Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
Philosophers are famous for thought experiments. You concoct a hypothetical situation in order to test a claim. Thought experiments are crucial because they force you think clearly about the limits of your claim. However, in practice, thought experiments leave people cold. They seem contrived and counter-intuitive. This post is about one way to help you evaluate whether a thought experiment is useful. I make no claims to originality, only usefulness.
Ethics motivates this discussion because ethicists are constantly cooking up thought experiments to test the limits of ethical theories. Let’s start with two examples:
- Trolley car problems (see the wiki for a history): In this situation, there is a runaway car. It is about to run over five people. If you pull a switch, it will run over one person. People die either way. Should you pull the switch?
- Wilt Chamberlain (from Nozick): Imagine that you live in a society with 100 people. Each person pays $1 to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Inequality is increased as Wilt becomes $100 wealthier and every one becomes $1 less wealthy. Is this a just state of affairs?
Independent of my ethical priors, I have always found trolley car problems to be bizarre and Wilt Chamberlain to be intuitive. It was only recently that I was able to articulate the difference. Trolley car problems, in my view, are rare, artificially constructed situations. Wilt Chamberlain is a crisp form of a common situation.
At the Washington Post blog, Ilya Somin has a column on why people who favor color blindness should also favor open borders. He starts off with a great quote from Abraham Lincoln:
In a famous 1855 letter, Abraham Lincoln drew a connection between racism and hostility towards immigrants, then epitomized by the nativist Know-Nothing movement:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
Lincoln understood the similarity between racial prejudice against blacks and xenophobic hostility to immigrants. That is one of the reasons why he took a favorable view of immigration throughout his career, and opposed efforts to exclude potential immigrants from the US or otherwise discriminate against them. So too did a good many other prominent 19th century opponents of slavery and racial discrimination, such as Frederick Douglass.
Republicans: if the founder, and possibly greatest president, of your party favored migration, maybe it’s time to soften up and mellow out about immigrants. Just sayin’.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about open borders at Wellesley College as a guest of the Freedom Project. My talk summarized the view that open borders is a “common grounds” position. People who are liberal and conservative should support it. It is trans-ideological and bipartisan in nature. The liberal argument for open borders is very easy to defend. The best way to end poverty and lessen inequality is simply letting people move to places where they are more economically productive. For libertarians, the issue is equally straightforward. Migration restriction is nothing but a barrier to trade and personal freedom.
The case for conservatives is a little more subtle because there is no single intuition that motivates conservative critiques of migration. In my talk at Wellesley, I broke it down this way. Each bullet point merits a longer discussion, but I present the summary here:
- “Retail conservatives:” The rank and file conservative might oppose migration because immigrants reduce employment for natives, increase crime, or create undue stress on social services. In these cases, research either shows that there is simply no evidence to back it up or that negative effects are way, way overblown. Additionally, retail conservatives who promote family values and self-reliance should applaud immigrants because they improve their economic situation through hard work, not hand outs.
- “Philosophical conservatives:” There is a strand of more sophisticated, philosophical conservatives that are motivated by the writings of folks like Burke and Oakeshott. One might summarize their view as a suspicion of radical change and social engineering. If so, the they should vehemently oppose closed borders. What is more radical than drawing a line and proclaiming that people on one side can’t move to the other? Aren’t migration controls an attempt at social engineering by legislators? Don’t borders violate the organic social order of communities?
- “Cultural conservatives:” Some conservative migration critics are worried that migration might undermine the valuable things about Western culture. I think there are a few sensible responses. First, Western culture has survived socialism, fascism, communism and a whole lot more. America is much tougher than waves of low skilled labor. Second, in public opinion research, one often finds that migrants aren’t terribly different than natives in terms of political opinion. Third, Western societies tend to “chill out” migrants. If you want to decrease the anti-Western sentiment in the world, let people migrate to the West and their kids will be much less hostile than those back in the home country.
To sum up, there are a number of conservative criticisms of open borders and there are a lot of very intuitive and strong responses.
