The Ethics of Immigration

Revised May 10, 2012



Maya Angelou said: "The needs of society determine its ethics." The current ethic in the world about immigration is that the state gets to decide who is a citizen and who can move into its territory. This site makes the radical claim that people should be able to decide where they live as long as they obey the reasonable laws of the place they choose.

Historically there was a good reason for sovereign states to restrict migration. There wasn't enough to feed everyone. The rules about who could join the group were written to maximize the number of new members that survived childhood. During times of shortage, which includes most of recorded history, not letting new people into the group was one of the ways to maximize the probability of children surviving. Less people to share with meant more for the people in the group and a probability of healthier offspring. This explains the historic rational root of xenophobia and why it became the ethic of most societies.

Fortunately this old reality is changing. We are, although it is sometimes hard to see, entering a period of worldwide surplus caused by decreasing birthrates and improved technologies and we are adjusting our ethics to this new reality. Test this thesis by applying it to women’s rights, gays and societies changing rules regarding birth control and reproductive rights. For instance two hundred years ago it was illegal to sell birth control of any type in most countries now, even though many religions still oppose their use, condoms are handed out as government policy in much of the world. This change happened because people wanted a better life and they saw that less babies was one path to that better life. They changed their ethics about birth control.


Societies that survive and thrive in the future will be those that change their ethics about immigration. The most successful groups will be those that work hard to attract and welcome immigrants. New immigrants create growth, they bring new ideas and introduce variety into everything from food to architecture. But in the same way that groups have resisted changing the other ethics mentioned above they resist immigration. Many people in our society are stuck with the old shortage mentality. The mentality that says that more people in our group means less for each of us. It is our task to help change this outdated mindset so that the good life we live can be shared by all of the world’s people.