The generally accepted idea that the institutions of countries and citizenship have considerable moral relevance has always struck me as bizarre. To me, it seems obvious, on the face of it, that where a person was born, or who a person’s parents are, are arbitrary matters (that said person has no influence over) and therefore cannot be relevant to such evaluative questions as whether that person has a right to rent property or accept a job in location X. (See John Lee’s post on Phillip Cole’s moral argument for open borders, which also relies on this point.) Likewise, where we have come to conventionally draw borders on maps seems to me a matter of historical circumstances that virtually nobody alive today has any responsibility in and that therefore can have little moral relevance in evaluating people’s actions. (While I think some compelling consequentialist arguments can be made along the lines that disrespecting existing borders might dangerously offset an equilibrium, I do not think this kind of argument can take you all that far. More on this in an upcoming post.)
Perhaps most people can at least relate to my prima facie attitude described in the previous paragraph, but I am clearly in a small minority in persisting in such a view in the face of common political discourse. Almost everybody treats the moral relevance of countries and citizenship as a given (often in the form of citizenism).
This renders discussions of the morality of migration restrictions difficult and unpromising for people with views similar to mine, as it seems that those who disagree with me reason from entirely different starting points and have very different ideas about who holds the burden of proof, compared to my views. Consider the last paragraph from a response by Sonic Charmer (aka The Crimson Reach) to Michael Huemer’s guest post on Open Borders:
Let’s just note that in this ridiculous construction, not allowing someone to permanently relocate to the United States has been equated with abusing them to one’s heart’s content. Is this a real argument? I don’t think so. Even if the intended point here were stated in a more sober and less straw-manny way, the problem is that there is simply no Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The United States Of America. Such a thing is, if anything, even more problematic and mythical than the concept of a literal ‘social contract’. But if the professor nevertheless thinks there is such a Universal Human Right, where did it come from? Why didn’t he include his actual argument for its existence in that (already very long) piece?
The idea, as I understand it, is that the onus is on Michael Huemer to establish the existence of a Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The US. (Thomas Sowell expresses apparently the same view here.) This task seems hopeless, as the idea of a “Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The US” seems ridiculous. I agree that it seems ridiculous, but not because I do not think that people are generally within their (moral) rights to move to the US. I also think it would seem ridiculous to posit a Universal Human Right To Ride A Bicycle On A Tuesday, even though people generally are well within their rights to do so. We simply do not normally talk of moral rights to actions with specific, morally irrelevant features. (Compare this point with the 9th amendment to the US Constitution; HT: Vipul.) Given that I see no good reason for considering countries morally relevant in such matters, I contend that all that is needed is a right to rent property and to accept a job, and that the burden of proof is on restrictionists to establish that the geographical location of the property or of the work environment nullifies this right.
When I say that I see no good reasons to overrule the prima facie moral irrelevance of countries I described above, I suspect that many people will diagnose me with outrageous naiveté and ignorance of strong arguments that “everybody knows” (even if they may not be able to properly articulate those arguments themselves, but then they might defer this task to figures of “obvious authority”). But while this puts me under some social pressure to pretend otherwise, the truth is that no arguments I have heard for the moral relevance of countries have seemed compelling, let alone sufficient to me.
If I were to attempt an Ideological Turing Test (i.e. to argue the position that countries are morally relevant as best I can), I might try a social contract angle, a “fragile political equilibrium” angle, a “collective property” angle, a social capital angle, a “brain drain” angle, a “differences in national IQ and personality factors averages” angle, or a “cultural differences” angle, and perhaps I would not fare much worse than many people who really hold that position – but I would find myself very unconvincing, especially because it seems to me that most of these arguments are compelling only if we’re already assuming that countries are morally relevant. (This is particularly true of the welfare state objection to open borders, as the moral relevance of countries seems essential to justifying a national welfare state as opposed to non-nation-bound welfare programs.)
Since it seems necessary to me to take such a “back to basics” approach, given the persistent disagreement about what the morally relevant starting points are, I hereby issue a bleg: What are the strongest arguments (both in objective terms and in terms of their appeal to the masses) for the moral relevance of countries – particularly concerning such questions as where one may rent property and work? (Not excluding arguments pertaining to one of the “angles” I’ve listed above – I do not claim to have conclusively laid the viability of any of these general lines of argument to rest.)
Afterthought: Although this is isn’t what I primarily have in mind, Vipul’s previous bleg about universalist defenses of citizenism might provide an interesting way of approaching this question, too.
38 thoughts on “Moral Relevance of Countries Bleg”
Descriptively, I think the social contract (or a hypothetical version thereof) is among the most appealing. The social contract theorist could argue based on taxpayerism (we owe something to our fellow taxpayers — they pay taxes in exchange for the privilege of keeping non-citizens out) or miitary defense and protection (see here, for instance).
One underlying “social contract-like” explanation you don’t openly consider (perhaps for reasons of charitability) is egoism/narcissism, combined with political cynicism/realism. Namely, people are mainly looking out for self-interest — they don’t really care for their countrymen or fellow citizens all that much. They may even despise or wish to deport or kill some fellow citizens. But in a nod to political reality, they know it’s not practical to advocate such policies. So, with a “what you can’t cure you must endure” attitude, they pretend to embrace their fellow citizens with open arms. In return, the only thing they ask of their fellow citizens is cooperation in keeping the non-citizens they don’t like out of the country. If the tables were turned and deporting citizens or stripping people of citizenship were a serious political option, the cynical egoists would probably switch to advocating that.
