Here is a question that I've had to simplify and idealise to the point that it no longer corresponds exactly to any real-world situation. However, I think it still captures a very important and topical moral question:

Consider a group of economic (im)migrants who wish to enter your country (i.e. they're not escaping persecution or war, they're just seeking a better life). If you accept them then there is no measurable (e.g. economic) benefit to your country. Nevertheless, you are both able and willing to accommodate them. However, suppose it is known that a percentage P of them will have some attribute A that you perceive to be negative (e.g. criminal, Islamist, racist, welfare migrant). What is the highest P that you would be willing to tolerate (above which you would decline entry to the entire group)?

I think most people (with some notable exceptions) would agree that:

  • If P is no greater than the probability native to the host country then it is acceptable
  • If P is close to 100% then it is unacceptable

So, for most people, there is some vague threshold above which they would not be willing to accept the group. Of course, this threshold would depend on the nature of A. For instance, you probably wouldn't care if 10% could not speak your language, whereas if 10% were rapists then you would think twice. This threshold matters, so how should we rationally decide what is acceptable?

I realise that there are intelligent people on all sides of this debate and so I'm not expecting a direct answer to the question posed. Instead, I'm looking for guidance on how to tackle this question. Are there analogies and thought experiments that can help simplify or reframe this problem? Are there any moral frameworks that provide solutions? Have any notable philosophers written on this issue? How should I, as a citizen who ultimately gets to vote on such matters, make a decision?

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    Different, but related question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/11397/… Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:32
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    It's worth pointing out that though immigration is usually understood as between countries; it's also has been thought of as within a country; for example Steinbecks fictionalisation of the 'Okies' in the Grapes of Wrath. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:02
  • From an economic point of view: Every risk. Because if we do not allow immigrants, due to average birth rates below 2.1 per woman, over-aging and sinking numbers of working population will result in recession and deflation in the long run. And this will at some point destabilize the whole system. Look at Japan in the next 20-ish years and you see where this idiotic bias towards foreigners leads to...
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:33
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    For starters you might read: plato.stanford.edu/entries/immigration
    – Johannes
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:44
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    Don't know if you're following the news lately, but the real question is what level of risk we should tolerate from the natives. Immigrants are about as decent as everyone else. You might make a labor argument or a culture argument. But making a safety argument is wrong, since foreigners have about the same level of criminality as anyone else.
    – user4894
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 23:27

4 Answers 4


It obviously will depend on the philosophical framework being used. Here are a few examples:

1) A free-market approach might reject your premise - that there exists a specific P before which society should accept entirely a group. It would say that the "risk" is no different then any other voluntary exchange among people, and that this activity inherently takes place among individuals.

2) A utilitarian approach would look at the point at which the benefit exceeds the cost, looking at the cost of incorporating the immigrant population, the benefit in terms of the skills and labor that the immigrant population brings to the new locality, and so on, and choose the P that maximizes.

3) Some religious traditions again would reject the premise, and would say that we should always accept immigrants as we would any stranger. See for exampleWelcoming the Stranger Among Us.


I'll give the Utilitarian response, out of my own interest. I'm tempted to say it won't end with a lot of great conclusions but lets see where it goes!

Lets assume that P is much higher than in the host country, just for the sake of the argument.

If we want a host country (and source country, for that matter) with the greatest net happiness, there are several questions that ought to be answered:

  1. Exactly how bad is attribute A? Is it the case that these people are petty theives, serial rapists, or merely snobby or judgmental? We all agree that qualities like these are bad, but in different levels: while I might complain but ultimately cave to my friend's request to attend a dinner with a bunch of people who are snobby and judgmental, I surely would not cave to a request to go to dinner with a group of serial rapists. There ought to be some notion of how bad A actually is for society (i.e. its consequences) in order for Utilitarianism to effectively solve this problem.
  2. Assuming A has highly negative consequences for other people, then we're left at a crossroads. Say we're looking at a group of people who are awful and dangerous drivers - something that is decidedly worse than snobbishness. Lets say that in the source country, thousands of people die each year because of poor driving combined with no safety features in automobiles and poor policing that allows bad drivers to continue running people over. Utilitarianism would say that if we took these people out of this environment, let them harm a few people in our country, which is more well-policed and safety-oriented, and then locked them up for being bad drivers, we'd actually be doing the world a favor. This seems to clash with our intuition about what the "right" thing to do is: many would say that we have no obligation to import these people if many of them will kill our own citizens with automobiles upon coming here.
  3. Assuming A has few negative consequences (snobby people don't kill people) then, if coming to the host country will benefit them greatly (say they were starving in their home country), we ought to suck it up and import them. Our discomfort about them being snobby is surely less than what they stand to benefit from coming here. This seems more reasonable than the above but might still rub us the wrong way - are you obligated to help a materially poor yet incredibly rude and obnoxious person? A lot of people would say that you're justified in walking away from a visibly intoxicated homeless person that shouts slurs at you despite the fact that your discomfort about his bad breath and lack of social etiquette is much less uncomfortable than his alcoholism and lack of reliable food and shelter.

