We normally think it’s unfair when people have poor lots in life because of their ethnicity or their gender. These characteristics are morally arbitrary, and, by and large, we think individuals’ chances at a good life shouldn’t depend on arbitrary characteristics.
Nevertheless, in reality, one of the most important determinants of a person’s quality of life is her place of birth. We understand intuitively that a person born in Norway has much better odds of doing well in life than a person born in Chad. At least part of the reason for the difference is that people aren’t able to freely move across borders to places where their life prospects would be considerably better.
Take the example of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share a Caribbean island. Life expectancy at birth in Haiti is 58 years. In the Dominican Republic, it’s 70. The border between those two countries—justifiably or not—prevents some from improving their life prospects; we know this because many thousands of Haitians cross the border each year illegally, despite harsh sanctions that face them if they are caught.
Yet what could be more arbitrary, morally speaking, than where a person happens to be born? It has long been uncontroversial to say that governments don’t have an absolute sovereign right to do as they wish within their borders. Granted, states still do harass and repress their populations, but we don’t believe that it’s right. It is much more controversial, however, to suggest that states have a less than absolute right to control their borders—to allow or prevent people to come into their territory, and to freely grant or deny citizenship.
The philosopher Joseph Carens has called the control over national borders “the modern equivalent to inherited feudal privilege.” Is this critique accurate? Or can the absolute right to control borders be justified, and form part of a fair international order?
To get a grip on these questions, Christian Barry discussed immigration and citizenship policies with Christopher Heath Wellman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, St. Louis, and a Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, an Australian Research Council Special Research Centre.