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Political Philosophy

Cosmopolitanism & Immigration

Michael S. Dauber smuggles in some ideas from the continent.

The benefits promised to us by our human rights are extremely varied. Some of the most important are grand intangibles such as justice, free speech and freedom of worship. Others are very tangible indeed. The right to life implies a right to the basic necessities that sustain life, such as food and drinking water. Without a right to food and water in emergencies, all of the other rights can swiftly become meaningless. In his book Human Rights: Concept and Context (2002), Brian Orend, a human rights philosopher, argues that those who possess the objects of these human rights – food, water, medical treatment – have an obligation to help those who lack such objects to gain access to them. In a synthesis of his own ideas with those of Thomas Pogge, Orend argues that both individuals and institutions are responsible for providing people with access to their vital needs, which is essential to the fulfilment of their human rights.

Many wealthy countries have populations that possess the objects of human rights, and undoubtedly also possess the means of securing these rights for at least a few thousand others more. Although Orend does not specifically deal with immigration in his work, one can easily argue that the opening of borders to some of those who do not qualify under current immigration policies is a moral obligation from the human rights perspective. Given the international commitment to the idea that human rights are universal, this is especially true in the context of mass migrations caused by persecution, genocide, war, or large-scale natural disasters. Cosmopolitanism – the idea that as human beings we are all equally of intrinsic value, regardless of our nation of origin – motivates us to act benevolently toward others wherever possible. If we take seriously our obligations to aid those in need, should we open our borders as wide as reasonably possible? Is this how we should respond to the flow of refugees? I will summarize some points made by Continental philosophers in this cosmopolitan tradition, to see if they help to cast light on our current predicament, and then will consider some objections to the relaxation of immigration controls before trying to draw some lessons.

Image © Venantius J Pinto 2019. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums

Some Cosmopolitan Perspectives

Two cosmopolitan philosophers who made some interesting points on migration and refugees are Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas. Derrida took inspiration from history. In On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), he promotes the idea of ‘cities of refuge’ – places where one could go to be safe or to receive aid. Such cities have existed in various forms throughout history, ranging from places one could flee from honor-driven revenge schemes in the ancient (Jewish) Torah, to cities to which one could flee to be free from war and destruction in medieval Italy. Arguably the United States as a whole is the epitome of a ‘city of refuge’ – a society founded on the immigration of the poor and oppressed where political, racial, sexual, or religious persecution is, quite literally, illegal. Derrida’s emphasis on cities also presents an alternative to sweeping national policies: might we leave immigration policies up to individual cities? One may still need to do security or background checks to maintain national security; but establishing cities of refuge in which immigrants are welcome would help carve a path for them, rather than forcing them to find their own way in an unfamiliar, inhospitable land. It could ease some of the problems faced by those compelled to leave their country of origin and enable more flexible planning by their host communities.

Emmanuel Levinas, writing in response to the horrors of the Holocaust and the darker side of Heideggerian existentialism, argued that from a phenomenological perspective the other is ‘unknowable’ (see for example, Is Ontology Fundamental?, 1996). In other words, we simply cannot know precisely what other people are experiencing and thinking. As we cannot assume that foreign others are hostile to us, we have a duty to try to understand them. Dialogue enables us to truly ‘hear’ them, discouraging us from passively allowing them to be harmed. Such encounters make it impossible to ignore the pleas of the helpless.

Long before this, Immanuel Kant, developing the cosmopolitan ideal in his ‘Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective’ (1784), argued that because borders are not natural distinctions but man-made, we all have a natural right to traverse the Earth. This does have limits, he suggested, as one must seek permission to stay in a foreign country permanently. As I’ll discuss later, one of the major concerns citizens have over increased immigration is a loss of cultural identity. Yet Kant’s discussion of the positive influence of interaction and cooperation with foreigners provides a compelling reason to enlarge the immigrant pool. By increasing its diversity and allowing in new ways of thinking, we actually improve our culture, adding to its competitiveness through cooperation.

