In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity: The Need for a Sentimentalist Case for Open Borders

Most arguments for open borders are phrased in terms of universalized moral obligations to non-citizens. These obligations are usually phrased as “merely” negative (eg., that Americans have a duty to not impede the movement an impoverished Mexican worker or Syrian refugee seeking a better life) rather than positive (eg., that the first obligation does not imply that Americans have a duty to provide, for example, generous welfare benefits to immigrants and refugees), but are phrased as obligations based on people in virtue of their rationality rather than nationality nonetheless.

Whether they be utilitarian, moral intuitionist, or deontological, what these arguments assume is that nation of origin isn’t a “morally relevant” consideration for one’s rights to immigrate and rely on some other view of moral relevance implicitly as an alternative to try and cement a purely moral solidarity that extends beyond national border. They have in common an appeal to a common human capacity to have rights stemming from something metaphysically essential to our common humanity.

Those arguments are all coherent and possibly valid and are even the arguments that originally convinced me to support open borders. The only problem is that they are often very unconvincing to people skeptical of immigration because they merely beg the question of that moral obligation is irrelevant with respect to nationality. As one of my critics of one of my older pieces on immigration observed, most immigration skeptics are implicitly tribalist nationalists, not philosophically consistent consequentialists or deontologists. They have little patience for theoretical and morally pure metaphysical arguments concluding any obligation, even merely negative, to immigrants. They view their obligations to those socially closer to them as a trump card (pardon the pun) to any morally universalized consideration. So long as they can identify with someone else as an American (or whatever their national identity may be) they view their considerations as relevant. If they cannot identify with someone else based on national identity, they do not view an immigrant’s theorized rights or utility functions as relevant.

There are still several problems with this tribalist perspective, given that nation-states are far from culturally homogenous and cultural homogeneity often transcends borders in some important respects, why does one’s ability to “identify” on the basis of tribal affiliation stop at a nation-state’s borders? Further, there are many other affinities one may have with a foreigner that may be viewed as equally important, if not more important, to one’s ability to “identify” with someone than national citizenship. They may be a fellow Catholic or Christian, they may be a fellow fan of football, or a fellow manufacturing worker, or a fellow parent, etc. Why is “fellow American” the most socially salient form of identification and allows one to keep a foreigner in a state tyranny and poverty, but not whether they are a “fellow Christian” or any of the many other identifiers people find important?

However, these problems are not taken seriously by those who hold them because tribalist outlook isn’t about rational coherence, it is about non-rational sentimental feelings and particularized perspectives on historical affinities. Even if a skeptic of immigration takes those problems seriously, the morally pure and universalizing arguments are no more convincing to a tribalist.

I believe this gets at the heart of most objections Trump voters have to immigration. They might raise welfare costs, crime, native jobs lost, or fear of cultural collapse as post-hoc rationalizations for why they do not feel solidarity with natives, but the fact that they do not feel solidarity due to their nationalist affinities is at the root of these rationalizations. Thus when proponents of open borders raise objections, be it in the form of economic studies showing that these concerns are not consistent with facts or by pointing out that these are also concerns for the native-born population and yet nobody proposes similar immigration restrictions on citizens, they fall on deaf ears. Such concerns are irrelevant to the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment: a lack of solidarity with anyone who is not a native-born citizen.

In this essay, drawing from the sentimentalist ethics of David Hume and the perspective on liberal solidarity of Richard Rorty, I want to sketch a vision of universalized solidarity that would win over tribalists to the side of, if not purely open borders, at least more liberalized immigration restrictions and allowance for refugees. This is not so much a moral argument of the form most arguments for open borders have taken, but a strategy to cultivate the sentiments of a (specifically American nationalist) tribalist to be more open to the concerns and sympathies of someone with whom they do not share a national origin. The main goal is that we shouldn’t try to argue away people’s sincere, deeply held tribalist and nationalist emotions, but seek to redirect them in a way that does not lead to massive suffering for immigrants.