What fraction of self-proclaimed citizenists and nationalists subscribe to the combination of egoism and cynicism that I outline above? I don’t know, because for obvious reasons such people wouldn’t disclose their real motives. Suffice it to say that I consider it plausible that a nontrivial fraction (my guess is anywhere between 10% and 80%) of citizenists/nationalists are coming at this position from that angle. Somewhat weirdly, I consider this a much more intellectually defensible argument for the relevance of countries than a lot of the overtly offered explanations.
Another possibility to think about is that people have a psychological need to see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups. Just like we are hard wired to learn language, but which language we develop depends on our upbringing, we are probably hard wired to classify people into these groups. The only question is how our cultural upbringing affects how these groups are defined.
In a modern society we have de-emphasized one of the main groups from years past, the extended family (as Robing Hansen discusses here: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/05/beware-extended-family.html)
But this doesn’t mean our tendency to identify with certain groups just goes away. We now identify with our alma mater, with our corporation, with our nuclear family, with a political party, and with a nation. Along with these identifications comes a tendency to trust those in our group more, and distrust/demonize those outside the group.
To say that these groups have little moral relevance is a pretty strong claim. Surely there is some necessity to identify those we can trust and those to whom we have a duty. Taking the idea that we should dissolve all group distinctions to the extreme would result in the claim that we have just as much duty toward algae as we do to our own children.
But perhaps you are saying that the nation state is just an arbitrary method of defining an in-group. Maybe our group distinctions aren’t really based on national borders anyway. Maybe we would not have any issues with immigration if it were only Brits and Canadians that wanted to immigrate because we feel that they are part of our same cultural heritage. My wife actually did immigrate from Canada and the process was much easier than what some from other countries have gone through.
In any case, it is not clear to me that similar cultural groups are a particularly irrational way of defining in-groups. It seems to me that if it really were millions of Canadians that all of the sudden wanted to immigrate we would have a fairly easy time helping them assimilate and they would pose very little threat to our institutions. It probably is easier for us to do business with people from other developed western countries because we have similar norms for how to do business.
I think that in general it is a better strategy to accept the fact that the vast majority of people are compelled to think (or feel) in terms of in-groups and then discuss how much responsibility we should feel towards particular groups. The rather large group consisting of every human being in the world is a relevant one, but so is the group consisting of everyone who speaks our same language or everyone who watches the same television shows. The group distinctions are real because we feel them. So how should we treat those in our out-groups? How can we strengthen the sense that all of humanity is in some level of in-group?
Thanks, Mike! I think your comments are interesting, and perhaps I should have added an “in- group out-group” angle to the list of angles I might try in an Ideological Turing Test, as it’s certainly a very important psychological phenomenon and seems highly relevant to the issue of countries. I think it’s less clear how it could be used for a convincing moral argument as opposed to a mere psychological explanation, though. I understand you’re more interested in the latter than in the former, and that could be for very good reasons. But my bleg is about the former.
John and Nathan have already stated most of what I might have said in response to your comments. The Open Borders site content has some neat reference material on the two main points I would raise:
1. We may have duties to help people in our in-group that do not extend to people outside it, but I don’t think very many people nowadays would argue that we have no duty to *refrain from actively harming* people in the out-group. See:
2. It’s not clear why the relevant in-group out-group distinction should coincide with countries, and why people should not get to decide for themselves what in-group is relevant to them (see in particular Robin Hanson’s post linked to in the second link above).
Hi Sebastian. It’s nice to have you on Open Borders.
I agree national borders are morally irrelevant and I, too, am puzzled why so many people think they are morally relevant.
Allow me to share an observation, which may shed light on the solution. I occasionally watch political debate/talking head programs in the US, and I notice that nearly all discussions center on what government should or should not do. I think people become accustomed to only counting the interests of citizens, since they think those are the only ones affected by government. So it seems odd to count the interests of non-citizens since they’re outside the government.
I elaborate on some of these ideas at this post: http://andyhallman.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/why-internationalists-should-be-libertarians/
Thanks, Andy! I like your post that you’ve linked to.
Do you think that, to people who are not sympathetic to anarchist views, the argument you make in it could serve as a reductio ad absurdum argument for the moral relevance of countries, i.e.: “As Andy Hallman has argued, treating countries as morally irrelevant is a slippery slope into anarchism. Therefore we must treat them as morally relevant.”?
I also agree that your observation is probably important in explaining the phenomenon.
I don’t know what moral relevance is, but I assume you rent in a nice neighborhood. Please consider the following.
1) Please share your thoughts about Section 8 housing vouchers. How many Section 8 renters do you have nearby?
2) Can really anybody with money rent property there? How about 10 inner-city ‘families’ or 30 third-world immigrants rent the the property two doors from you, or its owner sublet to same? Together they could afford it.
3) Can a renter do anything he wants with the property? I.e. not mow the lawn, not paint the house, chop down trees for firewood or for fun, shit in the backyard, leave garbage by the ton on the premises, run a drug joint, keep goats and slaughter them in full view of the community?