This idea is further illuminated by Julia Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves (1991). She argues that whatever we consider foreign in others is simply part of ourselves we have repressed; so by encountering and understanding others, we come to know ourselves, and have little reason to remain isolated. Furthermore, cultural paranoia and fear of others fades away when we encounter and truly understand others as not so different from ourselves. Once we see that regardless of our different cultures we are capable of similar acts and achievements, and that at heart we share certain core values, we no longer have any compelling reason to abandon others to their fate. From both a psychological and a moral perspective, we have a responsibility to learn from each other, since this process helps all involved to improve as ethical and cultural beings.

This collective improvement can be seen in a financial light too. According to Andres J. Pumariega and Eugenio Rothe, contrary to the popular notion that more immigration would be an economic drain, studies have shown that states and nations with more open immigration policies actually benefited in terms of tax revenue (‘Leaving No Children or Families Outside: The Challenges of Immigration’, in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2010). The data suggests that one of the common arguments against immigration reform – that expanded policies will create a financial drain – is incorrect. However, this particular line of thought is more complicated than it seems.

Arguments Against Immigration Reform

Let’s now turn to arguments against more open borders. In light of human rights, these arguments are considerably weaker than commonly thought. One I’ve mentioned comes from the financial sphere. Although studies suggest that immigration actually benefits the economy, there are lurking variables. First, in the twenty-first century there are fewer open geographic spaces left for immigrant populations to expand into than there were in earlier waves of immigration, and this limits the potential for the sort of economic growth that was often a result of those earlier movements. Additionally, one could argue that states profit from controlled immigration, which typically involves admitting people with special skills and employment qualifications. Generally speaking, many who immigrate illegally may have little or no significant immediate financial potential, and may require welfare or medical assistance. In this regard, many have argued that expanding immigration policies without qualification would actually create a financial drain.

There are several other economic concerns. Some have argued that taxing the population at a higher rate to cover increased welfare and bureaucratic costs would decrease the overall standard of living for large portions of the population. This might seem unfair to those who feel they didn’t do anything to deserve having those standards lowered. Another argument regards the job market. If the job market is poor and the unemployment rate high, adding more individuals looking for work will compound the problem. Although this argument presents a significant concern, one response is that an increased number of residents would increase the number needing services, generating new jobs.

Both Derrida and Richard Kearney highlight another issue: security. In our time, arguably the biggest national security fear in the developed world is terrorism. Opening borders indiscriminately potentially opens the door to terrorists, spies, and other unsavory individuals who would pose a threat to the common welfare. Derrida touches on this simply by pointing to the ambiguity of encountering another person (see ‘Hostipitality’, in Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 2000). One does not know if the other is a friend or a foe. Kearney in his 2003 book Strangers, Gods and Monsters tackles this ambiguity head-on. While we should be open to others, he cautions against being so open as to become unreasonably susceptible to harm. “You can kill the alien as a threatening enemy or overcome the initial fear and respond with a gesture of welcome” – but we must always be aware that the other is equally capable of hospitality or hostility. However, Kearney also notes that we mustn’t scapegoat entire groups of people for our problems, as many previous societies have. Although it may be true that individual members of other groups commit atrocities against us, we must be vigilant not to blame entire cultures for the world’s problems. Instead, we must “look into our own psyches and examine our consciences in the mirror of our gods and monsters.” (p.43)

Finally, some have argued that significant immigration forces a transformation of cultural identity, and so immigration should be heavily restricted. I’ve already described Kant’s answer to this cultural concern. Our culture and traditions need not be threatened, but can be enhanced and strengthened by this encounter with other cultures. To this I can only add that the cultures of many wealthy nations are already inherently diverse, and that such diversity is a valuable asset.