Rorty on Kantian Rationalist and Humean Sentimentalist Arguments for Universalized Human Rights

In an article written by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “Rationality, Sentimentality, and Human Rights,” he discusses two strategies for expanding human rights culture to the third world. One, which he identifies with philosophers such as Plato and Kant, involves appealing to some common faculty which all humans have in common—namely rationality—and claim all other considerations, such as kinship, custom, religion, and (most importantly for present purposes) national origin “morally irrelevant” to whether an individual has human rights and should be treated as such. These sort of arguments, Rorty says, are the sort that try to use rigorous argumentation to answer the rational egoist question “Why should I be moral?” They are traced back to Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic through Enlightenment attempts to find an algorithmic, rational foundation of morality, such as the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the sort of strategy, in varying forms, most arguments in favor of open borders try to pursue.

The second strategy, which Rorty identifies with philosophers such as David Hume and Annette Baier, is to appeal to the sentiments of those who do not respect the rights of others. Rather than try to answer “Why should I be moral?” in an abstract, philosophical sense such that we have a priori algorithmic justification for treating others equal, this view advocates trying to answer the more immediate and relevant question “Why should I care about someone’s worth and well-being even if it appears to me that I have very little in common with them?” Rather than answer the former question with argumentation that appeals to our common rational faculties, answer the latter with appealing to our sentimental attitudes that we do have something else in common with that person.

Rorty favors the second Humean approach for one simple reason: in practice, we are not dealing with rational egoists who substitute altruistic moral values with their ruthless self-interest. We are dealing with irrational tribalists who substitute more-encompassing attitudes of solidarity with less-encompassing ones. They aren’t concerned about why they should be moral in the first place and what that means, they are concerned with how certain moral obligations extend to people with whom they find it difficult to emotionally identify. As Rorty says:

If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egoist’s question “Why should I be moral?” but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” The traditional answer to the latter question is “Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.” This has never been very convincing since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate closer to kinship. […]

A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins with “Because this is what it is like to be in her situation—to be far from home, among strangers,” or “Because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “Because her mother would grieve for her.” Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe and powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people—people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.

If we agree with Hume that reason is the slave of the passions, or more accurately that reason is just one of many competing sentiments and passions, then it should come as no surprise that rational argumentation of the form found in most arguments for open borders are not super convincing to people for whom reason is not the ruling sentiment. How does one cultivate these other sentiments, if not through merely rational argumentation? Rorty continually comments throughout his political works that novels, poems, documentaries, and television programs—those genres which tell the sort of long sad stories commented on above—have replaced sermons and Enlightenment-era treatises as the engine of moral progress since the end of the nineteenth century. Rational argumentation may convince an ideal-typical philosopher, but not many other people.

For Rorty, the application of this sentimental ethics had two main purposes, the first of which is mostly irrelevant for present purposes and the second of which is relevant. First, Rorty wanted to make his vision of a post-metaphysical, post-epistemological intellectual culture and a commonsensically nominalist and historicist popular culture compatible with the sort of ever-expanding human solidarity necessary for political liberalism; a culture for which the sort of algorithmic arguments for open borders I mentioned in the first half of this article would not seem convincing for more theoretical reasons than the mere presence of nationalist sentiment. Though that is an intellectual project with which I have strong affinities, one need not buy that vision for the purposes of this article—that of narrowly applying sentimental ethics to overcome nationalist objections to immigration.

The second, however, was to point out a better way to implement the liberal cultural norms to prohibit the public humiliation of powerless minorities. The paradigmatic cases Rorty says such a sentimental education has application are how Serbians viewed Muslims, how Nazis viewed Jews, or how white southern Confederates viewed African-American slaves. Though those are far more extreme cases, it is not a stretch to add to that list the way Trump voters view Muslim refugees or Mexican migrant workers.

A Rortian Case against Rortian (and Trumpian) Nationalism

Though Rorty was a through-and-through leftist and likely viewed most nationalist arguments for restricting immigration and especially keeping refugees in war-zones with scorn, there is one uncomfortable feature of his views for most radical proponents of immigration. It does leave very well open the notion of nationalism as a valid perspective, unlike many of the other arguments offered.

Indeed, Rorty—from my very anarchist perspective—was at times uncomfortably nationalist. In Achieving Our Country he likens national pride to self-respect for an individual, saying that while too much national pride can lead to imperialism, “insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” He defended a vision of American national pride along the lines of Deweyan pragmatism and transcendentalist romanticism as a nation of ever-expanding democratic vistas. Though radically different from the sort of national pride popular in right-wing xenophobic circles, it is a vision of national pride nonetheless and as such is not something with which I and many other advocates of open borders are not sympathetic with.