Presumably your by-laws prohibit these kinds of renting practices and behavior. Why? Basically two purposes: comfort of existing residents and concern for property values. Right? But what is the ‘moral relevance’ of such by-laws? Why should I, a (potential) renter, be constrained in the free expression of my will and desire to live in your neighborhood by such considerations? Please note also that the neighborhood as a whole is not a single private property (I won’t need to go into a discussion of the extent to which ‘private’ property is really private) and that living space within a neighborhood is allocated by market transactions rather than by the conscious, non-market decisions of the residents of a house. (That’s a funny angle from a libertarian, by the way, elevating non-market decisions to such importance.)
TL;DR How thick is your bubble, sir?
I wasn’t aware that it’s self-evident that everyone (especially libertarians) supports the centralisation of Homeowners Association or municipal government policy-making at the national level. Neither was I aware that a liberal immigration policy immediately coerces municipal governments or Homeowners Associations into rewriting their long-standing rules, or coerces homeowners into allowing their renters to do whatever they like to their landlord’s property. The US has a liberal immigration policy for people from Detroit or Baltimore, just as Mexico has one for people from Juarez, and as far as I can tell that hasn’t stopped any local governments from enacting their own rules to prevent these people from living in their communities.
Pfui. Apparently your sarcasm fuse has blown and overloaded your argument circuits. You should have it replaced, and don’t forget to check the latter circuits for damage while you’re at it.
Hi Candide 🙂 I think you do a good job of raising some interesting questions about grey areas in questions of property rights. I’d be interest to know how you think they can be used to argue for the moral relevance of countries, as I wouldn’t know how to complete that argument from there. I think the moral relevance of things like “slaughtering goats in full view” or “moving into a small house with 29 other loud people” in a neighbourhood where people must be expected to dislike those things is fairly clear. But how can this be used to argue for the moral relevance of countries? (It seems to me the citizenship of the person slaughtering the goats is irrelevant to why their actions are morally problematic.)
In line with what John Lee has said: I think you make a good argument for Homeowner’s Associations, but I don’t see where anything to do with countries comes into it.
You seem to be working within a paradigm of morality which is purely individualistic and universal. Thus, to you morality must be one thing that applies to everyone as an individual. An action is either universally allowed, or universally forbidden. There is no grouping of humans that is morally relevant to you, except the individual. (I am sure that being a good person, you make unprincipled exceptions for your own family and friends.)
This model of morality is appealing to the kind of systematizing mind that most libertarians have. However, there’s a reason that libertarians are 2% of the population on a good day: most people do not think like that.
Most people find it natural to think that morality applies to groups. There are family, friends, community, the nation, and foreigners. Each circle has moral claims on you, the individual; you are not a Randian monad, utterly unconstrained by the preexisting claims of others. To this conventional common-sense idea of morality, there are universals, but there are also particulars. While all humans have rights, and so you cannot just murder innocent foreigners, you can certainly kill foreigners under certain circumstances.
Similarly, “the nation”, reified in the nation-state, can tax you (take ownership of your labor), conscript you, etc., even though there is no general individual right to do these things. You have the right to welfare in various forms from your nation. You are morally required to support any children you have in ways that go much beyond welfare, and this right does not apply generally.
Perhaps if might clarify things for you if you consider the morality in two extreme cases: dependent children, and warfare.
What are you morally required to do for a child of yours? Are you morally required to feed him, educate him, clothe him, shelter him? Can you disown him at your whim and be free of any such obligations? Are your obligations to your child truly the same as you are required to do for all children, anywhere? (Or even all people — why should age be “morally relevant”?) If you allow any sort of welfare rights that children have against their parents, then you have accepted the idea of different groups having different rights. Then the question for you becomes, what other groups might there be? Could it be that all those normal people and their common sense are on to something you’ve missed?
Or consider warfare. Can the state declare some humans “enemies”, revoking their right to life? And since the libertarian does not recognize any moral relevance to groups like “the state”, if you say yes, then that means that this right is an individual right. Thus, can you, individually, declare some humans “enemies”, revoking their right to life?
Is it moral to defend the nation against invasion? If the Wehrmacht rolls across the border, are you compelled to allow them into the country? Certainly the average German soldier in 1940 had done nothing against the average French soldier. Was the German morally allowed to shoot? Was the Frenchman morally allowed to shoot?
It seems to me that if you allow that warfare can be justified, even defensive warfare, then you have accepted a not purely individualistic morality. You can retain an individualistic morality only by going full-on pacifist.
“To this conventional common-sense idea of morality, there are universals, but there are also particulars. While all humans have rights, and so you cannot just murder innocent foreigners, you can certainly kill foreigners under certain circumstances.”
Ok. So why do innocent foreigners need to beg the government for permission to rent a home from a landlord willing to rent it to them, or permission to take a job from an employer willing to offer it to them? That is the heart of Sebastian’s question.
Going back to in-/out-group discrimination only gets us so far. It wasn’t very long ago when people of a different skin colour were generally treated as part of one’s out-group; in many ways, this sort of discriminatory preference persists today. Yet it is no longer considered morally acceptable for racists to demand that government enforce their prejudices on others.
