Arguing for Open Borders

Literary Review of Canada, Vol. 22, No. 3, April 2014

4 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2014 Last revised: 18 Jul 2014

See all articles by Andy Lamey

Andy Lamey

University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Division of Arts and Humanities, Department of Philosophy

Date Written: April 1, 2014


A review of the Ethics of Immigration, by Joseph Carens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Joseph Carens is arguably the most prominent political theorist to defend open borders, a view which he did much to make intellectually respectable in a famous 1987 article, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” In The Ethics of Immigration Carens again defends the open borders view, but with a new rationale. Whereas before he argued that seemingly opposed philosophies provided converging support for open borders, now he bases his case on “democratic principles,” by which he means uncontroversial moral commitments that are widely shared in liberal states. Carens argues that one such commitment is to freedom, which can be understood as “not being the subject of the will of another.” A commitment to such a value would explain why freedom of movement within a state is considered a basic human right. But, Carens asks, if we have a general right to freedom of movement within countries, why not between them?

Carens has long noted that despite the attractiveness of open borders at the level of pure justice, it is deeply at odds with how immigration policy is normally viewed. Given this, Carens’ many writings on immigration have long approached it from a second perspective, one that puts aside questions of ideal theory and takes for granted the conventional view that states are entitled to discretionary control over their borders. This second perspective is the dominant one in The Ethics of Immigration, as Carens spends most of the book outlining standards of fair treatment for permanent residents, temporary workers, refugees and other migrants that do not presuppose any commitment to open borders. In this mode Carens offers a revised version of one his most thought-provoking and controversial arguments, defending amnesty for immigrants who first arrive illegally.

Carens’ investigation of immigration issues at both the level of ideal justice and the more immediate plane of the debate over amnesty and related issues makes his book unusually rich. It has the rare virtue of being both philosophically rigorous and politically relevant.

Keywords: Immigration, open borders, undocumented migrants, amnesty

Suggested Citation

Lamey, Andy, Arguing for Open Borders (April 1, 2014). Literary Review of Canada, Vol. 22, No. 3, April 2014 , Available at SSRN:

Andy Lamey (Contact Author)

University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Division of Arts and Humanities, Department of Philosophy ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0119
United States


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