Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World, by Alex Sager

| September 2018
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Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World, Alex Sager (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 103 pp., $54.99 cloth.

Is there a fundamental right to international freedom of movement? Are national borders and restrictions on international migration legitimate, and if so what are their normative grounds? If states may admit migrants selectively, what are legitimate criteria for selection? These are the types of questions that preoccupy ethicists of migration and that have recently become the object of considerable scholarly attention.

But much of this scholarship is unsatisfactory, argues Alex Sager in his new book. The contemporary ethics of migration, Sager contends, occurs within a “methodologically nationalist” framework constituted of four presuppositions: (1) human life is normally static and migration is exceptional, “something to be undertaken only with great necessity” (p. 25); (2) states exercise unlimited sovereignty and control over immigration (p. 27); (3) political membership and community are “something that exist within state territories” (p. 28); and (4) borders are immutable and solely constituted by the territorial borders that surround states (p. 21–22).

These four assumptions are, however, problematic in that they oversimplify and obscure important realities. The assumption of stasis is, among other things, at odds with the fact that an amelioration of living conditions within a country results in residents being more, not less, inclined to migrate abroad; and the sovereignty assumption overlooks that states’ “sovereignty over the right to control immigration is always constrained” (p. 27), notably by international treaties and limits in states’ enforcement capacity. The equation between territorial presence and membership, meanwhile, “overlooks diaspora and other transnational connections” (p. 28). Finally, the view of borders as exclusively territorial ignores that borders are heterogeneous and can also take the form of, for example, border controls located in airports in foreign countries, visa verifications conducted by airlines, domestic identity checks, police raids, and detention centers.

Having delivered this broadside at the contemporary work in the ethics of migration, Sager proceeds to show that the methodologically nationalist framework is not inevitable. Drawing on empirically grounded social scientific work, he showcases a range of conceptual resources and empirical findings that can get one to think outside the methodically nationalist box. One example is work by sociologists showing that mobility is ubiquitous and integral to many social and economic phenomena; another is work in border studies that highlights borders’ ubiquity and heterogeneity, and their variegated impact on people depending on nationality, class, and race.

Also important are empirical findings that migration is in part caused by global economic developments that create opportunities in some places while destroying livelihoods in others; that many of the causes for international migration are the same as for domestic mobility; and, finally, that corporate actors as well as regional economic, historical, and social links (for example, formerly colonial ties) play important roles in causing and shaping migratory flows. An acknowledgement of these insights and concepts, Sager argues, has the potential to cause us to question several commonplace views in current normative thinking about migration.

The fact that migration is often a response to the destruction of economic livelihoods entails a blurring of the line between economic migrants and refugees, making it difficult to assign different claims and entitlements to the two categories. The fact that domestic and international migration have similar causal sources can likewise “challenge attempts to analyze their morality separately” (p. 62) and erode the often-asserted distinction between domestic and international restrictions on movement. And the fact that migration is in part caused and shaped by corporations as well as by historical, social, and economic structures suggests, finally, that moral assessments of migration and border regimes cannot proceed without regard to these factors, since valid assignments of responsibilities, duties, and entitlements must be sensitive to causality.

Having shown the way out of methodological nationalism, Sager lays out the foundation for a new and more adequate way to think normatively about mobility and borders. He contends that a proper ethics of migration should be organized around a “critical cosmopolitanism” that takes seriously the realities and complexities of migration and is committed to a moral cosmopolitanism that “insists on the equal moral worth of people” (p. 80). This equal moral worth should, further, be fleshed out with a capabilities approach that is attentive to “people’s freedom and wellbeing” and the ways these are structured by people’s “abilities, resources, and natural and social environments” (pp. 82–83). And this normative framework entails that migration ethicists must pay particular attention to the following set of key questions: “What ends do borders serve? Who is excluded? Why (and how) are they excluded?” (p. 80). Further, what is the role of borders “in assuring or denying people a reasonable set of capabilities? How do borders, territory, and mobility interact to determine people’s life chances? What alternatives are available . . . ?” (p. 86).

Sager’s identification of methodologically nationalist assumptions in current normative thinking about migration indicates an important trend in the literature, and represents a compelling analysis. His survey of social scientific work deserves praise, too, as it indeed opens new vistas and indicates realities to which it behooves normative theorists to pay attention. That said, Sager’s articulation of critical cosmopolitanism is less compelling, as it leaves open a number of important questions. For example, it is not specified what people’s equal moral worth entails for their capacities. Does it mean that everyone should have identical capabilities (this would seem implausible), or does it only imply that everyone should achieve a minimum threshold of capabilities (and, if so, which)?

Equally, one wonders about the exhortation that migration ethicists pay attention to the ends and goods that borders help to sustain, given that the potentially relevant goods receive no specification. Sager elaborates this point with the example of a safe house in Calais, France, where many undocumented migrants convene to cross the English Channel. The safe house, Sager reports, is closed to all male migrants, even highly vulnerable ones, thus installing a “border” that helps to create a safe space for women and children. But this example only shows that some goods necessitate exclusions; it does not clarify what goods national borders help to sustain.

Finally, there are few pointers as to what Sager’s critical cosmopolitanism implies for practice. Which particular aspects of current border regimes would such an approach criticize? Does it perhaps call for a redrawing of certain borders? Does it call for open borders? Here, the reader is left wanting.

In fairness, Sager acknowledges that these questions are not treated as carefully as they could be. The book, he explains, is only “a prelude to more substantive normative work in ethics and political philosophy” (p. 92). Still, it would have been helpful to have critical cosmopolitanism set out in more detail. And because Sager’s critique of the current ethics of migration is so compelling, one certainly wants to see—if not in the present work, then hopefully in a following contribution—how he proposes to reason about and assess specific legal and institutional practices, and how exactly this differs from and is superior to current approaches to the ethics of migration.

—Marcus Carlsen Häggrot

Marcus Carlsen Häggrot teaches political theory at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 32.3, Migration

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