We aren’t even going as far as saying that government should coerce xenophobes. Nobody here has said the government ought to coerce people who don’t want to rent their homes to foreigners or give jobs to foreigners. What we’ve said is that government shouldn’t enforce these prejudices on people who would in fact be willing to rent their property to or employ foreigners. If it’s morally unacceptable for government to coerce society into following long-standing human out-group prejudices in the area of race, why is it morally acceptable for government to coerce society into following such prejudices in the area of national origin?
“Could it be that all those normal people and their common sense are on to something you’ve missed?”
Common sense dictates that I shouldn’t sabotage the next-door neighbour kid’s science project so my child can win the science fair. Yet that is exactly what immigration restrictions are doing on a far larger scale when they force landlords and employers not to rent or employ people they’d otherwise be happy to do business with.
“Can the state declare some humans “enemies”, revoking their right to life?”
It can. But should it? The Nazi state revoked a bunch of people’s right to life, but I don’t think anyone other than a fringe minority today would say that what they did was right. Even you accept that innocent human beings have a right to not be killed. So why do innocent human beings not have a right to live and work in communities that would otherwise be happy to have them?
I suspect you are being deliberately facetious. Your intended analogy is obviously broken. The equivalent to immigration restrictions is not sabotaging the neighbor’s kid’s project, it’s not helping the neighbor’s kid to do his project. Normally you help your own kid with her project and trust your neighbor to help his. If you go and sabotage his kid’s project, that’s invasion and war.
If you want to help the third-world peoples so much, go help them personally. Don’t go around coercing other people to do that, whether by policy-making or moral grandstanding, especially when it’s not you who will bear most of the monetary and non-monetary costs.
“Your intended analogy is obviously broken. The equivalent to immigration restrictions is not sabotaging the neighbor’s kid’s project, it’s not helping the neighbor’s kid to do his project.”
It’s unclear to me how allowing someone to apply for a job or rent an apartment constitutes offering them help. Similarly, it’s unclear to me how *preventing* them from doing either of those things *isn’t* an act of coercion against them and the employer/landlord they are dealing with.
Coercion can be justified, I’m not saying *just* because it’s coercion it must be wrong. But if using the force of the state to prevent someone from looking for work or a home isn’t coercion, then what else is that? Are foreigners lesser human beings who have less free will to coerce than citizens do?
“Don’t go around coercing other people to do that, whether by policy-making or moral grandstanding, especially when it’s not you who will bear most of the monetary and non-monetary costs.”
You aren’t the one bearing most of the monetary and non-monetary costs of banning immigration either, yet you seem happy to coerce the human beings (both citizens and foreigners) who do bear the costs of closed borders.
If I interview for a job, is the government coercing the candidates I’m competing against because it allows me to interview for it? If I tour an apartment, is the government coercing my future neighbours and competing apartment-hunters because it allows the landlord to rent the apartment to me? If your answer depends on whether I am a citizen of the country this job or apartment are in, why is that? That’s the heart of Sebastian’s question.
” If it’s morally unacceptable for government to coerce society into following long-standing human out-group prejudices in the area of race, why is it morally acceptable for government to coerce society into following such prejudices in the area of national origin?”
We have accepted that we have a lot of duties towards other people in our nation because we follow common laws, we pool resources for common defense and welfare. So it is not too hard to see why we should prima facie want to limit the scope of these duties.
I had an interesting discussion with my wife the other day about the duties we owe to our extended families. One point she made is that the closer you interact with someone the more you will tend to feel obligated. So you can protect yourself from obligations by preserving a certain distance, if that is what you want to do.
“We have accepted that we have a lot of duties towards other people in our nation because we follow common laws, we pool resources for common defense and welfare. So it is not too hard to see why we should prima facie want to limit the scope of these duties.”
Broadly speaking I think there are two kinds of moral duties:
1. A duty to help someone;
2. A duty to not harm someone.
It is not hard to see why one should want to limit the first, which is why you won’t find any open borders advocates here suggesting the welfare state ought to be open to anyone. But what of the second? Does that duty stop at the water’s edge?
It seems to be taken for granted in discourse around immigration that from a moral standpoint, national governments should have complete discretionary power around who gets to enter their territory, because permitting foreigners to enter is a form of help, while banning them from entering is not a form of harm. But why is that so? I think that’s where the disconnect comes from.
If government prevented you from applying for a job or renting a home on account of your favourite music, your first name, the colour of your hair, or any number of other arbitrary factors, it would surely strike us as a form of harm. So why isn’t national origin one of these arbitrary factors?
If the government of Phoenix allows non-Phoenix denizens to look for work or apartments in that city, has the government of Phoenix been derelict in its duties towards Phoenix denizens? Has the Phoenix government inflicted harm on its constituents? Conversely, if the Phoenix government did ban non-denizens from doing these things, would this not constitute any kind of harm towards those people, or their potential employers and landlords in Phoenix? If the answer to one or more of these questions i no, why is this different at the national level?
The answer I think we keep coming back to is that country of origin is a more morally relevant distinction than municipality or province of origin, or any number of other distinctions. And the reason for this seems to be “Because people agree that this is so, and disagreeing with this moral consensus makes you a beep-boop autistic robot.”
