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Thompson, Janna --- "Human Rights and the Protection of Borders: Justifying Restrictions on Immigration and Trade" [2004] AUJlHRights 14; (2004) 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 14

Human rights and the protection of borders: justifying restrictions on immigration and trade

Janna Thompson*

There is a tension between common assumptions about the rights of nations and universalist views about right and justice that come out of the liberal tradition. Most citizens believe that their nation has a right to impose restrictions on immigration and trade when these are in the ‘national interest’ and that the burden of proof is on those who assert the contrary. However, the universalist perspective on rights and justice pushes in the opposite direction. If every individual in the world is owed equal respect or has equal rights, then restrictions that disadvantage some people — whether strangers or citizens — become difficult to justify. From this universalist perspective, the onus of justification is on those who want to impose restrictions on trade or immigration, especially when they are contrary to the interests of people elsewhere in the world. Since people in liberal societies commonly do believe that strangers, as well as citizens, have equal rights, this tension is a problem for practical morality as well as for the theories of philosophers.

The difficulty of justifying the restrictions that most societies want to impose is brought out in a recent defence of cosmopolitan justice by Moellendorf (2002). He starts from the basic universalist premise — the moral equality of individuals — and uses it to argue that a theory of justice must encompass everyone in the world. Protectionist policies on trade violate a requirement that is likely to be basic to any theory of justice — equality of opportunity. Restrictions can be justified to protect health or safety, but not, he thinks, to protect the higher living standards or industries of the developed world. Immigration restrictions also unjustly limit opportunities by discriminating against people because of their place of birth. ‘It is hard to find a reason why market competition for jobs would be justified among compatriots, but not between compatriots and non-compatriots’ (Moellendorf 2002, 63). He allows that restrictions on immigration may be justified in order to protect just institutions, but even so we have to weigh this benefit against the loss of opportunity of those who are prevented from entry.

Moellendorf endorses a Rawlsian position on justice. He thinks that the liberal principles Rawls defended in A Theory of Justice (1972) should hold for global society as a whole (and thus disagrees with Rawls himself (1999), who favours a less demanding ‘law of peoples’). Jones, in his defence of cosmopolitanism, uses a rights perspective to argue that national borders are without moral significance (Jones 1999, 2). Carens thinks that whether we take a Rawlsian, Nozickian or utilitarian standpoint, we will arrive at the conclusion that ‘borders should generally be open and that people should normally be free to leave their country of origin and settle in another’ (Carens 1995, 332).

These conclusions seem to follow from a universalist morality, which most people in a liberal democracy share. Nevertheless, they are conclusions that few people in liberal democracies accept. These authors seem to give us two choices. We can, like Moellendorf, embrace cosmopolitanism and all of its implications, or give up moral universalism — opting instead for an ethics that derives obligations of justice from membership in a community. The latter is not a comfortable option for those whose stance on refugees, or on trade barriers that advantage wealthy nations, derives from a universalist ethics. But there is a third alternative worth exploring: that the universalist position, when more closely examined, allows some restrictions on trade and immigration, even if not all the restrictions that governments now impose.

Two ways of defending restrictions

Having embarked on this third way, there seem to be two possible directions in which to proceed. The first is to show that partial treatment of nationals is not incompatible with a universalist morality. The second is to argue that there are goods essential to relations in a just society that governments are justified in protecting through restrictions on the activities or influx of outsiders.

Partiality is compatible with universalism if it serves universalist ends or at least is not a hindrance to their achievement. For example, family members tend to be partial to each other. But a liberal state — that is, a political society that endorses universalist principles — can justify supporting and protecting families because families play an important social role. By having loving, intimate relationships with parents who have a special concern for their well being, children are more likely to develop into healthy, stable, law abiding citizens who are capable of rational and moral behaviour.

