A World Without Boundaries is a World Without Justice
The delusion of open borders belies fantasies about the ancient ethic of hospitality
How can eight billion people (and growing) live together without destroying each other, let alone the planet as a whole? The planetary surge of mass migration in recent decades and the increasingly polarized controversy over how nation-states should deal with it has brought the question to the fore of public conversation. How about just abolishing sovereign countries, national borders, and most types of government everywhere?
Sound fantastic, or possibly insane? Well, of course it does, but it’s the latest thing in both academia and in the faux intellectual forum we know as Twitter. A colleague at a different institution, whom I follow closely, asked for suggestions on assigning reading materials in an upcoming course that advocate for the elimination of all borders and the formality of “citizenship”.
The request reminded me of a conversation I had with an undergraduate student in late 2015 while teaching a travel course in Vienna. During the very week we arrived the city was flooded with incoming refugees from the Middle East. They were sleeping in doorways and sprawled out in benches in train stations and on subway platforms. Local immigrant aid groups, already numerous in the Austrian capital, were scrambling to respond to the influx to the best of their abilities, but it was not enough.
I asked my students what strategies they might consider to handle the immigration “crisis” at the time?
A young woman in the class, who was also an honors student, piped up. “Why can’t these people just go live wherever they want?” she asked innocently, but also defiantly.
I responded that she perhaps needed to think through the ramifications of her questions, perhaps rephrasing it. But she was not mollified. “Look at them,” she shot back. “Are you just going to let them suffer?”
In an age of accelerating displacement of populations resulting from the interlarded factors of climate change, economic collapse, social upheaval, and the loss of political agency the question is neither juvenile nor trivial. But it is also profoundly naïve. The human race has always occupied a world with borders, boundaries, and barriers marking the territory of particular subgroups, or group domains.
Even in prehistory, or what political philosophers have metaphorically called the “state’ of nature,” imperceptible lines of demarcation between where you can live and where you can’t have not only prevails, but been savagely fought over. Even if there were no legally prescribed property lines, these borders were drawn (and enforced) in accordance with the unwritten medium of tribal self-knowledge, memory, custom, or tradition.
Wars among native peoples were routinely carried out to guarantee collective access to hunting grounds, water sources, fertile agricultural land, or sites for raw materials that could be used to make things that could be traded with other ethnic factions, thus affording one party what economists term “competitive advantage” in dealing with rival populations. The ancient Greek word nomos meaning “law” etymologically refers to boundary markers of any kind. One cannot live among others without some sense of limiting factors, whether they be legal, moral, bodily, or religious. Even the word sacred (Latin sacer=”dedicated, set aside or apart”) implies a partition of spaces and the activities that take place within them.
The question of “justice” in ancient reasoning, as we can infer from the etymology of the word itself, amounts precisely to how we should draw these boundary lines. So does a world without borders mean a world without justice? Yes and no.
Let’s start with a very simple, strict, and straightforward postulate. You cannot have justice without boundaries. Justice in its most primordial sense means that someone who has overstepped certain boundaries must be punished, expelled, sanctioned, or executed by whatever measures, given the ethical consensus of the day or the prevailing canons of jurisprudence, in the most condign manner.
The moral philosopher David Johnston defines the term “justice” as “balanced reciprocity”. Justice always involves two or more people who are, or have been, in some kind of fraught relationship with each other. Justice implies the process of repairing or compensating for the breach of a norm that governed this relationship. Therefore, if two or more people inhabit the same general space, certain boundaries must be drawn that distinguish these norms and how they act, or react, toward each other in a multitude of situations.
Boundary construction and boundary maintenance are endemic to all evolved animal species. The science of ethology, which monitors and seeks to explain animal behavior, has confirmed this fact in spades since it emerged in the nineteenth century. As the Nobel-prize winning Austrian ethology Konrad Lorenz put it succinctly in a best-selling book in the late 1960s, an observer from Mars “he would unavoidably draw the conclusion that man’s social organization is very similar to that or rats which, like humans, are social and peaceful beings within their clans, but veritable devils towards all fellow-members of their species not belonging to their own community.”