But we previously had moral consensus that banning people of certain ethnic descent, gender, or sexual preference from doing certain things was morally right. We had a consensus that distinctions along these lines mattered — whether for societal cohesion reasons, economic reasons, or basic in-/out-group distinctions. Nothing fundamental about any of those 3 things changed, and yet this moral consensus eventually shifted, if not disappeared. If our only conceivable defence for a moral principle is “Well people seem to think it’s right,” it seems to me that our defence of that principle is pretty weak.
“One point she made is that the closer you interact with someone the more you will tend to feel obligated. So you can protect yourself from obligations by preserving a certain distance, if that is what you want to do.”
Couldn’t men have said this about women in the workplace, or whites about blacks pre-racial integration? This seems to me to be a variant of the slippery slope argument — but if we would find this argument dubious in certain other moral arenas, it’s not clear to me why it’s uniquely relevant in this particular context.
Let me first point out that I am an advocate of open borders. We are all friends here, but it is important for us to understand the reasons why we are in the minority.
You have asked the question: why is the nation-state a particularly relevant moral group. I would argue that at least part of the answer is that our national laws are supreme, and they determine our duties towards other people to large extent. Any law made by Phoenix or Maryland can be overturned by the Supreme Court, or forced out of existence by congressional incentives. Also, I think it is important that on an emotional level, people simply identify as Americans. National boundaries that exist over a long period of time create cultural differences. You could make an analogy with a land bridge across continents. Just because a group of animals crosses a land bridge doesn’t immediately make it a different species. But over time it will.
My second point is that the national origin distinction is not the only important distinction in the immigration debate. I believe this because I think people react very differently to immigrants from other nations based on how we perceive their culture and status. That is, we seem friendlier to high-skilled immigrants and anglo-saxon immigrants, and immigrants from other western nations. People seem to think that assuming duties towards these people will be less risky.
re: “I had an interesting discussion with my wife the other day about the duties we owe to our extended families. One point she made is that the closer you interact with someone the more you will tend to feel obligated. So you can protect yourself from obligations by preserving a certain distance, if that is what you want to do.”
Now, this position, that by creating physical distance you can avoid moral obligations, seems to be one of the most obviously indefensible arguments I’ve ever heard in my life. It is mocked by Jesus Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who personifies it in the priest and the Levite who walk to the other side of the road to avoid feeling obligated to help the wounded man. Of course, it is perfectly obvious that they don’t mitigate their guilt at all by this, but on the contrary, they deepen it, because they make it clear by this gesture that they know what their duties really are and are creating the most threadbare possible pretext to avoid them. I don’t often hear people defend this view explicitly, and I had tended to think that merely EXPOSING it was enough to refute it, that to say we’re using the border as a blindfold (http://openborders.info/blog/the-border-as-blindfold/) amounts to something like a *reductio ad absurdum* of the restrictionist position. But here is Mike, explicitly advocating exactly this.
The fallacy here is very simple. Mike says that the closer you interact with someone, the more you will TEND TO FEEL obligated. Yes. But to FEEL obligated and to BE obligated are two different things. Certainly, you can avoid feeling guilty by not thinking about the things you ought to do, or the victims or your irresponsible behavior. That doesn’t make you any less guilty. Distance might do a little for your peace of mind, but it does not follow that it has any place in a serious moral argument.
I should clarify my position a bit so you know where I am coming from. Basically, I am not too convinced by universal moral principles. Any principle can pretty much be reduced to nonsense if you take it to the logical limit.
What I am interested in is understanding why people feel the way they do toward other people. Evolutionary psychology makes more sense to me than moral philosophizing. BEING obligated is pretty much useless unless you FEEL obligated. So unless we take the reasons behind why people feel obligated seriously, we will have very little impact on how they behave.
With this in mind, I believe that people have psychological tendencies that contribute to how they think about moral duties toward groups. One of these tendencies is the need to limit the set of people that we feel duty bound to. Otherwise, our emotional and economic resources are dissipated. If people feel that open borders advocates threaten their group identification they will naturally oppose it.
Because I think that actual people identify very strongly with their nation, I think it is unwise to argue that their identification is nonsense. Especially when the legal, political, and cultural ties that bind us to other members of our nation are so strong.
I think a better strategy is accept that the nation state. Then proceed by arguing that A) the impact of open borders on the nation group is either positive or insignificantly negative and B) that just because we have a nation state doesn’t mean we don’t have (or feel) obligations to anyone else.
My premise is that in actuality, those same people who think the nation state is a huge part of their identity also think that as a nation we have some obligations to those outside of the group.
I’d be interested in whether Mike considers himself a moral nihilist. That’s not an insult of course; I’m just curious. It’s fairly rationally defensible as philosophical positions go, and I don’t think it usually makes people behave badly because they usually don’t translate it into the sphere of action.
