On the borders of solidarity: An ethical perspective on migration


Phillip Cole in Eurozine:

There are thus profound obstacles to introducing an ethical dimension to this debate, but my object here is simply to introduce that ethical dimension – so that it is at least visible – and to see what impact it has on the argument. And I want to begin with one more essential point of clarification: although there may well be economic and cultural concerns about the impacts of immigration, the ethical concerns are not so much about immigration but about immigration controls. In other words, even if some of the concerns about immigration are legitimate, immigration controls may be an illegitimate means of addressing them. This focus on immigration controls brings to the fore the question of power, because they involve an exercise of power, by certain agents over other agents. Who is exercising that power, over whom and for what purpose, and is that exercise ethical?

There are two key arguments that make the case that immigration controls are unethical. The first is based on the assertion that the exercise of coercive power by a democratic state is made legitimate by the opportunities of those subject to that power to participate in political decision-making – those subject to the law have had the opportunity to shape that law. Any other exercise of power is illegitimate. Immigration controls are coercive laws enacted against people who have had no such opportunity, and therefore immigration controls are illegitimate. Of course, in a legitimate democracy we may end up being subjected to laws which we object to, but would-be immigrants are not on the losing side of a democratic process – they are excluded from that process altogether. That men wielded political power over women in the United Kingdom before 1918 was a profound injustice, as was the fact that the white population of South Africa exercised political power over the black population until 1994. And the injustice here was not the exclusion of those parties from the franchise, but the enactment of law and therefore coercive power over the excluded, with no opportunity for them to participate as equals in the formation of that law. And the scale of that injustice is profoundly accentuated when we realise that the purpose of those laws was to determine the political status of the excluded, to deprive them of political membership as such.

The second argument is based on the principle of moral equality, and questions the right of exclusion itself. According to this principle, all people are to be treated as moral equals – no person is more morally significant than any other. It does not follow from this that everybody must be treated exactly the same, because some differences may be morally relevant and so justify different treatment. But what is ruled out is that a person's life chances should be determined by morally arbitrary features.

More here.