Robert Goodin (1988) puts forward a similar defence of national partiality. He argues that, through discharging their special responsibilities to citizens, states ensure that individuals within their jurisdiction enjoy their universal human rights and have their welfare protected. That is, by favouring their own citizens, states bring it about that universal moral requirements are fulfilled. However, Goodin’s defence of national partiality is more problematic than a defence of partiality in families. In an increasingly globalised world, it is far from obvious that a system of national states, even if more ideal than it now is, would be a good way of ensuring that all individuals have their rights protected and their needs met. But the more serious problem is that Goodin’s defence of national partiality does not get us very far in justifying restrictions that states impose to protect national interests.

Institutions and policies that favour some individuals over others are morally justifiable only to the extent that they are a necessary means for achieving universalist objectives (or do not interfere with them). Wherever possible, conflicts between partiality and universalism ought to be decided in favour of universalism. In the case of families, the conflict arises most obviously in respect to the requirement of equality of opportunity, and philosophers with a universalist outlook insist that a just society ought to act to overcome social inequalities created by family background. Similarly, it seems that a just state can only allow those restrictions on outsiders that are necessary to maintain a nation’s existence and its institutions of justice. This means that a nation can justifiably prevent the entry and activities of those who have a clear intention of undermining its institutions. Those philosophers, like Goodin, who think that an important function of the state is to provide for the welfare of citizens, would also insist that a state can act to prevent the collapse of its welfare system. So Goodin’s defence can be used to justify some restrictions on immigration, given that a large or sudden influx of people would put our institutions under severe strain, but it does not seem to justify many of the restrictions that governments impose and citizens believe are justified. For example, his defence wouldn’t justify a government protecting jobs or a high standard of living for citizens when doing so is seriously detrimental to the welfare of people in other countries.

It might be objected that the problem of justifying restrictions affects only those liberals who insist that the state should reflect their moral convictions and not ‘political liberals’, who regard principles of justice as an overlapping consensus reached by citizens who have different moral perspectives and metaphysical beliefs (Rawls 1996, 133ff). Political liberals have to respect and take into account the views of people who regard family life as supremely valuable, so why should they not also respect the views of people who think that outsiders do not have the same moral status as their fellow citizens? The problem with this line of thought is that, if political liberals are in any sense liberal, they have to subscribe the universalist ethics of liberalism. Equal respect for persons is presumably what motivates the search for an overlapping consensus and the belief that people with non-liberal views should be treated with respect. However, if liberals subscribe to this universalist idea then they cannot abandon their advocacy of equal opportunity or respect for outsiders just because some people in their society do not agree with these things. If liberals are forced to make compromises with non-liberals for the sake of peace, then they may have to tolerate restrictive immigration or trade policies, but they don’t have to pretend that these policies are morally justifiable.

The second way of defending restrictions — as a means of defending an essential good — has to overcome a fundamental problem. If this good is a universalist good, like freedom or equality of opportunity, then this option is the same as Goodin’s and faces similar problems. Why should freedom and opportunities of citizens take precedence over those of strangers? If the good is particular — a good specific to the people of this society — then, in defending it against the interests of outsiders, the people of the nation can be accused of illicitly favouring their own conception of the good against the objectives and interests of strangers. Most universalist political philosophies insist that a state ought to be neutral concerning ideas of the good. For example, Ackerman (1980, 11) lays down the rule that a policy is not acceptable if the reasons that support it depend on the idea that one group of people is superior to another or that their conception of the good is better than the conception of others. But, if it is wrong to discriminate against citizens in respect to their ideas of the good, then surely it is equally wrong from a universalist perspective to favour national ideas of the good.

Kymlicka seems to provide a means of overcoming this difficulty. He argues that culture should be regarded as a basic good — that a liberal society should ensure that everyone has assured access to a cultural framework (1989, 162ff). The ability to make meaningful choices, he thinks, depends on an individual being able to draw on the ideals, narratives, understandings and interpretations provided by a culture. But cultures are particular, and each individual needs to have access to his or her cultural framework. In cases where this framework is threatened by activities of outsiders, then a government is justified in taking protective measures. For example, an Aboriginal community, or the government on its behalf, is justified in restricting entry of outsiders to its territory or imposing restrictions on certain kinds of commercial activity if outside encroachment is undermining the ability of members to maintain their cultural life. Kymlicka makes it clear that in providing protection a government is not favouring a particular group’s conception of the good. It is merely ensuring that people of a particular cultural community can enjoy a good that all individuals need and want.

