Philosophy of refugee policy Morally in the Same Boat

Prof. Dr. Thomas Pogge
Prof. Dr. Thomas Pogge | Photo (detail): © Oliver Abraham

Is there any justification for state borders? Thomas Pogge is Professor of Philosophy and International Relations at Yale University. His reflections on a fair restructuring of the international economic system have brought him again and again into the political debate.

Each and every one of us has only a certain amount of time and can’t engage himself politically in everything. Which of the following possible engagements seems to make more sense to you: should I engage in a reform of refugee policy in my state or for structural poverty reduction?

What you commit yourself to depends in part on who you are. What are your abilities, what are your motivations, what are you particularly good at? There isn’t one answer that covers everyone. In general, it seems more reasonable to engage in structural measures to combat poverty. First, as citizens of rich countries, we’re particularly well-placed to fight against the injustices committed in our name by our governments at the international level – for example, through arms sales. Secondly, reforming refugee policy helps at most a relatively small number of people.

How would you explain this prioritizing to refugees? Doesn’t it push their chance of a better future very far back on the timeline?

We have only so much time, so much energy, so many resources with which to commit ourselves to justice and we have to deal sensibly with these limited resources. We therefore have to give preference to the larger, more important injustices over the smaller and less important ones. We have to see where we can do more to foster justice.

Poverty reduction vs. refugee policy

If we have only limited resources, shouldn’t we rather help people who are in need here in Germany?

Borders are irrelevant in moral terms. Whether we have certain obligations to people who are in need has little to do with whether a border lies between them and us. What is important is the relation in which we stand to these people and, above all, whether we’ve contributed to their plight. Foreigners to whose distress and hardship we’ve contributed are just as relevant to us as fellow nationals to whose distress and hardship we’ve contributed. Morally, they’re sitting in the same boat.

But don’t the citizens of a state have a special relation to one another that legitimizes preference?

In our country we commit ourselves to special solidarity benefits, as do members of an insurance company or a large family. But of course these additional duties of solidarity oughtn’t to be engaged in at the cost of the duties of justice we have towards all men. I can’t escape a general duty to justice by entering into a special relationship with some few people and then cite these bonds of solidarity as the reason that I can’t fulfil my general duty to justice.

“Abolishing borders would be absurd”

If borders are irrelevant in moral terms, why don’t we simply abolish them and carry on development cooperation as global domestic policy?

You have to take into account what is feasible, what is possible in the given political circumstances. Should we have borders at all? From my cosmopolitan point of view, this is an instrumental question. Can we promote justice better within a social world where borders play a big role or rather within one where they play a relatively small role? I think abolishing borders would be absurd. Even if we organize a world state, we should still always divide it into administrative units. Then people who live in one part of the world have the possibility of determining democratically the circumstances of their life together.

What seems to be clear, however, is that the current over-emphasis on national states is a great mistake. We’d be far better off if we decentralized political power and delegated it up and down; that is, to the subdivisions of nations states on the one hand and to organizations such as the European Union, the African Union, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization on the other. This doesn’t mean that I think these organizations are particularly good as they now exist. But they are essential for the future of humanity.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Pogge read sociology in Hamburg and received his doctorate at Harvard University with a dissertation on Kant, Rawls and global justice. Before going to Yale, he taught at the Columbia University in New York. He is Research Director at the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature in Oslo and author of numerous publications, including works on political philosophy and medical ethics.