Archive for the ‘Population’ Category


Open the Border

June 6, 2010

My philosophy colleague, Mike Huemer, has an op-ed in the Daily Camera. I’m sure it will stir up all sorts of nuttiness.

According to government estimates, 11 million people presently reside in the United States illegally. This number is up 27 percent since 2000. What should be done about this apparent problem? Demands that the government “secure the border” are increasingly prominent, with many calling on other states to follow Arizona`s lead.

I have a different proposal: America should open the border, and grant amnesty to the 11 million undocumented residents. My argument is not that immigration benefits America, though that is true. My argument is that U.S. immigration policy is fundamentally unjust. It disregards the rights and interests of other human beings, merely because those persons were born in another country. It coercively imposes clear and serious harms on some people, for the sake of relatively minor or dubious benefits for others who happened to have been born in the right geographical area. The question Americans should be asking is not “What is best for current citizens?” but “What right do we have to exclude others from the same freedom and opportunity that we were given by an accident of birth?”

My premises are simple. First: it is wrong to knowingly impose severe harms on others, by force, without having a good reason for doing so. This principle holds regardless of where one`s victims were born or presently reside.

Second, the U.S. government, in restricting immigration, knowingly and coercively imposes severe harms on millions of human beings. Consider a simple analogy. Marvin is desperately hungry and plans to travel to a nearby marketplace to buy food. Sam intentionally stops Marvin and coercively prevents him from reaching the marketplace, knowing that this will prevent Marvin from obtaining food. Sam did not cause Marvin to be hungry to begin with. But when he coercively intervenes to stop Marvin from obtaining food, Sam becomes responsible for what results. If Marvin dies of starvation, Sam will be responsible for the death.

That is the behavior of the U.S. government. The government hires armed guards to stop people from crossing the border, and to forcibly expel those who are found residing in the country without permission. The U.S. government knows, when it does this, that many of these would-be immigrants will suffer severe poverty, oppression, and greatly diminished life prospects as a result. The government is therefore responsible for these consequences, just as Sam would be responsible for Marvin`s starvation.

Third, the U.S. government has no good reason for imposing such harms on potential immigrants. Immigration restrictions are typically defended by the claim that immigrants “steal American jobs” or dilute American culture. Now consider this analogy. After stopping Marvin from reaching the marketplace and thus causing Marvin to starve, suppose that Sam tries to defend his action by saying that it was necessary to prevent Marvin from competing with other buyers in the marketplace and thus driving up the price of bread. Or suppose Sam argues that his action was justified because Marvin has a different culture from most of the people already in the marketplace. Surely these justifications would not succeed. The desire to limit marketplace competition or cultural influence is not normally an adequate reason for coercively imposing serious harms on other people.

From these three premises, it follows that U.S. immigration policy is morally wrong. This typically goes unnoticed in the immigration debate, because most Americans are prejudiced against foreigners, in the same way that we were once prejudiced against blacks. No one today would dream of arguing that the government should stop white people from hiring blacks, so that blacks don`t “steal white jobs.” But we are not bothered by the prejudice displayed in arguing that the government needs to stop Americans from hiring foreign-born people so that the foreign-born don`t “steal American jobs.” This can only be because prejudice based on nationality has outlived prejudice based on race. But neither attitude is morally defensible.

Michael Huemer is a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado.


Population Policy

May 19, 2010

Just had a paper come out in Public Health Ethics on autonomy in population policy. I co-authored this one with my dear sis. I won’t comment much on the paper itself. You can head there and read it if you feel so inclined.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the new free access policy of Oxford Journals. Rather than sending authors paper proofs, they send a link to a free version of the article and encourage the authors to publicize it on their websites. Here’s what they say:

You may wish to include these links in your list of publications. As with an offprint, following these links allows interested readers free access to the full text of your paper whether or not they are a subscriber to the journal. However, in distributing the link, we request that you consider the following points:

• The article should only be viewed from the Oxford Journals site, and not hosted by your own personal/institutional web site or that of other third parties, though you or your co-authors may post the URLs on your own sites or those of your institutions/organizations;

• Single copies of the article can be printed and distributed to interested colleagues who wish to use the article for personal research/study purposes only. For those wishing to make commercial use of the article, please direct them to for permissions information or see the website.

Now this is a policy that I can certainly stand behind. It’s very nice of them. I suppose the thinking is that, in the end, it’s good for authors to promote their own work, and if a given author happens to have a website, and if some interested reader suddenly takes interest in the work of that author, it’s better for the journal to grant access to the reader who has just discovered the author — on grounds that it will raise the profile of the journal — rather than doing a wide search on journals to which the reader only may or may not have access. Pretty cool. Go Oxford!



April 22, 2010

My sister and I have another publication out, this time on treating the sources of sleep problems.

