The Ethical Perspective on Immigration

Review of Cole, P. and Wellman, C. H. (2011), Debating The Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Immigration. Perhaps the most hotly discussed and divisive topic in contemporary politics. With the previous influx of refugees into Europe from the Middle East and the Conservative's continually restated promise to get immigration to the 'tens of thousands' in the UK[1] - not to mention Brexit, Trump's wall and the only recently headlined Windrush Scandal[2] - immigration is on everyone's mind. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the division between those who are open, welcoming and "cosmopolitan" and those who are closed, hostile and "nationalist" has been equated with being the new version of the more traditional left and right wings of political ideology.[3]

In light of this, Wellman and Cole's Debating the Ethics of Immigration[4] is a crisp analysis of competing perspectives on what matters - ethically, not economically. The two state clearly in the introduction that theirs is a book about theory, not about practical considerations (such as whether migrants benefit or harm the economy). It is written with clarity as both an introductory text to the wider issues, how they relate to other problems in Political Theory, and as a valuable contribution to research on the topic.

The connection that immigration has to global justice is not immediately clear. With Rawls, we readily assume that it is the metric of society itself that should be considered when it comes to justice.[5] Furthermore, that the state should be able to determine who can and can't enter its jurisdiction is a common assumption. Joseph Carens article relating Libertarian, Utilitarian and Rawlsian accounts of justice directly to an argument for Open Borders is a famous attempt at challenging this.[6] Yet, Communitarian critiques of Liberal political philosophy's emphasis on the rational individual powerfully reassert the need for the nation to be able to determine who is and isn't a member if they are to maintain the valuable cultural society in which they are embedded. Walzer's argument towards this is notably expounded in Spheres of Justice, with the position that only in cases of dire need, as with refugees, should there be a duty on the nation to accept immigrants.[7]

In Debating the Ethics of Immigration, Wellman takes the closed-borders camp and Cole takes the open-borders one. Wellman offers an original defence of the right to exclude on the basis of Freedom of Association, rather than more traditional, strictly nationalist grounds. Briefly, his argument is that the nation-state possesses the right not to associate with would-be immigrants, which means denying them entry into state territory (pp.29-36). Wellman's does not constitute a normal defence which qualifies itself against cases of refugees also, like Walzer's. Indeed, he even goes as far as to say that the duty in such cases of international injustice is not necessarily to open your doors but to provide humanitarian and economic support to change the circumstances causing the injustice (Chpt 6). On top of this, he provides a critical assessment of those attempts to say that there should be open borders, according to Equality, Liberty, Democracy and Utilitarianism (Chpts 2-5).

Cole's section of the book follows Wellman's by drawing out the inconsistencies and ambiguities in his argument (Chpt 13) - especially over the consequentialist concerns about national culture, economics and political institutions, which Wellman sees fit to avoid attending to (Chpt 14). On top of this, his own argument towards a Right to Mobility (Chpt 15), grounded alongside the rest of our Human Rights, is lucid and cogently presented: such a right is an essential element of human agency, justified as a condition of empowerment, protecting the individual against wrongful oppression (p.299).

Source: The Counter Jihad Report (2015)

Despite offering competing perspectives however, what is included in Cole and Wellman's work is perhaps just as stark and impressive as what is left out. The question of why we can even consider a state or national group to be worthy of possessing group rights - that is, rights possessed by a group as a group - is only minimally addressed. Indeed, Kymlicka's seminal presentation of an understanding of group rights to prevent external oppression[8] has been highly critiqued. Due to the unification it provides, culture is seen to be a crucial element in permitting the allocation of group rights, but the question then is 'are there any cultural rights?'[9] to which the answer seems a hesitant "no". In short, why grant group rights towards protecting a group's members when individual rights do the job just as well, even in the case of minority oppression?[10] Certainly, the most obvious flaw in Wellman's own reasoning is his jump from claiming that individuals should be free to decide with whom they associate to the claim that nation-states should also. Elsewhere, Fine points out that states are not like clubs for the key reasons that nation-states cannot simply be set up, wherever and however, like clubs can (even if the requisite territory could be found) and that, moreover, exclusion from clubs does not generate a devastating limitation of one's freedoms like exclusion from states.[11] To add to this, it doesn't seem that we have the same kind of associative bonds with others through clubs as we do with the co-members of a nation-state. Hence, the question of how and why the group is unified in such a way that it can possess rights remains open.

On top of this, only briefly is the question of nationalism considered. As perhaps the driving force behind anti-immigrant rhetoric this omission is prominent. In assessing Wellman, Cole points out that national culture does a lot of the justificatory work for his argument that immigrants can damage present residents' ability to determine their identity (pp.271-273). He then argues that such a basis is not enough to justify a right to exclude potential immigrants - especially given that culture and identity are constantly changing (ibid). Yet this doesn't do justice to the argument in favour of a right to exclude that others, such as Miller,[12] have provided: nationalism is not just about identity being altered, it is about the members seeing their identity become what they want it to. Furthermore, identity can be seen to bind nationals around their democratic and welfare institutions. This position cannot just be dismissed, as Cole attempts, on the grounds that people's ability to make the connections needed to communicate political values to one another should not be underestimated (p.279). The nationalist's point is not that they couldn't cooperate with immigrants, but that they cannot do so on such a deep level of understandings as they can with current co-nationals.

Source: Vox (2016)

Notably, I do not side in favour of either Wellman or Cole here. Instead, I hope to have simply offered an overview of the significance, usefulness and clarity of their work, while also identifying some of the key problems that are left to be addressed. Overall, Debating the Ethics of Immigration is essential for anyone who wants to get up to speed on the relevant issues: Wellman and Cole reassert the importance of the question of whether it is ethical to deny immigrants freedom of international movement. I suspect that many American and European politicians could learn a lot from them.


[1] see Asthana, A. (2017), "Conservatives to retain 'tens of thousands' immigration pledge", The Guardian, [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 02/05/18].

[2] see Guardian Staff (2018), "'It's inhumane': the Windrush victims who have lost jobs, homes and loved ones", The Guardian, [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 02/05/18].

[3] see The Economist (2016), "The new political divide", The Economist, [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 02/05/18].

[4] In text references refer to Wellman, C. H. and Cole, P. (2011), Debating The Ethics of Immigration, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Rawls, J. (2005), Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition, New York: Colombia University Press, p.12

[6] Carens, J. H. (1987), "Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders", The Review of Politics, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp.251-273.

[7] Walzer, M. (1983), Spheres of Justice, New York: Basic Books, Chpt 2.

[8] see Kymlicka, W. (1995), Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press, especially Chapter 3.

[9] Kukathas, C. (1992), "Are There Any Cultural Rights?", Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp.105-139.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Fine, S. (2010), "Freedom of Association Is Not the Answer", Ethics, Vol. 120, pp.350-351

[12] see Miller, D. (2008), "Immigrants, Nations, and Citizenship", The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp.371-390.

See also

Vox (2016), "Pro-Brexit politicians are the dog that caught the car. Now immigration is their problem.", [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 31/05/18]

The Counter Jihad Report (2015), "Immigration and Our Founding Fathers' Values", [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 31/05/18]