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The Utopia of the Utilitarians

I returned home this evening in a state of righteous indignation, for, unlike Daniel Larison and Noah Millman, I am not disposed towards temperate responses to incandescent lunacy.

But then, while walking from the kitchen, I stepped on a one-inch wood staple that had somehow become flattened out, and it penetrated, just above the ball of my right foot, to a depth of half an inch, which left me more irritable than indignant. However, reacquainting myself with that incandescent lunacy has revived my spirits somewhat; and, considering the nature of that lunacy, how could it not?

Today we regard a Northerner circa 1855 who transported, housed, and concealed from authority a fugitive slave as a moral visionary, despite the fact that he was flouting the laws of his time. Is there any morally relevant distinction between that individual and someone today who smuggles a refugee from Zimbabwe into the United States, shelters him in his home, and helps him evade the immigration authorities? (snip) Mike Linksvayer likes to call this system “international apartheid,” and I think there’s a lot of merit to thinking about it in those terms. We regard it as barbaric when a society limits peoples’ economic and social opportunities based on a morally arbitrary characteristic like skin color, as South Africa did until the 1980s, and as the United States did until the 1960s. By and large, our laws no longer discriminate on the basis of race. But where you were born is of no greater moral relevance than the color of your skin. So if it’s wrong to consign someone to second-class citizenship based on skin color, why should we feel any more comfortable about forcing someone to live someplace horrible like Zimbabwe simply because that’s where he happens to have been born? (snip) We would consider it barbaric to permanently exile an American citizen to Zimbabwe, even if he was a hardened criminal. Yet most people don’t think twice about imposing the same penalty on someone from Zimbabwe, based solely on the fact that he had the misfortune of being born there. I’m having an awfully hard time coming up with a moral theory that could justify such a difference in treatment.

I'll concede that when I read 'arguments' of this sort, my first inclination is not to analyze the argument dispassionately; I'll also observe that I think that there is something utterly normal, utterly healthy in that. To react with equanimity to the grotesque, supercilious status-posturing of libertarians, humanitarians, globalists, immigration fetishists, and oikophobes is to accord their moral insanity a position of equality with sanity, with the natural affection one exhibits towards one's own - as if to suggest that a good father regards his children no differently than the children of some hypothetical father 10,000 miles distant. It is, or can be, a sort of failing, a sort of formal flirting with a want of charity.

While there is something unpleasant about some of the old abolitionists - not their crusading spirit per se, but a 'cleanse-the-world-through-fire-and-tumult' contempt for order - at least their cause was defensible (if not all of their methods), not only as a matter of moral philosophy and theology, but as a matter of simple political justice: the slaves were deserving of the rights of American citizens, not least because they had been with us from some of our earliest days, and were therefore, in some sense, as American as anyone else. They had history in America, something that cannot be said for any foreigner, regardless of how deserving or enterprising we may think him.

And that analogy between skin colour and place of birth is really problematic. The error lies in the assumption that because both qualities or characteristics are unchosen, they are therefore effectively equivalent. But that I was born white tells me little concerning my moral obligations; it tells me something about who I am, but it does not obviously impart an obligation to an abstraction called The White Race. A narrower construal might tell me something about my obligations, say, if we define the relevant group as 'Polish'; but here, again, unless one has some concrete, shared experience with the Polish people, this does not really take us terribly far, absent a nexus of mutual giving: of having received one's identity and formative experiences from and among the Polish, and of having contributed in turn to the perpetuation of their culture. On the other hand, where I was born does tell me quite a bit about the nature and objects of my moral obligations, as from those by whom I am surrounded I have received innumerable benefactions: I have received my identity, my education, the goods of order and conviviality, the social and moral environment which has become my native atmosphere, and so forth. And by receiving these gifts, all of them unchosen and yet (partially) constitutive of my personality, I have entered into a nexus of mutual obligation, and thus requite these gifts with contributions of my own.

There is a sense in which, say, Polish ancestry, and even a generic racial inheritance, may of themselves impart some weaker obligations, and that is by means of remembrance - the recognition of how I came to be who I am, and through whom it was that I came to be - but it is difficult to perceive how this obligation can pass much beyond memory, acknowledgment, and gratitude, absent concrete circumstances of the sort mentioned previously. But this, too, cuts against the intent of the analogy. Race and place of birth are too disanalogous to be relevant in the way that Tim Lee imagines; but in the respect in which they are analogous, they tell against his disincarnate, view-from-nowhere moral philosophy. For both characteristics situate us as conditioned, time-bound, finite, minutely contextualized beings; unchosenness is not the marker of the accidental, occasional, and incidental with us, those things that cannot define the pristine, volitional self which always remains aloof from its particular expressions, but is the primary quality of those traits constitutive of who we are as persons. And this is the foundation of the moral theory which justifies that difference in treatment that so horrifies Lee: gratitude. In this case, gratitude towards all those who have contributed to what and who one is, a mixture of filial and ancestral, cultural and local pieties, a broad and generous democracy of the dead, by which we honour those who have gone before, not merely formally, as with words and professions, but with deeds - deeds grounded in a humble recognition that we are who we are because those who preceded us in each of these domains were who they were, leading us to requite this benefaction by preserving the bequest. My Polish and Irish ancestors, and those countless Americans who made this country what it is, so that I became what I am, have thereby voted, and I am, in my specificity, one of their franchises. This can never be said of the Zimbabwean, or of any immigrant, which is why immigration policy is always a matter of positive law - not rights-claims - decided upon by the substantive deliberation of the nation.

