Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude?

The admission or denial of entry to foreign nationals is fraught with moral dilemmas, finds Paul Scheffer

January 26, 2012

It's not often that the leaders of the major European countries agree. They managed to do so last spring, when David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel announced in unison that multiculturalism had failed. Strikingly, none of the three was at all clear about the place migrants have in their societies. This omission is not innocent, since in many countries there is a tendency to deny that they have become nations of immigrants. It's no accident that debates about integration problems are under way everywhere, yet nowhere do we see the implementation of a coherent immigration policy.

Against that background, the publication of this book by the philosophers Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole is timely. They succeed in exploring the moral dilemmas surrounding immigration in an accessible way. The book consists of two essays: Wellman makes the case for the right to exclude, Cole for a human right to cross national borders. Their study shows vividly how a profound difference of opinion can be clarified by reasoned dialogue, which makes it a lesson in philosophy as democracy.

Wellman bases his argument on three premises: legitimate states have a right to self-determination; freedom of association is an essential part of that self-determination; and, finally, freedom of association implies a freedom not to associate with others. Inclusion and exclusion are essential to every nation state: "Since a country's immigration policy determines who has the opportunity to join the current citizens in shaping the country's future, this policy matters enormously to any citizen who cares what course her political community takes."

To clarify his stance, Wellman makes much use of analogies: clubs and associations rely on the possibility of excluding people from membership. Why should that not apply to a national community? It's precisely this comparison that Cole rejects. Although exclusion from a club may be hurtful, people can develop perfectly well outside it. The same does not apply to states: "To exercise the right to leave a state, one needs another state to exit into - statelessness is a perilous condition."

Cole's plea for a human right to mobility is based on the idea that there ought to be a symmetry between exit and entry. Just as the right to leave a state can be curtailed only in exceptional circumstances, so the right to immigrate has a strong moral claim that, in most cases, trumps sovereignty. His fundamental objection is therefore to international law, which recognises the right to leave a society without safeguarding the right to be part, by choice, of another society.

Both essays are rich and principled investigations, but they inevitably come up against practical consequences, which need to be part of an ethics of migration. Open borders can contribute to cross-border equality - think of the remittances that migrants send home - but at the same time they can easily lead to greater inequality within the receiving society. Cole offers little in response to Wellman when it comes to the discrepancy between an open immigration regime and the relatively closed welfare state.

Debating the Ethics of Immigration demonstrates the power of philosophical inquiry into "fundamental assumptions that shape our worldview", but at the point where the authors touch upon other disciplines - migration history, for example, or the economics of migration - its limitations become obvious. When Cole remarks that "the current global migration regime" operates in the same way as it did in "the colonial period", he underestimates the degree to which liberal democracies have felt tied to the principle of equal treatment. Despite lacking, in most cases, a carefully considered immigration policy, over the past 40 years they have become countries of immigration in which the guest workers and refugees of yesterday are the citizens of today.

Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude?

By Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole

Oxford University Press 336pp, £60.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780199731732 and 31725

Published 20 October 2011

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