Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Moral Community: Boundaries on Hospitality?

By William Spohn

Many Californians were recently surprised to discover that one out of every four people living in their state was not born in the United States. California, Florida and Texas are experiencing the brunt of the largest volume of immigration to the United States in a century. Demographers point out that large scale immigration is a world wide phenomena as millions move from the poor countries of the East and South to the wealthy nations. Reaction to this migration is fueling political debates in western Europe and the United States.

A fundamental moral question lied behind the xenophobia of France's Msr. Le Pen and the furor over California's Proposition 187 banning public services to illegal immigrants: what are the boundaries of moral community? How far do our moral affinities and ethical obligations extend? Should moral community reach beyond the immediate limits of family and friends to include those who share our gender, race, class, religion, nationality and even humanity? Some argue that our sense of moral connection and corresponding responsibilities should extend not only to all people but also to future generations, and even to animals and plants. Others fear that a global conscience will dissipate our moral energies, leading to neglect of immediate relations and compassion fatigue in the face of too many famines, too much suffering.

Moral community is not established by ethical principle or argument so much as by the images that guide our perceptions and emotions. Who counts for us morally depends upon whom we notice. Some years ago one traveler returned from visiting several exotic cultures to observe that "all men are not brothers; cousins, maybe, but not brothers." Images from popular speech and traditions become lenses for moral vision. These figures are not morally neutral. They establish psychological borders to our moral community. Images that restrict our range of concern often serve to justify negative treatment of those who lie "beyond the pale" (literally a ditch dug around the old city of Dublin to keep out undesirables).

The ethical function of images stands out in the two central analogies which shaped the population debate in the 70's. First, the earth was portrayed as a life boat with a limited "carrying capacity." Those on board cannot rescue everyone stranded in the water without swamping the lifeboat. Secondly, battlefield "triage" was invoked as a guide for social and economic policies. Medics in the field must decide which wounded will surely die, which ones will recover without great assistance, and which ones will benefit most from medical care and resources that are in short supply. Note the way in which these images justify shrinking the range of moral community. Some persons in need must be excluded because we have limited resources; we cannot prudently afford to let everyone make an equal claim on us. The crisis demands setting moral doubts aside and making painful decisions. These analogies were, of course, comfortable and somewhat self serving. They placed first world countries in the boat, not the water; they cast us as medics, not casualties.

The dominant images in the debate over immigration give some clue to how Americans today define our moral community. Images not only shape our perceptions, they also crystalize certain emotions and motivate us to act in certain ways. What emotions are evoked by the key images in public discourse on immigration, and what scenarios of action do they suggest? The commonly employed images of "invasion" and "waves of foreigners" restrict the scope of moral community and legitimate defensive actions. Invasion connotes a military campaign of hostile forces crossing our borders. This image suggests a military response: barricade the borders, dispatch troops, repel the invaders. "Waves of immigrants" suggests a natural disaster, a tidal wave that is eroding our sea walls and flooding the land. Both images heighten a sense of crisis and demand stern countermeasures.

Looking at the relevant facts may mitigate to some extent the fear and defensiveness which these images evoke. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Immigration and Naturalization Service figure that approximately 300,000 illegal immigrants enter the country each year. In a country of 260 million, that hardly constitutes a tidal wave or an invasion. The United States has admitted 800,000 legal immigrants each year since 1988. It is impossible to estimate the "carrying capacity" of the expanding U. S. economy. Will today's immigrants be tomorrow's consumers and entrepreneurs, or will they languish in dead end jobs or go on public assistance?

Although the immigration debate often centers on legal and economic issues, closer analysis suggests that the fears arise from a deeper source. If the problem were only illegal entries, why is the Congress targeting legal immigrants for cutbacks in public services and restricting the legal entry of family members of recent arrivals? (Ironically, most of the ancestors of current citizens did not enter the country "legally." They came before there were any legal restrictions to entry.) Nor is there any great economic emergency precipitated by immigration. Urban Institute studies show that legal and illegal immigrant families pay $70 billion in taxes annually while receiving $43 billion in services. Recent polls show that 69 percent believe that immigrants do necessary work which current citizens do not want to do. Only 20 percent believe that immigrants take jobs away from American citizens. The economy needs people who are willing to do hard work for little money as farmworkers, janitors, busboys, hotel workers, gardeners, and construction day laborers.