Further, and more relevant to our considerations, is he viewed national identity as a tool to expand the sort of liberal sentiments that he wanted. As he wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans—to insist it is outrageous that an American to live without hope. The point of these examples is that our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us,” where “us” means something smaller and more localized than the human race.

It is obvious why many critics of immigration restrictions would view this attitude as counterproductive. This type of description cannot be applied in many other scenarios at all relevant to questions of immigration at all. Liberalism, in the sense Rorty borrowed from Shklar (and also the sense which I think animates much of the interest in liberalized immigration policies), as an intense aversion to cruelty is concerned with merely ending cruelty as such. It wants to end cruelty whether it be the cruelty of the American government to illegal immigrants or suffering of native-born African-Americans as a result of centuries of cruelty by racists. This is surely something with which Rorty would agree as he writes elsewhere in that same chapter:

[T]here is such a thing as moral progress and that progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared to the similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves in the range of ‘us.’

Surely, that moral progress doesn’t stop at the unimportant line of a national border. The problem is that appeals to national identity of the sort Rorty uses, or of mythologized national histories, do stop at the border.

Rorty is right that it is easier for people to feel a sense of solidarity with those for whom there are fewer traditional differences, and that no amount of appeal to metaphysical constructions of human rationality will fully eclipse that psychological fact. However, the problem with forms of solidarity along national identity is it is much easier for people to stop there. In modern pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies such as America, it is hard for someone to stop their sense of solidarity at religion, tribe, custom and the like. This is because the minute they walk out the door of their home, the minute they arrive at their workplace, there is someone very close to them who would not fit that sense of solidarity yet someone for whom they would still feel some obligation, just based off of seeing the face of that person, off of mere proximity.

Stopping the line at national identity is much easier since many Americans, particularly those in the midwestern and southeastern states which gave Trump his presidency, will rarely interact with non-nationals on a regular basis while they will more likely interact with someone who is more distant from them in other ways. While other forms of solidarity are unstable for most because they are too localized, nationalism is stable because it is too general to be upset by experience of others while not general enough to be compatible with liberalism. Moral progress, if we pursue Rorty’s explicitly nationalist project, will halt at the national borders and his liberal project of ending cruelty will end with it. There is an inconsistency between Rorty’s liberalism and his belief in national pride.

Further, insisting “because they are American” leads people to ask what it means to “be American,” a question which can only be answered, even by Rorty in his description of American national pride, by contrast with what isn’t American (see his discussion of Europe in “American National Pride). It makes it difficult to see suffering as the salient identifier for solidarity, and makes other ‘traditional’ differences standing in the way of Rorty’s description of moral progress as more important than they should be. Indeed, this is exactly what we see with most xenophobic descriptions of foreigners as “not believing in American ideals.” Rorty’s very humble, liberalized version of national pride faces a serious danger of turning into the sort of toxic, illiberal nationalism we have seen in recent years.

Instead, we should substitute the description Rorty offers as motivating liberal help for African-Americans in the inner city ,‘because they are American,’ with the redescription Rorty uses elsewhere: ‘because they are suffering, and you too can suffer and have suffered in the past.’ This is a sentimental appeal which can apply to all who are suffering from cruelty, regardless of their national identity. This is more likely to make more and more other differences seem unimportant. As Rorty’s ideas on cultural identity politics imply, the goal should be to replace “identity”—including national identity—with empathy.

Thus, in making an appeal to Rorty’s sentimentalism for open border advocates, I want to very clearly point out how it is both possible and necessary to separate appeals to solidarity and sentiment from nationalism to serve liberal ends. This means that the possibility of nationalist sentiments of seeming acceptable to a non-rationalist form of ethics should not discourage those of us skeptical of nationalism from embracing and using its concepts.

Sentimental Ethical Appeals and Liberalized Immigration

The application of this form of sentimental ethics for people who merely want to liberalized immigration should be obvious. Our first step needs to be to recognize that people’s tribalist sentiments aren’t going to be swayed by mere rationalist argumentation as it merely begs the question. Our second step needs to be to realize that what’s ultimately going to be more likely to convince them aren’t going to get rid of people’s tribalist sentiments altogether, but to redirect them elsewhere. The goal should be to get people to see national identity as unimportant to those sentiments compared to other more salient ones, such as whether refugees and immigrants are suffering or not. The goal should be for nationalists to stop asking questions of immigrants like “Are immigrants going to be good Americans like me?” and more “Are they already people who, like me, have suffered?”