Oh, sure, I know what you’re going to say: What? You don’t work on sleep. You work on environmental ethics.

True, that. But I’m a versatile cat, dig? A veritable renaissance philosopher.

Here’s the back story on my philosophy of sleep stuff. A lot of my research focuses on freedom, autonomy, and obligations stemming from freedom and autonomy. Most of the time, to suss out obligations stemming from freedom and autonomy (as opposed to harms), I hone in on arguments without straightforward victims (as victims are commonly conceived). The environment ends up being a pretty good source of cases where nobody gets hurt in the traditional sense. So I employ cases in environmental ethics to challenge what I take to be the dominant view in applied ethics and public policy.

My sister, as it happens, doesn’t work in the environment. She’s a public health demographer and statistician whose primary body of research focuses on sleep. She has been working for a while on identifying social determinants of sleep, mirroring, in many respects, some of the work in the social determinants of health. She is also, as it happens, someone with whom I speak on a regular basis.

At any rate, we talk…and in talking, we talk about our research. The social determinants of health, as it further happens, has this peculiar non-empirical dimension that also spills over into the justice and political theory literature, which is really my domain.

And so, there’s one final piece of this puzzle: sleep is a very strange behavior. Unlike most behaviors that are, roughly speaking, behaviors that we choose — I choose to exercise or eat cake — sleep doesn’t admit of the same sort of analysis. Why not? Because it’s a non-experience good. I’m actually not even sure if it is a ‘good’ in the technical sense. We don’t choose to sleep in the same way that we choose other things in our lives. That observation about the peculiar nature of sleep, coupled with concerns about how such sleep-related choices, are all caught up in the picture of autonomy that we employ, as well as, ultimately, the relationship between autonomy and justice. Our obligations, I think, stem from our autonomy.

So you see, the thoughts are not as distant from one another as it first might seem.

Here’s the abstract:

Based on theoretical and empirical work, we argue that autonomy is likely an important underlying source of healthy sleep. The implication is that ‘treatment’ for sleep problems cannot be understood as an individual-level behavioral problem but must instead be addressed in concert with larger scale social factors that may be inhibiting high-quality sufficient sleep in large segments of the population. When sleep is understood as a proxy for health, the implications extend even further. Policies and interventions that facilitate the autonomy of individuals therefore may not only help reduce individual sleep problems but also have broader consequences for ameliorating social disparities in health.


Baby-Avoidance Carbon Credits

October 20, 2009

New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin unwittingly stirred up a blustery breath-storm in the steamy halitosis-swamp governed by right-wing bombast Rush Limbaugh when he asked, rhetorically, whether families should be compensated for not having babies. Media Matters has the full story. Among  those to cry foul, friend and colleague Tom Yulsman rightly takes Limbaugh to task.  Maybe I’ll do the same in a future post.  For now, on to more pressing matters.

In Revkin’s original dot earth blogpost, he poses a thought experiment. As a philosopher, I ♥ thought experiments. We philosophers eat thought experiments for breakfast, take them along with us as nutritional supplements, and frequently use them to cap off our long evenings. Unfortunately for Limbaugh, thought experiments require thought, which I think rules them off of his cognitive platter.  Here’s what Revkin has to say:

I recently raised the question of whether this means we’ll soon see a market in baby-avoidance carbon credits similar to efforts to sell  CO2 credits for avoiding deforestation.

Good question.  Rhetorical, but good.  The answer should be ‘no’ in both cases.  You do not get social props for doing something that you’re supposed to do anyway.  If you do something that you’re not supposed to do, you can get blamed, or get fined, or get in trouble, or have your eyeballs eaten out by fire ants, but nobody should be in the business of rewarding do-gooders for not behaving badly.  There are an infinite number of things that I could be doing right now, many of which are quite terrible.  It is moral insanity to suggest that somehow I should have legions of folks beating down my door to reward me for not doing them.  Revkin obviously knows this, which is why he poses the thought experiment in the first place.  (There may be other reasons he poses the thought experiment too, but I’ll ignore those for the time being.)

The notion of baby-avoidance carbon credits calls to mind the much more serious proposals that were a part of the once-electric regulatory takings debate, and particularly proposals to legislate fulfillment of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion.  This was all predicated on a similar sort of moral insanity.

Opportunity costs, like Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, are a theoretical construct.  We cannot trace out costs according to alternate possible universes when those possible universes branch out from our individual decisions; and, more importantly, we ought not to legislate as if we could.

It does make sense, however, to try to find ways to encourage people to have fewer children.  It is conceivable that, in a fit of political spinning, these ways might be characterized as credits, but as with all policy outcomes, the population reduction mechanisms could come in many forms, including straight incentives, draconian laws, or positive externalities associated with improved educational systems (for instance).