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.