This does not mean that we stop making the types of good academic philosophical and economic arguments about how immigration will double the global GDP and how rights should be recognized as not stopping with national identity—those are certainly convincing to the minority of us to whom tribalism isn’t an especially strong sentiment. However, it does mean we should also recognize the power of novels like Under the Feet of Jesus or images like the viral, graphic one of a Syrian refugee child who was the victim of a bombing which circulated last year. The knowledge that Anne Frank’s family was turned down by America for refugee status, the feelings of empathy for Frank’s family one gets from reading her diary, the fear that we are perpetuating that same cruelty today are far more convincing than appeals to Anne Frank’s natural rights in virtue of her rational faculties as a human being.

Appeals to our common humanity in terms of our “rational faculties” or “natural rights” or “utility functions” and the like are not nearly as convincing to people who aren’t philosophers or economists as appeals to the ability of people to suffer. Such an image and sentimental case is far more likely to cultivate a cosmopolitan solidarity than Lockean or Benthamite platitudes.


Rorty, Richard. “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey.” Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010. 372-388. Print.

Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
352-372. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.



2 thoughts on “In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity: The Need for a Sentimentalist Case for Open Borders

  1. The problem with the idea of nationalism you are critiquing here is that it is a purely civil one. As one of the first articles you cited states, America consists (ed?) of multiple discrete, contiguous cultural groups. These groups did fight a civil war at one point, having decided, foolishly perhaps, to have not gone their separate ways early. Doing so might have staved off the inevitable bloodshed that peoples with different traditions, economic arrangements, and visions for the future must come to when forced to compete within the same political system and over the same space.

    Things have gotten more complicated since then, of course. Whereas it could be said with some accuracy that the America of 1861, the America that mattered politically, anyway, was of European stock, that is no longer the case today. America is a Babylon of hundreds of different ethnic groups, religions, histories. We do not share a common past, common ancestors, or common traditions, but are bound together by our borders and the paper-thin civic religion of our legal system and national holidays.

    This highlights most clearly the incoherence of Trumpian nationalism. If the nation is a propositional identity based upon nothing more than common values, it becomes arbitrary to privilege one value while ignoring the others. Why, indeed, should being American be worth something but being Christian, or a football fan, or a member of the John Birch Society not be worth something? Muslims represent one percent of the population, or about 3.5 million people. Why should they be less deserving of the mantle ‘American’?

    The malleability of these similar identities points to the malleability of nationalist tribalism. If it is based on loyalty to Americans as a whole, an already arbitrary label, why can it not be redirected to the whole of humanity on the basis of those common traits that make us human? The logic looks right, but is tribalist nationalism actually based on a loyalty to America and what it means to be American? This appears to me to be another post-hoc rationalization of what at its core is ethnic anxiety, something that it is unacceptable to admit in today’s culture, which why it is transmuted into something culturally innocuous, like American nationalism.

    Dancing around it doesn’t change the fact that ethnic preference is an ingrained phenomenon. Babies, for example, begin to show clear preference for their own race between six and nine months of age, before they have been exposed to members of other racial groups ( The desire for similarity in relationships is similarly fundamental ( Meanwhile, ethnic identity proves to be persistently salient in voting patterns (, and as the white supermajority wanes, ethnic tribalism is ascendant (

    While you seem to be optimistic that people can transfer their tribalist feelings to others, this is only really true if it is based on higher-level attributes that are not really tribal at all, like the hollow identity of ‘American,’ which is now based on nothing but birthplace and borders. People say they want X, Y, or Z group to be ‘good Americans,’ but what they really want is to be surrounded by people who look, talk, walk, smell, and act like them.

  2. Isn’t it possible that a Rortian nationalism can serve as the sentimentalist foundation for liberalism even toward “strangers” via feelings of the moral superiority of Americans, as opposed to via similarity with foreigners? In other words: maybe an American nationalist still sees strangers as too different to recognize their suffering, but nonetheless, is motivated to be liberal toward them because of a sense that Americans are a morally excellent people who are always willing to be liberal with others, even when those others are strange and different. That sounds to me consistent with Rorty’s nationalism (in fact, I think it’s pretty close to what Rorty has in mind), and it gets around your criticisms of Rorty’s nationalism. It allows for a bordered mythology to still liberalize universally.

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