All I can conclude here is that Utilitarianism does a "just ok" job of solving this problem. Basically, the conclusion is that from this perspective, we can't just concern ourselves with how our host country will fare - we must also consider how our actions affect those in the source country as well. In some cases, it may be that despite A being very prevalent and very bad, we're actually helping the world by importing them to a society that will hold them responsible for their evil actions.

It's possible that another ethical framework provides a more satisfactory answer (I'd expect deontologists to have an interesting response). I'm not sure if this is the example you were looking for, but it does provide an ethics-based reasoning as to what the best thing to do is. Part of my problem with this question is in handling all the variables - maybe my treatment of some of the variables leads me to this conclusion. Maybe we ought to consider what percent of the migrants would make of the host country upon moving as well?


From a straight Kantian point of view, I don't think any of us would like our value to a potential society to be decided based entirely upon our chosen associates at any given moment. Unless there is a compelling reason to accept or reject the entire group, rather than sifting through its members, this is simply an excuse for pointless prejudice. Out of a respect for autonomy, only if it is the group itself that determined they are a group would their identity as a group be relevant.

If this is not a self-identified group, it makes sense to decide entrance qualifications on an individual basis, even if that basis is basically random in other respects, but to weigh the perceived negatives in a way that will decrease the likelihood of the individuals qualifying. The percentage of undesirables is not, then, relevant, only the degree to which each is undesirable. Rationally, if one is well-intended toward assimilating into the new society, one's own willingness to live in conditions where one will be resented or distrusted should, in fact, be lower. So the conditions do not have to be prejudicial or manipulative, if they correlate roughly with desirability for both involved parties.

If this is a self-identified group, such as a single family or chosen community, it should be judged on the merits of its own self-identification. Conditions should be set so that everyone's risk of being disqualified are tied to the actions of all members, so that the group itself will hold those with the undesirable traits accountable. So, again, the percentage is irrelevant. What is relevant is the ability of the group to police itself and agree in good faith to control its behavior or submit to control by existing institutions in the new society.

Either way, it is almost impossible to make the parameters in the question as framed really matter.

It could theoretically matter if the trait were basically undetectable and could not be controlled by the individual or the cohort. It is hard to hold undetectable, non-chosen traits against an individual or an affected community in a respectful way. So even in that case, a Kantian viewpoint would largely have to write off the statistics. Compassion suggests that we not hold people accountable for disadvantages over which they have no power, but that we make accommodations for those disadvantages, instead.


Looking at this from a more economic perspective may simplify this to some extent. Slightly confused from the explanation: No economic benefit but you are both willing and able to accommodate them.

If you are both willing and able to accommodate them, does this mean you have both a large enough housing supply and job supply such that they will not remove a noticeable amount of the supply from the native population (of whom will be voting on the subject)?

Assuming the above is true, there will likely be an economic benefit thanks to the increased output and stimulation of the economy.

However if there is not a large enough supply of housing/jobs, then this will: -Force up the prices of homes -Reduce the wages in the host country -Cause prejudice and conflict between natives and migrants

There may still be a economic benefit as a result of this, but inequality in the country would dramatically increase (As can be seen in the UK - Not to say this is the only cause of UK inequality).

Also, you must consider what the bad trait is. If it means they will break formal laws then you must take into account the cost of reparations, court costs, counselling for victims, etc. Also - is the 'Human' cost worth this? (Subjective).

Ultimately, I would say that if there is no economic benefit to your own country (though I am confused how this could be the case with the given example), then it would be a better option to not accept them and instead invest in the source country (trade, infrastructure, etc). This will increase their quality of life and remove the need for the to migrate to gain a better life, benefiting the would-be migrants and the local population far more.

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