The following scenario may serve as a test case of whether being morally obligated and feeling morally obligated are the same thing. Larry is a petroleum engineer, who gets a job offer from a totalitarian dictator in the Third World in cahoots with a soulless greedy corporation. In return for Larry’s help in developing a new oilfield, the dictator offers Larry six fine tropical palaces, to be built on land that will be seized from primitive tribes, and thousands of slaves and concubines over whom he will have absolute power of life and death. Larry thinks that sounds like a lot of fun, but he’s worried that his conscience will trouble him. He mentions this to the dictator’s corporate headhunters, and they tell him there’s an easy treatment he can take, involving a few drugs and mental exercises, which can be relied on to completely silence the conscience so that he won’t feel moral obligations of any kind. Larry takes the treatment, accepts the job, and lives happily ever after in his palaces..Is there anything troubling or not quite right about this story?
I will answer your question and let you be the judge of whether I am a moral nihilist.
First, I currently have meta-preferences about my morals, and I would not choose to have them removed (although I may want to make slight modifications). I like my morals. I think I am somehow better off for having them.
Second, one could argue that Larry’s meta-preferences would also be removed so he wouldn’t feel bad about not feeling bad about the consequences of his actions. If this were the case, I don’t think morality would have any meaning for him. It would be impossible to sway him with moral arguments or encourage him to have moral experiences. This absence of any morals might make his life less satisfying.
Third, I think society would be much worse off if everyone had a moralectomy. They might not experience guilt, but they would cause each other a lot of grief. This may lead to some kind of amoral social contract where people are simply seeking their own weflare, but it might not.
Now let me clarify my first point. I said that I like having morals. I don’t mean by this that I like knowing some absolute truth about what is right and wrong. Rather, I like having moral experiences. I like *feeling* that some things are right and other things are wrong. Some people think that morality is degraded if it is not given the status of absolute truth. I think meaningful experiences are quite enough. They are the essence of life.
For this reason I am not really interested in trying to logically prove that anyone is right or wrong about morals. I have enough training in mathematics that such proofs always seem ill-defined, full of holes, or dependent on very dubious assumptions. Instead, I am interested in exploring their (and my) moral experiences. Since I have my own moral preferences, I also want to influence how others experience morality.
Hmm, this post seems to have attracted a different crowd from usual. OK, the more, the merrier. But a bit of schooling needs to be done. Leonard writes:
“You seem to be working within a paradigm of morality which is purely individualistic and universal. Thus, to you morality must be one thing that applies to everyone as an individual. An action is either universally allowed, or universally forbidden. There is no grouping of humans that is morally relevant to you, except the individual.”
No, Sebastian is saying nothing of the kind. He is questioning the moral relevance of countries, not families, not professions, not religions, not linguistic groups or ethnicities, not fan clubs of sports teams or whatever you want. Just countries. Discipline, please. Don’t put claims in his mouth that he hasn’t made. Yet it’s notable that, having raised up the strawman of a totally individualistic ethics, Leonard doesn’t really offer any arguments against it. He writes:
“This model of morality is appealing to the kind of systematizing mind that most libertarians have. However, there’s a reason that libertarians are 2% of the population on a good day: most people do not think like that.”
If “like that” means, treating all subsets of humanity, everything except the individual and the universal, as irrelevant, then no, most people do not think like that. But no one is proposing that. It’s probably true NOW that 98% of the population makes moral judgments in a fashion that makes sense only if enormous moral relevance is imputed to countries, to the point that most moral duties stop at the border. But that hasn’t always been the case. It’s a peculiarity of our own times. The majority isn’t, in fact, necessarily and always right, but of course, one doesn’t usually want to simply DISMISS them. It’s certainly a good idea to think long and hard about whether they have better reasons for their attitudes than appears at first glance. Indeed, Leonard makes this point:
“Could it be that all those normal people and their common sense are on to something you’ve missed?”
The question comes across as a little snide. The irony is that the whole point of Sebastian’s post was to pose exactly this question. The post is a BLEG. The vast majority of contemporary mankind seems, prima facie, to accept a view that seems, prima facie, to be indefensible. What’s going on? Leonard reframes Sebastian’s question as a rhetorical question, without seeming to realize that’s what he’s doing, in order to prove… well, I’m not sure what. Leonard seems to be attempting a *reductio ad absurdum,* but it fails because the first step in the *reductio* is to impute to Sebastian a position quite different from anything he actually advocated. In any case, even a successful *reductio ad absurdum* would be a poor response to a bleg. Can Leonard give any *reason* why nation-states are morally relevant? What is the “something” that “those normal people and their common sense are onto” that Sebastian missed? Leonard doesn’t so much as give us a hint, all he offers is assertion, assertion, assertion.
Yes, majority opinion does deserve a certain degree of deference. But not infinite deference. At some point, even majority opinion must be held rationally accountable. By all means, give it time to regroup, to articulate, to look around for the best defenses. By all means, interpret its defenses charitably. But we’ve been doing that. We’ve been working hard at it for a long time now. And if the defenders of the mainstream view keep coming up empty-handed long enough, if they keep having to rely on bare assertion when arguments are called for, their credibility gets thinner, and thinner, and thinner.
“He is questioning the moral relevance of countries, not families, not professions, not religions, not linguistic groups or ethnicities, not fan clubs of sports teams or whatever you want. Just countries.”
I actually find it very funny that people say “But don’t you have an obligation to your family members that you do not have to non-family members?” Certainly, but how is that relevant? Surely nobody is asserting that one has exactly the same moral obligations towards one’s fellow citizens as one does towards one’s own family members. The only relevance of this argument seems to be “The more distant people get from you, the less obligation you have towards them.”
