The utilitarian case for open borders is similarly straightforward. Generally speaking, people immigrate from places where they are less well off to places where they will be better off. For example, workers in wealthy countries are typically more productive than they are in poorer countries. So for the same amount of time and effort a worker can make more stuff. That makes everyone better off: consumers have more stuff to buy and workers get paid more for their time.
Of course it’s not as simple as that. There are all sorts of costs of immigration, particularly when it happens rapidly and on a large scale. But utilitarians are very good at this sort of thing. They can begin with the theoretical case for open borders and then alter it to avoid problems. Utilitarians, unlike libertarians, are not committed to the thought that people have a right to go where they want to. They think that everyone’s rights are defined by the policies that would promote the greatest overall good. If too much immigration would provoke social problems, they won’t allow it to go that high. They do not make sweeping claims about the moral imperative of open borders that they have to awkwardly take back in the face of political reality. Whatever produces the best results in the circumstances we inhabit is what we ought to do, according to utilitarians.
Rawls and Nozick beat utilitarians over the head for being insufficiently rigid about matters of right and wrong. They are so flexible that they could allow all sorts of horrible things, including slavery! So it’s only fair to allow the utilitarians to use this to their advantage when it comes to immigration policy. Utilitarians have a framework for making compromises that theories of justice seem to lack.
Carens finds Rawls’s views to be the most congenial. It is also the most complicated.
Rawls cannot use the original position to settle questions about membership in a society. The original position is made up of people who represent the members of a society. So in order to know who is represented, we have to know who belongs to the society.
That said, there are plenty of arguments in Rawls’s book that seem to bear on the question of membership even if they are not part of his main theory that the principles of justice are chosen by the parties in the original position.
For example, when we discussed Rawls’s reasons for rejecting libertarianism (a.k.a. the “system of natural liberty”), we saw that he thinks it is unfair that some people should do better than others as a result of natural and social forces that are, in his opinion, arbitrary from the moral point of view. Social institutions, according to Rawls, should seek to reduce the influence of these forces or, when that is impossible, mitigate their consequences. Well, what could be more arbitrary than where you are born?
Furthermore, the thrust of Rawls’s theory is that the way to settle questions about justice is to ask what the representatives of everyone concerned would say, provided they do not know who they represent (among other things). A natural development of this idea is to have everyone in the world represented in an original position whose members are charged with determining standards for the world, including the rules about who can move across which boundaries.
Carens reasons that if this were to happen, the parties in the global original position would decide that nations are not allowed to restrict movement across their borders.
Of course, the parties in a global original position would surely overturn a lot of things. If they required all of Rawls’s principles (equal basic liberties, equal opportunity, and the difference principle) on a global scale, there would be a lot less pressure for immigration. If life is good at home, you will not have compelling reasons to want to migrate to another country.
Now, at this point you might be thinking “we are really talking about what an ideal world would be like; what does this have to do with ours?”
I believe that Carens thinks of immigration as a kind of interim step on the path to this ultimate, very distant, goal of global justice. Even open borders would have to be treated as a kind of goal that actual policy can only approximate, given the political realities of democracies.
It is not obvious that this is the kind of thing that someone inspired by Rawls can say, however. Justice is not flexible: it is about right and wrong. You would think that if enforcing the border means violating people’s rights, then the state should stop doing it tomorrow.
I do not have the sense that Carens thinks that would be the right thing to do, given the chaos that would result, to say nothing of the inevitable backlash that would reverse the whole project. That sounds sensible to me. I just don’t understand how someone who thinks that borders are unjust can consistently say it. On the face of it, to say something like that you need a more flexible moral theory such as utilitarianism.
To illustrate my point, here is Peter Singer, the well-known utilitarian, speaking on exactly this point.
Q. You’ve touched on migration here and there in your writings, and it’s part of your family’s story. But I heard you say on a podcast that we might actually have a moral imperative not to open borders, because it could lead to the kind of backlash that would put the likes of Donald Trump in power. It was a very surprising way of looking at it. What is your view on migration? What should we be doing?
A. I don’t think you should find it surprising, given that I’m a consequentialist. In an ideal world, we would have open borders, no question about that. I think that would have many good consequences and certainly would enable refugees to move away from situations of oppression and genocide. Obviously, my parents did just that, and that’s why I exist.
But I’ve seen the effect of regimes that do open borders, or nearly open borders. I was a founding member of the Australian Greens, which said that we should accept all the so-called boat people from Afghanistan and Iran and other places, who were seeking asylum in Australia in the eighties and nineties. For a time, Labor did as well. But it was clear that those issues were exploited by the conservatives to suggest that Australia was going to be swamped by different people, and I’m pretty sure it cost Labor a federal election on at least one occasion. And then you see the other bad consequences of this: not only did the borders get closed and the refugees were put in horrible detention camps, which the conservative government did, but they also opposed doing something on climate change. They cut foreign aid, they run down the hospitals and schools and universities. There is a real cost to this.
The E.U. has had to realize the same thing. You got right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland and Italy for a while. Clearly, immigration was a factor in Trump getting elected in 2016. So that’s why, as a consequentialist, I think you have to have policies that include some restrictions.
When he says “I don’t think you should find it surprising, given that I’m a consequentialist,” what he means is that consequentialists are flexible about the means they take towards achieving their ends. Someone like Rawls, who insists that justice takes priority over good consequences, has a lot of difficulty being flexible like that.
These are the things you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.
- The case for open borders on libertarian, Rawlsian egalitarian, and utilitarian grounds.
- Are thinkers who insist on justice and rights, like Rawls and Nozick, allowed to talk about intermediate policies that approach the goal of justice or is that kind of flexibility reserved for utilitarianism?