The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Repugnance and Rationalization

Matt Zwolinski at Bleeding Heart Libertarians has a nice piece on the place of repugnance in many of our moral calculations. The basic idea is that when we try to defend certain positions with rational arguments, the arguments themselves end up being post hoc window dressing to rationalize basic assumptions or moral feelings. He gives the example of immigration. For example, it's argued that we don't want open immigration because immigrants will use up social services. But this doesn't make sense. First of all it's dubious empirically. But even if it's true, we could just allow immigrants to enter the country and opt out of expensive social services like health & education. And it proves too much, since it could be used to justify preventing poor people from having babies or preventing immigration across state borders. This isn't the only rationality one could use to prove that immigration is undesirable, but any justification one could propose falls into the same trap of not taking into account different ways immigration could be managed and justifying things not meant to be justified.

But the reason that people think that immigration is a bad idea is not because they've been convinced by rational arguments. It's just a feeling, that we try to dress up afterwards with some sort of rationality. People dislike immigrants due to racism or nationalism (they sully the purity of one's homeland) or simply a fear that they constitute some sort of vague threat (such as stealing jobs or promoting terrorism), and then they conclude that therefore immigration is bad. In other words they're against immigration due to some sort of feeling of repugnance, not any rational argument.

Admittedly, one is never going to be able to completely reduce any sort of moral preference or value decision down pure logic. At the base there has to be sort of judgment that just can't be justified. I think that open immigration is good because it brings greater freedom and opportunity to improve the immigrants wealth and well-being and I think it in no way undermines and perhaps even improves wealth in the country receiving the immigrants. Part of this argument is empirically testable (does open immigration make countries poorer or wealthier?), but part of this is an unjustifiable assumption: people deserve more freedom and opportunity to improve their conditions no matter where they're from; being born in one place shouldn't confer any exclusive privilege.

I think that people who argue against should be forthright in their basic assumptions. If they think immigration should be restricted because foreigners are repugnant, let them be open about it because then people can judge that basic assumption for what it is. If they think immigrants take our jobs, they need to admit that they're assuming that such jobs belong to those who, by pure luck, where born in the country where the jobs are, and they need to admit that they're argument is open to empirical refutation. Of course, they're not going to do that because it severely weakens their argument and exposes judgments that most people have a much harder time agreeing with.

Much of philosophy as well as political discourse is involved in this process of dressing up unquestioned assumptions in sophisticated rationalizations. Smart people are very good at it. But if we want to get at the arguments, we need to get down to these basic assumptions and judge them on their merits.

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