In the abstract, that’s a principle we can work with. But in the concrete, how do you reach the conclusion “And therefore, foreigners being some of the most distant people from you, you have no obligation to *not* interfere with them when they look for work or a home in your country”? Why is that obligation of non-interference one we owe to fellow citizens, but not to foreigners? And for that matter, what of the intervening levels between the country and one’s own family? What obligations do I have to the citizens of my municipal or provincial government which I do not have to citizens from more far-flung municipalities or provinces? If I still am morally enjoined from interfering with those distant citizens’ job or home search, why is that so? Morally, why am I in the wrong to demand that government prevent a landlord in my county from renting to someone born in Detroit, Michigan, but in the right to demand that the government prevent that same landlord from renting to someone born in Windsor, Ontario?
My ethical rule of thumb is (a) universal altruism plus (b) division of labor. See here: http://openborders.info/blog/a-meta-ethics-to-keep-in-your-back-pocket/ Orphans in Africa have immortal souls and are as important as our children and ourselves, and ultimately the moral calculus must take this into account and must not defy the universalist principle directly; however, like most great tasks, caring for our fellow men is best done with the help of a lot of division of labor, and that’s where a lot of legitimate favoritism comes in. All our ordinary intuitions in favor of family favoritism are thus accommodated, but also bounded. It makes no sense to abandon one’s own children to care for orphans in Africa, for one’s own children are absolutely needy. In the extreme case, no more absolute need is possible than that of a baby for its mother’s milk. But you shouldn’t spoil your children either, and while investment in a talented child can be justified from a universalist perspective (the world needs doctors and scientists and political leaders, after all), the very rich should probably be giving most of their money away to charity, or perhaps even better, engaging in entrepreneurship that pushes the economic frontier forward, and staying away from mere frivolous luxury. Children aside, it is often good to keep charity local because you know local needs best. Long-distance charity faces severe problems of accountability and information, though it’s still sometimes a good idea when needs far away are more acute than needs nearby. But it’s not always the best use of one’s charity dollars to send them to the absolute neediest place on earth, and by the same token, generosity towards one’s family, one’s church, even perhaps (though probably not) one’s alma mater may be justified by effectiveness considerations.
Now, where do countries come into this? Well, here’s one suggestion: perhaps the best way for human beings to take care of one another is to divide up the task so that each nation cares for its own. How convincing is that suggestion? Not very… but a little bit. A little bit, because we do tend to know more about our fellow nationals than about foreigners, and we might be able to provide assistance more effectively. Not very, because our fellow nationals are, at the end of the day, almost all strangers, and we know little about their characters or their needs or how they will be affected; because moral factors like shared culture or shared religion that lie athwart the matrix of sovereign states may matter more; and above all, because in a world where some nations are a hundred times richer than others, needs tend to be FAR more acute in foreign countries than in (say) the United States. Still, I do think countries are morally relevant, though far less so than the knee-jerk assumptions of most contemporary people would hold. Other groups and identities are morally relevant too. What’s distinctive about the nation-state is simply that at present it has a monopoly of force, and public opinion kowtows to that. Perhaps in that sense my position is close to Vipul’s. And while I think countries are morally relevant to a limited extent, it does not follow that they have a right to exclude non-citizens by force.
Still, let me give one example where I think countries ARE morally relevant. War. If the Chinese invade California military, it is appropriate for Floridians and Minnesotans and New Yorkers to come to their fence, with armed force. If California starts deporting Mexican migrants, by contrast, I’m inclined to think it would not be appropriate for Mexico to invade the United States to defend the rights of Mexican migrants. My intuition, then, is that although the nation-state is militarily obsolete (http://openborders.info/blog/the-nation-state-is-militarily-obsolete/) in the sense that virtually all nations rely on international alliances and/or the global security architecture and international law to keep them safe, and military self-reliance is dead; yet when it comes to using force, countries are quite relevant to the rights and wrongs of the matter. I’d have to think about what the ground of this intuition is. Of course, one could make a consequentialist argument in the Mexico/US case, but I feel like there’s more to it than that.
If armed invasion IS an appropriate response to migration restrictions– not my view, but it seems tenable– that would seem to have the interesting ramification of providing a justification for the Crusades. The Crusades were initially triggered by the threat posed by certain vicious Muslim rulers to the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem. If European pilgrims had a right to sojourn in Jerusalem, and this was violated by Muslim rulers, and if such rights violations are sufficient to justify war, then Godfrey and Bohemond and the rest of the First Crusade may have had a just cause, after all.
Thanks, Nathan! That’s an interesting point about the crusades 🙂
I certainly agree with the consequentialist argument against knowingly provoking great violence with collateral damage etc, even if those violently responding to your actions are in the wrong and your actions would be perfectly legitimate were it not for other people’s expected response to them. This tells us that whether other people treat countries as morally relevant is morally relevant, but it doesn’t tell us that countries are morally relevant.
I appreciate that this is not the point you’re trying to make, though. Let me know if you think of a way of articulating your intuition here, as it’s not one that seems to clearly hold true to me.
