There Is No Dilemma Here
Violating human rights is rarely unavoidable.
Posted Jun 16, 2018
There are wrongdoings that are unavoidable because their alternatives are even worse wrongdoings. These occur in situations that are called dilemmas; in such situations, we shouldn’t blame someone for choosing the better of two morally wrong actions, as long as they were not the ones who created the situation in the first place. But the wrongdoing that the Trump administration is committing by separating children from parents as they are attempting to come into the United States is not of this sort. It’s a violation of human rights that is simply morally wrong, and fully avoidable.
There is a particular type of moral dilemma that has become extremely commonplace in discussions of ethics, and it takes the following form: in order to achieve a good aim (such as saving many lives) you must commit an action (such as killing one person) that is normally forbidden by some moral rule. The most famous examples of this kind of dilemma involve runaway trolleys. Imagine a trolley that is headed down a track on which five people are trapped; they will be run over unless you push one large person in front of the trolley, thereby sacrificing one to save five.
One school of thought in philosophical ethics—known as consequentialism—supports choosing whichever option maximizes the good in the consequences of the action. So, because ending up with five out of six people alive is better than ending up with only one out of six people alive, consequentialists would say that killing one to save five is the right choice. Another school of thought—deontology—holds an opposed position by claiming that there are some things that it is wrong to do, no matter what the consequences are. Killing is one such thing, so you shouldn’t kill one person, even if as a consequence of your doing so, five other lives would be saved. My own position is pluralist. There are indeed some things that it is wrong to do no matter the consequences. But consequences matter, too. In some situations, all available options involve wrongdoing, because two nonnegotiable moral requirements conflict with each other. It might be wrong not to avert some bad consequence, but also wrong to do whatever it takes to avert them. Such situations are properly labeled dilemmas. Even in dilemmas, one option may be clearly worse than the other, though both involve some wrongdoing. We need to know how to avoid creating dilemmas, but also, since we might encounter them anyway, how to choose the best of the various bad options a dilemma might present. But we also need to recognize when something is not a dilemma—that is, when a wrongdoing is avoidable.
Sometimes when we’re trying to decide what to do, we think only in terms of consequences. We might focus on the aim we’re trying to achieve, and then simply ask what the best means are for achieving that aim. For instance, if I’m aiming at reducing my carbon footprint, I might consider several different actions: I could bicycle to work; I could take fewer trips that require air travel; I could stop eating meat. What makes each of these actions good and right is the end that it achieves.
If we are too much in the habit of thinking only in terms of consequences, however, we might make the mistake of assuming that if, perhaps after a cost-benefit analysis, the overall consequences of an action are expected to be good, then that justifies whatever will bring about these consequences. Here we would do well to pay attention to the deontological claim: there are constraints on what we may permissibly do, regardless of the consequences (these are often called “deontological side constraints”).
Advocates of the practice of separating immigrant children from parents have made all sorts of outrageously misguided claims in its defense, but if I were to try to reconstruct the most rational defense possible of the practice, it would take the form of consequentialist thinking and go something like this: the aim—that is, the overall good consequence that the practice is expected to have—is to deter illegal immigration to the United States, and the best means to this end is to threaten to take away immigrants’ children. The two glaring problems with this argument are that 1) the aim—the expected consequence—would not be a good consequence, because many of the immigrants who would be deterred (especially those seeking asylum, who, just like those crossing illegally, have had children taken from them) deserve a compassionate welcome from the United States; deterring them would be a bad consequence because it would result in much greater suffering; and 2) even if the aim were a good one, there are still deontological constraints on what we could permissibly do to reach it.
I will focus on this second problem. Clearly, there are some things that we mustn’t do to deter immigrants; for instance, we may not simply shoot everyone who crosses the border, even if this would be extremely effective in deterring anyone from trying to cross in the future. I believe it is just as clear that one of the things we are morally constrained from doing, even if it served as a means to a good end (which—recall the first problem—it doesn’t) is traumatizing children by snatching them from their parents. As the New York Times editorial board asserted: “Seizing children from parents at the border is immoral.” The United Nations human rights office has put this in terms of human rights: “The Trump administration’s practice of separating children from migrant families entering the United States violates their rights.”
The notion of human rights—as found in various legal documents as well as in more loosely agreed upon moral and social norms—can help us identify an important set of deontological constraints. We—and the government—must not violate anyone’s human rights even if by doing so we could achieve some overall good. A dilemma in which we must consider violating human rights arises only in extreme cases in which refraining from violating human rights would have especially dire consequences, and even then, it is not obvious which option would be worse: violating human rights or failing to avert the dire consequences. But there is not even any dilemma about whether or not to remove immigrant children from families (unless, of course, the parents are abusive or something similar). The aim of separating families—deterring others from coming—is indefensible, given that most parents are simply trying to get themselves and their children to a safer, better life. If the aim were—contrary to fact—defensible, then there might be a dilemma, but even so, this would not make the practice of separating families the right choice to make in the face of the dilemma. The question would then be about which wrongdoing to commit: forgo the good consequences, or violate human rights. We are nowhere close to being in a situation in which failing to deter illegal immigration would be worse than violating human rights.
The practice is immoral and must stop. And we must not be fooled into thinking there is any dilemma here that would make the practice an unavoidable wrongdoing. It is absolutely avoidable.