KWI – Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Intitut Essen, KWI)

Research areas

Project MERCUR Research Project: Ethics of Immigration

Principal investigators and coordinators:
Prof. Dr. Andreas Niederberger,
(Universität Duisburg-Essen)
Prof. Dr. Christian Neuhäuser
(Technische Universität Dortmund)
Prof. Dr. Corinna Mieth
(Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
Prof. Dr. Volker M. Heins
Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI)

Cooperation Partners: Universität Duisburg-Essen, Technische Universität Dortmund, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Funded by: Mercator Research Center Ruhr
Duration: 10/2015 - 03/2018

pdf iconYou can download the project outline here

The MERCUR Research Project on the ethics of immigration aims at a more precise and adequate understanding of the (universal) right to freedom of movement. Who may, and under what conditions, be allowed in or turned away? This question is not only philosophically important, it is also at the center of current political and social controversies. To answer this question, it is necessary to find out, for example, whether the strength and the limits of the right to freedom of movement depend on the reasons for migration or on the conditions for its realization in particular societies. The purpose of the project is, thus, to analyze political, social, and economic contexts of migration and their normative meaning. Our assumption is that the right to freedom of movement can be appropriately understood only if we take into account different reasons for migration and a range of empirical constraints.

Thinking about the ethics of immigration

Modern political philosophy up to John Rawls’ theory of justice offers essentially a theory of legitimate relations within individual states. For the most part modern authors are convinced that borders between states serve a legitimate purpose and that states have a right to decide about immigration. This argument refers to the necessity to protect cultural contexts, the functioning of the economy, the establishment of solidarity, security and stability, and political self-determination. Other authors have rejected the sovereign right to exclude potential immigrants.
Since the end of the 1970s the normative discussion about the rights and duties associated with immigration has intensified. Initially this discussion concentrated on modes of incorporating migrants, in particular, temporary migrant or “guest” workers, who were already staying in a host country. It was asked whether or not it was right to withhold citizenship or particular social rights. However, against the backdrop of the discussion on Rawls the focus was soon to be extended considerably. Joseph Carens, in particular, argued that the original position in Rawls’ theory of justice should be conceived as global right from the start. In a globalized original position, so the argument goes, parties could ponder over the implications of spending their lives in different societies with different levels of prosperity, etc. Starting from here, Carens has established the ethics of immigration as a research field in its own right, where in the meantime different egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian, or republican reasons for or against the right to the freedom of global movement have been debated. One among many other questions in the field is whether borders and border controls have an intrinsic value or whether they can be justified instrumentally and in view of other normative goals.
The discussions about the right to the freedom of global movement in philosophy and political theory refer to restrictions on migration as well as to the many empirical reasons for migration. The extensive research in the social, political and economic sciences is, however, often considered only in the light of already established normative claims such as the claims for self-determination or security. This approach tends to ignore the wealth of empirical research on migration which shows significantly more facts and trends than those selected few that are taken into consideration by many philosophers. On the one hand there are numerous studies on reasons for migration, which point to differences between, and combinations of, forced and voluntary migration. They show that the classical distinction between political refugees and economically motivated migrants is simplistic, because it undercuts the empirical and normative complexities inherent in processes of migration.
On the other hand there is much recent research on multicultural and multiethnic societies showing the range of domestic and transnational regimes governing immigration including refugee crises as well as different modes of integrating immigrants into the legal, political and economic frameworks of societies. In some respects, these societies are open and even dependent on immigration (of a certain type), while in other respects immigration is discouraged and curtailed, sometimes unintentionally. International free trade agreements, for example, entail the free movement of goods and often the right to freedom of movement for skilled workers, who are even being wooed by corporations and whose willingness to migrate to a given location for a certain time period is rebranded as “mobility”. Other researchers have shown that many states would be unable to meet the expectations of their citizens without a constant flow of migrant labor.
This empirical (even if often normatively inspired) research draws a picture of the reality of modern society that presents a serious challenge for political philosophers and theorists, and will most likely lead to revisions or at least significant modifications of prevailing ways of thinking. At the same time current social, political and economic empirical research raises new methodological and normative questions. The growing insight into the relevance of empirical contexts for solving philosophical and theoretical problems finds expression in recent debates about the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory as well as in the debate about the role of arguments about “feasibility” in normative theory. The research on the ethics of immigration already refers to these discussions, even though it still often takes for granted the difference between ideal and non-ideal theory. Rather unreflectively, this difference locates the justification of the (universal) right to freedom of movement in the field of ideal theory, whereas the role of non-ideal theory is confined to exploring the empirical obstacles standing in the way of realizing that right. If it can be demonstrated, however, that empirical facts are relevant already for determining the “ideal” content or the normative scope of the right to freedom of movement, the difference between ideal and non-ideal theory no longer holds or must be understood differently. This, too, is a crucial question for our research into the intricacies of the ethics of immigration—a question whose answers promises to produce new insights for political philosophy and theory.

Aims and objectives of our project:

Our collaborative research project aims at developing a precise and adequate understanding of the universal right to the freedom of movement as well as of the points of reference for its institutional realization. A key question in discussions about global justice is how to deal with refugees, who escaped from hunger, poverty or political persecution, and how to redistribute resources and assign responsibility within and across societies. The debate about the conditions for establishing legitimate political procedures and institutions has pointed to requirements of inclusion and participation for all, but also to problems linked to migration that put a strain on those institutions. The research on multicultural and diverse societies as a whole looks at mass migration as a chief cause for specific problems and seeks to answer pressing questions as to the just and adequate ways of dealing with migration and post-migrant perspectives and issues.
In the first phase of the project we will examine whether the various reasons for emigration and immigration result in different legitimate claims or duties. The second phase will be about the normative weight or legitimacy of different obstacles to immigration. These obstacles can have their basis in law, but also in other societal factors. Against the backdrop of these explorations, the third phase is devoted to the development of a precise understanding of the right to the freedom of movement as well as to its contexts of realization. At the same time, each phase of the project seeks to elucidate three cross-cutting methodological and practical-political questions. First, the entire discussion about the connection between the right to free movement, and the reasons for migration as well as for legal and other obstacles to immigration is directly relevant to the debate on the role of feasibility in real-world settings and other considerations of a non-ideal normative theory. Second, the inclusion of findings from the social sciences in normative discussions of the right to free movement raises the question of how to understand the relationship between the methods and background assumptions of these various disciplines. On the one hand, there must be criteria that help us to decide, which empirical findings we should take into account when discussing normative questions; on the other hand, we need to understand how normative perspectives are already shaping and motivating empirical research. Third, we look forward to conversations with political actors and civic initiatives, and will seek to engage with those who take decisions in the field of immigration policy as well as with people who are affected by those decisions.