The Philosophy of Borders, Immigration, and Refugees.

Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook 8

By Robert Hanna

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse

146. The philosophy of borders, immigration, and refugees. Everyone was agog this past summer about US-Mexico border-control and immigration issues, split families, and the Trump Administration’s blatant xenophobia.

But at the same time, as of 18 June 2018, a Gallup Poll showed that 45% of the American electorate currently approve of Trump’s Presidential job performance.

— No, sadly, that’s not a typo.

So, seemingly all those folks also believe, along with him — assuming that Trump actually believes anything he says or writes, that is — that locusts and plagues of so-called “illegal immigrants” from Mexico are, as he put it in his best dehumanizing turn of phrase on 19 June, are ready to “pour into and infest our Country”:

But meanwhile, only a few months ago, a Pixar/Disney animated feature called Coco, that celebrates Mexican culture and music, received wide critical acclaim and won two Oscars at the at the 2017 Academy Awards.

And, as Kelly Lytle Hernández’s most excellent 2010 book, Migra! A History of the US Border Patrol,[i] amply shows, for more than 100 years, southwestern agribusinesses in Texas, Arizona, and California have been systematically encouraging Mexican so-called “legal” immigration, for the sole purpose of exploiting their labor, while simultaneously the Texas Rangers, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, aka INS, now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, aka USCIS, under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aka ICE, have been systematically chasing, investigating, oppressing, detaining and imprisoning, expelling, or killing so-called “illegal” Mexican immigrants.

147. So what the hell is going on here?

What we need is a larger philosophical framework to put things into the proper perspective.

148. Human beings are political,[ii] or at least social, animals, and the States they create all have borders or walls.

In fact, as James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States clearly and distinctly shows, people lived in various kinds of nomadic or sedentary pre-State borderless/unwalled social communities for several millennia before the advent of the earliest States.[iii]

Moreover, as far as archaeologists and political anthropologists can now discern, the actual lives of these pre-State people were no more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, or short than the lives of those who were bundled and collected into the earliest States.

Indeed, since the bundling-and-collection of people and non-human animals into States almost inevitably produced deadly epidemics, the lives of those who were bordered and walled inside States was in fact generally much shorter than those of the pre-State peoples on the outside.[iv]

So “politics” in the sense of organized human communal or social life is a significantly wider concept than Statist or bordered/walled politics.

In fact, it is only Statists who call these pre-State, borderless/unwalled people “barbarians,” “brutes,” “primitives,” “savages,” etc., especially when they want to enslave them or steal their land.

149. Robert Frost famously wrote, “something there is, that doesn’t love a wall.”[v]

In a similar spirit, and perhaps equally famously, the British rock band Pink Floyd sang, “All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall. You’re just another brick in the wall.”[vi]

Correspondingly, human migration — the movement of people from their original homes to somewhere else, in order to live there — is a phenomenon that calls out for serious philosophizing.

Human migration includes political refugees, that is, people fleeing various kinds of coercion or persecution, across State borders, but it is a much larger category, since it also includes

(i) environmental refugees, that is, people fleeing disastrous climate change or other natural disasters, across State borders,

(ii) economic refugees, that is, people fleeing poverty, labor exploitation, or otherwise seeking economic betterment, across State borders,

(iii) internally displaced people, people fleeing coercion, persecution, disastrous climate change or other natural disasters, fleeing poverty, or seeking economic betterment inside States, and

(iv) nomads, people who simply want to move freely across the Earth and live in different places, whether inside States or across State borders.

In this connection, we should also never forget the crucial point that State-made borders and walls are created as much to keep their own people locked inside them, as they are to keep so-called barbarians/brutes/primitives/savages and other “foreigners” locked outside them.

The contemporary, real-world moral scandal and tragedy of millions of human lives lost or ruined while attempting human migration across State borders or inside States makes philosophizing about political borders and walls profoundly important and urgent.

150. “Okay,” [Rick] said, nodding. “Now consider this. You’re reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch.”[vii]

Tyrell: “Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris…”

Deckard: “We call it Voight-Kampff for short.”[viii]

151. By cultural conflict I mean the mutual antagonism that arises between groups of people with different skin color, different languages, different ethnicity, different religions or religious traditions, different gender, different sexuality, different age groups or generations, different social castes, different economic classes, different political parties, and so-on, or who simply live in different places from one another.

Such conflict ranges all the way from mutual distrust and insults, to mutual coercion including threats of violence or actual violence, to systematic mutual or one-way persecution including imprisonment, torture, and murder, to war, “ethnic cleansing,” mass murder, or genocide.

