Episode 11. Christopher Heath Wellman on Immigration

There is no denying that international borders—coercively upheld and protected—are a huge factor in determining the distribution of wealth and opportunities throughout the world. From education and health care, to access to credit and the rule of law, a host of factors that influence quality of life depend simply on which side of a border a person is born on. Yet what could be more arbitrary, morally speaking, than where a person happens to be born? And why is it that inequality and poverty traceable back to this factor is generally considered less objectionable than deprivations that result from factors such as race, ethnicity or gender?

To get a grip on these questions, Public Ethics Radio discussed immigration and citizenship policies with Christopher Heath Wellman. Wellman is Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, and a Professorial Research Fellow at Charles Sturt University in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, an Australian Research Council Special Research Centre. His views on immigration are also set out in his recent, “Immigration and Freedom of Association,” Ethics 119, no. 1 (2008): 109–141.

Click here to download the episode (34:45, 8.0 mb, MP3), or click on the online media player below. You can also download the transcript. Music in this episode was provided by Liberty.


The introductory data on life expectancy in Haiti and the Dominican Republic came from the 2007/2008 Human Development Report. For more on the problem of illegal migration in those countries, see the excellent report by James Ferguson of Minority Rights International, “Migration in the Caribbean: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Beyond.”

The introduction also quotes the Canadian philosopher Joseph Carens on immigration policy as “feudal privilege.” The line is from his “Aliens and Citizens: The Case from Open Borders,” Review of Politics 42, no. 2 (1987): 251-273. For more on his work, see Carens’s “The Case for Amnesty: A Forum on Immigration,” Boston Review 34, no. 3 (2009), along with several responses.

Wellman notes that Elizabeth Anderson, among others, don’t believe that caring about equality entails negating the effects of luck. For more on Anderson’s views on equality and luck, see her “What is the Point of Equality?,” Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337.

Warren Buffett is a renowned investor—this year the second richest person in the world. In fairness to Buffett, in 2006 he announced that he would give the vast majority of his wealth to charity.

There is a fierce debate over the effectiveness of aid; that is, whether development and humanitarian assistance improves the lives of those to whom it is targeted. Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly have recently made prominent contributions to the argument that, roughly, aid does not help. Prominent proponents of the opposing view (that aid does help) include Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier. Sachs and Moyo recently got into a typically heated debate on the issue on the Huffington Post: Sachs’s post; Moyo’s reply; Sachs’s reply.

Wellman refers to an argument by David Miller about who benefits from open borders, the poorest of the poor or the relatively well-off. See David Miller “Immigration: the Case for Limits” in Andrew I Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman, eds., Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.)

Remittances, money sent from emigrants back to their home countries, do indeed represent a substantial transfer of wealth from affluent to developing countries. The World Bank provides some estimates: in 2008, roughly $300 billion was sent to developing countries.

Wellman refers to Gillian Brock‘s recent book. The full reference is: Gillian Brock, Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Michael Walzer‘s classic treatment of immigration can be found in his Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983). The book was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Ronald Dworkin; see that review and Walzer’s reply.

Michael Blake has written extensively on immigration. For one major example, available for free online, see Michael Blake, “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no 3 (2001): 257-296.

1 Comment

Filed under Episodes

One response to “Episode 11. Christopher Heath Wellman on Immigration

  1. Interesting. Im pondering public ethics, business ethics and virtues as well as economical equity on my own blog http://www.randapp.com

    This post had fantastic sources even it handles just immigration.

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