Let us assume that restrictions for the sake of protecting cultural life are justified. The critical question is whether the same reasoning can be adopted by citizens of liberal states who want to protect their ‘national culture’ from the activities of outsiders. This application of Kymlicka’s argument faces some obvious difficulties. Kymlicka’s defence of culture is not meant to justify measures to protect cultures from change or to maintain a particular standard of living. He assumes that cultures inevitably undergo change as the result of internal pressures and external influences and, so long as each individual has access to a framework of meanings, there are no grounds for interference. So, at best, his position can justify prevention of sudden and overwhelming incursions into the cultural life of citizens — for example, a very large influx of people from an alien culture. But it would be difficult to use his reasoning to justify the restrictions that states now impose on immigration and trade.

A second, more serious problem appears as soon as we start considering what it is about the culture of a liberal society that justifies protective measures. A liberal society has what could be called a political culture — a particular set of institutions and practices, ways of organising political debate and handling conflict. But there is nothing sacrosanct about these institutions and customs, no reason why they should not be subject to change — so long as they remain liberal. A liberal society has one, perhaps more than one, public language — the language that most of its citizens speak and which is used in public communication and parliamentary debate. Since it seems reasonable to believe that democracy functions most effectively when citizens can communicate with each other, it also seems reasonable for a liberal society to insist that immigrants, or at least their children, learn the language of the country. But it doesn’t seem justifiable for a liberal state to prevent the influx of people who speak another language or even to act to prevent another tongue from becoming one of the languages of public life.

Apart from its language and its particular political institutions and practices, it is difficult to say what constitutes the culture of a liberal society. Most liberal societies are multicultural, and though there may be certain qualities or values associated with a nation, these are not likely to be shared by all citizens. Any policy that favours the lifestyles of one group of people, however mainstream, violates the requirement of neutrality. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the people of a liberal nation are all of one culture — they are all, let us say, of Ruritainian ancestry and heritage. They have all grown up learning about Ruritainian traditions, history and literature and take these as their points of reference. Can they impose restrictions on trade and immigration in order to protect their Ruritainian way of life? They cannot invoke Kymlicka’s argument to justify keeping all foreigners or foreign ideas and products out of their country. Nor can they use it to justify measures to prevent their children from adopting the ideas of foreigners and rejecting Ruritainian traditions. Individuals in a liberal society should be free to adopt different ways of life if they choose. But what if the Ruritainians face the prospect of their neighbourhoods and workplaces being dominated by people with alien traditions and ways of life? Suppose they feel that they are no longer at home in their own country. Even in this case, I doubt if Kymlicka can come to their defence.

Let us look at an analogous case. Suppose that the industries that have for generations underwritten the existence of a country town are no longer viable. The town is faced with extinction and, if it disappears and its people have to move elsewhere, then a way of life that its inhabitants value will be lost. Should their state protect their way of life? Kymlicka and many other liberals would answer ‘no’ (Kymlicka 1989, 96). A state cannot be expected to defend a community’s way of life or ensure that individuals will be able to live the kind of life they prefer. It has to ensure that they are able to make meaningful choices, but it cannot and should not prevent some options being closed to them by circumstance. The situation of the Ruritainians seems more like the situation of the people in the country town than it does to people in an Aboriginal community whose very cultural existence is being threatened by outside forces.

If this is right, then the discomfort that the Ruritainians feel, and the fact that they can no longer live as they please, is not a good enough reason for imposing restrictions. So long as they can find a meaningful existence in their new environment — that is, can adopt and pursue goals that they find satisfying, even if not optimal — they have no justification for restrictions on the activities of outsiders, so long as these activities do not threaten their rights as individuals.

