Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Amnesties Aren't All Created Equal

"Amnesty" seems to be the big buzz word surrounding the immigration debate. No one wants to be accused of endorsing amnesty for illegal immigrants and politicians go through ridiculous verbal contortions in an effort to show that their proposals do not amount such an endorsement.

I take the motivation behind these efforts to be a desire to avoid the appearance of condoning illegal behavior. If we allow those who are in the country illegally to stay, and perhaps even become citizens, then we are in effect saying that what they did wasn't really wrong. Without sanctions, we're letting criminals get off easy and no one wants to admit to letting criminals get off easy.

(There are, of course, other issues involved in this debate. National security and more than a little xenophobia would seem to top the list. But if those were the only concerns driving the discussion, it isn't clear why there would be such an emphasis on amnesty. That specific focus thus seems to have a unique source and I'm positing that it is the worry that we are condoning things we shouldn't be condoning. I'm open to other suggestions.)

But at the risk of being trite, there's amnesty and then there's amnesty. We all acknowledge a distinction between actions that would be morally wrong even if they were not illegal and actions that are morally wrong (if they are) only because they are illegal. Murder is the clearest example of the former while underage drinking would probably be a good example of the latter. Our moral understanding of murder is not at all affected by our legal statutes. Rather, the statutes are a reflection of our understanding of the evil of murder. On the other hand, when a 19 year-old German drinks a beer in his home country, most of us probably aren't morally outraged.

Now amnesty for a murderer would certainly be something to be wary of since it could amount to excusing an act of profound evil. But while amnesty for an underage drinker may sometimes be unwise or imprudent, it can never amount to an excuse of the same kind of evil as amnesty for murderers. If it is immoral, it is only so because it violates laws we've chosen to enact.

The question is whether amnesty for illegal immigrants is more like amnesty for murder or amnesty for underage drinking--not necessarily in terms of their importance as matters of public policy but in terms of where we think that importance comes from: the laws we make to serve the prudential interests of the nation or the intrinsic wrongness of the action. Once this distinction is brought into view, maybe the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants won't be treated as such a morally troubling prospect.


Foolish Sage said...

I think you're on to something here. I would bring in another American characteristic: the strong need for a sense of "fair play." I ran across this all the time in my travels in Europe and Africa. People in other parts of the world are consistently bemused or even befuddled by two uniquely American characteristics: our need to be happy all the time, and our desire that everyone play fair.

In other cultures I've encountered, the latter concern, while voiced as legitimate, is practiced in more nuanced ways. People seem more willing to accept that life isn't always fair, and that "fair shakes" should not be expected or demanded. Sometimes situations dictate that it is wisest to let someone "get away with" something (as long as it isn't patently evil) for a greater good to be accomplished.

I would submit that Americans (in general) have a very hard time with such nuance. We are taught in our education system from kindergarten on up that everything must always be "fair." Our cultural myths (take Westerns for example) are all built around this sense of the ultimate triumph of fair play.

I think this may be an aspect of what you are saying above, that Americans can't hear the wisdom of some type of honesty because the fair play violation buzzer is sounding too loudly in their heads.

cory said...

Mr. Sage,

Interesting idea. My question is, "What is the alternative to 'fair play'?" You speak of this "obsession" as something irrational or misguided. America is registering really low of my Great-o-meter at the moment, but I still think that our commitment to fairness could be something that redeems some of our less favorable pursuits, e.g. wealth and conquest. In fact, I think we are not obsessed enough with fairness in terms of economic equity and even post-9/11 encroachments on our civil liberties. Didn't obsessions with fairness help to end slavery and propel forward various equality movements?

Maybe I'm missing your point, but I think another label would be more appropriate. What about our endless capacity to be offended? Or our crippling self-absorption? As a history teacher, I think this is just plain old nativism cyclically rearing its ugly head.


AJK said...

I had a different take on Mark's (the Sage's) point about fairness and that is that it amounts to an emphasis on "the rules": we have to enforce them and abide by them or all hell will break loose. Through this lens, justice and morality are thus seen largely as a matter of "playing by the rules."