My view of the Obama administration is that immigration reform is a second tier issue and they have little interest in pushing hard for change. For six years, Obama’s administration did little, or might have even encouraged, the massive increase in deportations, including those without criminal records. Obama proposed some extremely modest reforms which have had almost no effect on making it easier to lawfully move between nations. In some cases, he has been blocked in the courts. In other cases, the administration has been unable to properly implement its own very modest reforms.
For example, one reform was that children escaping from gang violence in Latin America could apply for asylum. Seems reasonable, but not when you learn that 0 children out of 5,400 applicants have actually moved to the United States from crime ridden nations. From The New York Times:
“Really, it’s pathetic that no child has come through this program,” said Lavinia Limón, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit organization. Pointing to administration officials, she added, “I wonder if it were their child living in the murder capital of the world, whether they would have more sense of urgency.”
When you read the details of the policy, you quickly realize that the policy was never intended to actually let anyone in. Like most immigration policy, the rules are designed to prevent migration, not make it legal:
State Department officials said the program was also slowed by the requirement of DNA tests for parents in the United States and their children in Central America before the children could be granted entry. The officials said some parents had taken a long time to have those tests performed, further extending the delays. The process also includes security checks, medical screenings, payments for airline flights, and other paperwork.
It should be no surprise that people in impoverished areas would have problems with paying for medical tests, paternity tests, airline tickets, and endless paperwork. Most native born Americans would be hard pressed to produce this amount of materials.
In my book, Obama will go down as the deporter of children, many to their deaths. May his successor see the world as a place for free people.
Chandran Kukathas is the chair of the government department at the LSE. On the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, he discusses why we should see border restrictions and apartheid in the same light. A few key clips:
Here’s where immigration controls in liberal democracies and apartheid in South Africa after 1948 share some similarities. In both cases the effectiveness of the policies depends in the end on controlling not just outsiders but also insiders – citizens and residents. It is widely assumed that immigration control is a matter of keeping people from entering a country, and the rhetoric of control encourages this impression. Cities, public facilities, and social services are routinely described as bursting at the seams or stretched to the limit, unable to cope with sudden influxes of large numbers of foreigners, or the growth of a population swelling steadily because of a positive rate of net migration.
This was the logic of Apartheid. Controlling who could enter from the bantustans required controlling the movement of black people within white society. The so-called ‘pass laws’ that first appeared in the nineteenth century to limit and control the movement of black labour, were extended to require both male and female Africans to carry ‘reference books’ detailing among other things, employment record, marital status, taxes paid, and official place of residence—and failure to carry the ‘dompas’ eventually became a criminal offence punishable by a prison sentence. By 1970 not only Blacks but also Whites, Coloureds and Asians were issued with (though not all were obliged to carry) similar documents under the Population Registration Amendment Act. Even when it is possible to identify some people readily, by skin colour or other other visible characteristics, it is not easy to control them without controlling others.
Indeed. A classic case of how a perverse policy corrupts all that is around it. Once you criminalize movement, you criminalize employers, landlords, and schools who might wish to interact with immigrants. But Kukathas holds back from a more fundamental comparison. Both apartheid and border controls are essentially forms of social control aimed at outsiders. In apartheid, the division is racial. For border controls, it is both national and racial, in that the harshest regulations are aimed at low status ethnic groups (e.g., Mexican laborers are more likely to be raided than college students whose visas are expired).
My responses to the comments on my post about ethnography and journalism were getting way too long (apologies), so I thought I’d throw them into a separate post, and also encourage more people to chime in. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks, which brought up new issues from provocatively different vantage points. (If you haven’t read their comments, I’d encourage you to do so!)
I agree with @krippendorf’s comment that the use of anonymity can make it possible to exploit our respondents and twist their words, and that’s probably the biggest problem that my inner journalist has with this prevalent practice that ethnographers (myself included) engage in. (A caveat: there is clearly variation in how ethnographers do their work, as @olderwoman pointed out, which would even include the degree of anonymity we use. I’ll get into this more in a second.) At the same time, it’s interesting how journalism opens itself up to pernicious forms of exploitation of a different kind—what I think Janet Malcolm was getting at—in terms of using people and not considering more carefully the consequences of quoting them in a story. So it seems both fields have their own Achilles heels, and perhaps we just need to accept they go about things in different ways that are ethical on their own terms (though I do think that both fields can learn from the other and maybe find a happier middle ground).
