Toleration, Social Justice

A Possible BHL position on Humanitarian Aid

Assume there is a moral principle indicating that states (or citizens therein) that have adequate (or better) resources have an obligation to aid those in states that have inadequate resources. Such a principle has been defended, of course (see, for example, Charles Beitz’ 1979, esp. 136-143). Importantly, even if such a principle is right, it does not get us directly to a conclusion that states (or citizens therein) that have adequate (or better) resources (like us) have an obligation to aid those in states that have inadequate resources in their society. Although many that write in defense of international redistribution often fail to recognize it, immigration—perhaps coupled with remittances–is an important method of international aid. Hence, it might be enough—indeed, it might be better—to help those in states with inadequate resources to immigrate to a place with better resources (perhaps our own state).

Picture an island devastated by floods and incapable of supporting agriculture. The people on this island need help. Assume we owe them help. If there is a good reason to believe the island cannot be made life-supporting (a dubious situation to be sure), the people have to move and at most our aid should be aiding emigration. More realistically, the island will take some years to be life-sustaining again. Perhaps, then, we ought to help them with temporary food supplements. But perhaps aiding emigration can still satisfy our duty. Certainly, in the more extreme case, where the island can’t support life, we simply cannot conclude that we must sustain the people on the island. Some might bemoan the loss of the “island culture” that would follow mass emigration, but given the extreme nature of the natural disaster, that is unavoidable. The only possibilities are losing the culture and the individuals or losing the culture and saving the individuals by relocating them.

It seems clear, then, that no duty to aid individuals in other societies (or our own) can require, in all cases, that we help them to continue to lead the sorts of lives they previously lived (or would choose to live) in the environment they did (or want to). This does not mean there is no duty to help individuals in other societies; it simply means that sometimes the way to satisfy such a duty would be to help the people move, perhaps to our society.

  • Anonymous

    Humanitaria aid could be considered compensation for the injury of not allowing migration.

    • Andrew Cohen

      And other possible injuries!

  • pjg9g

    Good points. Also consider that some of the “aid” we send abroad is actually a form of protectionism; we subsidize our own agriculture and then dump the excess on poorer countries, thus hurting their farming industry.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Absolutely.

  • Sam

    I think that the assumption that “help” can come in a form that is not the occupants first preference is dubious. I agree that opening up the option of emigration is a good thing because it allows occupants of the theoretical island more options. But imagine a world in which immigration is free and everyone on the island can move at will to the society of their choice. The islanders have obviously made a decision to stay on their current island in preference over a proposed country of emigration. Then the storm comes, reducing the standard of living on the island. The possibility of emigration doesn’t read as “help” in this context, rather its just an option that is now more appealing because of diminished circumstances.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I assume you’re serious here so can only note that this strikes me as clearly wrong.  If someone is on their beloved yacht and it sinks, I clearly help them if I get them out of the water and onto my little boat, even if being on my boat is only “appealing because of [their currently] diminished circumstances.”  Perhaps Mr. Yachtman wants to be on another yacht, but getting him onto one is surely not the only way I can help him.

      • Sam

        If you drop the yachtman off at your home island rather then his mansion and he has no way to resume his previous life (and is miserable because of it) whereas you could have returned him to his island with little to no cost, it seems to me your moral obligation is unfulfilled. Now what metric we use to determine what little or no cost means is another issue. (I hope I’m understanding your point correctly)

        • Andrew Cohen

          I intended the analogy to be more direct.  You claimed that it isn’t help if we bring people from their home country to ours.  I don’t see that.  Just as I help Mr. Yachtman when I bring him on to my boat, which he likes far less then his (if at all), I think we help the sort of people we are discussing in other lands if we bring them to our home country, which they like far less then theirs (if at all).  It may not be the help they most want, but its help nonetheless.   (And I think its likely enough to satisfy any duty we have to them regarding the plight in question.)

  • Paul Crider

     I think you can take this further and say that if we have an obligation to help and emigration is the best tool on hand, then the same arguments apply to poorly governed nations. A really awful government is pretty similar to a natural disaster in the relevant respects. If it isn’t horribly impolite to plug my own blog, I gave a (slightly) longer version of this idea here: http://bit.ly/pptrnt

    • Andrew Cohen

      Paul-I agree with what you say here and at quitting providence.  Thanks!

  • I’m very sympathetic to this argument.  I wonder though – have you ever read Pogge’s “Migration and Poverty”?  In it, he argues that a policy of open borders is a relatively bad way to help the world’s poorest people, since most of those people are simply to poor to migrate anyway.  The main novelty of the argument is empirical rather than philosophical, and I don’t have the knowledge to assess his claims.  I haven’t seen any responses to it, but would certainly be interested.

