Thursday, January 15, 2015

Waiving Rights and "Second-class citizens"

There's a curious pattern of reasoning one sometimes comes across (especially from the anti-Cosmopolitan Left) that one does better -- morally speaking -- to ignore destitute outsiders than to engage with them on mutually beneficial but unequal or potentially "exploitative" terms.  In an old post on 'boycotting the needy' I discussed the cases of sweatshop labour and prostitution.  I'm now thinking more about immigration and guest worker program.

It's a common concern, amongst people who are unwilling to offer citizenship to long-term migrant workers, that it would be an unjust society that relegates long-term migrants to a lower status of "second class (non-)citizens".  Since we neither want to see ourselves as living in an unjust society, nor offer citizenship to these would-be immigrants, it's concluded that we must expel them from our borders instead! (See, e.g., Wellman's defence of limited-stay migration.)

There seems to me something extraordinarily perverse about this line of reasoning.  It is to deprive the needy of a significant benefit (continued access to first-world labour markets) on the grounds that, if we allowed them this good, we would be subsequently obligated to help them more than we want to. So, for the sake of avoiding any such downstream obligations, we will harm them here and now. It's absurd!

Two aspects of absurdity jump out at me: (1) This sort of "moral reasoning" does not stem from any kind of good will or concern for others, but merely a narcissistic desire to oneself avoid any "moral stain".  It is the epitome of fetishizing moral purity, at the expense of the actual things -- and people -- that matter morally.

(2) It turns a putative "right" -- to not be treated as a second-class citizen, unequal to the other members of society -- into a curse.  This right is not to the benefit of would-be migrants, for our reluctance to respect this right causes us to do them an even greater harm, namely to expel them from our society altogether.  But surely rights should not be curses.  Rights are protections, given for our benefit, and so if a right turns out to be detrimental to our interests we must have the moral power to waive the right.  But of course, if the right can be waived then there is no longer an objection here to allowing long-term migrant workers to remain within our borders where they've made their homes: one can simply make it a condition of their work visa that they waive the right to political equality.

That still seems pretty distasteful, I have to admit.  And I think there's a decent case to be made that it wouldn't be permissible. But that just serves to bring out, I think, how much worse it is, morally speaking, to expel migrant workers or block them access to our labour markets in the first place.  Perhaps we're morally obligated to grant long-term working visas and citizenship.  But one thing is for sure: it can't be permissible to deny work visas on the grounds that one doesn't wish to subsequently be obliged to grant citizenship.  That's just to double the harm, while pushing it out of sight so we don't have to face up to what we've done.

P.S. One might worry that we often don't want our rights to be alienable, because that would make us more vulnerable to exploitation.  If you're at liberty to sell yourself into slavery, for example, then that's something that a would-be rescuer might demand before saving your life.  Much better for you if you can't give up your right to basic liberty, so that it cannot be asked of you by those with power over you.  But the obvious solution here is that we should only want our rights to be alienable when their presence leads others to permissibly abandon us.  Such abandonment is often not permissible, which is why a would-be rescuer may not make exploitative demands before rescuing you from the desert island: if they're there, then they're obliged to rescue you regardless.  Perhaps non-citizens are in a similar position, and we're obliged to grant them access to our labour markets, in which case their right to political equality is plausibly inalienable and we're obliged to eventually grant them citizenship in addition.  But if it is permissible to "abandon" them and refuse them aid or entry, then I suggest they must have the moral liberty to give up the "right" to citizenship which is causing us to block their entry.


  1. I agree with this post wholeheartedly, but I would like to point out a similar situation where this line of reasoning seems morally valid to me: potential future people. When considering whether or not to have a child, people often use very similar logic as an argument against having children. They say "If I had a child I would be obliged to provide it with a certain level of care, and if I was unable to society would be obliged to. I don't want to do that, and neither does society, so I will not have a child." This logic seems morally sound to me.

    One reason that seems morally relevant is that the child in question doesn't exist, and never will. Foreigners, by contrast, do exist. Nonexistance may be a valid reason to disregard someone's welfare, but nationality is not.

    Another valid reason comes to light if you evaluate these scenarios from a consequentialist perspective instead of an obligations perspective. Pretty much everyone agrees that a poor foreigner's life getting better is a good consequence, even if some people think they have no moral obligation to bring those consequences about (or even an obligation not to). But most people think that adding a new low-welfare life to the world is a bad consequence, and that adding a high-welfare life to the world is a bad consequence if that high-welfare is obtained at the expense of preexisting people.

  2. There is a distaste towards migrants for some reason, and I do not think it is because people simply do not want to associate with 'outsiders'. The issue is much more fundamental than people moving into a richer country for the sake of furthering their own lives and escaping the low-paid work within their own country - there is nothing wrong with this and the choice to move country for this reason is commendable.

    To shut our borders (I'm in the UK) or regulate the number of immigrants doesn't seem correct. To relegate existing migrants to a lower class of citizen is also uncorrect, but why are we having this discussion? Why are people so against people from one country moving to another? It stems from a dissatisfaction within society as it currently is, and migrants being blamed for taking jobs, sponging benefits and overcrowding the country just acts as a scapegoat for more fundamental problems. People are scared for their economical security and until that issue is addressed we will still, unfortunately, have questions over border control and migrant fluidity.


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