Respect for Outsiders? Respect for the Law? the Moral Evaluation of High-Scale Issues by Us Immigration Officers [*]

Article excerpt

High-scale morality is the study of moral ideas and sentiments deployed in relations that encompass multiple, geographically or socially distant populaces. The envisioning of distant people, their attributed moral personhood, the evaluation of their perceived behaviour, and the rectification of wrongs through the use of powerful organizations are key topics in high-scale morality. High-scale morality differs from existing anthropological approaches that emphasize local ethnography or contrastive moral ideas; it addresses the moralization of issues like world hunger, the drug trade, or international migration. The officers of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service understand and evaluate legal and illegal immigrants, as well as directly enacting moral rectification for the US polity. As they resolve moral dilemmas on their job, they utilize pervasive models for moral thought and action in capitalist, individualist, stratified, and bureaucratized societies. The article finishes by considering directions in which anthropology can contribute to understanding the moral dimension of global issues.

When anthropologists address moralities, their main concern is contrasting cultural differences between cases; I hold that an equally promising focus is moralities deployed in relations that encompass multiple populaces. Moral ideas shape people's understanding of social information and motivate, often strongly, their personal and collective responses to other people. Throughout history, social groupings have held morally loaded opinions of each other, a tendency reinforced in the capitalist world system, where segmentation, mobility, and reformulation make for new clusters of people in novel encounters, often poorly understood but highly moralized. Flows and institutions link personal fates across the globe. A characteristic example is the sentimental outpourings of charity in cases of famine and disaster after information is obtained through the mass media (Benthall 1993). Perhaps moral compasses are, with greater information and the spread of global ideologies, becoming more expansive. But even when long-r ange connections are ignored or misunderstood, morally motivated action on that which is perceived at a distance has important consequences because of the technical capacity of contemporary organizations, whether in dropping bombs or shipping seeds. For short, I term these topics 'high-scale morality'. They are high-scale not only in that they sometimes involve 'big' issues but that diverse peoples' moralities are inextricably implicated in each other's affairs, offering in that complexity and relationship an outstanding opportunity for anthropological learning.

Morality perhaps defies cross-cultural definition, but some elements appear to be widespread. It involves evaluative statements about people and conditions in the world. It also involves the imaginative distribution of empathy It is 'imaginative' in two senses: imagined participation in the situation of others, empathy in the strict sense, and imagined construal of who those others are. Involvement in others' affairs channels outwards the impulse to evaluate: this group's conduct is wrong, this other group's conduct excusable. Finally, bound with evaluation, morality motivates prescriptive impulses. If something is wrong, one ought somehow to rectify the immorality.

Rectification in particular demands attention, because it connects moral ideas to moralizing action. Parkin (1985: 3-4) observes that social scientists often derive moral ideas from the social structure, but moral ideas likewise induce action to 'do the right thing' and hence undergird ongoing social relations. Some moral action simply affirms existing social arrangements, but, in rectification, action is intended to change the social situation, of oneself or of others, to conform with moral ideals. In high-scale morality, the active impulse intersects with the unequal distribution of power. …