Three Arguments for Open Borders: Part III – Impartial Rights

What if you didn’t get to choose your parents? Well, I guess you didn’t. But, who you are born to will greatly dictate your life. Such luck seems incredibly unjust.


We have already explored two other arguments for open borders (the greatest good for the greatest number and libertarianism). We are now at our final argument – the argument from impartial rights. I ask for your patience; this one is a bit complex, but I believe it to be by far the most important, powerful, and profound.

John Rawls thought we should think of society as a group of people who want to cooperate for mutual advantage. To ask what justice requires is to ask what sort of hypothetical contract would free and equal persons agree to as the terms of cooperation. This is our tool for figuring out what justice demands.

But contracts are apt to be unfair in favoring one of the parties because of either ignorance or a superior bargaining position. That is why, when asking what contract we would agree to, we should imagine ourselves behind the “veil of ignorance.”

Behind this veil, we do not know who we will be in the hypothetical society – so we don’t know our race, wealth, health, intelligence, religion, gender, age, etc. We could be anyone in the society we create.

Behind the veil, we want to rationally get the best possible life for ourselves, but we also don’t know who we will turn out to be. This means that behind the veil, we would agree to some fair system that everyone could agree to, no matter who they turned out to be. We will make a system that is fair to all, even those who end up worse-off than others.

What we need to understand is the reason why it is important to be blind as to who we are.

If we think about it, much of what defines us is out of our control.

First, there is genetics, which will greatly determine our health, intelligence, beauty, strength, and all of our other natural traits. Well, we certainly don’t choose our genes.

Second, we don’t choose our parents. Whether they are wealthy or not, whether they raise us well or not, and whether they support our progress or abuse and attempt to destroy us is completely outside of our control.

Finally, there is the society we just happen to find ourselves in. Are we a oppressed minority? Do we have an opportunity for a good education? Does society value our talents? The world we find ourselves in, and how it treats us because of our various characteristics, is obviously outside of our control.

Yet, all three of these things dramatically affect how our lives turn out. This is why, when asking what is fair, we need to think about our lives from any possible position within a society because it is greatly out of our control where in the society we will end up.

As Rawls explained, while life is not fair, justice should be.

Now, when thinking about immigration from behind the veil of ignorance, would we support the system of border control we use now?

Well, we can first ask about chance of not doing so well in the world we create. In our world as it is today: you have a 10% chance of being illiterate, a 28% chance of suffering from malnutrition, and a 42% chance of being forced to live on less than $2.50 a day . These are only a few possibilities. There are plenty of war-torn, gang-infested, corrupt, decaying countries around the globe. Some of us, through no fault of our own, will be unlucky enough to live our entire (often short) lives in extremely terrible conditions.

Behind the veil of ignorance, and just looking out for ourselves, and especially considering the above risks, we would want to have some system where those living in such abject poverty and fear will be able to escape their current condition. We would demand, if not open borders, certainly the ability to leave such terrible countries that we were unlucky enough to be born into.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we would necessarily get to go wherever we wanted, nor that countries could just open borders completely – if this were so, many countries’ economies would likely be overrun, hurting the lives not only of their citizens, but of the future immigrants who would have benefited from these countries flourishing.

We would also want to avoid a situation in which the poorest of the poor, who could not leave their homelands, would be the only ones left behind to suffer through the crumbling of their nation.

Nonetheless, if we were to sign some contract for society, not knowing who we would be, there would have to be something close to open borders, and certainly a right to move to some country where we had significantly better life prospects, just in case we ended up in a country where we couldn’t feed our children, let alone ourselves.

We would demand a right of freedom of movement. Having discovered this through Rawls’ fair procedure, it would seem that such a right is demanded by justice.  It is simply unfair for people to live terrible lives through absolutely no fault of their own, especially when their lives could be greatly and easily improved by just allowing them to immigrate.

Again, life is often not fair, but justice should be.

We have now examined three arguments for open borders: the greatest good for the greatest number, libertarianism, and Rawlsian impartial rights. In my next piece, I will put all three together to see just what conclusions we can draw.

But, if you have followed all three arguments, it should already be quite obvious that justifying our current border control practice is much more difficult that most of us assume.