Problems for universalism

Neither appeals to a right of cultural preservation nor attempts to justify partiality are much help in underwriting restrictions on trade or immigration, or the other measures that states adopt to favour the activities or projects of their citizens. Nevertheless, in examining these attempts to justify restrictions we seem to be coming closer to the heart of the problem. There are two assumptions generally made by liberal political philosophers that need to be brought into question. The first is the belief that partiality in the policies or institutions of a political society is illicit unless it serves (or does not interfere with) universalist principles of justice and right. The second is that a political society must be neutral in respect to ideas of the good.

The first assumption makes it difficult for liberal philosophy to encompass bonds of love or loyalty that are central to most human lives. These are found in the family and among friends, but also among fellow nationals or members of religious groups. Liberal philosophy has to accommodate these bonds, and the ideas of duty associated with them, but can do so only grudgingly. If they do not serve universalist ends (or are incompatible with them), they become suspect as a source of partiality. But, in treating bonds of love and loyalty as relationships that ought to serve, or be compatible with, universalism, a liberal political philosophy runs contrary to the views and feelings of people who regard these bonds as valuable for their own sake and thus as something that their political society should not only allow, but also protect.

Parents are inclined to believe that they are entitled to favour their children — to leave them an inheritance, for example. They may even believe that they have a duty to do so, and that their state ought to protect their ability to make transfers to their descendants. But if parents are allowed to favour their children in this way, then children of rich families will have an advantage over children of poor families. Ackerman argues that children should not be allowed to inherit wealth unless those who are disadvantaged by not receiving an inheritance are willing to waive their right to reject this form of favouritism. The old can transfer money to the young if this is done as a commercial transaction between mutually benefiting partners (Ackerman 1980, 204). But they cannot do so if donors have a special relation to the recipient (like being parents motivated by affection or a sense of duty to their offspring). But, to those who value bonds of love and loyalty, this conclusion is likely to seem perverse. Recognising the perversity does not require that parents should have a right to leave all of their possessions to their children, especially when this means that wealth becomes concentrated in a few hands. But strict adherence to universalism is also an unattractive option.

A similar problem arises in respect to relationships between political societies. Many people believe that present generations in a political society should save for their descendants and that these descendants ought to be able to enjoy the benefits of this saving. Suppose, then, that Ruritainians have for many generations laboured, saved and made sacrifices in order to develop a resource which promises to produce wealth for their descendants. Their efforts bear fruit and their descendants are wealthy. In neighbouring Urlandia, on the other hand, no effort was made to develop resources and, as a result, present citizens are not well off. From a universalist perspective, it seems unfair that people of Urlandia are less well off through no fault of their own, and it also seems to follow that Ruritainians ought to share their wealth so that all individuals can enjoy an equal opportunity. But this idea of justice conflicts with the presumption that we ought to respect the wishes of people whose sense of obligation has motivated them to make sacrifices for their descendants. As in the case of family bequests, this conflict is probably best resolved by a compromise between the requirements of impartiality and inheritance entitlements. But the need for a compromise suggests that impartiality is not the only consideration.

The second assumption, that a liberal society should be neutral concerning ideas of the good, depends on treating ideas of the good, with the exception of ‘thin’ liberal goods such as freedom or equality of opportunity, as individual or group preferences or ideologies — that is, either as matters of taste or as doctrines based on faith or tradition. This makes it relatively easy to insist on neutral policies. Tastes or ideologies are not the sort of thing that individuals or groups are justified in imposing on others. However, many ideas of the good, such as religious or political ideals, are also universal. Those who hold them think that others ought to adopt them; they are able to offer justifications and enter into discourse with those who have different ideas. They are not content with using their perspective as a basis for reaching an overlapping consensus. Though there is not likely to be an agreement about the good among people in a liberal society, rational discussion is possible and, in one way or another, these ideas are bound to enter the public arena.