"Immigration is in the spotlight not because of money but because it so impinges on issues like race, the role of government, national identity and change," writes The New York Times. American fears and defensiveness about immigration arise from the threats posed by differences of race and class. Will American identity be eroded or lost by admitting too many foreigners whose ethnic background differs from that of the majority? While Canadian, Irish and Russian Jewish immigration causes little comment, many Americans are concerned about an Asian American population which is growing eight times faster than whites and a Hispanic population growing four times faster than whites.

Moral community is based to a considerable extent on similarities: we naturally feel some kinship with people who are like us. Class may play a greater role than race in determining who gets admitted to the American moral community. Assimilation into the middle class ethos was the price which previous generations of immigrants paid for admission into the American mainstream. It may still be the price today. Work hard, learn English, adopt middle class values, and the similarities of class will overcome the dissimilarities of nationality, religion or race. Polls show that citizens will accept immigrants so long as they work, learn English and get documentation. Not only do these behaviors signify willingness to participate in the common good of society, they also make the newcomers resemble the resident majority. Immigrant groups which are perceived to be good candidates for the middle class are more welcome than those who are perceived as unable to move up. Which groups get scapegoated? Vietnamese from Saigon and shopkeepers from Palestine who already have a middle class ethos or Mexican farmworkers and Haitian boatpeople?

The advocates of multiculturalism pay homage to the ideal of assimilation to the middle class. They glorify ethnic heritage but not poverty. While America moves from the ideal of the melting pot to that of the mosaic of many cultures, the lure of opportunity remains the social glue. When it disappears it may be replaced by the despair of a trapped underclass who know they are excluded from the majority's moral community.

Assimilation, however, cannot mean homogenization without significant loss to personal identity and moral community. This is true not only in America which is composed of diverse cultural heritages. Human identity arises from particular shared elements in experience. We value our particular roots because they contribute to our personal uniqueness. Human identity does not initially come from membership in the universal human species but from the particular allegiances which make us a member of this family, this religion, this neighborhood, this school. Moral responsibility starts locally. As the person matures, ethical concern and sense of duty should gradually expand outward in larger concentric circles. An expanding moral identification with others who were once perceived as different pushes back the boundaries of moral community. Although we need local allegiances, particular qualities and bonds which we can be proud of, local loyalties can easily breed a "closed society." Every world religion challenges these exclusivist tendencies with inclusive ideals of the community of all the living, the Kingdom of God, and the like.

What do these local allegiances have to do with ethics? For some moral philosophers they are distractions. Allegiances must be universal if they are to be ethical. Each person has equal dignity and should make the same moral claim on us as anyone else. Each counts for one; no more and no less. Preferences, even those based on kinship, automatically mean discrimination. Other philosophers argue that differences are morally relevant. Stanley Hoffman writes, "Equality consists of treating different things differently, not equally." Thomas Aquinas discerned a ranking of obligations which respects natural ties. He described an "order of love" where different moral obligations are calibrated to different kinds of relations and needs. We owe care and assistance to others not only because of their needs; obligations also arise from indebtedness, dependence, and commitments we have made. Accordingly, the dire needs of a stranger may take precedence over meeting the ordinary needs of my children or aged parents, but they do not and should not always override these less dramatic claims.

Analogously, there may be an order of love and justice in regards to immigration. Governments should take the claims of citizens more seriously than those of noncitizens. At the same time, governments have to respect the human rights of everyone within their borders. Certain basic levels of respect, security and freedom are owed to people because they are human. The Bill of Rights of the U. S. Constitution does not distinguish between citizens and noncitizens. Governments have a duty to maintain their borders against unregulated immigration but not by deadly force. Children should not be deprived of basic health care and education because their parents entered the country illegally, any more than the children of those on welfare should be punished for their parents' shortcomings.

Affluent nations have an ethical responsibility to alleviate gross human suffering and the effects of natural disasters in needy countries as well as to support international agencies that seek to benefit all peoples. They are not obliged to unlimited immigration which would actually undo the foundations of their own society and culture. It seems ironic, however, that affluent nations are fortifying their borders at the same time that they are endorsing a global economic system which ignores national boundaries. If capital and goods move freely, why should labor not do the same? Economic interdependence will not obliterate cultural differences but it may make national sovereignty and the borders which defined nation-states increasingly obsolete.

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