Spurred on by some topics mentioned today at the Theory Worksop, I want to ask what the relationship might be between where one is born and what kinds of treatment one is entitled to get.
Something I think about often is how I would react, if I were in a situation of intolerably threatening nationalism, or of racism cloaked as nationalism. So imagine this case.
I am walking down the street in some neighborhood I've never been in before, say, South Boston. Some ruffian approaches me and hurls a nationalist epithet at me, e.g., "Go back to China!" Now, my initial line of defense, given that I could not just flee--imagine that he is blocking my way down the street and that he is much larger and more violent than I am, so I must try to defuse the situation--would be to reply, "Look, I was born in America, just like you were, so whatever your beef is, it's probably not with me." Call this quotation the _Reply_.
Hopefully, I would have made him reconsider his aggression by throwing light on a possibility: Americans born in America can be non-white and non-black, too. And perhaps this possibility would defuse his aggression, not at the Chinese, but at least at _me_. The prospects of the Reply's working to get me out of danger depend, of course, on his being, not predominantly a racist, but rather just a nationalist who sees my, say, East Asian-ness as somehow a threat to America and Americans, and not to his "race."
My concerns then are: If this kind of response seems acceptable, then on what grounds? I.e., what makes it a good thing to say? The concern arises, since we would probably all admit that such a reply is something like a deflection: the real issue is what makes the ruffian's behavior justified, if it can be. And we probably think it can't be, since he shouldn't talk that way to anyone, anyway. So, if the Reply is just a deflection, then it is consistent with the claim that where one is born never generates _per se_ a reason to be treated in a certain way. Of course, the fact of where one is born sometimes matters _per accidens_: that I was born in Louisiana might allow me to make special claims against a Louisiana legislator, as prescribed by positive law. But what I want to examine is how the fact of being born here, rather than there, makes a more fundamental difference to how I am to be treated.
But is the Reply just a deflection? Imagine the following case; for I think it might lead us to think in a different way.
If I have my facts right: Germany was for a very long time--only until very recently, in fact--governed by what, in English, can be called "the right of blood," as opposed to "the right of birth." The latter is what is in effect in America and England: citizenship is conferred automatically to anyone born in America (or England). But in Germany, I think, being born in Berlin was consistent with being afforded no German citizenship; rather, the right of German "blood" allowed the state to make distinctions between whom it would give citizenship along ethnic (or racial, perhaps) lines. A case arose in which a Turkish youth committed some crime, and he was deported from Germany--even though he was born and raised in Germany, even though he had not even once set foot upon non-German soil. But off to Turkey he was sent.
What, then, distinguishes this youth from another who was _not_ born in Germany? Given fixed crimes and effects, what work is being done by the fact that this youth was German-born? For it is doing _some_ work, I think, in terms of our intuitions, but it is not quite clear what the shape of that function is.
Now, I admit that this story discloses a very messy bundle of facts and possible moral implications. I have my own views about how best to understand these cases, but I will leave them for now.
Return to the case of the South Boston Bully. We can isolate some considerations, all of which probably are psychologically in play, were I to give the Reply.
(i) The fact that I am American-born might be strategically said to induce behavior that I reasonably want, i.e., his going away.
(ii) The fact that I am so born might generate a _reason_ for me to be treated in a certain reasonable way, i.e., not getting punched or verbally abused. Call this the _nativist claim_.
Now, (i) is clearly able to do a lot of work in explaining why I would give the Reply. I think it would be quite acceptable for me to do a whole host of actions in order to avoid getting punched or abused, regardless of spouting sophistries in the public square. But is (i) all that we can say to justify giving the Reply, or to justify the ruffian's reaction to it?
I would like to hear y'all's thoughts on the matter. But to end, and to hint: my view is that being born here, rather than there, does not generate any additional reason to be treated in some way; rather, it is a fact which generates a reason to dismiss a forseen objection to being treated in some way. And: what's operative in the Germany example is, not that being born in Germany matters, but rather that differences in punishment should depend not at all on facts about birth. The reasons why the "right of blood" is bad don't make the "right of birth" good; they're both bad, but for non-co-extensive sets of reasons.
(I've made a change in the sections on Germany; I had accidentally switched traits about who was non-German-born.)