In the current discussions about our duties (of justice) towards refugees, feasibility constraints are often invoked to justify the limits of what can be done: Austria has to close its borders and limit the number of daily asylum applications due to feasibility constraints, the feasibility limit of refugees admitted to the European Union as part of the current resettlement scheme with Turkey is set at 172.000 or mayors of various cities claim that it is not possible for them to shelter refugees.
Following these debates, I often gain the impression that infeasibility claims are invoked far too easily. Hardly ever they are based on feasibility studies and often they seem more of an excuse to shy away from our duties (of justice). At the same time, powerful arguments for the need to account for feasibility constraints when identifying our duties of justice in the non-ideal real world have been put forward in the literature on non-ideal theories of justice: what justice demands from us should not go beyond what we can possibly do. How is it possible to account for feasibility considerations in this later sense, without allowing them to become a cheap excuse in political debate to shy away from our duties of justice towards refugees?
In this blog post I would like to make a first attempt to address this question by drawing on the current migration debate. I do so by shortly discussing a number of features that seem to make feasibility arguments particularly vulnerable to misuse in political debate. In a second step I suggest some principles for public debate that could restrict a possible misuse of feasibility arguments in debates about justice.
The following features seem to make feasibility arguments particularly vulnerable to misuse in public debate:
- Feasibility is (often) uncertain: Especially in new situations the outcome of (policy) actions is often highly uncertain. There is limited experience in handling migration movements of the current scale, for instance, making it difficult to predict what is possible and what is not. This uncertainty feature of feasibility arguments can undermine claims of justice if risk-averse feasibility claims are advanced without proper justification.
- Feasibility is dependent on the time horizon: What is feasible in the short-run might be crucially different from what can be feasible in the mid- or in the long-run. For instance, it might be the case that current Austrian institutions can only handle a certain limit of daily asylum applications and that this limit cannot be changed from one day to the other. This does not mean, however, that this feasibility limit cannot be extended in the mid-run if one undertakes the necessary institutional changes. This feature of feasibility arguments can undermine claims of justice if only a short-term perspective is taken in the assessment of feasibility, without exploring the possibilities of altering the constraining factors themselves.
- Feasibility, ceteris paribus: Feasibility claims are often advanced taking all other things being equal. One example is the feasibility limit of the recent EU-Turkey agreement, that takes the existing European resettlement commitments as given.This feature can undermine claims of justice if feasibility arguments are employed to limit claims of justice taking the (institutional) settings as given, even if the source of injustice might lie precisely in these very institutional arrangements themselves.
The following principles for public debate are some first ideas how the above described risks of feasibility arguments undermining our duties of justice (towards refugees) could be countered.
- Not-too-cautionary principle: This principle consists in shifting the burden of proof towards those who claim that something is not feasible. In the current debate this would mean, for instance, that those who claim that Austria cannot let more people enter have to prove why this is not possible.
- Mid- & long-run feasibility principle: This principle demands short-run feasibility arguments only to be admissible if they come with a mid- and a long-run perspective. In case of the migration debate this would mean that immediate restrictions on the number of people allowed into the European Union could only be justified in the name of feasibility if they come with a mid- and long-run strategy as to how the limits of feasibility could be extended.
- Ceteris non-paribus principle: This principle demands a change in what should be taken as given in the assessment of feasibility. Instead of asking what is possible, taking other things (such a institutions or budgetary priorities) as given, we ask what would have to be changed in order to extend the limits of feasibility. In the current debate about migration, this would mean that instead of asking how many refugees can be admitted to a specific country or the European Union given current institutional structures (e.g. the Dublin III agreement), for instance, we would ask what needs to be changed in the current legal and institutional setting in order to extend the limits of feasibility as far as possible and necessary.
These principles are some first ideas as to how we could take feasibility constraints seriously in debates about justice, without allowing them to become a cheap excuse for not complying with our duties of justice.