The trouble is that, so long as liberal political philosophy insists on neutrality, these ideas cannot be the subject of democratic decision making. Neutrality thus promotes a rather bloodless idea of democracy, and also one that seems impractical. It is difficult to comprehend how democratic legislators in a liberal state can avoid making decisions concerning the good — how, for example, they can avoid coming to terms with such issues as how we should live in our natural environment; how we should treat and teach our history; how we should regard and treat those things that we have inherited from past generations; what goods family life should promote; what the role of art in our society should be; what kinds of opportunities individuals ought to have; what virtues should be promoted in the education of the young. Answering these questions (and many other questions that deserve to be regarded as public issues) involves assessing ideas of the good, and liberal democracies do, as a matter of fact, make decisions about such matters. Not to do so would allow them to be decided by chance, tradition, or by economic forces.

Cosmopolitanism revisited

Having found some serious tensions between universalist political theories and common beliefs about our entitlements and obligations, I will advance an alternative which can be regarded as a liberal cosmopolitan point of view, but rejects some of the views held by those who describe themselves as liberal or cosmopolitan. I will argue for the following four propositions.

• Liberal (as well as other) societies are entitled to make decisions to favour particular ideas of the good (so long as these decisions are not unjustly discriminatory).

• Liberal (and other) societies are entitled to provide an inheritance for their future citizens.

• Liberal (and other) societies are entitled to impose restrictions on the activities of outsiders when (and only when) this is necessary to protect the goods that they favour and to ensure that their descendants will receive their inheritance.

• The restrictions that they are entitled to impose must be compatible with the equal right of people of other societies to favour and protect ideas of the good and to provide an inheritance for their descendants.

The first proposition is supported by considerations already discussed. Since citizens, at least sometimes, regard their notions of the good as ideas that others ought to adopt, it is inevitable and reasonable that they will debate ideas of the good in the public arena. And this means that it is difficult to deny the entitlement of democratic legislatures to make decisions about such things. Not to do so would be to let chance or the market decide what most citizens, including those who have opposing ideas of the good, regard as something to be decided by democratic debate and decision making.

However, the acceptability of the proposition depends on establishing that policies favouring particular ideas of the good are not unjustly discriminatory. A liberal democratic society should, of course, protect the human and civil rights of all of its citizens, whatever their ideas of the good. In addition, a liberal society should be prepared to extend its favour to some of the projects and ways of life of minority groups. Nevertheless, there are bound to be some people who are disadvantaged by decisions about the good. Their activities are restricted. They do not receive the support and protection that others can claim. Can they complain of injustice? The issue, I take it, is whether the disadvantage they suffer is comparable to being disadvantaged because of racial or gender discrimination. There are a number of relevant differences. The first is that those who are disadvantaged because of their ideas of the good are not prevented from participating in public debates with the hope that their ideas may gain ascendancy in the future. Moreover, the disadvantage they suffer is not likely to be so global or so detrimental as disadvantages resulting from racial or gender prejudice. (If the disadvantage is a serious one then they have a good case for compensation.) But most importantly: even people who lose out in debates about the good are likely to agree that it is better to decide such issues through democratic decision making than allowing decisions to be made by the market or by chance.

The second proposition is supported by reasons already discussed. Members of a society should be able to endow their descendants with those things that they regard as good; they should be able to make democratic decisions about what goods and opportunities their descendants ought to obtain. This right of inheritance is justified by reference to the concern that citizens have for their descendants. It does not have to be justified by reference to impartial principles of justice; nor should it be subordinated to them. However, some compromise has to be made in every liberal state (or in world society as a whole) between the right of inheritance, and other principles, such as equality of opportunity. It would be unjust if some people were greatly advantaged by receiving an inheritance or if most of a society’s wealth was transferred in this way. It would be unjust if the people of Urlandia (in the example above) had to live in poverty because of the lack of providence of their forebears. In these cases, it seems reasonable to require, as a matter of justice, a transfer of wealth between those advantaged and those disadvantaged by rights of inheritance. However, a tax or some other distributional policy which undoes all that people have tried to do for their descendants, or makes it impossible for descendants to enjoy what their parents regarded as good, is also unjust. Requirements of distributive justice ought to accommodate inheritance as an expression of concern for descendants and a desire that they be able to appreciate things that we regard as good. For example, if our ancestors decided to leave us wilderness areas to appreciate and enjoy, then cosmopolitan justice cannot require that we destroy them in order to obtain wealth for distribution to those less well off.