Thus one can only wonder to what degree the interconnected, and often reciprocally grating, systems of nomoi (“legal boundaries”) that both govern human societies and distinguish them from those on the outside derive from, or reflect, our own extremely ancient human ethology. For all the moral condemnation we heap upon the idea, “tribalism” is something that is biologically hard-wired into us all, whether we like it or not. The more genetically affiliated, or sexually intimate, we are in relation to other people, the more likely we are to identify with them, and the more “naturally” inclined we are to reject the presence of those who are significantly different from us.
But human destiny, unlike human ethology, is not pre-determined by our genes or sex drive. Our ideas of justice constantly countermand, or push against, our instinctive tendency to police natural boundaries. The rise of universalistic religions during the first millennium before the common era – what the philosopher Karl Jaspers famously named the “axial age” – gave impetus to this new orientation in human affairs. It also transformed the laws of “hospitality”.
The word “hospitable,” which implies the duty of attending to the needs of someone who does not necessarily fit within our interpersonal comfort zone, comes from the Latin hostis (or what is “strange” or “foreign”). It is of course also the root of “hostile”. The double valency of the Latin locution underscores the moral ambiguity of what happens when one human being encounters someone who is clearly “Other”. We are compelled somehow to respond to the Other as if they were “familiar” (i.e., like family) to us, even if we are suspicious of their intentions.
Such a paradox lies behind what historians and anthropologists describe as indigenous “laws” of hospitality found in most ancient cultures. Such conventions of hospitality are not only found in ancient nomadic cultures, as Biblical literature and the Qur’an show, but are ritualized in ancient India and Greece. Steve Reece’s fascinating study of the laws of hospitality, shown even to horses, in the Homeric epics is a case in point.
But the demands of hospitality, often cited by immigration advocates, do not within the religious traditions that spawned them imply necessarily free settlement. The word gēr in the Hebrew Bible, often translated as “stranger” or “sojourner”, implies someone who is a temporary resident or who has entered onto tribal territory without hostile intent. The book of Leviticus, in particular, is ambiguous about what should be done once the gēr has worn out their welcome, and insists that incorporation into the Hebrew culture and polity is not at all an easy process, if it occurs at all. The early Christian tradition took it one step further and argued that all adherents could never be assimilated or “conformed” to the world around them. They were permanent aliens within the present eon or saeculum, and they should expect ongoing “hostility” rather than hospitality.
So how does one come to terms with an article like the one that appeared last year in The Boston Review arguing that “there is no ‘migrant crisis’” and that the fault lies with “the bordered logic of global apartheid” that consist of territorial distinctions and political boundaries that remain inclusive for some and exclusive for the many. The author, a Canadian activist, makes a case similar to Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, namely, that national distinctions are comparable to class distinctions, and that the abolition of these distinctions through mass migration (rather than revolution) will lead to the withering away of the nation-state and the emergence of a globalist utopia.
Ironically, the author also leverages to the maximum the rhetoric of identity politics to explain how borders suppress the full expression of these identities. It is not clear why political boundaries are evil, but the semantically constructed boundaries that feed into the familiar academic taxonomy of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. are essential and apparently, at least from the author’s point of view, hardwired into our humanity. It is, of course, these kinds of differentia from which the notion of “nation” (from the Latin natio, meaning a human group with all the same characteristics) is derived.
The ethic of stranger hospitality is reinforced in all religions and cultures, literate and preliterate as well as national and tribal, not because of a distrust of territorial boundaries, but because of the inherent human sense that these boundaries are never fixed, and that each of us should, even if it does seem natural to us, recognize the “infinite” ethical claim made upon us in the face of the other.
As the great South African theologians Desmund Tutu put it, “If we could but recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another's, that we can be free only together, that we can be human only together, then a glorious world would come into being where all of us lived harmoniously together as members of one family, the human family.”
Family members, however, have their own personal spaces, which they are mutually obliged to the respect. In the ancient Greek language every “household” (oikos) has its own set of boundaries (nomos), which creates a unique oikonomia, or “economy”. Likewise, there is also a divine economy and a evolving “nomos of the earth” (as the political theologian Carl Schmitt has phrased it), and that is what the immigration question is all about.