But (and this is a response to the view, not Mark's suggestion that it characterizes the thought of many who are concerned with amnesty) that emphasis just seems plain wrong. We have rules (laws) because they conduce to ends that we value independently of those rules. The rules, by themselves, are unimportant. And so when we exalt playing by the rules to an undue degree, then we run the risk of distorting the values that give the rules their sense.

I think something like this is happening in the immigration debate. We have immigration laws for prudential reasons, rather than moral ones. We simply cannot let anyone and everyone come into the country. There are legitimate national security concerns as well as the workability of social services and the like. But when we demonize illegals because "all good people play by the rules," we moralize the issue unduly and lose track of the prudential nature of immigration laws.

NonVoxPop said...

I value how you broke down "wrong by itself" versus "wrong because it's prohibited," because it seems to provide a useful approach to whether or not we can justifiably "forget" about immigration offenses. I'm wondering how we can discern between the two types of wrong? The examples you provided were great because of their stark contrast to one another. It seems immigration issues might not be so easily classified. Some conservatives seem to have a very strong notion of a national sovereignty which is being trespassed upon by illegal immigrants. If we determine that illegal presence in a country is merely "wrong because it's prohibited," does that mean national borders are artificial as well? Certainly they change, but at the same time they're regarded rather sternly. In cases I've been reading recently for Constitutional Law concerning segregation (not too far removed from this topic), there's almost an appeal to the divine. We see the same thing in just war theory, where a sovereign possesses the authority to make war that individuals or groups lack. To further complicate the issue (I'm trying not to be too expansive, but it's hard) the Executive seems almost the embodiment of the sovereign State. Ought the Executive then regard such intrusions as of greater consequence than us mere citizens?

Foolish Sage said...


Thanks for your questions. They helped me realize I probably wasn't clear. I didn't mean to say that a sense of fair play is intrinsically a bad thing. Far from it. Rather I was positing that an overemphasis on a need for everything to always be fair can be unhealthy and counterproductive in relationships, whether in our small circle of family/friends or at a national level.

Expecting everything to always be fair is, to me, as unrealistic as saying that anything illegal is automatically immoral, as Adam argued. The insistence on fairness as an absolute leads to an inflexibility. In a way, I think it is like envy; it doesn't seek to elevate others to one's level as much as it seeks to bring down anyone perceived as having gained an "unfair" advantage.

Now let's apply that to the subject at hand: amnesty for illegal immigrants. Fair play strictly applied would say that they have no right to remain in this country. Why? Because you and I didn't come in illegally, so why should someone else get to. But that, I think, is nothing but envy in disguise. If a particular "illegal" ends up being a productive, contributing member of our society, why should I care, at the end of the day, how he got here in the first place. From a purely logical view, it's irrelevant. Therefore, protesting that no amnesty should be granted is mostly an emotional response; it's saying, "I didn't get this privilege, so no one should."

I'm a seminary student, and I just began a class on the wisdom literature in Scripture. Our first lecture was about how wisdom doesn't act like a rule book or a law code. Wisdom means that there is not always just one answer (legal vs. illegal, for example) to a question. Rather wisdom is a way of walking in God's paths over a lifetime in order to develop a sense of what is right in a given situation. You can find proverbs in the Bible telling you to answer a fool, and other telling you not to answer a fool. Is that a contradiction? Not in wisdom literature. It is telling you that there is a time to answer and a time not to answer, and wisdom is being able to discern the difference.

cory said...

That makes a great deal of sense to me, specifically the ideal of rules being the greatest good and the damage that can do. And you're right, I misinterpreted your overall point to be, "Sometimes life isn't fair so deal with it."

I wholeheartedly agree that rules are a means to an end, and oftentimes an inadequate one at that. I am still struggling with the alternative. The enlightened dictator? From the perspective of governance, how does this inform our understanding of the "rule of law," and specifically the inflexibility of it that is designed to prevent corruption?