    • As an anecdotal point in favor of this line of thinking, we have open borders inside the United States already, but that doesn’t mean we get  mass exodus from poorer locations to richer ones.

      • Andrew Cohen

        Look at the population of (and exodus from) Detroit!   I’ve heard people argue in favor of aiding people to stay there, but I think I’ll stick with my proposal here as well.  I think the evidence is that people do leave impoverished regions of the US for places with better prospects.  In any case, there are also gov’t policies that help people stay where they are.  I’d almost certainly want to get rid of all of them.  The point here, though, is only that its not fair to move from the claim that we don’t have a mass exodus from poorer to richer areas to the conclusion that the suggested policy doesn’t work in practice (now, in the US) because (1) the evidence is not what you suggest and (2) there are governmental factors that prevent it from working in our current situation.

        • In any case, there are also gov’t policies that help people stay where they are.  I’d almost certainly want to get rid of all of them.

          I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that libertarians, who extol individuality and self-seeking above everything else, would be indifferent to the other-directed values people attach to the preservation of their homes, families and communities.
          But here you’ve really gone further.  Not only do you think it is a bad idea for governments to implement policies that keep people in places where they don’t want to stay.  You also think it is bad for the government to pursue policies that help people stay where they do want to stay.

          Yes, I assume that if government did not implement policies to help people stay where they are, there would be more migration in the world.  I also assume:If government did not have policies that helped people stay married, there would be more broken marriages;If governments did not have policies that helped people care for their children, there would be more children in orphanages and foster homes;If government did not help people keep their wallets where they are in their pockets, there would be more wallets removed from those pockets by whomever happens to possesses the strength to take them;If government did not help people stay in their jobs, people would be fired more often.Now I suppose the default libertarian position is that these coercive government interventions in the magnificent workings of non-governmental forces are prima facie bad disruptions in the natural course of things.  Laissez faire!Others might suggest that people have organized governments precisely in order to assist themselves and the others they care about  in leading the kinds of lives of security and enduring relationships they would most prefer to have, but which are constantly threatened with dissolution by the acids of destabilization and impermanence.

          Gosh, why might someone want to stay in the place they already live, even after it has suffered economic disruption or devastation?  Why might they want their government to pursue policies that make that choice easier and more viable?  I guess crazy human affective states like loyalty, friendship, camaraderie, love,  or devotion must be interfering with the healthy forces that make stones roll and overmen triumph.  Maybe the rubes need to read more Ayn Rand.

          • Anonymous

            At the heart of your argument is the idea that some people have the right to decide for other people. Which is where you go wrong. Each of us has the right to decide for ourselves, and only for ourselves.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Hi Dan-It shouldn’t be a surprise that I am opposed to gov’t acts designed to limit migration, keep marriages together, or to keep people employed.  I am fine with (indeed, applaud)  laws against child abuse and theft.  As for policies that otherwise help keep children with their birth families, I’ll just say I’m dubious about their efficacy and their wisdom (current policies sometimes result in children staying or returning to home situations that they would be better of out of).
             
            At the end of the day, if someone wants to stay on their sinking yacht, I am fine with it (assuming they are capable of making a rational decision at the time).  And if someone wants to stay where they live, I am fine with that.  But, no, I do not see good reason to think they are entitled to assistance to do so when it would be easier, less expensive, and better for them, if they moved.

            Finally, the claim about libertarians extolling “self-seeking” is a cheap shot and false.  BHLs at least want the world to be better for those in need.  Some of us even actively work for that end.  The question is “what will bring that about?”  Policies designed to keep people in a place they have an emotional attachment to are simply not likely to do so.  Despite the tone of your comment, that doesn’t mean I am unsympathetic or that I don’t want a world in which people can be secure and develop healthy emotional relationships with others.  Obviously, I do.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Hi Dan-It shouldn’t be a surprise that I am opposed to gov’t acts designed to limit migration, keep marriages together, or to keep people employed.  I am fine with (indeed, applaud)  laws against child abuse and theft.  As for policies that otherwise help keep children with their birth families, I’ll just say I’m dubious about their efficacy and their wisdom (current policies sometimes result in children staying or returning to home situations that they would be better of out of).
             
            At the end of the day, if someone wants to stay on their sinking yacht, I am fine with it (assuming they are capable of making a rational decision at the time).  And if someone wants to stay where they live, I am fine with that.  But, no, I do not see good reason to think they are entitled to assistance to do so when it would be easier, less expensive, and better for them, if they moved.