If people of a political society are entitled to make decisions about the good, then it seems that they ought to be able to adopt policies that favour their good and ensure that their descendants will also be able to enjoy it (as the third proposition states). In one way or another, these policies will disadvantage those that they do not favour and put restrictions on the activities of citizens and outsiders. A subsidy given to a national film industry will put outsiders at a disadvantage. Measures designed to protect wilderness areas will restrict activities of foreign as well as local companies. If a government decides to favour an ecological approach to farming by putting tariffs on lower priced goods produced by unecological farms, then it will be restricting the market for these products and thus the activities of producers.

According to the third proposition, these restrictions and benefits should be allowed. However, the entitlement to restrict and protect is limited. Protection or favourable treatment is only justified when it is needed to achieve the desired good. If a nation’s film industry is already thriving, then there is no need to give it special protection and it would not be justified to do so. Nor is it justified to ban or censor products from outside in order to avoid contact with the ideas and ways of life of strangers, unless there is good reason to think that these products would undermine our values. The fourth requirement introduces further limitations on the entitlement to restrict and protect.

This proposition — that the restrictions we impose must be compatible with an equal ability of others to protect what they regard as good — is what gives the position I am defending the right to be regarded as a form of liberal cosmopolitanism. Its justification takes for granted the basic premise of universalist positions: that we are required to respect individuals equally. But, if we respect individuals and their interests, then we ought also to respect their right to make collective decisions concerning the good and to protect the goods that they favour. This means that national interest can never be a sufficient justification for putting restrictions on the activities of outsiders. Our decisions about what goods we should protect and how we protect them have to take into account the interests and entitlements of outsiders.

Suppose that every nation of the world has just one idea of the good — to increase its GNP as much as possible — and suppose also that the best way of pursuing this objective is through participation in a global economy. If one of these nations imposes restrictions that disadvantage others in their pursuit of its good, then it is violating the above principle (unless it can show that it is making up for a pre-existing unfair disadvantage). Restrictions giving one party an unfair advantage over others in pursuit of the same good cannot be justified. But if one or more of these nations is also pursuing another good — like protection of an artistic or environmental heritage — then it is entitled to impose restrictions. The fact that this creates a hindrance to other nations in their pursuit of wealth is no objection — so long as this environmental or historical good could not achieved without protection. Nations are required to accept restrictions that make their pursuit of the good compatible with the desire of others to pursue what they regard as good.

Nevertheless, there are limits to what citizens can do to protect a good. Suppose that the people of a country want to preserve their traditional methods of agriculture. They regard these methods, and the relation to the land that they encourage, as part of their heritage and as an important source of their values. If they are isolated and don’t trade much with the rest of the world, then I don’t think there is any good reason, as far as relations with strangers are concerned, to make an objection. But let us assume that they are willing participants in a network of international trade. Suppose also that by putting tariffs on agricultural products to protect their own farming sector they are seriously disadvantaging the people of poorer nations. In this case, the restrictions they impose put unjust limitations on the ability of citizens of other countries to live in a just society and determine and pursue collective goods. This does not mean that no restrictions can be justified. The situation calls for a compromise. The nation may be justified in protecting some of its agriculture — that which most exemplifies a valued way of life — or doing so for a limited period of time. Or it may choose to compensate those it harms by maintaining the restrictions.

