My question is NOT about the problems associated with secondary consequences of illegal immigration, such as unemployment of the native workforce. Nor is it about the causes of illegal immigration, such as the hardships faced by people living in a neighboring country, which causes them to cross the border illegally.

I want to look at the issues raised related to interpersonal trust versus the law of the land from a the perspective of duty-based approaches to ethics (e.g. Kantianism).

In other words, how do duty-based ethical system resolve conflicts between duties to the state and conflicts between duties to individuals (human or animal) which one is in relationship with?

  • Do you expect the answer to be different according to the nature of the breach of the law of the land? What ethical structure creates a difference between an illegal immigrant and a murderer, other than by considering the reason for or consequences of the act in question (which you don't want to do)? Is it intended to be a given, that the law is unjust/just? Oct 19, 2015 at 16:08
  • @SteveJessop - Why not just attempt to answer the question while introducing the ethical structure that makes it OK or not OK to do so in various instances, such as the illegal immigrant and the murder? I would love to understand this ethical structure, and it is entirely possible that by doing so, you will motivate me to edit my question to make better sense. Oct 19, 2015 at 16:13

8 Answers 8


In addition to the conflicting "duties" to friend and law, there is a third duty to yourself, both as a duty to your principles and a duty to those who depend on on you.

The case of Antigone correctly raised by John Am and famously discussed by Hegel has a few complexities. She dies, causing other deaths and bereavements as well. Nor does she seem to appreciate Creon's duties in the face of civil insurrection. She is by no means in Sophocles, nor for Hegel, an unambiguous hero.

In the first place, the civil disobedient ought to expect to assume whatever consequences the law provides, even if hoping to eventually change that law. The case of the "illegal immigrant" makes it perhaps too easy. The consequences are too inconsequential for the state and everyone else, except your friend, for whom the consequences may be grave. That is the only clear and evident "harm" to be avoided.

A better case might be the friends of the Boston marathon bomber, who did indeed suffer Antigone-scale consequences. Similarly, in Plato's Republic, do you return a sword to your friend out of loyalty if he has gone mad and may harm himself or others? Friendship alone cannot be the basis of justice, Socrates argues. Though, as usual, he never does really answer the question.

I do not think such cases can be determined apart from context and considerations of power and harm... nor do I think it likely or even possible to simply suspend all consideration of personal consequences.

  • 1
    The laws of the state are intended to make the state better. This could boil down to whether the individual's interpretation is that the state is better off with the illegal immigrant (presumably working, contributing to the society, and thus the state) than the state spending resources to prosecute and remove him. So even without the friendship, there is a case to be made, although that invokes the topic of vigilantism and whether it is appropriate.
    – corsiKa
    Oct 19, 2015 at 17:56

In terms of balancing duties, I would follow the example of Antigone by Sophocles and I would put the trust of my fellow man superior to the law of the state.

The reason is that I think the immigration law anti-social, whose existence relies on to cover imperfections and problems in the existing structure of modern societies. For me being a betrayal of the trust of a person is immoral, but to infringe a controversial law possible.


States don't participate in duty-based ethics. They offer or impose social contracts. So the result of trying to adopt a consistent personal ethics based upon abstract duty within a state context ultimately results in a sort of 'theory sandwich', a layered approach to ethics where the layers clearly conflict, and one or the other is taken to be primary in different contexts.

If you want to wrap acceptance of a social contract inside a Kantian duty, you would first need to determine to what degree the state itself is to be presumed to be negotiating in good faith.

Betrayal of an agreement made in good faith is not universalizable. None of us would accept living in so chaotic a world that no contract could be made that holds weight. So if you unconditionally accept the state as well-motivated, obeying the law becomes a primary concern.

But few of us have this understanding of our own state. We know that the state is in fact motivated to serve ends other than those it states. Entering into a contract that is itself not properly motivated is not universalizable. It involves compromising your ultimate autonomy, which is contrary to the principle of duty to begin with. One cannot allow oneself to make oneself a mere means to the making of others into mere means, just in order to avoid responsibility for future ethical actions.

States that are founded in their own acknowledged violation of other states rights, like the U.S., have to recognize this conflict, and they end up writing flexibility around the conflict into the law, institutionalizing the idea that obedience of the law may be subject to assent of personal conscience. In the U.S., this is done by amending the rights of the state with a requirement that it not curtail free practice of religion.

This gives us an out, since the set of religions that law is specifically aimed at includes informal religions based primarily upon practice of the conscience (Historically, Quakerism was the state religion of one of the original colonies, Pennsylvania. And it does not matter whether you actually are a Quaker, but whether controlling you in this way would make it impossible for you to be one. So personal conscience is protected by the First Amendment, to a considerable degree.)

In that (this) kind of state, the question of which way around to wrap the two systems is allowed for in the social contract itself. Personal conscience is primary, as long as it is honest. There may well be legal consequences to disobedience, but those consequences are limited by respect for your 'personal beliefs' up to the point where those beliefs threaten to make the entire social contract unenforceable.