It is not to be marveled, however, that such utopian universalisms have become ever more prevalent in post-national America; for such deracination is the wage of utilitarian doctrines. Those doctrines, by structuring policy and discourse in accordance with abstract, formal, and purely material, quantitative considerations, divest the country of its civilizational substance, leaving it formless and void; if there is no essence definitive of a people and country, if things such as GDP and the "rights of association and exchange" are all that remain, then there are no obligation-giving, authoritative differences between the nominal American and the nominal foreigner. If the foreigner's presence in the Non-Country Arbitrarily Known as the United States will contribute to aggregate GDP, or perhaps merely expand the circle of rights-bearing entities, then his immigration becomes morally obligatory, one supposes. This leads to the recognition of the begged question at the heart of Lee's little construct: that of the nature of the community(ies) we inhabit. Lee has merely presupposed that, for moral purposes, there exists but one, simple, undifferentiated global order; it is economic, and entails, off at the end, the conformity of political order to this economic order. Countries, and discrete national or regional economies, are disturbances in this One, illusions we must dispel by acting as though they possess no reality.

The incongruous moralism of this view - incongruous because such views could only originate in utilitarian notions, as morality concerns actors, objects, persons, and communities - also tips the hand of such doctrines: the moral judgments that have been repressed by all of the high-sounding folderol of quantifying criteria and the irrelevance of contingent factors to moral reasoning return with a vengeance. The return of the repressed. We are the equivalent of racists because we are patriots; we are bigots because we strive to honour a debt of gratitude owed to those who preceded us; we are convicted of moral turpitude because we believe in the Incarnation, ultimately.

Comments (13)

A fine post, Maximos.

Lee is full of indignation at the horror inflicted by the accident of birth that delivers a man into the tyranny of Zimbabwe; he is perfectly innocent of recognition of the tyranny his monomania will inflict of his descendants, by liquidating America and the West.

To adduce Chesterton again, this oligarchy of "those who happen to be walking around" is indeed arrogant; it aspires toward a complete oppression over the that obscure class, our ancestors, who will be stripped of their franchise by the more shocking accident of death.

I'm just skimming all this; hadn't seen it before. Is this author a libertarian? Or is that not where this is all coming from?

I continue to think that libertarians should realize that arguments of his sort lead quite naturally to the assumption that we should have a one-world government. If we erase borders, and if they aren't anarchists but acknowledge that there has to be government at some level, then what level could it be but the global one?

And no libertarian should like that.

That being said, we often in the U.S. do allow specific people to remain in the country for specific humanitarian reasons, which I think is only right, especially if it is for a limited time. I think it would be right to allow a pregnant Chinese woman to remain in the U.S. until her child is a few months old and not likely to be murdered by the one-child authorities, for example.

But that sort of thing has to be decided on a case-by-case basis and can't possibly be done en masse.

I surmise that the author is a libertarian, inasmuch as his arguments are reminiscent of those of Will Wilkinson and some of the Economist folks. You're perfectly correct about the logic of this sort of policy argument and the rational self-interest libertarians ought to have in grasping it; my guess is that they are still engaged in the "labour of the negative", the attempt to pull down and delegitimate a society and world order of nation-states they despise. After all, that order impedes the maximal pursuit of their personal utilities, and in order to bring it down, they're willing to deal cards from the leftist deck.

I concur on the humanitarian matters, but suspect that we'd have to resolve the 'birthright citizenship' question before addressing that hypothetical.

I concur on the humanitarian matters, but suspect that we'd have to resolve the 'birthright citizenship' question before addressing that hypothetical.

So what are you saying - the place where you are born matters, or doesn't it? Or some people are born here, but others are only "born" here? How many generations does it take before you are really born here?

How many generations does it take before you are really born here?

My own take on it is that the person who actually immigrates has (for whatever reason) left his homeland and gone into exile. This is always a prudential matter, of course, but all other things equal his own duties remain first and foremost to his homeland and only secondarily to his adopted country; and vice versa.

