Interview: Joseph Carens on the Art of Theorizing, Open Borders, and Normative Practice.

Joseph Howard Carens is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His main research has been in the areas of immigration, multiculturalism, and market equality. He has also founded the course “Approaches to Political Theory” at the University of Toronto and remains drawn to methodological questions and challenges within the discipline of political theory. To find out more about Joe Carens’s engagements and publications, please visit his faculty profile. (Image: private source.)

Good evening, Joe. Great to see you. I would like to start this interview with your biography. You first studied theology before you switched over to political science at Yale. Is there anything you have learned in theology that has carried on in your personal life and work?

I was raised as a fairly conventional Catholic in the 1950s and decided not to become a priest at some point, but I was very religious growing up and went to a Catholic college rather than to a secular college. Because of these religious convictions, I then went on to study theology, but over the course of two or three years I lost my belief in God. It no longer made sense to me. I became interested in politics and stopped going to church. Years later, when I published my dissertation as a book, one of the people I had gone to this Catholic college with, who had himself become a priest, wrote a little comment in the class newsletter and said “Oh, Joe published this book which reflects the Catholic teaching on economics and social justice!” This had never occurred to me. When he said it, I thought “Oh my God, he is right!” I think that in various ways some aspects of that religious education, the kind of fundamental values I acquired, really stayed with me and shaped the way I think. Another way to put that is that I notice for some of my philosophical colleagues the idea of liberalism seems just self-evident to them, whereas I was born and raised in this very non-liberal tradition and so for me liberalism is not bred in the bone. I work in the liberal tradition and talk about liberal values. That reflects what I think, but it doesn’t seem to me self-evident that that’s the only possible way anybody could think. I don’t find other ways of being in the world alien in the same way that some of my liberal colleagues do.

More often than not you describe yourself as a theorist instead of a philosopher. Simultaneously, you have held a Professorship of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Having specialized in political theory at a political science department, how does training on a PhD in political theory differ from training on a PhD in political philosophy?

I think this is something that varies from one institution to another, but there are general patterns. Generally speaking, if you go into a philosophy program, you are likely to take courses in epistemology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. If you go into a political science program, you are likely to take courses in comparative politics and international relations. You will have to learn something about empirical approaches to studying the world. In philosophy, you won’t necessarily have to do that. Now whether that actually makes a difference to the kind of political philosophy or political theory people do varies from one person to the next. There are lots of people who go through a program in a political science department and get a political theory degree and do work that is indistinguishable from somebody who came out of a political philosophy program. Conversely, it is a little rarer, but not unheard-of, that people who go through a philosophy program may get drawn for one reason or another into empirical social science. If you had to make a generalization, it would be that the ones who go through a political science program might be on average more drawn to empirical social science and the ones who do philosophy more drawn to questions about metaphysics and epistemology, more abstract reasoning, and so on. But that is a generalization and you find variations across the board.

One of the things that is characteristic about training in political theory departments in North America is that you will almost surely be exposed to the history of Western political thought from Plato through to the present. Lots of philosophy departments don’t do that. They have courses in the history of philosophy, but those courses just aren’t as central to the project. Another difference is that most philosophy departments in North America and the UK do Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the tradition of Rawls. Political science departments are the ones where you are more likely to find continental thinkers, for example Foucauldians and Habermassians. There is more variety.

Can people learn to theorize? If so, what recommendations would you give to students of any academic discipline?

I certainly think that students can be taught to think theoretically by being exposed to theoretical writings that encourage them to question, reflect, and engage. Even though I work in what is called the analytic tradition in political philosophy, I don’t think that this approach is the only way to look at a problem. Whatever you do, you always need to pursue some particular line of inquiry in order to understand anything at any depth. So, you need some sort of discipline, some specific approach. But whatever approach you take to your inquiry, you will bracket certain things and your approach will make it hard to see certain things. There are many different forms of reflection and every form of reflection is limited. I would draw a comparison between doing philosophy and composing literature. There is not only one way to write a novel. Nobody would think that. You do not have to start at the beginning and then work your way through chronologically till the end. That is one way to tell a story. It is not the only way. When you do it some other way, you get to see certain things that you don’t see when you do it chronologically. It is the same for theorizing, even within philosophy. Some philosophers seem to think that there is only one way to make a philosophical argument. It has to have a certain logical structure. But that is just one way to engage in philosophy. There are many different ways of theorizing and different people are drawn to different kinds.

