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Against the Moral Irrelevance of Nationality

‘To count people as moral equals is to treat nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, race and gender as ‘morally irrelevant’---as irrelevant to that equal standing.

Of course, these factors properly enter into our deliberations in many contexts.

But the accident of being born a Sri Lankan, or a Jew, or a female, of an African-American, or a poor person, is just that---an accident of birth.

It is not ... a determinant of moral worth.

We should view the equal worth of all human beings as a regulative constraint on our political actions and aspirations’

Nussbaum, 1996 p. 133

In attempting to see what might be said for moral relevance, I think it is helpful to follow Appiah in distinguishing nation from state ...

Appiah : state vs nation

nation : ‘an imagined community of culture or ancestry running beyond the scale of the face-to-face and seeking political expression’


states : ‘regulate our lives through forms of coercion that will always require moral justification. State institutions ... are ... necessary to so many modern human purposes ... [T]o do its job the state has to have a monopoly on certain forms of authorized coercion


Appiah, 1996 pp. 27--8

Some thing that although nations are ethically irrelevant, states are not ... you can see why one might ...
If this is their job, surely states cannot be ethically irrelevant.

Are states morally relevant?

Consider two kinds of justification for the claim that states are morally relevant ...

‘our obligations as democratic citizens go beyond our duties as politically unorganized individuals, because our capacity to act effectively to further justice increases when we are empowered as citizens, and so therefore does our responsibility to act to further justice’


Gutman, 1996 p. 69

1. Commitments cost money and lives.

2. It is states which pay.


3. Citizens have ‘the ethical right to make distinctions’.

Glazer p. 62

Glazer, 1996 p. 62

Is either argument convincing?