When Ethical Considerations Are Murky, Let Democracy Work

By Lawrence Harrison
Volume 8, Number 1 (Fall 1997)
Issue theme: "Carrying capacity and caring capacity: are they at odds?"

The accompanying review of a special issue of the International Migration Review that addresses ethics, migration, and global stewardship should make one point crystal clear when we try to apply ethical considerations to migration and immi-gration issues, the result is murky in the extreme. Ethical currents collide with one another. Those whose first allegiance is to humankind everywhere are likely to advocate less restrictive immigration policies. Those whose first allegiance is to human beings in their own society are likely to advocate a more restrictive approach, because open policies inevitably lead to costs for the receiving society, and, in the case of the United States at least, costs that are often paid by the less affluent.

Which position is more ethical? I can't answer that question to my own satisfaction. I clearly fall into the latter group. I might consider myself more practical, more pragmatic, than those whose primary concerns are more universal than my own. But my ethical system is different from their ethical system, and my priorities are different from their priorities. Does that make me right and more moral? Is their position more moral than mine? My answer to both questions is, "I can't be sure." There is moral validity, sanctified by the scriptures and by revered philosophers, to both positions.

In addition to my concerns about the problems of poor citizens, most of whom are Hispanic and black, I also have concerns about divisions in our society along racial and ethnic fault lines - concerns that are intensified by recent immigration volume and social and geographic patterns. And I have a further concern born of my many years of aid work in Latin America I believe that most of Latin America's problems are the consequence of traditional cultural values and attitudes that are obstacles to progress. The possible perpetuation of those values and attitudes by what will soon become our largest minority is a source of real concern to me.

Other Americans may consider my concerns either unfounded, or wrong, or racist and xenophobic. We have a profound disagreement. Can we find our way out of the disagreement by a debate of moral considerations? As the special issue of the International Migration Review makes clear, we probably can't. Nor can we leave the solution to those - mostly clergy and scholars - who may claim higher ethical sensibilities than the rest of us. They, too, are often in disagreement on these same issues.

When people in a democracy are unable to develop a satisfactory consensus in the face of controversy, they resort to the instruments available to citizens in such societies they associate with those who are like-minded; they disseminate their views through the media; they debate with those who see things differently; they communicate with their elected representatives; and they vote. I know of no other way for a society to deal with issues that defy moral consensus.

Let the people decide on the levels and composition of immigration. Let democracy work.

Lawrence Harrison

Guest Editor

[Lawrence Harrison is the author of Pan-American Dream (1997), Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success (1992), and Underdevelopment Is A State of Mind (1985), all of which were written while he was a visiting scholar at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He directed five missions in Latin America for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) between 1965 and 1981. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Central American Business Administration Institute which is headquartered in Costa Rica. Mr. Harrison's books are all available from The Social Contract Press by calling toll free, 1-800-352-4843.]