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
are typically more productive in wealthy countries than they are in
poorer countries. So for the same amount of time and effort a worker can
make more stuff, or produce more services, and get paid accordingly.
That makes everyone better off. Consumers have more goods and services
to buy and workers get paid more for their time.
Of course it is 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 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 walk
back awkwardly in the face of political reality. They think that we
ought to do whatever produces the best results in the circumstances we
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
Carens finds Rawls’s views to be the most congenial. They also
require the most complicated discussion.
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
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
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
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
However, it is not obvious that this is the kind of thing that
someone inspired by Rawls can say. Justice is about right and wrong. It
is not flexible and does not admit compromises. You would think that if
enforcing the border means violating people’s rights, then the state
should stop doing it right now.
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
To illustrate my point, here is Peter Singer, the well-known
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
- The case for open borders on libertarian, Rawlsian egalitarian, and
- 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