Mudd Center Blog

Undergraduate Conference in Ethics with keynote speaker Sahar Akhtar

By Zachary Taylor '17

On March 12, 2017, four undergraduate students traveled to Washington and Lee University to deliver papers on a wide variety of ethical issues, ranging from what our attitudes should be toward death to whether citizens are morally obligated to contribute to their communities’ local media outlets. It is not hyperbolic to characterize this second annual Mudd Undergraduate Ethics Conference as a tremendous success, both on account of the students’ excellent papers and their enthusiasm to put forth publicly their own ethical ideas, which they defended with thoughtfulness and intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, each student’s presentation stimulated rich discussions about salient issues that were relatable and of considerable import to those who attended the conference.

Dr. Sahar Akhtar, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, capped off the conference with her keynote address titled “Why Religious and Racial Immigration Bans are Wrong,” a highly relevant and consequential topic in light of current political debate about immigration. Rather than explain why, exactly, religious and racial immigration bans are wrong, however, Professor Akhtar sought to locate the wrong in an effort to determine who is wronged and in what way. She focused on exclusions based on identity-trait categories like race and religion insofar as these relate to discretionary immigrants, or non-members of a nation-state who lack urgent claims for admission—in other words, not refugees or those seeking political asylum. Many philosophers and political theorists have argued that such exclusions are impermissible because they wrong current members of a nation-state who fall into the excluded categories. A religious immigration ban that excludes Muslims, for example, might be said to wrong Muslim Americans already living in the United States insofar as it sends a demeaning or stigmatizing message to the members of these groups. While not denying the truth of this claim, Professor Akhtar argued that this is not the primary reason such exclusions are impermissible. The primary reason such exclusions are impermissible, she argued, is because they wrong the non-members themselves—that is, the discretionary immigrants seeking admission into a country such as the United States.

Rather than focus on the harm done to groups within a country, then, Professor Akhtar quite uniquely focused on the harm done to individuals who do not already qualify as members of the nation-state to which they hope to immigrate. Take, for instance, the case of a homogenous nation-state with an all-white population that decides to admit people of every race except for black people. Alternatively, with respect to religion, it is easy to conceive of even a multi-national nation-state composed of members of every major world religion except for Islam, which decides to admit people of all religions except for Muslims. In both of these cases, the religious or racial ban that excludes the discretionary immigrants from entry cannot be characterized as morally impermissible if one focuses exclusively on harm done to members within the nation-state.

Professor Akhtar similarly rejected the claim by other political theorists that religious or racial immigration bans are morally impermissible on account of the obligation states have to provide a reason or reasons to non-members for excluding them. It is not simply that a nation-state’s failure to provide a justifiable or defensible reason makes its exclusionary ban wrong. Even if one were to concede that there are justifiable and non-justifiable reasons for exclusion, Professor Akhtar explained, it would be mistaken to locate the wrong in such bans in this reasons-giving enterprise, rather than in the bans themselves.

Professor Akhtar ultimately concluded that the best way to account for the fact that identity-based exclusions are impermissible in virtue of the wrong done to non-members is by denying that nation-states have sole discretion over their memberships. In other words, a religious or racial immigration ban is wrong because a country such as the United States simply does not have the final word when it comes to who is allowed to enter its borders. While Professor Akhtar’s claim no doubt upends traditional ideas about a nation-state’s unilateral powers with respect to its membership, it also makes room for other voices and perspectives in the political conversation surrounding immigration. It is important to note that Professor Akhtar did not claim that a nation-state has no say in this conversation; instead, she challenged that it has the only say.

Professor Akhtar’s lecture was a persuasive and provocative finale to the Mudd Undergraduate Ethics Conference. She demonstrated to the presenters and burgeoning philosophers in the audience what we can aspire to do as ethicists—namely, to identify, explain, and critically evaluate salient issues in the public sphere.