Suppose that the ‘good’ a nation wants to protect is racial purity. In this case there is conflict between respect for democratic decisions about ideas of the good and the universalist requirement that people be treated as equals. It is doubtful that the ideal of racial purity can be supported without supposing that people of some races deserve privileged treatment. Given that the moral framework I am assuming is basically universalist, the requirement of equal treatment should prevail. Some ideas of the good can be rejected as a basis for restrictions. But other ideas of exclusivity are not so obviously mistaken. Consider, for example, the Ruritainians who want to remain Ruritainian. They are not justified in preventing the immigration of non-Ruritainians, since the preservation of their culture and heritage does not depend on the existence of an exclusively Ruritainian population — certainly not people of a particular ancestry. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable for them to reject those who would attempt to undermine their idea of the good, and it also seems reasonable for them to insist that the children of immigrants learn about Ruritainian history and traditions — and thus to encourage them to adopt Ruritainian culture or at least some aspects of it.

A similar accommodation is necessary in the case of inheritance. If people of a nation make an effort to preserve something for their descendants, then they can put limitations on immigration and trade to ensure that their efforts will not be undermined by the activities of others. But the principle I am defending demands that measures taken to retain an inheritance should be compatible with the efforts of citizens of other nations to provide an inheritance for their descendants. This does not require that all nations should be equally wealthy. But it would be unjust if people of wealthy nations refused to share any of the wealth they obtained as their national inheritance, particularly when people of other nations have not been in the position to save for the future.

The position I am arguing for is cosmopolitan. It does not deny the equal worth of all human beings. It rejects discrimination on the basis of nationality as well as race and gender. On the other hand, it does not hold that borders are morally irrelevant. They are not irrelevant because they mark the boundaries of the authority of a political society, and cosmopolitans ought to respect the right of citizens of a national society to determine their own good and to save for their descendants. I have argued that these entitlements make it legitimate for national citizens to impose some restrictions on commerce and immigration.

There are at least three fairly obvious questions about the position I have been defending. One of them is whether we have an obligation to respect decisions made by governments that are not democratic. The issues raised by this question require a more extensive discussion. But it is often possible to make judgments about what the people of non-democratic countries are likely to regard as good, and to act in a way that respects their interests. When this is possible, we should do so. If we have good reason to believe that their ideas of the good are not compatible with our liberal values, then we have to make a decision about what we should be prepared to tolerate.

Another question is how my position bears on the problems we presently face. In many nations, people are so poor or insecure that they are unable to live a decent life, let alone pursue other things that they regard as good. When individuals are poor and desperate it becomes more difficult to justify restrictions on their activities by reference to our ideas of the good, however strongly we hold them. Doing our share to help those in desperate need has to assume priority according to any conception of cosmopolitan morality, but this shouldn’t mean that we have to sacrifice all the things we regard as good for the sake of the poor. What we should do requires a close examination of the situation and its possibilities.

The third question is whether my position, by favouring decisions made by collectivities like states, is too neglectful of the interests and ideals of individuals. Why shouldn’t individuals be able to better their position by moving to another place? Why should their commercial interests be thwarted by the restrictions of states? A complete account of why it is justified to restrict the activities of individuals for the sake of collective political goals is beyond this paper. However, the argument I have presented is premised on the idea that the political institutions and decisions of a democratic society ought to be respected, not only by its citizens, but also by outsiders, and that democratic societies are entitled to make decisions about the good which impose restrictions on both.

For many cosmopolitans, democracy that flourishes only inside some national boundaries, and there imperfectly, is not the best political basis for a just world society (Held 1995). They look forward to a world where liberal democracy is supranational, and the idea that borders are morally irrelevant can be understood as the anticipation of a political world where they will have little or no significance. But a theory of justice that can be realised only in a future world society, the nature of which is unclear, is not practical. This does not preclude attempts to make progress toward institutions capable of ensuring that everyone’s rights are protected. And it does not rule out the possibility that people in many countries may share ideas about justice and the good, and thus be prepared to find ways of extending democratic decision-making beyond national borders. l

* Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Melbourne University Philosophy, La Trobe University


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Goodin R (1988) ‘What is so special about our fellow countrymen?’ 98 Ethics pp 663-86.

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