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The Philosophical Roots of Today’s Immigration Debate

President Trump and his critics are falling into camps very reminiscent of a classic philosophical debate of the 1970s: two different conceptions of moral duty.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Hegel wrote that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, he meant that philosophy makes sense of the world only retrospectively: After the world has given birth to a reality, the philosophers arrive on the scene to help us understand it. But in the present moment, the opposite seems to be happening, and in the midst of an unusually vitriolic debate. A classic argument in the 1970s and 80s has foreshadowed the politics of today.

It might appear overly charitable to attribute anything like a political philosophy to Donald Trump. But however unintentionally, his aggressively anti-immigration policiesand the moral outrage they provoke in Democrats—reflect a real-life expression of a philosophical conflict between two different conceptions of political responsibility: communitarianism, which sees people’s identities and value as intricately linked to their political community, political justice therefore rooted in and confined to that specific community, and liberalism, which recognizes universal human rights, and sees our political responsibilities extending beyond our narrow ethnic or political group to all human beings.

In 1971, John Rawls published a treatise which has become a seminal reimagining of liberalism. If, he posited in a thought experiment, people were to attempt to construct the rules for a society prior to knowing their own identities in such a society, they would arrive at a perfect conception of justice. Arguing behind a “veil of ignorance” in which “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like,” one cannot choose one’s politics based on personal benefit, and would therefore prioritize equity. This strategy offered a new way of justifying liberalism, a political philosophy with historical roots going back to British philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and which gained ground in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, placing great value on the individual’s liberty, equality under the law, and property rights. These ideas found expression in the concept of human rights which, according to liberalism, are universal, independent of one’s nationality, class, race or religion.

But in the 1980s, Rawls and liberalism were challenged by a new group of theorists: the communitarians. Rawls’ veil of ignorance offered a distorted picture of human beings, philosophers such as the Scottish Alasdair McIntyre, Canadian Charles Taylor, and American Michael Sandel began to argue, and thus couldn’t form the basis for a viable political philosophy. Humans are social animals, rather than isolated individuals, embedded in communities that shape their identity and grant them their value. We usually think of ourselves, Sandel wrote, “as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons or daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic,” and these social identities are foundational in our sense of justice.

This argument wasn’t entirely new in the 1980s: The German Romantic movement made similar objections to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in the Enlightenment, which prefigured Rawls’s liberalism by arguing that each individual’s moral worth derived from their partaking in the universal capacity to reason, rather than something bestowed on them due to their membership of a particular nation or ethnic group. The German Romantics’ dismissal of universalism and reason-based moral worth, (reason being a cold and abstract way to evaluate a human, they thought) returning to the particulars of identity, found political expression in many of the nationalist projects of the 20th century—some of them exceedingly brutal.

Communitarianism, as the 1980s iteration of this general theory came to be called, made a point very similar to the one that identity politics advocates on the left make today, who argue that social, racial and gender identity matter to questions of justice. This right-wing version of identity politics, emphasizing things like religious and national or ethnic identity as key to determining who deserves what in politics, offered a different, less universal conception of political responsibility and justice, based on the idea that our political and moral ties are first and foremost towards our community, rather than to those outside it. Few people, communitarians argue, would truly consider their moral duty to a stranger analogous to their moral duty to, say, their mother or their child.

President Trump’s self-identification as a nationalist and his attitude towards immigration place him squarely on the communitarian side of this philosophical divide, even if the original philosophers might not see eye-to-eye with his way of embodying it. His slogan of “America first” and his dismissal of “globalists” who he says want “the globe to do very well, frankly not caring about our country so much,” have been connected by scholars to a sinister political history of the extreme right. But what makes it possible to arrive at such extreme politics in the first place is the implicit claim that some people have more political value by virtue of being Americans, rather than citizens of the world, human beings with universal rights.

A tension between liberal and communitarian instincts has arguably always been present in American politics. One of the country’s foundational texts, the Declaration of Independence, claims that “all men are created equal” and that they have certain “unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But despite the universal, liberal character of the declaration, it had a narrow communitarian meaning when it was written: Women, Native Americans, African Americans, and members of other nations were excluded from the group that enjoyed claims to equality and rights. As time went on, the community expanded, and eventually came to include those who weren’t initially recognized as members.

Since then, liberalism’s principles of universalism have been enshrined in several international documents the United States has participated in. Liberalism’s identification of the individual as the center of political value has found the most concrete political expression in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a recognition by all the countries who signed it that people’s political liberties and value stem not from their membership of a particular community, but simply in virtue of their human identity. Among the rights recognized is the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Trump’s anti-immigration policies depart from the United States’s more universalist side as both touted in national myth (focusing in particular on the American Revolution) and encoded in international law: Limiting, as the administration has done, the processing power of U.S. border authorities, such that only a small number of asylum applications can be accepted at any time, in practice results in many asylum seekers being turned away, violating the 1948 declaration. Trump’s attempt to deny the right to apply for asylum to those who do not enter the country through one of its official ports, was similarly a violation of the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the U.S. has co-signed, as well as domestic immigration law.

Moments of political progress in American history have often been accompanied by readings of the Declaration of Independence that emphasize its universal dimension, encompassing not only all of the people living on U.S. soil, but all of humanity. Abraham Lincoln was one of those readers, Martin Luther King Jr. was another. By contrast, the present populist political moment is defined by a logic of dividing the political community into “us” vs “them,” both domestically as well as on the international stage. In embodying a narrow communitarian understanding of whom the President has political obligations towards, Trump believes he is offering a way back to America’s true past identity and glory. In fact, he is ignoring a key aspect of its founding ideals—the aspiration to see the relevant political community as encompassing all of humanity.