So the party with whom you have contracted actually does not expect compliance, which makes life a bit simpler. You have wronged no one, if you refuse to comply with the law because it would constitute breaking some sort of implied obligation of conscience. You either have or have not communicated that bond of duty to the other party, and the call is based upon your intentions, and not their understanding.

In a State with a less compromising history, this becomes a much more complex problem.

  • Thank you. This is indeed a fascinating way of looking at the whole thing; I had not looked at it in this way, ever. It's a +1 from me. The biggest reason that I have not clicked on the tick-mark to accept is that you have not addressed the question at the level on which it is asked. Still, I really like it because this answer addresses an underlying dynamic between the citizen (or subject) and state. Oct 19, 2015 at 19:01
  • I am glad I finally said something that made sense to you. I was getting really frustrated on the other question. Sorry to be too abstract.
    – user9166
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:19

E M Forster wrote an essay in 1938, titled like one by Russell On what I believe where he said:

Personal relations are despised today, they are seen as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which has now passed and we are urged to get rid of them and dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead.

To place this in context, this was after the horrors of the first World War and before the second; an era when nationalisms were inflamed.

He goes onto say:

If I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

and adds that for most:

will not have to make such an agonising choice.

ie unambiguous binaries such as one you posit rarely happen but sometimes do.


I don't know how other people think, but to me, I usually follow the rule: it is not ethical if you do something to somebody, and you wish that thing is not done to you.

Update: per @Keelan's statement, this is the philiosophy 己所不欲,勿施於人, from the book Analects of Confucius. It means "(if) self not wanting it, don't apply it to another person."

In terms of doing the "right" thing or betrayal. I think "right" or "wrong" is not very absolute, as in fact I see many people's "right" is merely because it is to their benefits. Also, note that some place actually wants to "open one eye and close one eye" when it is illegal immigrant situation, as the place will want cheap labor, so at the same time they say it is illegal, but they will let the person stay and even want to collect tax from that person. So I think "right" or "wrong" may be somewhat subjective, while "betrayal" is quite real, and not so subjective -- although, some people may say that's subjective, because he is reporting something and "it is right" and it is not betrayal -- although he himself doesn't want to be reported.

I know we can say, we don't want to be punished, so does that mean we should not punish people? But what if some people stole or rob other people, then should the people be punished? I think yes, but right now he is not doing that. He is staying here and according to some immigration law, he should not be staying here. But nobody is really God to say he shouldn't stay here. Law is created by people and I see it adjusted to suit people's purpose, just like I said some place will say it is illegal to stay, but let them stay, and find a way to tax them.

  • Stack Exchange is not a network for exchanging opinions, but rather factual information. This answer essentially isn't more than stating your opinion. Please improve this question by providing references to philosophers supporting your theory (or delete your answer).
    – user2953
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:34
  • Well done re: the edit. But please don't write your name in Chinese characters. We can't figure out what your name is! Oct 19, 2015 at 20:25
  • The 'Golden Rule' is philosophy, but this is still weak. You would not want someone to ignore your opinion just because they like someone. So if you were one of the people who think the law matters, and all immigrants should be identified and tracked according to the law, you would be disobeying your own chosen rule by ignoring this opinion. You need some real reference for ordering opinions by relevance -- say separating close, genuine connections from more abstract legalistic ones on the basis of humaneness, if you are going with Confucius -- or your whole argument becomes circular.
    – user9166
    Oct 19, 2015 at 21:17
  • Just a suggestion: you might want to consider putting a romanised transliteration of your name in brackets in your name handle - so those if us not able to read Chinese know how to pronounce it. Oct 20, 2015 at 0:59
  • 2
    @Pharap meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/2804/2953
    – user2953
    Oct 20, 2015 at 9:14

The act you are describing is extremely unethical.
First off, I want to point out that comparing human beings to stray dogs is disturbing to say the least, and is not the mark of an unbiased point of view. More importantly though - this is someone who possibly views you as a friend, and you are about to turn them in to a massive mindless bureaucracy whose goals are predicated on flimsy or even repugnant ethical grounds. Unless this person is a known criminal, or you know they are going to inflict certain harm on other persons by staying in your country, then you are only going to do harm and not good by turning them in.
EDIT: I don't think my answer is clear enough. The original question looks like it was edited to remove a comparison of reporting illegal immigrants to the INS with reporting stray dogs to animal control. That analogy fails, because human beings are not dogs and they have rights that dogs don't have.
I think also I should clarify that I'm dispensing right away with the notion that obeying the law of the land is equivalent to doing the moral thing, because there are so many counter examples. Therefore, turning in illegal immigrants has to be defended morally on its own merits aside from legal considerations.
And what are the merits of turning over someone to the INS? Does it help them? No. Does it help you? No. So who does it help? If you can't name any party that is helped, but you can easily name a party who is harmed (the immigrants, the community they are a part of) then the moral thing is to let them stay.

