Practical Philosophy Seminar: Alejandra Mancilla

"Migration and Poverty: Philosophical Perspectives"

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Alejandra Mancilla, Professor, IFIKK, UiO

Photo: Oda Davanger/UiO


In 1540, following the trend from other European cities, Madrid established its Poor Laws. These laws subjected poor people to a moral test to check whether they were deserving or not, forced them to confess and communicate to get aid from the municipal authorities, and confined them to stay within the limits of the city. Foreign beggars were denied entry altogether. Domingo de Soto, eminent Dominican theologian and philosopher in Salamanca at the time, was asked to give his opinion on the matter. In his Deliberation on the Cause of the Poor, De Soto offers an argument against the Poor Laws and for open borders, based on the rights of everyone (including the poor) to move freely, regardless of whether they were “natural” or not. Individuals ought not to be bound to their cities, especially if they were not guaranteed enough for a decent life - which was more than a life right on the edge of subsistence. Instead, they should be left free to make their living elsewhere, by begging or otherwise. Moreover, Christians had a duty to help others in need and to be charitable, no matter where the recipients came from. De Soto further questioned the requirement to pass a moral test to get help. Ultimately, he thought, what these laws revealed was hatred and weariness towards the poor, and the injustice of denying them rights that the rest enjoyed (De Soto 2003).
Almost five hundred years later, De Soto’s defense of the right of poor people to move freely across borders resonates in the current philosophical debate on migration. The political unit is no longer the city, but the nation-state, but the question whether they have a right to exclude and on what grounds is still at the center of the discussion. What nation-states owe morally to needy “non-naturals” also remains relevant, although the issue is framed in terms of universal human rights rather than Christian duties. Moreover, whether migration or migration restrictions should be actively used as a tool for the eradication of poverty is passionately debated, with answers ranging from those who see free movement as the best recipe, to those who see it as entrenching and deepening the plight of the worst off.
In this essay, I offer an overview of the main answers that contemporary political theorists have given to the following questions:
1. Do states have a right to exclude poor foreigners, and what are the limitations of this right?
2. May migration and/or migration restrictions be actively used as a tool for the eradication of global poverty?
3. Have political theorists framed the discussions under 1 and 2 above correctly, or is their method flawed?
The text is intended as an entry on a book on “Philosophical perspectives on poverty” and it is in that context that it ought to be read
Published Mar. 10, 2022 8:40 AM - Last modified July 1, 2022 8:45 PM