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Joseph Carens

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Name  Joseph Carens

Role  Author
Joseph Carens politicsutorontocawpcontentuploadsprofilesc

Books  Immigrants and the Right to Stay
Education  Yale University, College of the Holy Cross

State of democracy joseph carens

Joseph H. Carens is a professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Toronto, Canada. His research interests are mainly focused on contemporary political theory, especially on issues related to immigration and political community. Carens is an advocate of open borders, and often considered a leading ethical theorist in the field of immigration. He is author of numerous books and articles, is married to Jennifer Nedelsky, and has two children.


Joseph carens the ethics of immigration january 11th 2017

Education and career

Carens received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross, an M.Phil and Ph.D. in political science and an M.Phil in religious studies from Yale University. Before moving to the University of Toronto, he taught at North Carolina State University, Lake Forest College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton University.


Joseph Carens distinguishes three dimensions of citizenship in his book Culture, Citizenship, and Community. A Contextual Exploration of Justice as Evenhandedness; a legal, psychological and political dimension. The legal dimension refers to the formal rights and duties to the political community to which one belongs, the psychological dimension refers to one’s identification with the political community to which one belongs, the political dimension refers to one’s sense of the representational legitimacy of those who act authoritatively on behalf of and in the name of the political community.

The easiest model of citizenship is the unitary model, in this model the nation state is the same as the political community. In this model the nation state prescribes the legal status of every individual living in it. Unfortunately this unitary model fails to capture the reality of the modern world.

Nowadays, lots of people migrate; this has resulted in millions of people with a dual citizenship. In the Netherlands alone there are 1 million citizens with dual nationality, this is 1 in every 16 citizens.

One of the reasons for this worldwide increase in dual citizenship is the gradual elimination of gender bias in laws regarding citizenship. These laws used to say that a child would gain the citizenship status of the father of the child. Now this has changed and if the parents of a child both have different citizenship the child will acquire both.

Another reason can be found in states where citizenship is determined by place of birth; i.e., United States, the Netherlands and Canada. If a child is born in The Netherlands for example they will gain the Dutch citizenship, if both parents are from another state like Morocco and Turkey, this would mean the child acquires three different citizenships.

A third reason can be found in the laws regarding immigration. Some states such as Australia and Canada do not require immigrants to renounce their previous citizenship as a condition of naturalisation. This means that immigrants who want to obtain the Australian citizenship can keep the citizenship of the state they were born in. In The Netherlands this is not the case, since 1997 immigrants who want to naturalize are not allowed to keep their former citizenship. Exceptions in this law made it possible for about half a million people to acquire dual citizenship since then. Among these exceptions are when the home state of the immigrant does not allow people to give up their nationality (for example Morocco), or when the immigrant is married to a Dutch citizen.

There are a lot of objections against dual citizenship; some are based on the following questions that come to mind. If people hold more than one citizenship, which state is responsible? Are dual citizens subject to two conflicting sets of laws (i.e., marriage and divorce laws) and obligations (i.e., taxes and military duty)? Usually these problems are easily solved. In most cases the laws and obligations of the state in which the person lives need to be followed.

More objections against dual citizenship are links between legal status and democratic legitimacy. If a person has a dual citizenship, does that mean that he or she can have a say in the government of both states by voting in each state’s elections? If a people vote in a state where they don’t live in, doesn’t that violate democratic norms to help select a governmental policy that they will not be subject to?

In short, there is a conflict between these rising questions and objections on one hand, and on the other hand the positive sides of dual citizenship. Dual citizenship enables people who have substantial ties to more than one political community because of their residence, place of birth, family ties to protect their vital human interests in each of them.