Thomas Basbøll makes a good point that an ethnographer needs to be very cautious in making claims because of the inability in many cases to prove that what you wrote is, without a doubt, true. (Of course, in part that’s not even up to you, because of the ethical/IRB need or norm of protecting respondent identities that we’ve been talking about.) However, I do think one of the strengths of ethnography is its ability to stumble across unexpected situations or outcomes, which in turn can help refine or challenge our theories (with all the caveats that the sample is almost always small and unrepresentative, etc.). But those findings will naturally lead to skepticism because they don’t fit with people’s preconceptions—and, if they’re unflattering to certain people or groups, they may also lead to vicious pushback, however unwarranted it is.
As a former newspaper reporter, I would add that print journalism, as it is practiced from day to day, operates routinely with a pretty low standard of verifiability. Yes, sources often get recorded on tape or video, providing documentary evidence, but most of the time reporters are just writing things down in their spiral notebooks. They simply don’t have the time to do much else, given deadline constraints. Also, recording an interview changes the dynamic—encouraging the source to use her bland “on the record” voice—and journalists don’t want that. As a result, they typically reserve taping for remarks by politicians or other elites. But the result is that, in many stories, they quote people who then go on to say they were misquoted, and it becomes a he-said-she-said situation. (That happened to me once: a low-level government official made an off-the-cuff comment that he later regretted, and afterward started telling people I made up the quote. I called him and chewed him out for doing that, but there was no way for me to “prove” to other people he had lied because I hadn’t recorded him.) Nevertheless, this is something that happens more often than you’d think, and that’s because journalists (like ethnographers) are dealing with messy real-world constraints.
Now, to bring us back to that earlier point about variations in the practice of ethnography: it’s interesting how many different approaches you can find among the most ethical of ethnographers—all of whom, let’s stipulate, are trying to do right by both their respondents and their research. As @olderwoman pointed out, some people just use pseudonyms, some people change details (but only a little), and some people go all out and create composite characters. I can see the ethical rationale for all these approaches. (And in any case, I can’t imagine a room full of ethnographers could be forced to pick any one strategy as the professional best practice, even under pain of death.)
On the other hand, as one of the commenters in the Alex Golub piece that Thomas recommended wrote, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves that any of these strategies truly do protect our respondents’ confidentiality. Even if you create composites and change certain details, I think you’re still divulging a pattern of data that someone close to the respondent would recognize, and that person would therefore be able to figure out that their friend, etc., provided at least some of those details to the ethnographer.
Also, as another commenter discussed in the Golub piece, respondents are often disappointed to learn their real names won’t be published. When I was working as a journalist, I found that people would divulge sensitive details to me or other reporters—for example, about some trauma they’d experienced—and afterward they would tell us they were happy to see their name in print. It gave them a sense of validation to see their story out there and have other people know they actually experienced this. Sometimes, they were contacted afterward by people who related to their story or wanted to help them, and they said they were grateful for that opportunity.
Now, it’s also very true that many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully. And it goes without saying that sources—even nonelites—will exploit the fact that their real names are being used in order to profit from the attention in some way. For example, a few times I had the hunch that someone was telling me a sob story in order to garner sympathy and get donations from the newspaper’s readers.
I suppose my overall, personal stance on the conundrums we’ve been talking about is that it’s important to recognize the various ethical and practical tradeoffs of all these approaches—and not just the distinct practices of journalism and ethnography, but also the different ones used within each tradition. I know that’s wishy-washy of me, but life, as they say, is multivariate.
In August and September, the Open Borders group sponsored a contest for a No Deportation logo. Here is the winner, submitted by Stefan from Austria. You have permission to re-post it. If you are against deportations, forced refugee camps, and migration restriction, please feel free to use it in your Facebook account, Twitter feed or other media.