152. The very idea of cultural conflict, in any one of its instances, implies the existence of a centered group, Us, that is the agent and first participant in a given cultural conflict, and an external group, or set of groups, that is the target and second participant in that conflict, Them.

Let us call the agent-group, Our People, and the target-group or set of groups, Other People.

To the extent that Our People have Our own (relatively) unique political practices and policies, that set Us apart from Them, the Other People, these practices and policies jointly constitute an identity politics.

153. Now The Age of Trump is going to last at least another 2 years, perhaps 6 years.

Throughout the 2016 Presidential election campaign and especially since Trump’s election, the following highly disturbing cultural and and social fact has become vividly manifest.

On the one hand, we find President Trump’s Republican, nativist, racist, anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ, big capitalist, right-(neo)liberal, Know-Nothings,[ix] unified by their identity-politics.

And on the other hand, we find the Clinton(s)-Obama era Democratic, anti-nativist, anti-racist, pro-feminist, pro-LGBTQ, big capitalist, left-(neo)liberal, Social Justice Warriors,[x] unified by their identity-politics.

154. Indeed, the 2016 USA Presidential election was, at bottom, all about cultural conflict, as Mark Lilla’s controversial essay, “The End of Identity Liberalism,”[xi] clearly shows.

Trump’s Know-Nothings fear and hate foreigners, people with different skin color, people with different languages, people with different ethnicity, people with different religions or religious traditions, and people with different sexuality, and above all, they fear and hate the Clinton(s)-Obama era Social Justice Warriors.

And, in return, above all, the Clinton(s)-Obama era Social Justice Warriors fear and hate Trump’s Know-Nothings, which in turn is but a specific manifestation of a general problem with the identity politics of the Social Justice Warriors that John Gray, bang-on aptly, calls hyper-liberalism.[xii]

In short, there is fear and hatred everywhere in the contemporary USA, cultural conflict everywhere, and it is all fundamentally driven by identity politics, whether of the big capitalist (neo)liberal Republican right or the big capitalist (neo)liberal Democratic left.

155. Relatedly, the concept of intersectionality has been used by critical identitarians to stress the ways in which members of very different identity groups can suffer essentially the same kinds of oppression.

But as Kwame Anthony Appiah has rightly pointed out, intersectionality is in fact an implicit rejection of identity politics.[xiii]

For if intersectionality appeals to the ways in which very different kinds of people can all be oppressed in essentially the same ways, for essentially the same bad reasons, then, as autonomous individuals who possess human dignity and are worthy of respect, those oppressed people are also fully capable of thinking, speaking, and acting against oppression for themselves, in solidarity with other oppressed people of all kinds, without the need for any sort of of identity politics.

156. So identitarianism, whether of the right or of the left, is a moral and political dead letter, just as Lilla and Gray have argued.

157. Well, what is to be done?

As the perhaps surprising solution to the problem of cultural conflict, I am proposing 2-Phase Universal Open Borders, aka 2P-UOB:

Phase 1: Starting in 2021, there will be universal open borders with Canada and Mexico, and everyone who moves across those borders and then claims residence in the USA, will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the USA and elsewhere in the world.

Phase 2: Also starting in 2021, the USA, Canada, and Mexico will collectively form a Global Refugee Consortium (GRC), with three-way open borders to any political refugee, economic refugee, or asylum seeker from anywhere in the world (aka “global refugees”), who will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA, Canada, or Mexico, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the GRC and elsewhere in the world.

158. Here is an obvious objection to 2P-UOB, which I will call The Inevitability of Cultural Conflict:

Since people are by nature egoistic and mutually antagonistic, then whenever they group together and become an Us, they will naturally and inevitably engage in cultural conflict with Them, the Other People. So universal open borders with Canada and Mexico, or to global refugees, will never work, precisely because they would inevitably lead to even more and greater cultural conflicts than already exist, and perhaps even lead to war. Therefore, the USA should always have (more or less) closed borders to everyone, forever.

And here is my reply to that objection, in three parts.

159. First, it is simply empirically false either that all human beings are inherently egoistic and mutually antagonistic by nature or neurobiology, or that all human beings are even all-but-inevitably egoistic and mutually antangonistic by virtue of culture.

Moreover, the very belief that people are inherently or inevitably egoistic and mutually antagonistic, is nothing more and nothing less than a cognitive illusion and myth that directly serves the self-interests of big capitalist (neo)liberal Statists.

160. Second, as far as can be determined from the archaeological, historical, and social-anthropological evidence, cultural conflict exists, and has existed in varying degrees, from minor, to moderate, to major, to intense, all the way to catastrophic, near-satanically evil, holocaust levels, as long as States have existed.

Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, in his study of the earliest States, Against the Grain, J.C. Scott has pointed out that, in addition to a territorial monopoly on the power to coerce, a hierachical and stratified social structure, sedentary grain cultivation, taxation, and the emergence of writing for the purposes of making lists, walls, aka borders, make States.[xiv]

Therefore, it is entirely reasonable to hold that, conversely, States and walls, aka borders, make cultural conflict.

161. Third, and following on from the crucial thesis that cultural conflict is actually an artifact of Statism, it is self-evident that people are most inclined to cultural conflict with others, via their identity politics, when they are already very angry, anxious, bitter, frustrated, or frightened about other things, for whatever reasons — for example, poverty and economic oppression, being unemployed or having to do a shit job, the inaccessibility of higher education, or healthcare hell — and then they project those powerful negative emotions onto Other People.

In so doing, Our People thereby cognitively demonize and stigmatize the Other People, then actively fear and hate the Other People, or even, in the most extreme cases, cognitively de-humanize the Other People, by seeing them as wild beasts or vermin, or even as human garbage or human offal, fit only to be eliminated and exterminated.

162. Nevertheless, holding fixed the brute fact that we live in a world of States and State-like institutions, overt cultural conflict is generally a somewhat extreme, pathological situation, and very far being the normal situation between people in different cultural groups.

Of course, there are always some difficulties and tensions.

Consider, for example, the commonplace difficulties and tensions between men and women, or between older people and younger people, not to mention between the currently “hot button” and media-touted difficulties and tensions between people of different sexual orientations, or between cisgendered and transgendered people, etc., etc.

Nevertheless, it is not at all uncommon for sharply different cultural groups, even a multiplicity of sharply different cultural groups, to get along just fine, all things considered, to their mutual aid and benefit, with only the ordinary sorts of “human, all too human” problems, whenever the larger economic, social, and political backgrounds are appropriately supportive.

Real-world examples of this abound: happy marriages and other intimate partnerships, happy families, good camaraderie and friendships across even sharply different cultural groups, good working relationships across even sharply different cultural groups, and so-on.

Indeed, the city of Toronto, Canada, is an excellent real-world example of all of this.

163. I hasten to add that I am not saying that people are perfect, or somehow magically more than “human, all-too-human,” whether in Toronto, or anywhere else: far from it.

But the essential point is that people of even sharply different cultural groups inside both past and present States and State-like institutions really can and often do get along pretty well, provided that, whether by design or sheer luck, there is the right background-setting of sufficiently supportive economic, social, and political structures.

The amazing thing, then, is how often we forget or overlook this self-evident fact.

164. Therefore, the very best thing that could possibly be done in the face of cultural conflict in the USA is to create a two-phase UOB situation in which everyone in the USA, Canada, and Mexico is moving freely across borders between the three countries and living wherever they want to, global refugees are given universal safe-haven in the Global Refugee Consortium (GRC) consisting of the USA, Canada, and Mexico, and therefore people from all over the USA, Canada, Mexico, and global refugees from the rest of the world, can thereby all actually see each other, hear each other, and interact as neighbors, without wire fences, walls, or fear of any sort of persecution or violence.

165. What, then, is the genuine alternative to the cognitively illusory false dilemma that consists in our being seemingly compelled to choose between the identity politics of the big capitalist (neo)liberal Republican right on the one hand, and the identity politics of the big capitalist (neo)liberal Democratic left, on the other, tertium non datur?

166. In Philip K. Dick’s brilliant classic science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and again in Ridley Scott’s equally brilliant classic science-fiction film Blade Runner, it is philosophically highly insightful and significant that the Voight-Kampff test for telling human persons apart from “replicants” or androids, is an empathy test.

Indeed, the psychological capacity for empathy is an innate capacity of all human persons.[xv]

In turn, the essential key to understanding my perhaps surprising solution to the problem of cultural conflict, namely 2P-UOB, is what I call empathy politics, which is the diametric opposite of identity politics.

167. Frequently it is said that the alternative to the corrosive influence of identity politics, which emphasizes difference, exclusion, and exceptionalism, is a politics of commonality or universality, and shared interests and values.

That is true, but still too superficial.

What in fact lies at the ground of a politics of commonality and universality is treating all people in all and only the ways that express sufficient respect for human dignity.

168. In turn, what evokes and sustains respect for human dignity is the emotion of empathy: the ability to mirror and simulate inside oneself the consciousness or subjective experiences — especially including desires, feelings, and emotions — and, more generally, the subjectively-centered beliefs and perspectives, or worldviews, of other people.

169. This does not mean that you have to agree with other people, or even to like other people, particularly: all you have to do is to be able to empathize with them, and respect them.

Empathy is inherently outward-looking, not inward-looking, self-absorbed, navel-gazing, or narcissistic.

Empathetic people are naturally inclined towards generosity, graciousness, kindness, and tolerance, and, at a minimum, towards politeness, and not towards arrogance, callousness, cruelty, rudeness, or intolerance.

Creating and cultivating personal and cultural practices of empathy are therefore the moral and political antidote to the morally and politically poisonous and pathological influence of identity politics in States and State-like institutions.

170. Q: What do I mean by practices of empathy?

A: There are obviously many different ways of opening yourself to other minds, other languages, other nations, other traditions, and other ways of living and being human: studying their history, reading their literature, watching their movies, etc., etc.

But above all, what I mean is that we should all engage in frequent domestic and foreign travel, including actually living in many different places, all over the USA, Canada, Mexico, and the rest of the world.

In short, to that extent, and in effect, we should all become modern-day, cosmopolitan nomads.

171. We would thereby recapitulate the best aspects of the lives of the ancient, pastoral nomads tribes that (pre)historically preceded, and then surrounded, States and other State-like institutions — so invidiously and threateningly called “barbarians,” “primitives,” “savages,” and “uncivilized brutes” by early and later Statists (think, for example, of the sad and morally scandalous fates of the nomadic indigenous peoples of North America, South America, Africa, and the Antipodes) — without also suffering, of course, the many natural difficulties of human life more than 5200 years ago.

172. Then, once we are all modern-day, cosmopolitan nomads, and once all sorts of different people are actually our next door neighbors, then we will naturally and inevitably see how ordinary and pretty much similar everyone really is, everywhere, even despite their interesting differences, hence we will all be able to empathize with them and sufficiently respect them as real human persons with dignity, just like us.

But in order to make this modern-day, cosmopolitan nomadism really possible for most people, we need the two-phase UOB system.

173. To sum up, here are two individually excellent and conjointly decisive reasons for implementing all of these proposals, right now.

First, if two-phase UOB were not implemented starting in 2021, then most people living permanently in the USA would still suffer from cultural conflict and the institutional sociopathy of closed borders.

Second, therefore, under the system of two-phase UOB, cultural conflict in the USA and the institutional sociopathy of closed borders would be ended forever.

174. Finally, by way of wrapping up this set of notes, here are some further thoughts that in a sense I’ve already anticipated by way of my GRC proposal, about an intimately-related huge real-world problem that greatly concerns me: the global refugee crisis, especially including its recent and current manifestation in Europe.

175. All human persons, aka people, are

(i) absolutely intrinsically, non-denumerably infinitely valuable, beyond all possible economics, which means they have dignity,

(ii) autonomous rational animals, which means they can act freely for good reasons, and above all they are

(iii) morally obligated to respect each other and to be actively concerned for each other’s well-being and happiness, aka kindness, as well as their own well-being and happiness.

175. Because the Earth is a sphere, because planetary spheres are finite but unbounded spaces with no inherent edges or borders, and because all people live on our planetary sphere within essentially interconnecting surface-spaces, they must share this Earth with each other.

176. People are embodied conscious animals living in forward-directed time, and living in spaces whose inherent directions (right-left, etc.) are all centered on, and determined by, the first-persons embedded in those spaces.

177. In order to live, and in order to live well and be happy, people need to be able to occupy certain special spaces in which they eat, rest or work, sleep, have intimate emotional relationships and/or families, etc., aka homes, and also to move freely across the surface of the Earth, without having their dignity or autonomy violated, and without violating others’ dignity or autonomy.

178. By virtue of the spherical shape of the Earth, by virtue of their embodiment, but above all by virtue of their dignity and autonomy, all people inherently belong to a single universal cosmopolitan moral community, aka humanity, that transcends any political State.

179. By sharp contrast, everyone also accidentally belongs to one or more arbitrarily-established social institutions, nation-States, that occupy arbitrarily-divided areas of the Earth’s surface, and are ruled by special groups of people called governments, whose rule is enforced by police and armies.

180. The function of governments is to issue commands of various kinds, without regard to their specific moral content, justified instead by political authority, backed up by force or the threat of force, aka coercion, for the purpose of protecting various self-interests of certain people specifically enclosed, governed, and controlled by that nation-State, call them citizens.

Other people who live within these nation-states, and are also controlled by those States, but are not citizens of them, are foreigners.

