Immigration ethics for a world of limits

by Philip Cafaro

Most political liberals and most academics across the developed world support expansive immigration policies, often up to and including free movement and settlement across national boundaries (“open borders”). They may agree to limit immigration for tactical reasons, because their benighted fellow citizens are not willing to be more generous. But they remain convinced that a truly moral immigration policy always means more immigration. In most if not all cases, they believe, it is unjust to limit the movement of people who are merely attempting to secure their physical safety or economic wellbeing by relocating to a new country. Those who seek to limit immigration are racists, bien pensant liberals assert, or at best selfish defenders of their undeserved advantages.

A recent master’s thesis from Colorado State University’s Philosophy Department takes issue with this view. In Immigration Ethics: Creating Flourishing, Just, and Sustainable Societies in a World of Limits, Addison Phillips argues that in a crowded and environmentally overexploited world, truly ethical immigration policies must acknowledge limits. “Talk of limits is generally unpopular,” he writes, “but, on a finite planet, it is simply irresponsible not to think about limits and their implications for how we should act as individuals, and the kinds of policies and projects we should pursue as a society.”

Justice is the first virtue of political institutions and policies, but justice involves the fair distribution of limited resources. There can be no considered judgment regarding fairness, without an understanding of applicable limits—in this case, both environmental and socio-political. Too many people may overwhelm the ecological services on which societies depend. Too rapid demographic change may undermine the social trust and solidarity that are likewise essential to flourishing societies. In recent decades, liberals have joined conservatives in their willingness to spend down ecological and social capital to further economic growth. Both sides of the political spectrum remain equally clueless that “ever more, for ever more, forever more,” has run its course as a guiding economic philosophy, and must be replaced with a truly sustainable model.

In the first chapter of his thesis, Phillips argues that every nation’s citizens have a right to exercise self-determination and pursue the creation of flourishing societies. Ultimately, such a right is grounded in the fundamental interests shared by all human beings, that help constitute our wellbeing. These interests include basic safety and security, mutual regard and a sense of social belonging, as well as higher interests such as achieving knowledge about the world and an enriched experience within it. The right to self-determination justifies citizens limiting immigration, if that is required to secure the various societal goods necessary to a flourishing society, such as social solidarity and the maintenance of a robust welfare state.

In a second chapter, Phillips argues that in many cases today this antecedent criterion has been reached. Present ecological, economic and social circumstances demand that citizens of the developed nations exercise their right to self-determination and limit immigration from the developing world. Significant and pressing threats to their societies’ near and long-term prospects for flourishing demand that they do so. This is not a brief for ending immigration altogether: some immigration is compatible with the maintenance and even improvement of many societies. Yet clearly, “open borders” are not. Continued population growth will make environmental sustainability impossible, while excessive immigration levels threaten to undermine the social solidarity that has made relatively economically egalitarian societies with robust welfare systems possible.


EU projection
EU’s population under five migration scenarios. Status quo migration is the average of the last 20 years net migration levels (1,188,235 per year)

Phillips acknowledges a qualified right to freedom of movement; grounded, like other basic rights, in fundamental human interests. But like all rights, he asserts, it must find its place in a full system of rights and responsibilities. Freedom of movement must be balanced, and where necessary constrained, with reference to the ultimate goal of ethics: securing the flourishing of all people and of the rest of life on Earth. Achieving this goal demands the creation of just, sustainable societies everywhere in the world—not the acceptance of failed societies across large swathes of it and the relocation of huge numbers of people elsewhere.

Cosmopolitan elites around the world may think of national political borders as passe´. They may believe that patriotism is the last recourse of dullards. But their comfortable cosmopolitan lives depend on the social capital that previous generations built up through hard political work, organizing and sacrificing for the common good. Recent populist uprisings in Europe and the U.S. suggest some of what may be lost should political progressives fail to recalibrate their views on these matters and continue their uncritical support for globalization.

Germany projections
Germany’s population under five migration scenarios. Status quo migration is the average of the last 20 years net migration levels (259,316 per year)

In the same way that governments in the developed world have too often run down social capital to further globalization and “diversity,” they continue rapidly running down the ecological capital that untold nonhuman generations have built up over the aeons: the rich soils that grow our food, the forests that provide our oxygen, the wetlands that purify our water, and the free-flowing rivers that gladden our souls. The evidence is overwhelming that the world is well beyond full human capacity, and pushing hard against a variety of ecological limits. Yet liberals happily join conservatives in acting as if it makes little difference environmentally whether the U.S., France, or Germany doubles its population over the next century, through continuing mass immigration, or whether they take advantage of low native birthrates to decrease their populations and thus decrease their citizens’ demands on the natural world. Thus we sleepwalk into the future.

Immigration Ethics: Creating Flourishing, Just, and Sustainable Societies in a World of Limits reminds us of the folly of trying to make good public policy without acknowledging the existence of limits. It provides a solid framework for thinking about one of our most intractable public policy issues and provides real ethical guidance regarding the way forward.

3 thoughts on “Immigration ethics for a world of limits

  1. An excellent report on what seems to be an excellent thesis. It is encouraging to find a university that allows students to think outside the current boundaries of thought. In “The Population Fix” I suggested readers decide for themselves what size population they find comfortable and so advise their political representatives. Perhaps more outreach could be done to solicit those opinions. Again, Philip, a welcome report!


  2. I agree with most of what Philip Cafaro and Addison Phillips write about immigration. I have read all of Phillips’ thesis paper on Immigration Ethics. There are a few things that I would add to the discussion
    1. When a person, for instance, moves from Central America to the United States their global environmental impact substantially increases. In the United States even most poor people own cars. The increased global impact is in addition to increased impact in the United States.
    2. Much of what is termed, “aid”, by the United States to other countries is in the form of weapons and other military “assistance”. In Syria, Iraq and Libya and many countries in Central America this aid has made life much worse for many people and has been a substantial factor in people leaving and trying get get into the U.S. and other developed countries. We need to stop doing this and provide aid that helps rather than hurts and that would reduce the impetus for emigration. This still doesn’t justify allowing immigration into the USA beyond sustainable limits.
    3. A substantial portion of U.S. environmental impact is indirect. Production of goods in other countries, such as China, that imported into the United States has a substantial global impact and a substantial impact in the country where production occurs. This adds to the already very high environmental impact of living in the USA. More immigrants living in the USA only add to this impact.


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