A permanent break from one's homeland is a grave matter much like a permanent break from the family of one's birth, in my view. Once undertaken as a permanent and legally consummated break, one's children become native to one's adopted home. Barring that the proper first-place alliegence of the person and his children belongs to their actual home country, unless and until such time as a permanently consummated legal break undertaken for grave reasons is complete. Simply being born in a place on a vacation or work stopover (or whatever) does not make the longtitude and latitude of one's birth into one's home country, in my understanding. This isn't about the moral status of latitudes and longtitudes: it is about the moral status of home.

Most countries do not have birthright citizenship; the newborn gets the nationality/nationalities of its parents. Ireland did away with birthright citizenship by referendum a few years ago. The vote was about 80% in favor.

Only that those of us who hold citizenship here, who possess those ties of commonality that impose mutual obligations, are entitled to determine what qualifies as "being born here"; we are certainly entitled, by virtue of the obligations we have towards our fellow citizens, to define "birth in the United States" as "born to either a pair of US citizens or a citizen and a legal permanent resident", thus excluding the temporary visitor, migrant, refugee, etc. This, by the very nature of the obligations in question, which attach to particular persons and groups of persons.

There is a process of adoption, whereby one becomes incorporated into the web of mutual obligation, and treated for all intents and purposes as a native: naturalization.

So if it’s wrong to consign someone to second-class citizenship based on skin color, why should we feel any more comfortable about forcing someone to live someplace horrible like Zimbabwe simply because that’s where he happens to have been born?

I think this is a little off. Blacks in the United States were forced into second-class citizenship because of their skin color. They were American citizens who should have had all the rights of a citizen, but were denied these rights by the positive actions of other citizens. I simply do not think it is the case that Americans force people to live in Zimbabwe. In the case of blacks, it was only Americans who made them second-class citizens. In the other case, it would take the collective efforts of ever country other than Zimbabwe. It is not like if someone from Zimbabwe tries to emigrate into Europe, Americans hunt this person down and ship him back to Zimbabwe. I think this is analogous to arguing that I force children to be orphans by not adopting them. As I think Zippy might point out, this confuses positive and negative obligations.

Maximos, you're right about the birthright citizenship thing. I'd thought of that but forgot to mention it in my comment. We've gotta get a constitutional amendment on that. I'm not sure what it should say, though. For example, there is in our present immigration law such a thing as more or less permanent "legal resident" status. If someone had lived here continuously for many years but had not quite yet attained naturalized citizenship when a child was born, that would be different from coming over here, as Zippy says, on a vacation, or from coming here while pregnant to have an anchor baby. So it's hard to know how to revise the whole thing.

"A citizen of the United States shall be defined, for the purposes of this Constitution, as one either born as the child of two United States citizens, as the child of a United States citizen and a legal permanent resident of the United States, or as one naturalized as a citizen of the United States."

Something like that.

"why should we feel any more comfortable about forcing someone to live someplace horrible like Zimbabwe"

Author is an idiot. When, exactly, the USA forced to live anyone in Zimbabwe?

Accident of birth is an act of God, like an accident of birth with a cancer.

We are not God, we cannot fix all his problems.
We may try to fix some, as much as our own needs allow, but not any more.

We don't have obligation to loose this country so that the world downtrodden will improve their lot a little bit.

If author feel strongly about poor Zimbazies, he is perfectly free to send them 50-70% of his income and/or move there and help a few in a real way.

I bet $1000 author has never contemplated any of that nature.

I think this is analogous to arguing that I force children to be orphans by not adopting them.

Very well said.

As I think Zippy might point out, this confuses positive and negative obligations.

Indeed it does. Don't get me wrong: there can be and are positive obligations, and just because they fall under prudential evaluation that doesn't mean that they cannot bind the conscience in particular circumstances. But the moral distance between harming someone in particular and not rescuing everyone isn't a mere triviality. If charity requires us to always rescue everyone from whatever circumstances they happen to find themselves in, then charity requires the impossible: and thus charity is negated.

This doesn't mean that there is simply no obligation ever to offer help to some who are in need and who happen to not be Americans. Make no mistake: it is sometimes morally obligatory to offer to "adopt" particular foreign exiles into our country, just as there are conceivable circumstances where failing to take in a particular orphan would be an immoral failure in charity. (The paleo right would do well to acknowledge this fact, since otherwise the paleo right discredits itself in what is otherwise a devastating critique of modernist universalism.)

But that positive obligation arising from particular circumstances simply cannot be universalized the way that "our duties to everyone are identically the same and family/ethnic/national ties amount to nothing in terms of prioritization" moderns would have it. To universalize particular positive obligations is to abolish them.

To universalize particular positive obligations is to abolish them.

That is a good way to phrase it.

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