  • 1
    I appreciate your answer. However, I want to say in my own defence that no comparison is implied between a human and a stray dog; these are just two separate examples to illustrate the same point. And I would like to add that I really really love stray dogs, but I would not give a dog's needs priority over a human's equivalent need. I am uncertain what you are referring to when you say, "The act you are describing is extremely unethical". You mean the act of turning in an illegal immigrant is extremely unethical? Please clarify. Oct 19, 2015 at 19:07
  • 2
    Stack Exchange is not a network for exchanging opinions, but rather factual information. This answer essentially isn't more than stating your opinion. Please improve this question by providing references to philosophers supporting your theory (or delete your answer).
    – user2953
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:35
  • 1
    "comparing human beings to stray dogs is disturbing to say the least" Ignoring for a moment that this wasn't actually implied in the question, why is comparing humans to dogs disturbing?
    – Pharap
    Oct 20, 2015 at 8:39
  • 1
    I wouldn't think it would be necessary to explain this, but OK. All analogies are imperfect, but the analogy between humans and dogs is particularly bad, and the manner in which it fails is relevant to the question. You see, human beings are in fact not dogs. They have rights and dignity. It is legal to euthanize dogs if they are unwanted, lock up them out without any kind of trial and so on, but it is not legal to do so to human beings. Thus you cannot use dogs as a model for humans in the question. The analogy simply does not apply.
    – Sean
    Oct 20, 2015 at 12:55
  • 1
    And the fact that you think it does apply means that you don't see any relevant distinction between humans and dogs in this situation. That implies that in your point of view, illegal immigrants should be treated as stray dogs are treated - as animals. That is what I find disturbing.
    – Sean
    Oct 20, 2015 at 13:07

From the position of utilitarianism, it is probably not ethical to do it.

  • You will greatly reduce the happiness of the immigrant.
  • You will reduce the happiness of the friends and family immigrant.
  • You will probably feel guilty and thus reduce your own happiness.
  • If he is not problematic, then you will probably barely increase anyone's happiness.

On the other hand, if you take law into account, then you might end up increasing the net happiness, because at the end, you are a lot better off by turing him in instead of hiding him. If we take a look at felicific calculus, we see that the factors that play a role are intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fecundity (the probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind), purity, extend.

  • In case of turning him in the pain is intense, long, certain, remote and it has high fecundity and high purity for the immigrant. That is 6 times a high score for the immigrant. For you, the pain is not very intense or long, certain, remote, but has low fecundity, purity. So that is 2 times a high score.

  • In case of turning him not in the pain is intense, long, not certain at all, not remote at all and it has high fecundity and high purity for the immigrant. That is 4 times a high score for the immigrant. For you, the pain can be intense or long, even less certain, remote, but it can have high fecundity, purity. So that is 4 times an reasonably high score.

In both cases, we have 8 high scores. However, in the second case 4 high scores are not very high. On the other hand, families and friends of the immigrant are earlier (more remote) confronted with the pain of missing him. But when you don't turn him in, your friends and familiy might also be confronted with pain if you go to jail.

I think it will end about equal. In conclusion it might be ethical to turn him in according to utilitarianism if he is problematic, so you increase others happiness by doing it, or if you expect him to get arrested soon anyway, because then the certainty and remoteness of not turning him in are higher.


i think that regardless of what philosophy you decide to base your decision on, if you win someone's trust in making them believe they can confide in you, and you snitch on them (report them to the authorities), you are betraying the trust they have placed in you. no philosophy you point to will nullify this. it is something you will have to live with if you're sure you'd rather give someone up to the authorities knowing you've betrayed them.

  • 3
    Stack Exchange is not a network for exchanging opinions, but rather factual information. This answer essentially isn't more than stating your opinion. Please improve this question by providing references to philosophers supporting your theory (or delete your answer).
    – user2953
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:35
  • 1
    @KrishnarajRao that's hardly my job. Also, please don't add 'thanks' and '+1' and the like as comments. They're redundant and clutter up the view.
    – user2953
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:39
  • 1
    @KrishnarajRao SE doesn't work like "let's dump rubbish, and wait for someone to make sense of it". The poster is expected to post something senseful in the first place. This post simply doesn't match our quality standards. You can read more about it in the tour and the help center.
    – user2953
    Oct 19, 2015 at 19:44
  • 1
    Well, feelings aren't philosophy, and we want you to answer with something kind of testable. It should either be logically exact, or tied back to someone who has written carefully about the subject. So the Hobbes answer would not be great, but it would be well-founded. Even if you argued that your feelings matter because of some Utilitarian principle, that would have based you in something that qualifies as philosophy on the bases of the 'help center' contents.
    – user9166
    Oct 19, 2015 at 20:06
  • 1
    "Stack Exchange is not a network for exchanging opinions, but rather factual information." <-- that.
    – user2953
    Oct 19, 2015 at 20:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .