Autonomy and Duties to Distant Strangers

By Varelius, Jukka | Trames, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Autonomy and Duties to Distant Strangers


Varelius, Jukka, Trames


1. Introduction

It is generally accepted that we have certain positive moral duties to other persons irrespective of whether they are our fellow citizens or citizens of even distant foreign countries. It is also widely believed that states may show more concern for their own citizens than to other persons. Granted that governments ought to pay attention to the moral duties all persons have to each other, it is morally acceptable that states prioritize their own citizens over foreigners.

One way of arguing for the position that states may prioritize their own citizens over others draws attention to the ways in which states limit their citizens' autonomy. States routinely coerce their citizens by enforcing a large set of laws by an apparatus of courts, prisons, and police. States tax their citizens, conscript their citizens for service in their armed forces, etc. This is incompatible with paying due respect for individual autonomy, this way of thinking proceeds, and therefore governments should compensate for the restrictions they impose on their citizens' autonomy by showing special concern for their own citizens (see, e.g. Blake 2002, and also Miller 1998).

This line of argument for governments' prioritizing their own citizens over foreigners has faced criticism in the recent philosophical literature. On the one hand, it has been argued that the morally justified restrictions states impose on persons' actions do not limit reasonable and moral persons' autonomy, that other kinds of autonomy are not significantly valuable, and that, therefore, there is no such reason for states to prioritize their citizens over strangers as the argument maintains there to be (Arneson 2005). On the other hand, it has been argued that in the globalizing world the kind of coercion that deserves to be compensated is not limited to the national context and, consequently, there is no sufficient reason to prioritize compatriots over foreigners, and that, even if we accepted that states should prioritize their own citizens, we still need to ask why coercive schemes deserving of compensation are imposed on this particular group of persons and not on another (Tan 2003).

In this paper, I will assess the question of whether states' prioritizing their own citizens over foreigners is morally acceptable by examining these two criticisms. I concentrate on states' showing special concern for their citizens when the foreigners of socially or spatially distant countries are worse off than their own citizens. These cases are morally the most problematic, have drawn the most attention in the discussion on duties to distant strangers, and if states may show special concern for their own citizens when the relevant group of foreigners is worse off than the citizens, they plausibly may also prioritize their own citizens when the foreigners are faring equally well (or better than) the citizens of the country in question. My argument presupposes merely an ordinal ordering of the relevant groups of persons in terms of how well they are faring.

Someone might argue that we cannot assess whether states' compensating for the limitations of autonomy they impose on their citizens can be justified without first knowing exactly what kind of compensation we are talking about. I however believe that the discussion here can proceed with an abstract and intuitive understanding of the nature of that compensation. This issue is reminiscent of the philosophical discussion on the justification of legal punishment. Whether punishing those who violate the law can be justified is discussed with the rough understanding of the kind of punishment at issue that it should be proportionate to the crime committed. But, to my knowledge, so far nobody has presented a clear account of what that proportionality means. It is indeed plausible that sentencing a person to twenty years in prison for a minor traffic violation is not justified, and that in that sense what the punishment in each case would be is relevant to determining whether legal punishment is morally justified.

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