181. The recent and current refugee crisis is, first, caused by authoritarian, wicked governments of certain contemporary nation-States, and also by certain brutal insurgencies, themselves wannabe nation-States, e.g. ISIS, that are violating the dignity of innocent citizens and innocent foreigners living within various States, mistreating them in various ways, and often torturing or murdering them, leading to massive migration of those oppressed people, in order to survive and in search of a better life.

182. This recent and current crisis is also, second, caused by the existence of arbitrarily-established borders between other contemporary nation-States, expressing highly restrictive government-imposed travel and immigration policies in those States, e.g., Hungary, including many States that are comparatively quite well-off, or even very rich, and also significantly less authoritarian and/or wicked.

183. But, by virtue of their dignity, autonomy, and essential embodiment, people need homes, and they need to be able to move freely, and they also need to be treated with kindness by others, most obviously by those who live in immediately adjoining nation-States, but also by everyone on the face of the Earth, even if they live very far away from those others, e.g., in North America, simply because everyone shares the same spherical space of the Earth and because they all inherently belong to humanity.

184. Therefore the citizens of all relatively well-off, and significantly less authoritarian and/or less wicked nation-States in the world, especially including those in continental Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom/British Isles, South America, and above all North America, should voluntarily do the following:

each local community, as determined by a reasonable cadastral map of that country, guaranteeing fair distribution, should raise enough money to support one entire family, or, say, 4–10 people, and re-locate them to a safe place somewhere on the Earth, where their dignity and autonomy are respected and where they are treated with kindness, including finding them homes and providing them with free health care, free education, including free higher education, a truly generous basic income, non-shit jobs, etc., and more generally, safe haven.

185. Ideally, the families or 4–10 people would be given safe haven in the particular local community that provides support for them.

Since each re-located group would contain no more than 10 people, it would not constitute an “invasion of foreigners,” and since all re-located people would receive a new home, and experience the special benefits of safe haven in that local community, they would be extremely unlikely to move in large numbers and high concentrations to areas that lacked these special benefit.

186. This in turn would remove one major psychological trigger of nativist, xenophobic thinking — e.g., Trump’s so-called “thinking” about locusts and plagues of illegal immigrants from Mexico who are ready to “pour into and infest our Country” — and also the irrational fear of Other-filled slums, the irrational fear of “District 9s.”

But more generally, everyone should do their best to recognize and suppress in themselves, and to recognize and criticize in others, the irrationally fearful thinking expressed by such all-too-familiar slogans as “Foreigners get out!”, “Vas y étrangères!”, and “Ausländer raus!”

187. Once relocated to their new homes in safe havens, the refugee foreigners would be permitted to become citizens of the nation-State in which they had their new homes. But otherwise they would also be permitted autonomous freedom of movement anywhere within that nation-State, and more generally across the surface of the Earth, without borders, provided that they also respected the dignity and autonomy of all other members of humanity, and were prepared to treat them with very same sort of kindness that they themselves had received.


[i] K.L. Hernández, Migra! A History of the US Border Patrol (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2010).

[ii] See Aristotle (1984), Book I, 1253a8.

[iii] (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2017).

[iv] Scott, Against the Grain, ch. 3.

[v] R. Frost, “Mending Wall,” in R. Frost, North of Boston (London: David Nutt, 1914), available online at URL = <>.

[vi] Pink Floyd (2018).

[vii] P.K. Dick, Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep? (New York: Ballantyne, 1968).

[viii] Blade Runner, directed by R. Scott, 1982.

[ix] See Wikipedia, “Know Nothing,” available online at URL = <>.

[x] See, for example, Wikipedia, “Social Justice Warrior,” available online at URL = <>.

[xi] M. Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times (20 November 2016), available online at URL = <>.

[xii] J. Gray, “The Problem of Hyper-Liberalism,” TLS (27 March 2018), available online at URL = <>.

[xiii] K.A. Appiah, “Go Ahead, Speak for Yourself,” New York Times (10 August 2018), available online at URL = <>.

[xiv] Scott, Against the Grain, p. 137.

[xv] See, for example, R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009); and M. Maiese, Embodiment, Emotion, and Cognition (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).


#7: The philosophy of old age.

#6: Faces, masks, personal identity, and Teshigahara.

#5: Processualism, organicism, and the two waves of the organicist revolution.

#4: Realistic idealism: ten theses about mind-dependence.

#3: Kant, universities, The Deep(er) State, and philosophy.

#2: When Merleau-Ponty Met The Whiteheadian Kripke Monster.

#1: Introductory; The rise and fall of Analytic philosophy; Cosmopolitanism and the real philosophy of the future; How to socialize the philosophy of mind.


W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 13 September 2018

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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