The Ethics of Immigration and the Justice of Immigration Policies

Public Affairs Quarterly 29 (2):155-174 (2015)
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A large portion of normative philosophical thought on immigration seeks to address the question “What policies for admitting and excluding foreigners may states justly adopt?” This question places normative philosophical discussions of immigration within the boundaries of political philosophy, whose concern is the moral assessment of social institutions. Several recent contributions to normative philosophical thought on immigration propose to answer this question, but adopt methods of reasoning about possible answers that might be taken to suggest that normative philosophical inquiry about immigration belongs to the field of ethics, whose concern is the moral assessment of individual action and character. This paper focuses particularly on recent work by Christopher Heath Wellman and Kieran Oberman, both of whom attempt to derive conclusions about the justice of aspects of states’ immigrant admissions policies from answers to the question “Is it morally permissible for person P to migrate internationally?” I argue in this paper that such individualist ethical approaches to normative philosophical reasoning about states’ immigration policies obscure factors consideration of which is indispensable for assessing their justice, producing misguided policy recommendations. These factors include the global structural causes of international migration, and the role wealthy receiving countries of the global North play in shaping these causes – factors that are better appreciated by political philosophy than by ethics, given the respective objects of concern of each.

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Peter Higgins
Eastern Michigan University


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