            Finally, the claim about libertarians extolling “self-seeking” is a cheap shot and false.  BHLs at least want the world to be better for those in need.  Some of us even actively work for that end.  The question is “what will bring that about?”  Policies designed to keep people in a place they have an emotional attachment to are simply not likely to do so.  Despite the tone of your comment, that doesn’t mean I am unsympathetic or that I don’t want a world in which people can be secure and develop healthy emotional relationships with others.  Obviously, I do.

          • But, no, I do not see good reason to think they are entitled to assistance to do so when it would be easier, less expensive, and better for them, if they moved.

            “Entitled”?  Maybe not.  But might not such assistance be a good idea, especially when it is implemented in laws that have majority support and represent the majority decision on which values to support?  Why not?

            But I think once again here we see the supposed new “bleeding heart” dimension of libertarianism falling back into the old “not on my dime” form of libertarianism.

          • Andrew Cohen

            Well, it may be a “good idea” in some sense, but I’d need to know more about what you mean by that. I meant only to be writing about the *duties* we (might) have to people outside our borders.
            Contrary to your final comment, this is not a “not on my dime” claim.  Its about making the world better and its about satisfying moral duties. I take it for granted that duties to others can be satisfied in multiple ways and that often we are only obligated to satisfy the duty in the least difficult way we can.  I actually think that is fairly uncontroversial.

    • Paul Crider

      I will have to check Pogge out. Has Michael Clemens’ new paper made it ’round to these parts? He says the available literature suggests the gains to world GDP of removing barriers to migration are on the order of … world GDP.

      I have to admit I also have a knee-jerk libertarian distaste for the idea of using coercion to keep individuals from leaving their birth countries if that’s what they want to do.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Matt-I like much of Pogge’s work, though I don’t recall reading this piece.  In any case, if he were right about the empirical facts (I have to say I have doubts about the claim you attribute to him), I would likely be OK with financial assistance to aid the migration.  I’d want it explained to the recipient what they would face in their new home, of course.

  • Fernando Teson

    Andrew, have you sen William Easterly’s book, “The White Man’s Burden”, on the failure of international aid?

    • Andrew Cohen

      Fernando-Nope, but I’ll add it  to my list.  I’ve heard others talk of it.

  • Fernando Teson

    A thought: Assume both aid and trade help the world’s poor. Aid requires altruistic impulses, so it is harder to implement  and morally troubling, because the state gets the aid funds from its citizens at gunpoint. Trade, in contrast, is based on self-interest. This means that it is easier to implement because it requires less of people, and morally better because it does not require coercion.

    • Paul Crider

      Similarly, migration is based on voluntary interactions, and it’s the blocking of migration that involves coercion. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/04/is_there_a_righ.html I wouldn’t say liberalizing migration rules is easier than aid though.

      • Anonymous

        Migration requires available settling or squatting land, which doesn’t seem particularly compatible with libertarian views on property, “open borders”  rhetoric notwithstanding.

        • Paul Crider

          Settling or squatting land … or rental properties. There are plenty of entities in the United States (for example)  who are perfectly happy to do business with migrants, including apartment managers, etc.

          • Andrew Cohen

            I side with Paul here.  I say let’s open the borders.  If people don’t want to sell or rent land or homes to immigrants, fine.  But laws prohibiting it are not, on my view, morally acceptable.

    • Anonymous

      Fair trade requires that both sides have somewhat equal resources.  In this instance the refugees likely have little to trade with, unless you count their lives, prostitution, slave labor, etc.  In other cases those that do have resources may be “starved out” and forced to sell them for pennies by those with cold hearts and deep pockets.

      • Andrew Cohen

        I doubt “Fair trade requires that both sides have somewhat equal resources,” at least on any reasonable understanding of “somewhat equal.”  I buy products from Microsoft or Apple.  I think it would be a stretch to say that I have “somewhat equal resources” with Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
        I grant, on the other hand, that if the unequal resources are used by the wealthy to wrong the poor, there is a real problem (this is at the heart of what we call “relational equality”).  I don’t think, though, that I wrong someone from the destroyed island when I help them migrate to my country where they can lead decent, and even good, lives.
        If I force the person into slavery or prostitution, I wrong them.  If they become prostitutes (or …) without being forced into it, I don’t wrong them.  I may want to help them nonetheless, but that is another story.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I agree that anti-trade policies are hugely problematic.  

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, have you seen Michael Heumer’s article “Is There a Right to Immigrate? Really good!

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  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that Cohen is quite wrong. If the millionare gives the cash to the starving kid, it is a matter of benevolence not of justice.  What we want to say is that there is more to right action than simply justice; but I think it only confuses things to describe everything we want as a matter of justice.
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