you start out as a rule-utilitarian you’ll end up as a globalist, at least in terms of second-order principles where impartialism prevails when there are conflicts among first order principles. Along the lines of Rawls’s “Two Concepts of Rules,” Win-Chiat suggested that constituent rules are a special kind of rules, producing a structure of well being that can only be promoted by people taking special care of one another. He also commented that nations might be able to make this kind of special well being argument. Steve Nathanson pointed out that Brad Hooker’s distinction between impartiality at the level of justification and at the level of actions might be relevant to this argument.

Ed was pressed on his level of skepticism—whether he really believed it. What about Nuremberg, everyone’s favorite example of an atrocity? Ed replied that the history of philosophy is “filled with illusion” and we can still hate what Hitler did even if there’s no rational basis for our opprobrium. Tim Sellers (no doubt thinking of IVR 2015) responded with outrage to the view that there might be no rational basis for human emotions and sentiments.

As for virtue ethics, Henley was pressed on whether the individual and the state are different. He was asked questions such as whether the individual who has compassion is justified in getting the government to legislate? Ken replied by saying he wanted to raise a different question, about individual virtue and responses, as a separate question from what the state might/might not do. We need to recognize the issue of of viciousness as manifested in attacks on politicians like Rubio who at one point supported an immigration bill. There is simply too much viciousness on the part of many Americans—so thinking about virtue is important in this context.

Much of the discussion concerned more general questions about all of the papers. Helga Varden questioned whether all of the participants in this session were working with the assumption that states own territories on the model of individuals owning private property. Directed to Henley’s virtue theory, the point was that it is not at all clear that what states ought to do should be modeled on what individual people of virtue ought to do. Henley responded that the point of switching to virtue is to give a different focus to the debate and to put distance between individuals and states, to separate out nativism. Abegg responded to Helga that we are stuck with territorial assumptions. Nathanson averred that he wasn’t thinking of a property-owning model, although it wasn’t made clear why not. Helga pressed her point: that we seem to be considering the problem of borders as a problem of sharing “our” stuff; if we do that, we are presupposing territory is “ours” as with private property. Nicholas Tideman agreed: when someone comes knocking on the border and the response is “it’s ours,” then the question is on what basis is the claim made that “it’s ours.”

Ken Kipnis then observed that two different sets of concepts seem to be at work here: partiality and responsibility. Steve replied that his argument is that there are limits to the extent we should be taking care of our own when there are people in dire need and we have resources. Carol Gould suggested rights or basic interests are an important alternative to the rule utilitarian concern for overall well-being. Steve’s reply is that the virtue of rule utilitarianism is that it does set limits in an area we don’t have very good ways of thinking about

Bruce Landesman returned us to Helga’s view and suggested the possibility of views about special obligations to fellow citizens without commitment to nation as private property owner. The analogy would be to a club with rules about new members. Helga thought that even here images of “ours” persist—and that it is important to radically reconsider these images.

Mark Navin then asked why start with general principles about the permissible extent of national partiality. Why not start with equal moral worth of persons and then look at all kinds of facts about how different institutions and practices involve people? Steve’s reply was that it is useful to start with some general approaches but that nothing forecloses being more contextual.

And onward to the more contextual….

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