Self-Determination vs. Equality of Opportunity

Is There a Solution to the Tension Between States’ and Individuals’ Rights with Regard to Immigration?

Stephanie Foster


In the debate concerning open vs. closed borders, one major point of contention is whether the rights of states or the rights of individuals take precedence. Some philosophers, such as Michael Walzer, argue that states should be allowed to restrict their membership in order to preserve their right of self-determination and in order to protect the nature of their community (Walzer 174). Other philosophers, such as Joseph Carens, however, stress the importance of the rights of the individual and argue that restrictive immigration policies cannot be justified in such a manner because individuals have no control over the circumstances of their birth and should not be penalized as a result of something so morally arbitrary (Carens 268).

In this paper, I will argue that although states do in fact have a right of self-determination and an interest in protecting the character of their community, this right does not necessarily outweigh the right of individuals to equality of opportunity as it is morally arbitrary where one happens to be born. It is my opinion that although the individual’s right to equality of opportunity does not inherently entail a right to admission to any particular state, it would be morally unconscionable for a state to exclude a person whose life prospects would be substantially improved via admission if the state has the space and resources to accommodate the individual.

My strategy in arguing the above will be as follows: First, I will discuss Michael Walzer’s assertion that political communities have a right to determine their own membership as admission and exclusion are necessary for self-determination and communities of character (Walzer 174). In doing so, I will describe how Walzer sees countries as being similar to neighborhoods, clubs, and families. Next, I will explain Joseph Carens’s responses to the arguments that closure is needed to preserve the community as well as to preserve self-determination and describe why he does not believe that these arguments prove than the rights of states are more important or basic than the right of individuals. Then, I will argue that both Walzer and Carens are in part correct. By virtue of being separate, sovereign entities, states acquire a right to self-determination and thus a right to decide their own membership. However, this right does not undermine the individual’s right to enjoy the same privileges as those who happen to end up in well-off societies through no action of their own. Therefore, I argue, as Michael Blake does in “Equality without Documents,” that the state should not always exercise its rights, especially when doing so can significantly impact an individual’s life prospects. Finally, I will acknowledge that this compromise might not be entirely satisfactory for those who prioritize the right of the state or to those who prioritize the right of the potential immigrant and attempt to explain why both should still accept the compromise nonetheless.

Michael Walzer begins his article “The Distribution of Membership” by arguing that the concept of distributive justice entails some exclusivity i.e. some type of bounded communities (145). In his opinion, these bounded communities should exist at the state level. By virtue of this assertion, Walzer argues that states should have the right to determine their own membership. In order to explain what this involves, Walzer looks at membership of smaller associations that can more easily be understood than membership in a country. Thus, he asks that we think of countries as neighborhoods, clubs and families. First, he examines membership for neighborhoods. According to Walzer, neighborhoods are complex associations with no “organized or legally enforceable admissions polic[ies]” (150). In essence, persons can generally choose to come and go within neighborhoods as they please. Movement is free and reflects individuals’ interest in personal advancement, which entails that they re-locate to where jobs are available etc. (151). Walzer notes that “perfect labor mobility, however, is probably a mirage” (152). In his opinion, people tend to stay where they are unless life is extremely difficult because they form connections and develop roots in the communities in which they settle. People come to value their own communities and seek to defend them and their culture against strangers. Thus, to make it so that states function as neighborhoods would simply result in turning neighborhoods into little states. Walzer writes, “To tear down the walls of the state is not, as Sidgwick worriedly suggested, to create a world without walls, but rather to create a thousand petty fortress” (153). Closure is necessary to maintain the distinctiveness of the communities that people create. Membership of countries, therefore, cannot be structured in the same manner as neighborhoods.

Having discussed the analogy of countries as neighborhoods, Walzer examines the similarities between countries and clubs. Clubs unlike neighborhoods have admissions committees with general conditions for admission and exclusion (154). Walzer notes, “Individuals may be able to give good reasons why they should be selected, but no one on the outside has a right to be inside” (155). Persons can make a good case for their entry, but the club is not required to admit them. With regard to countries and immigration, this would mean that potential immigrants can apply for a green card and describe all the reasons why they think they should be selected, but ultimately, the state can decide not to grant them one. According to Walzer, this structure of admission seems to go against our natural instincts with respect to immigration. It does seem as if sometimes we are morally bound to let people in. Thus, Walzer turns to the family as an analogy for the state because he believes such an analogy rectifies this problem.

In Walzer’s opinion, family “members are morally connected to people they have not chosen, who live outside of the household” (155). Although family members do not see their relatives or interact with them on a daily basis, they still have moral obligations to them. Similarly, citizens of certain countries are still morally bound to those who do not live within the country, such as those who are their national/ethic kin (156). Nevertheless, Walzer argues that this obligation does not undermine the state’s right to make selections (174). In his opinion, the right to determine membership is a more basic right than the right of strangers to be admitted. Walzer writes, “Admission and exclusion are at the core of the communal independence. They suggest the deepest meaning of self-determination. Without them, there could not be communities of character, historically stable, ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life” (174). Walzer views cultural distinctness as a value and argues that without the state’s right to make its own decisions and without its right to determine membership, there is no way to protect communities of character. Thus, borders should remain closed. The rights of the state outweigh the rights of individuals.

Joseph Carens, on the other hand, disagrees strongly with Michael Walzer. According to Carens, justice requires open borders (Carens 255). In “The Claims of Community,” Carens addresses several objections that proponents of closed borders make, two of which are particularly relevant to my discussion. First, Carens rejects Walzer’s claim that closure is necessary for communities of character (261). He argues that open borders only pose a threat to communities if a lot of people want to join them and that joining a new community requires people to leave the community in which they are currently situated. Carens notes that Walzer believes that most people avoid leaving their own community if at all possible. According to Carens, “Despite [Walzer’s] claims about the importance of communities of character, [Walzer] is worried that too many people will be willing to leave their own community of character for an unfamiliar one that offers better life choices” (262). Thus, Carens sees a tension within Walzer’s own argument that he believes needs to be addressed.

Next, Carens responds to the argument that closure is important for self-determination. In doing so, he looks at a scenario in which states make their own decisions with regard to economic policies (263). In the scenario, one state chooses to execute responsible economic policies while another state acts less responsibly. As a result, even though both states started at point of economic equality, inequality now exists between the two states. Defenders of self-determination argue that this inequality is morally legitimate because it emanates from decisions made by each state. In their opinion, it is then not their responsibility to admit those who executed poor policies and are worse off because of it. Doing so would undermine their self-determination.

Carens finds three problems with this assessment of the situation. First, he questions the connection that others draw between self-determination and inequality (264). To Carens, the inequality could be a result of luck or power. Perhaps one country is more endowed with natural resources than the other. Perhaps one state was affected by a natural disaster or that it is disadvantaged as a result of being an ex-imperial state. Carens does not believe the link between inequality and self-determination is so clear. Second, Carens argues that though the societies in this scenario may begin at equal economic levels, there can only be one starting point at which this is the case (264). Each subsequent group of people who must make decisions will be doing so under circumstances of inequality. Thus, the connection between agency and responsibility is also not so clear. It is unreasonable to hold new generations responsible for the actions of their ancestors (265). They had no role in making them and should not be punished. Finally, Carens argues that proponents of states’ rights fail to respect people as individuals. Under the statist view, individuals get assigned to a ‘people’ at birth (268). They have a right to leave this ‘people’ but no right to be admitted anywhere else. Carens asks how this manner of organization can be a morally acceptable way of dealing with individuals “given the vast consequences of such an assignment for one’s chances and one’s life prospects” (268). It is morally arbitrary where one is born. Why should some individuals reap the benefits of being born into a well-off society while others are relegated to disadvantaged societies? Thus, Carens argues that proponents of closed borders fail to provide any reason why the state’s rights should take precedence other those of individuals.

It is my opinion that both Walzer and Carens are correct in some respects. I believe that states have a right to self-determination, which entails a right to determine their own membership. States should be able to make selections as to who they would like to let into their country because it is important to preserve certain values of their communities, which make possible meaningful social interaction within them. States by virtue of being separate, sovereign entities acquire the right to self-determination and therefore a right to decide their own membership. Without these rights, states cease in reality to be truly separate and sovereign. However, it is also my opinion that the country and circumstances that one happens to be born into are morally arbitrary. Individuals have no control over where they are born. A country’s right to self-determination, though critical, does not necessarily outweigh an individual’s right not to be penalized for the circumstance of their birth. The individual should have the opportunity to enjoy the same privileges as those who were merely lucky when they were assigned to a ‘people’ at birth. Therefore, a tension exists between the state’s right and the individual’s rights, but I do not believe that this tension is unresolvable.

In “Equality without Documents: Political Justice and the Right to Amnesty,” Michael Blake makes an argument that I believe is applicable to immigration in general and the tension between the state’s rights and the potential immigrant’s rights even if he, in the article, is addressing the more specific issue of irregular migrants. Blake argues, “There may be some cases in which we have rights – not simply legally, but morally too – which we cannot in good conscience exercise” (Blake 119). He presents an example in which another person needs you to put your hand on their brow in order to live. Blake notes that you have the right to decide to do whatever you wish with your own hand; nevertheless, even though the individual does not have a right to the use of your hand, he does have a right to live, so it would be morally wrong for you to decide not to offer him your hand. Thus, even though you have a right to keep your hand to yourself, you should not exercise this right. In terms of immigration, the state has a right to self-determination and a right to decide its own membership; nevertheless, even though the individual does not have a right to be admitted to the state, the individual does have the right to the same benefits that others receive simply by virtue of being born in a rich country, so it would be morally disreputable and unreasonable for the state to reject the individual if it has the space and resources to accommodate the individual. Blake argues, “We ought not to always insist upon our rights in the face of the costs of doing so” (120). Preventing an individual from entering an advantaged country can significantly impact that individual’s life prospects, so the state should forgo its right and admit the individual if it has room.

I acknowledge my argument might not be entirely satisfactory to those who prioritize the right of the state or to those who prioritize the right of the potential immigrant. However, I feel that it is a good compromise and the best manner in which to resolve the tension between the two. First, it is my hope that those who were permitted to enter the country would be thankful for the opportunity and be willing to adopt the values and character of the communities that they join or at the very least not actively undermine them. If this was the case, then states could still preserve their communities of character and ensure the possibility of meaningful interaction within the society. I do not believe it is unreasonable to think that this could happen, and if it did, then it would assuage the worries of individuals like Walzer. Therefore, they should be happy.

Additionally, I believe proponents of individuals’ rights should be happy because under my argument, if the state can admit the individual without great suffering to those already inside, it would be morally vicious not to. It is unconscionable for the state to reject the individual. In this way, the rights of the individual are privileged over the rights of the state. Thus, both sides should accept my arrangement because neither of their rights are ignored. With this compromise, the state retains its right to self-determination and its right to determine membership even though it does not exercise these rights, and the individual retains its right to the same benefits as those in rich countries.


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Blake, Michael. “Equality without Documents: Political Justice and the Right to Amnesty.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplementary Vol. 36 (2010): 99-122.

Carens, Joseph. “The Claims of Community.” The Ethics of Immigration, Chapter 12. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008: 255-287.

Walzer, Michael. “The Distribution of Membership.” Global Justice: Seminal Essays, Pogge, Thomas and Moellendorf, Darrel, eds., St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2008: 145-177.