These concerns seem most pressing at present in regard to the Syrian conflict. The issue is not simply about the economic costs of helping a massive number of desperate refugees, but a struggle for many in the West to overcome racial and religious biases they have against the Middle East. These flawed cultural concerns do nothing to reduce our moral obligation to protect the right to life of all human beings and secure universal human dignity.

Towards Cosmopolitanism

In the light of these arguments, how should we proceed? The answer, I think, depends ultimately on what sort of people we want to be. To be cosmopolitan is to be open to the personal growth that comes from the transformative power of new ideas from elsewhere. But if we choose the path of cosmopolitanism, of regarding all people as having equal intrinsic value, then the logic of that position must lead us to support human rights for all and a commitment to universal human dignity. If so, then how can we begin to effect change?

In ‘Toward a Mutual Hospitality’ (2013), Luce Irigaray discusses the notion that our world is constantly and comprehensively designated as the property of one culture or another: there is no neutral space, both physically and metaphorically, in which we may discuss our differences. What we need, Irigaray argues, is a neutral, open, hospitable place where groups can discuss their difference. By fostering mutual understanding and respect, such a place would make cosmopolitan hospitality possible. We must step outside our own natural place and concerns, and address the concerns of the other without forcing the other to conform to our own culture, and without trying to invade the other’s. This notion is reinforced by Jean-Louis Chrètien, who emphasizes the need to let the other speak in order to achieve understanding: “The first hospitality is nothing other than listening” (The Ark of Speech, 2004). Further, we must listen completely and objectively, hearing what the other has to say without forcing their words to conform to our own biases. Indeed, language provides an ark that bridges the chasm between ourselves and others, or between one’s native countrymen and foreigners.

Irigaray’s and Chrètien’s ideas on hospitality give us ways to understand other cultures and to address the cultural concerns some have about increasing immigration. Much of the anxiety arises from a simple lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to hear what others have to say and learn why they need help. By opening ourselves to others and truly hearing them, such hospitality helps us to bridge the gap between even the most different of cultures.

If we hold the cosmopolitan view that we all have value as human beings regardless of our background or location, then it seems a moral obligation to extend hospitality to those in need all over the world as much as we can. Accordingly, the cosmopolitan ideal in human rights holds that we are obligated to help others regardless of nation of origin. Additionally, the cosmopolitan emphasis on the universal value of persons and on the benefits of meeting diverse people strongly reinforces the notion that immigration can only help native populations, in terms both of financial gain and cultural and moral excellence. In many cases, this can be accomplished simply by allowing immigration – inviting others into one’s country as permanent guests, which is the ultimate form of hospitality. A further step along the path would be to relax refugee quotas to allow those to come who are truly in need and who, if denied, have no feasible alternative but to migrate illegally, perhaps entrusting themselves to human traffickers. The abundant wealth of most of the countries where this magazine is read makes it more than just possible for them to provide many more individuals with the objects of their vital needs than we currently allow. We cannot, however, ignore concerns over security; nor can we pretend that the well is limitless. I do not argue for no borders at all, devoid of limits or of a screening process. What I argue is subtler, more reasonable, and closer to the ‘golden mean’ that Aristotle advocates for moral action. We should not let in everyone, for that could lead to a financial and security disaster in light of the present global economy and recent terrorist threats; but neither should we be so strict that we barely allow anyone access to our resources. The trick is to find the healthiest medium – which I believe we have not yet reached. I argue simply that we are more than capable of helping thousands more individuals in need than our current policies make possible.

Collectively, the nations of the world could absorb a massive influx of refugees with relatively little cost and with significant benefit, moral and otherwise. I submit that this is what we must do in the case of those fleeing warfare and economic hardship. Not only do we have the capacity: on this sketch of human rights, we have an obligation.

© Michael S. Dauber 2019

Michael S. Dauber is studying law at St John’s University and is a member of the St John’s Law Review. He has an MA in Bioethics from the New York University College of Global Public Health.

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