Open borders: normative ethics summary

See also: Ethics and philosophy, moral case, moral counter-case.

The term “normative ethics” is used broadly for the study of norms that can be used to evaluate the ethics of particular actions and choices. This is in contrast with meta-ethics, that seeks to address whether morality exists at all, and practical/applied ethics, that seeks to answer specific ethical questions, relying on normative ethics. Questions related to migration policy are questions of applied ethics, but to answer them, one must use normative ethical tools.

Examples of meta-ethical theories include moral realism, moral skepticism, moral nihilism, and incognitivism. Examples of normative ethical theories include libertarianism, utilitarianism, communitarianism, and egalitarianism.

On our moral case and moral counter-case pages , we discussed various normative ethical theories that respectively support and oppose open borders. The goal of this page is slightly different. Here, rather than specifically try to argue for or against the position, we survey the existing, widely accepted normative ethical positions and what their proponents have had to say about open borders.

The PhilPapers survey results give an idea of the normative ethical views held by academic philosophers. Two questions are particularly relevant:

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
Other 382 / 931 (41.0%)
Accept or lean toward: egalitarianism 324 / 931 (34.8%)
Accept or lean toward: communitarianism 133 / 931 (14.3%)
Accept or lean toward: libertarianism 92 / 931 (9.9%)

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
Other 301 / 931 (32.3%)
Accept or lean toward: deontology 241 / 931 (25.9%)
Accept or lean toward: consequentialism 220 / 931 (23.6%)
Accept or lean toward: virtue ethics 169 / 931 (18.2%)

We discuss what each of these has to say about open borders:

  • Egalitarianism generally argues for open borders, insofar as it is understood as global egalitarianism for humans. For more, see our egalitarian case for open borders page. However, there are some universalist egalitarianism-tinged arguments that could be used against open borders, the most important of which is local inequality aversion.
  • Communitarianism is a more mixed bag. On the one hand, interpretations of communitarianism such as citizenism and territorialism, that give weight respectively to formal citizenship and geographic location respectively, are opposed to open borders, although subscribers to these views may still favor considerable migration liberalization. On the other hand, forms of communitarianism that stress voluntarily chosen and created communities may favor freedom of migration so as to enable the formation, growth, and maintenance of communities.
  • Libertarianism generally argues for open borders. For more, see our libertarian case for open borders page. That being said, some self-identified libertarians oppose open borders, and some anti-open borders ideas, such as the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, have been argued from libertarian premises.
  • Consequentialism argues for open borders given our current understanding of the effects of migration. For more, see our page on the utilitarian case for open borders.

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"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan