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The Public Philosopher: Prof Michael Sandel on immigration in Texas

Tuesday 23 October 2012, 09:37

Paula McDonnell Paula McDonnell

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Editors note: You can hear The Public Philosopher on Radio 4 at 9am on 23 and 30 Oct and 6 Nov 2012. Here, Mukul Devichand who worked on the programme with Professor Sandel talks about the issues raised in the first programme. PMcD

Michael Sandel, Harvard political philosopher presents The Public Philosopher on Radio 4.

If you think Texans attitude towards illegal immigrants is simple - lock 'em up and shut the borders - the first programme in a new series of Radio 4's The Public Philosopher may surprise you.

With the US presidential vote around the corner, we took Harvard political philosopher Prof Michael Sandel to the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas to ask a public audience: how far should an open society go in accepting outsiders?

In other words, what's the moral case for and against immigration, and to what extent should illegal immigrants be punished?

These are tough issues in Britain but in Texas, which borders Mexico, the issue has a unique resonance.

Over a million "undocumented" people, who have crossed the US border illegally, live in the state and across the United States there are an estimated 11.5 million such people - many from Latin America.

That led us to the first moral issue addressed in the programme: now that they are in the USA, what should be done about this huge population living in the shadow of the law?

In particular, what is the right moral attitude towards the children of illegal immigrants, who were brought to America when they were very young?

Some argued that it was their parents, not them, who broke the law - so does that give them a moral right to become US citizens?

One passionate speaker told Prof Sandel it was a double standard for other law abiding Americans to have to tolerate illegal acts - even if the children were not to blame. Then, she revealed that she herself was a (legal) immigrant.

But another young woman - herself the child of an "undocumented" worker - said that her own hard work and contribution to American society gave her a moral right to citizenship.

The future for the children of illegal immigrants is a hot political issue in the US election. The scale of the issue - and the fact that Hispanic Americans are an increasingly important source of votes - meant Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered their own solutions in their second televised debate last week.

But our approach in this programme was different because it addressed morality, as well as politics. In turn, Prof Sandel encouraged the audience to pull back and ask some difficult, prior, questions:

  • Is it morally legitimate to have any border controls at all?
  • If yes, should they be based on economics - on the skills a country needs - or an idea of shared citizenship, culture and values?
  • If immigration policy is dictated by economics alone, what does that tell us about the political community we create?

Immigration, argues Professor Sandel, is so passionately debated precisely because it lays bare our idea of citizenship political community.

Therefore, to form a view, Americans - and anyone else debating immigration - have to ask what values they, as a nation, really stand for?

Mukul Devichand is a Senior Broadcast Journalist in News and Current Affairs, Radio

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    AfA @20 posted in error)

    Programme & Comments, much appreciated

    But, to be blunt:

    No end to lists of aspirations 'in piety'

    No end to conflict of interest without agreed equality

    No agreement on equality without understanding

    Any here thought of freedom to live 'in conscience'?

    Able to have 'rational trust', to build together?

    Would you be 'last to agree', rather to claim a throne?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    John Steinbeck said that the things we admire in people (actually I think he said 'men'): kindness, generosity & understanding are the concomitants of failure in our system. The traits we detest: meanness, self-interest & greed are the marks of success. While people admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

    The American Dream was founded on rapaciousness, meanness & self-interest, the exploitation of the land and its native people. The dream was the native Americans' nightmare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    michael allen @22
    In unfair fight…
    Not the American Dream

    Ever more clearly - 'extremes of behaviour', achievement & criminality, correlating with factors such as home background, nutrition, education, brain-scans showing 'damage, deviation, or deficit' - we come to face OUR need NOT to be divided by the differences that we inherit, carry and might need, SERVING our adaptability in not just family-life, in teams and nations, but - as we hope - in our stewardship of the Earth, for generations and perhaps aeons to come.

    To 'pull together', to survive and 'bounce back' as President Obama envisages, we have to trust each other with 'belonging', with equal partnership, a status to be lost only from 'established' laziness or criminality.

    To agree such partnership, to be able to win each new generation for democratic self-rule, we all have to understand - albeit in our own ways - the argument for equality.

    From whatever mix of emotion and reason, of care and calculation, of knowledge and imagination, to prosper free from corrupting conflict of interest, we have to know 'our enlightened self-interest' in sharing the shareable, all of us then at liberty 'to be ourselves'.

    Using our own time and energy, our own shares of 'market command', and our own preferences, we do not need - and cannot afford - inequality of 'command over each other'.

    Perhaps always, at the extremes of psychotic illness or of psycho-sociopathy, some will need special help, and for a few - at least at times - 'detention in care'. We owe no mystical 'moral obligation' to give the voices of the Ayn Rand antisocial any more than 'instructive mention', in our education and adult discourse.

    I ask, again, any thought here on freedom to live 'in conscience'?

    Would you - all others agreed - reject equality?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    None of those interviewed stated that there were 46 million Americans living below the poverty line, with over 20% of American children living in poverty. Further the US unemployment rate is about 8%. America should sort its internal problems out before it considers allowing illegal immigrants US citizenship, or allowing unskilled people to enter the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Caught the broadcast en route thro' fog and mist nd, as usual was delighted with the articuly of most speakers - particularly students. The first blog really covers my comment /question 'And where do yoy think yor forbears came? and did they ask the native Indians if they wanted 'immigrants' Those immigrants/settlers were all from comunities with religious/political persecution or sent by (reedy) governments anxious to add more territory and wealth from (unexplored) lands without so much as a by yiour leave! American citizens please emember this and that it is not YOUR country. so sad that there is so much intolerance and bigotry in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I was going to make the very first comment or similar. The notion that we have rights or entitlements and can exclude others from these is so short sighted. We can have rights but not many folk seem to have notions of responsibilities. If it was ok and possible for everyone to have 6 kids then problems with immigration and resource shortages would be rather worse. Ok we are where we are. Then have a responsible policy to limit population, stop at 2 kids and allow limited immigration for those who do the same. Prices are going up, natural resources are deleted and degraded and the climate is changing.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    As mentioned by other posters, possibly the greatest value of this debate is showing the value of gentle, but firm, Socratic questioning. Done well, this helps participants unpack their beliefs and show the depth and quality of their reasoning.

    I, for one, would pay good money to see Michael Sandel moderate a couple of sessions of Prime Minister's Questions.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The 3 pillars of the European Union are: democracy; human rights; the rule of law.
    Yet millions of people are in the EU illegally. (About a million in Britain alone.)
    For decades "sans papiers" (with rare exceptions, all young men) have been heading for France's Channel ports in order to get to England.
    The French don't deport them.
    If you take away 1 pillar....

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I hope this comment and my previous one (no. 27) will be accepted.
    Thanks, Jeremy Passmore

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The BBC blogosphere has suffered limitation of comments to a pitiful 400-characters, the comment facility is subject to 'unaccountable breakdowns', and in the wake of Peter Rippon's elegant 'attempt to take responsibility' we see BBC personalities falling over each other to supply tabloid-patrician diversion of perspective.

    Must we wait for Professor Sandel to try to hold-up the mirror of moral philosophy for us, again? Or might salvation come from Lord Leveson?

    To seek 'state control' of 'press standards' in a society that is captive to money, its law-makers, judges, 'owners', reporters and audiences all trapped under Fear & Greed, in the service of Money-Advantage, is to prepare the way for deeper servitude.

    Failing to understand, explain and clearly commend universal liberty, the rule of conscience, our advocates of 'statutory regulation' and our defenders of 'press freedom' all must be counted possessed, either of a naive ignorance or of a faithless cowardice, to accept as 'right' or 'best' continuance of a regime that has sold 'human nature' as damned.

    On the subject of selfish folly, I think it was St Eric Pickles who thought that St Thomas Jefferson might have said the 'river of a free press' had to 'flow without restriction': no stronger advocacy of Equal Democracy than that even inadvertently from one enduring office at high-rank.

    Under tyranny, we all are to some extent victims, all to some extent 'Quisling of Mammon'. For all, the remedy is universal liberty, not self-righteous vigour in scapegoating, and not vain pursuit of an after-the-fact 'independent scrutiny'.

    Today's debate risks being no more than symptomatic, one more reflection of money-corruption society-wide.

    If there is no call for the rule of conscience, the Leveson Inquiry will be but one more foot-note in a tragic history, our tempting of Fate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    My comment no. 27 was on the same topic as Prof. Sandel's debate: immigration.
    It is to be deplored if the BBC denies me freedom of speech concerning this important issue, stifling debate.
    I did not use bad language (though the BBC often allows offensive bad language).


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