fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

on what we owe our communities

Over at the NY Time's "Opinionator," Seyla Benhabib took on Obama's decision not to deport a certaion groups of undocumented immigrants. It's really quite interesting.

To lay my cards on the table, I happen to believe that most of our laws on immigration are unjust laws. While a country certainly has a right to keep accurate tabs on who comes into a country and even to limit who comes in, either individually or as groups if there's a legitimate reason to do that, I think our laws often go too far. ("This man is a known narcotics trafficker" would be one such reason, as would "This group is too large or too poor for our society to reasonably support them." I'd even say many countries could give a third type of reason, "We cannot absorb them into our culture without losing our own identity," though I wouldn't put a melting-pot-based society like America in that group.)

My real beef with American immigration policy is that we depend on the illegal immigrants out of one side of the mouth and label them as criminals in who they are, not what they do out of the other. As this article points out, California agriculture depends on cheap labor. So do any other number of other businesses. These jobs are typically sub-minimum wage and paid under the table (so no taxes paid by the business). I'd argue we all rely on cheap labor that's denied legal recourse for whatever bad things are done to them. It basically sets up two classes of citizens (and I do consider immigrants – people who permanently join a society, legally or otherwise – to be citizens in the philosophical sense if not the legal one), and I'm not crazy about living in a society built on that. Not that any other society is really any better here, and not that there's a whole lot I can do about it, but it does make me feel complicit in something I don't like.

So I'm predisposed to be in favor of this argument. My main qualm with Obama's DREAM-like action is that it affects so few immigrants, and siphons off the most sympathetic immigrants from the larger community. But still, I find Dr. Benhabib's argument confused. She seems to be drawing on two different philosophical traditions and acting like they're compatible. Since I'm going to be teaching these two approaches to justice with my students in just a few hours, I thought it might be interesting and useful to lay them out here, and apply them to this particular argument.

(By the way, this discussion of communitarianism vs. voluntarism is taken more or less from Ch. 9 of Michael Sandel's book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; I highly recommend it.)

Dr. Benhabib appeals to Kant's "duty of hospitality." She writes:

If conditions in a person's native country so endanger his life and well-being and he becomes willing to risk illegality in order to survive, his right to survival, from a moral point of view, carries as much weight as does the new country's claim to control borders against migrants Immanuel Kant, therefore, called the moral claim to seek refuge or respite in the lands of another, a "universal right of hospitality," provided that the intentions of the foreigner upon arriving on foreign lands were peaceful. Such a right, he argued, belonged to each human being placed on this planet who had to share the earth with others.

I've never heard of this particular bit of Kant's philosophy, but it does sound like him. I've proved over the last several weeks how hard it is for me to speak authoritatively about Kant's moral philosophy, so here I'll rely on Sandel's summary of the relationship between Kant's account of freedom and communal obligations:

To be free is to be autonomous, and to be autonomous, is to be governed by a law I give myself. Kantian autonomy is more demanding than consent. When I will the moral law, I don't simply choose according to my contingent desires or allegiances. Instead, I step back from my particular interests and attachments, and will as a participant in pure practical reason. […] Kant's idea of an autonomous will and Rawls's idea of a hypothetical agreement behind a veil of ignorance have this in common: both conceive the moral agent as independent of his or her particular aims and attachments. When we will the moral law (Kant) or choose the principles of justice (Rawls), we do so without reference to the roles and identities that situate us in the world and make us the particular people we are. (Sandel pp. 213-214)

What Sandel's getting at here is that we are only Americans or Britons or whatever, by virtue of a historical accident. There's no reason I had to be born in the American South, with all that carries with it as far as the way I view the world and my moral obligations. So while I may think I have a duty to put other Americans first – "buy American," monitor the border, care more about the lives of American deaths than Afghani deaths or however you want to put it – I don't really have any obligation here. And it may make sense to have communities and develop them, at a practical level. But I think Kant would be hard-pressed to explain why those communities are morally relevant, certainly to the point that they outweigh someone's right to preserve their life. (Someone who's a better Kant scholar than I am, could perhaps offer an explanation of why communal obligations are morally relevant and not just based on a hypothetical imperative, perhaps, but I can't see it based on what I understand of him.)

Anyway, so far Dr. Benhabib's on solid footing as far as I can tell. The trouble is she then makes a very un-Kantian move. She writes:

We do have special obligations to our neighbors, as opposed to moral obligations to humanity at large, if, for example, our economy has devastated theirs; if our industrial output has led to environmental harm or if our drug dependency had encouraged the formation of transnational drug cartels.

These claims of interdependence require a third moral principle – in addition to the right of universal hospitality and the right to self-government – to be brought into consideration: associative obligations among peoples arising through historical factors.

This sounds very much to me like the communitarian approach to ethics that Sandel outlines. Kant (according to Sandel) basically thought we only have two kinds of obligations: natural duties, that we owe to everyone just because they're human, and voluntary obligations, things we agreed to ourselves. So there's really no sense in talking about making up for what your ancestors had done, or feeling proud of it. As Sandel explains:

If, in thinking about justice, we just abstract from our particular duties, it is hard to make the case that present-day Germans bear a special responsibility to make recompense for the Holocaust, or that Americans of this generation have a special responsibility to remedy the injustice of slavery and segregation. Why? Because once I set aside my identity as a german or an American and conceive myself as a free and independent self, there is no basis for saying my obligation to remedy these historic injustices is greater than anyone else's. (Sandel p. 214).

The thing is, the way I understand these points, they can't both be true – at least not for the reasons pointed to. If I have a Kantian duty to hospitality because it's a Kantian duty, can I also have special obligations to those living near me? Particularly since I wasn't alive when America enacted the drug policies that encouraged the cartel (so any special obligation I have to help these peoples because I'm an American is distinctly non-Kantian). Unless I'm missing something about Kant?

I've really enjoyed teaching Kant's and Aristotle's accounts of freedom and justice, and I find the whole contemporary debate utterly fascinating. But the way I read things, the two sides aren't really compatible; if you're a communitarian, you seem to be rejecting some pretty crucial claims made by Kant, and vice versa. That Dr. Benhabib tries to draw from both sides is a bit frustrating, because I think a lot of what she's saying individually works pretty well but put together it just undercuts itself. It's actually a problem I see a lot in student papers, where they will just take bits from different theories, without worrying about whether the foundations for those ideas make sense together. Given that this is a full professor writing this, and given that I'm really and truly not a Kant expert, I'm hoping I'm missing something in Kant's thoughts that makes this move possible.

Regardless, it's good to see professional philosophers working on this issue. Personally, I tend to think if an immigrant is willing to throw his lot in with a society, said society needs a damned good reason to exclude him – particularly in a society built on immigration, as is the case with America (and really, if you go back far enough, is the case anywhere). But that's probably coming more out of my own Christian tradition more than anything you'll find in philosophy. You know, Abraham keeping his tent open on all four sides and all that.

(P.S., I started this before class this morning and only finished it now, nearly twelve hours later. So any odd wording, seeming obsession with certain books, etc. may be explained by that.)

Tags: justice, philosophy, political
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