It’s amazing the extent to which the concept of national borders is so ingrained into our psyches. I was just at my local dvd store/library and a woman, I believe from the Congo, was trying to find out what the requirements are for joining the library. She was told that since she’s a foreigner, she will have to bring, along with her passport, a letter addressed to the dvd library from her employers. This requirement is waived for locals even if they originally come from a part of the country that is a 1000 kilometers away from the dvd library. Imagine the humiliation of having to ask your employers to write a letter to your local dvd store motivating your membership to join the store.
“[W]here we have come to conventionally draw borders on maps seems to me a matter of historical circumstances that virtually nobody alive today has any responsibility in and that therefore can have little moral relevance in evaluating people’s actions. (While I think some compelling consequentialist arguments can be made along the lines that disrespecting existing borders might dangerously offset an equilibrium, I do not think this kind of argument can take you all that far […])”
Let’s see how far I can take it. There’s a sort of Burkean parable in which, if I recall it correctly, a traveler comes upon an old fence or a wall that makes his trip longer and, not immediately seeing any purpose for it, proposes that it should be torn down. His error is acting in ignorance of the reasons that somebody had to build the fence in the first place, and giving too little respect to the fact that the fence has stood as long as it has; more generally the lesson is that society is complex and evolved to what it is for reasons that are often beyond our individual ken.
Borders are part of that. Generally, the fact of states becoming defined by geographic continuity and extent (around the 18th century) tells us something about states’ strategic competition; the borders and related institutions that exist today have survived against a variety of strategic challenges from within and without. For residents of a particular territory, the security that comes from strategic dominance is a strong source of legitimacy for a state. Challenges to such an important aspect of the status quo should not be undertaken lightly.
A similar point is made in the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
In short, persevering historical circumstances have practical significance, and what has practical significance has moral significance.
Now, whether this significance extends to “such questions as where one may rent property and work” depends on an extra step. Perhaps an aspect of strategic dominance is that the local population and government are suited to each other, because of hard-won stabilization in communities via a common language, norms, etc., and outsiders can cause a sort of friction. It’s easy to take for granted how much shared conventions and etiquette (like hand signals or line queuing) make life smoother and less confrontational.
* When transaction costs rise due to differing language and transactional practices, it can disrupt the typical positive-sum (approaching Coasian) bargaining that allows neighbors to get along.
* Unfamiliarity with local laws and lack of proficiency in the language in which those laws are written can prove problematic.
* Unfamiliarity with local customs causes issues ranging from the merely embarrassing (say, differences in hygienic standards create distance between people) to the dangerous (differences in confrontational signaling can lead to violent misunderstandings).
* Societies depend on some feelings of local solidarity to not only fight off invaders but to take risks to uphold the local rule of law and even to be good samaritans and good neighbors. These things materially contribute to local well-being and also are a component of personal happiness and fulfillment.
The above considerations could plausibly tear apart communities and create a general increase in lawlessness and disorder, undermining or offsetting the gains from trade that we hope to gain by lowering legal barriers between places.
For now, that’s about as far as I’ll take the arguments for the moral significance of countries.
Thanks, Bryan, that was excellent! I think this is clearly the strongest answer so far.
As I wrote in the passage you quoted, this equilibrium business is something that I intend to write a separate post about. When I get around to doing that, I will come back to your comment for inspiration.
Perhaps I’ll write another reply here when I’m less busy, otherwise this conversation will continue with my equilibrium-post 🙂
There’s a meme inspired by a line of your post now: http://memegenerator.net/instance/38801113
I saw Gardner Goldsmith give a lecture at a PorcFest past about immigration vs naturalization. Traditionally in the US (I can’t say what changed it) the former was under the authority of the states, the latter the federal government. Anyone could immigrate to the US as a right, but citizenship was a privilege.
If I were to argue against free immigration, I would point out the earlier periods of human history when outsiders were not free to move onto a tribes’s territory or into a walled city. Strangers were suspect, for good reason. Modern weapons and warfare suggest that the operative territorial scale is now much larger. Rights may be justly violated preemptively given a significant threat. Do immigrants pose a significant threat? One often hears about terrorism, but the threats that really underlie the modern limitations are to jobs, welfare, and culture, concerns of the left and the right. Libertarians would disagree with them.
Thanks for a great response, Steve. I would point out that the moral relevance of how threatening people are is distinct from the moral relevance of their country of origin/citizenship, and that a clear answer to my question would require an explanation of how the latter is related to the former. I am not clear on how one could argue that someone’s country of origin is morally relevant *in itself*, rather than it merely being a proxy for something else that is morally relevant, and e.g. how one would avoid the conclusion that threatening natives should also be exiled. I would look forward to your thoughts if you’d care to expand on this in such a way.
Yup, Homo Economicus has to use proxies. Imagine there were a plague, e.g. a zombie apocalypse–how tolerant would you be of outsiders? Of course, in the case of the US I find this all absurd–there is plenty of room, foreigners do not steal jobs, state welfare should be ended, and the few terrorists are a result of blowback that could be ended by other means. I often say that the US should admit more honest working people and send more whiny parasites to Cuba or France. Unfortunately, parasites are hard to get rid of, so it is the productive who have to keep moving. Which is just what those immigrants are doing.