Let’s turn over to your work. You are most well-known for your case for open borders. When did you first become aware that borders ought to be open?

This really was an accident. I had published my dissertation and I got invited to a faculty seminar on citizenship at the American Political Science Association. The price of admission to the seminar was that you had to write a paper on citizenship. I just wanted to go to this seminar, though I honestly didn’t care about citizenship per se. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do, but I had to come up with a topic for a paper. This was 1979 and there were Haitians who were trying to move to the United States as refugees and who were being stopped and put in detention camps in Guantanamo Bay. So, the Haitians were in this desperate situation and the United States was saying: ‘No, you can’t come in!’ I found myself torn because on the one hand, I was very sympathetic to the Haitians and on the other hand, one of the concerns that some people had was this: ‘Look, if you let in the Haitians, what about the Dominicans and others? Why can you let in one needy group and not all the others?’ I didn’t know what I thought about that. I didn’t start out thinking ‘I am for open borders.’ I felt torn because on the one hand, I was sympathetic to the Haitians, but on the other hand, I was worried about what would happen to the least advantaged and worst-off in the US. It seemed to me that admitting every person in need would make it very difficult to sustain any kind of redistributive program to change the conditions of life for ordinary people at the bottom. So, I decided to think about this for my paper.

When you start a project, they always tell you: ‘Go and read the literature.’ But it turned out there wasn’t any literature on immigration admissions that I could find. Google didn’t exist at the time. Indeed, the internet didn’t exist at the time. So, I took the theories that people were widely using: Rawls, Nozick, and utilitarianism. I looked at what each of these traditions could say about this topic. When I started on this project, I didn’t know where the investigation would lead. It turned out that all of these traditions led to more or less the same conclusion: Open borders. That surprised and actually puzzled me. I can remember thinking: I wonder if the fact that these theories lead to such a counterintuitive view shows that there is something wrong with the way that these theories have been constructed. Anyway, that was how it emerged and, in the end, I decided that the open borders conclusion was correct and simply revealed the critical potential of liberal theories.

In your book The Ethics of Immigration, you accept the Westphalian state system as a starting point and argue why such a world would require open borders. From your vantage point, is another world in which open borders would not be a necessity even conceivable?

I certainly can imagine a world in which there are no independent states and the world is organized as a single global community. I don’t see why that is difficult to imagine. Is that what justice ultimately requires? I have not tried to explore that question, but I have no objection to others doing so. My own inclination would be to say that we should not try to create a completely homogeneous human race. I see nothing problematic in itself with groups of people having different languages and a sense of particular history, a distinctive culture, and an attachment to specific territories. Whether that requires independent states is another matter, however. The trouble is that if you start with that question and conclude that justice requires a global political community with free movement, the question of immigration disappears. So, if you want to think about whether justice requires open borders, you have to start by assuming the existence of states and borders, as I did in the book.

Similarly, if you want to think about some of the most important real-world problems relating to immigration, such as refugees and irregular migrants, you have to start not only with the assumption that there are states and borders, but also with the assumption that states are morally entitled to exercise considerable control over immigration. Refugees and irregular migrants wouldn’t be problems in a world in which people were free to move wherever they wanted. That is why I don’t start with some abstract ideal and move to the real. There are very important problems that emerge from the existing context and that you can explore effectively only by starting from the real and moving towards the more ideal.

Another related aspect is that most people are skeptical about open borders. That is why Donald Trump used to say ‘The Democrats are for open borders!’ Why did he say that? It was because he knew that if he could make voters think that the Democrats were for open borders, the voters would be opposed to the Democrats. That’s probably an accurate assumption about most people in Europe and North America. No conventional politician can be for open borders. It is unrealistic in terms of what people think. For many purposes, you want to be able to have conversations with people where they are. That is part of why I start – as I say – with the assumption that the world is divided into states and the assumption that those states have the right to control borders. But you don’t have to end in the place where you start. At the end of my book, I question the initial assumption that states are entitled to control immigration. I do not go so far as to interrogate whether the world should be divided into states at all, but – as I said at the outset – somebody could certainly do that and I would be happy to have them do it.

Clare Chambers, a colleague of yours from the University of Cambridge, has recently published a book on the marriage-free state. From a liberal-analytic perspective, she constructs the argument that the legal institution of marriage should not be recognized by the state any longer and puts forward proposals as to how interpersonal relationships should instead be regulated at the state level. Compared with your argument for open borders, the case for abandoning state recognition of marriage seems to be a similarly radical proposal. Most likely, most people would not subscribe to abandoning marriage just as they would not subscribe to opening state borders. Yet, it does not stop her from actively calling for abolishing marriage. How does her normative argument and policy proposal of marriage abolition align with your normative case for open borders?

There are lots of good reasons to criticize marriage and there is no question it has historically been a patriarchal institution. I am all for that kind of critique, but you do want to be thinking as well about the implications of marriage abolition for a range of policies. Maybe a reformed version of marriage would be imperfect, but nonetheless better than the alternatives. Could you imagine some plausible alternative to that arrangement that would be even better? That would be the question that I would ask. I am not opposed to writing a book like that, obviously, because I wrote a book arguing for open borders.

I should perhaps add that I am not so sure about the desirability of abolishing marriage. David Miller once wrote that my commitment to open borders shapes everything I think about immigration so that asking me about any immigration issue other than open borders would be like asking a person who is opposed to marriage about what should happen in a wedding ceremony. Why would you ask someone who doesn’t believe in marriage what to do when getting married? I was glad David asked that question and I responded like this: Imagine this situation. You are somebody who is in love and wants to get married, but you recognize that marriage has been a patriarchal institution and you want to avoid any taint of that in your marriage, including your wedding ceremony. So, you precisely want to talk to somebody who is tuned into the characteristics of the ways in which marriage has been a patriarchal, dominating, objectionable institution. You say to this person, “We want to find out how we can celebrate our intimacy and connection in the ceremony without bringing all this patriarchal baggage in. It is not always easy to differentiate these things, but that’s what we want to do.” It would be reasonable for somebody to say that you will never do it and you should just get rid of the institution. That is one solution. The parallel in my context is to get rid of the world being divided into independent states. Maybe there is no way to rescue this way of organizing human life. But maybe you have some hope that there is something to be said for being in a community with a history, a tradition, and an identity that doesn’t carry all the negative baggage of domination, exploitation, and control that the state system has had. Maybe we can have the good stuff without the bad stuff. It is worth thinking about that and what that would require. So, my ideal theory of open borders as opposed to no borders is sort of like good marriage as opposed to no marriage. That is a marriage that is not patriarchal and that doesn’t have all these negative features.

Whereas your good friend and counterpart David Miller follows an experimental-philosophical approach, you have a contextual approach to political theory. What are some of its advantages?

I read the interview with David about his experimental approach to political philosophy, but I don’t see his experimental approach playing any significant role in his writings on immigration. It may on some of the other topics he writes about. That is the first thing I would say. Secondly, although I do try to pay attention to context and that’s an important aspect of philosophical reflection, the arguments that I make about immigration aren’t for the most part contextual arguments. They are arguments at the level of principle. There is a complex relationship between these kinds of principled arguments and contextual arguments. To say that context matters, which I have explicitly defended in my work on multiculturalism, is not to say that any kind of context matters. I don’t think that context matters much for the question of whether states have a basic obligation to admit refugees. I am not saying that context never matters for this question, however. Germany has made an effort around refugees that is much greater than most European states. It traces that effort very explicitly to the history of Nazi Germany and sees that as a response to that history. That seems to me an appropriate moral concern. It is the recognition of a collective history, creating certain kinds of collective responsibility which should make Germany particularly open. That is an appropriate contextual argument. The other states should be more open to refugees than they are, but there is a particular claim in the case of Germany that deserves some weight.

In advocating closed borders, David Miller may contend that your approach is not as sensitive to the facts as his evidence-based approach. How would you respond to him?

I think I’d have a multi-level response to David. The first is a generic methodological response: When you construct an argument that depends upon empirical claims, one of the dangers for political theorists is that they will cherry-pick the evidence. They will pick evidence that supports a position that they really endorse on other grounds. One of the things that people ought to do if they are political philosophers, making normative arguments that depend on empirical claims, is to ask themselves this question: What if the evidence showed a different result? For example, David claims that the evidence shows that social trust declines when immigration exceeds a certain level. I would ask David: Suppose new evidence came out that showed that immigration didn’t erode social trust. Would it change your attitude on immigration? How tightly is your position on immigration tied to this particular empirical claim? You can find that out by assuming a different empirical outcome and seeing whether or not you would be prepared to change your conclusion based on that different empirical outcome.

The second is that the relevance of empirical evidence also depends on the argument you want to make. If the argument you want to make depends entirely on empirical claims, then you better master the empirical evidence. But some arguments and questions are more fact-sensitive than others. There are good reasons for political philosophers to take up questions that are highly fact-sensitive, but not all important questions have this character. Indeed, I think that David is exaggerating the degree to which his own arguments depend upon and are supported by empirical facts. Some of his arguments have that characteristic, but many do not. Most of the arguments I make about immigration are not highly fact-sensitive. I argue, for example, that people should have access to citizenship and should not have to pass a test when they have lived in the society for a certain number of years. Facts are not completely irrelevant to this issue, but my arguments for automatic access are not highly fact-sensitive.

Finally, I would say that sometimes it is important to be critical of the facts. Suppose that social trust does erode with more immigration, but the reason why that happens is because the immigrants are not white and the existing citizenry is racist. In that context, the erosion of social trust is a fact that one has to take into account in deciding how to act and what policies to pursue, but it is not a fact that we should simply accept as an inevitable feature of human life like, say, birth and death. There are some facts that we should simply accept and not try to change and others that we should criticize and find ways to challenge. Recognizing that difference is another way to be appropriately fact-sensitive.

Currently, you are working on a book about how to do political theory. To what extent do you think a political theorist should have an impact on society and provide normative guidance in periods of uncertainty, such as these?

The idea that I am writing a book on how to do political theory should always be followed by one of those smiley emoticons because I don’t think anyone should try to tell everyone else how to do political theory. My basic view is that there are lots of different ways to do political theory. I am trying to write about how I have done political theory and why I have done it my way, but I am not saying that this is how others ought to do political theory. I hope that my book will create a space within which other political theorists feel inclined to talk about their own approaches and what they see as advantages and limitations of those approaches. The central point is that the book that I am proposing to write is a personal, non-prescriptive book. In that sense, it is consciously at odds with the view that what theorists are supposed to do is to set forward some principles and deduce from them consequences for what one ought to do. From my perspective, that restraint also applies to this task of trying to do normative work that tells people what to do. I am trying to contribute to a conversation in which I help people to think and reflect more critically about the social world they live in. I certainly don’t want to be determining what other people do. I would like to persuade them to some degree, but I am not trying to dictate to others how to act. It is always important not just to say what is right in principle, but about what is possible in a given context. Overreaching can have negative consequences even if you are overreaching for good ends and good purposes. There is always a need to make a judgment about what will make things better and what will make things worse. I don’t think political philosophers have any claim to expertise about political judgment when it comes to the pursuit of this path rather than that path and its consequences. Some people may be very good at it and some may not, but making those sorts of assessments has nothing to do with political philosophy per se. We have skills in certain kinds of reasoning about principles and values, but we don’t have any special expertise that enables us to say what will happen in the world if we follow one path rather than another. In deciding how to act, that kind of knowledge is essential. If I were a politician who wanted to be actively involved in the policy world, making things better for immigrants, I would not announce that I was for open borders. Given popular attitudes, such an announcement would have negative consequences. I get to be a philosopher who can write a book without worrying about what most people will think about my defense of open borders. That argument inspires some activists and I am pleased about that, but no conventional politician would ever say: “Oh yeah, I read Carens’s book. I really like that!” That would be an invitation to getting smashed in ways that are predictable. On the other hand, I do hope that some of these politicians read my work (perhaps under the bedcovers at night) and come away with some ideas.

Joe, it was my very pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Thank you, too. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Interview: Christopher-David Preclik, Toronto 29.01.2021

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