There is also a different kind of citizenship; within states. In Belgium and Canada for example there are two political communities (in the example of Belgium there is Flanders and Wallonia). In a federal system like this, everyone belongs to two political communities, the jurisdiction and sovereignty of these political communities is limited and intertwined with each other. These units within a federal system are significant political communities and are an important form of citizenship. These forms of citizenship change overtime however. In the United States for example, there were political communities in the 18th and 19th century that rivalled with the federal government of the United States in their significance for the identities of many of their citizens. Today these political communities no longer exist in the United States, but they can still be found in other states like Spain for example.

The rise of the European Union (EU) and European citizenship raises the question whether this form of citizenship is of any significance. On one hand we see that all individuals that are part of the EU are part of the citizenship of their own state and that the overreaching unit seems of little importance. On the other hand we see that European citizens can use European courts and legal rights. This means that on legal grounds we have to think of the EU as a base for a citizenship.

Psychological dimension

Another way to belong to a political community, other than on legal grounds is to have the feeling that one belongs and is connected with it. This dimension that Carens describes is based on one’s sense of emotional attachment, loyalty and identification. There is a natural link between the legal and psychological dimensions, people generally have a strong identification and feeling of connection with the political community of which they possess legal citizenship.

There is a conventional view that says that one’s primary political identity is derived from the membership in a state. From this view there are also opposing arguments against dual citizenship. People with a dual citizenship are very likely to have multiple loyalties, identities and attachments. This makes one wonder which political community would get their primary commitment in a case of conflict.

It is not always the case that a person’s emotional attachment, loyalty and identity is linked to their legal status. There are many examples which prove the opposite. Carens describes in his book a Canadian law called the Indian Act. This law says that if an Indian woman marries a man who does not have the legal status of an Indian, the woman loses her Indian status. Many women may have lost their legal standing as a member of the political community, but this does not mean that these women no longer had a sense of identification with this community and that they all of a sudden felt a strong identification with the community they were legally forced to join.

This is also often seen in the situation of immigrants, they often feel a strong connection with the country that they originally came from than with the country they moved to, even though they may have legal status there.

People who feel alienated from and hostile towards the political community they legally belong to, are often people who feel like they are not treated equally. For example people could feel they are treated as less because of their race, or their religion. In The Netherlands there are a lot of Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, yet not a single Islamic celebration day is recognised as national holidays. Policies like this can be experienced as forms of inequity and exclusion.

Generally speaking the nation state and its sovereignty is seen as the most important political community for a citizenship. Other forms of political community: internal (i.e., provinces) and external (i.e., EU) are seen as legally and psychologically subordinate. This is not always the case however in the minds of people. Francophone Québécois have a stronger tendency towards their Québécois citizenship than towards their Canadian citizenship.

Political dimension

The political dimension refers to one’s sense of the representational legitimacy of those who act authoritatively on behalf of and in the name of the political community. In the conventional view representational legitimacy depends on being selected by voters in fair and free elections. There are a few problems however regarding elected officials; the relation between the elected officials and the people who voted against them, the alienated or apathetic votes and the scepticism against elected officials. There are also problems of legitimacy if important decisions are made by institutions that are not subject to elections and democratic control such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.


Carens is often considered a leading scholar in the ethics of immigration. In a review of Carens's 2013 book The Ethics of Immigration published in the academic journal Migration Studies, Matthew Gibney wrote:

Beginning with a highly influential article defending open borders in 1987, Carens has produced a steady stream of pieces on citizenship, refugees, economic migration and irregular migration that have informed almost all serious ethical theorizing on migration.

Carens has summarized his position on immigration and open borders as:

I think that the way the world is organized today is fundamentally unjust. It’s like feudalism in important respects. In a world of relatively closed borders like ours, citizenship is an inherited status and a source of privilege. Being born a citizen of a rich country in North America or Europe is a lot like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages. It greatly enhances one’s life prospects (even if there are lesser and greater nobles). And being born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is a lot like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages. It greatly limits one’s life chances (even if there are some rich peasants and a few gain access to the nobility). These advantages and disadvantages are intimately linked to the restrictions on mobility that are characteristic of the modern state system, although the deepest problem is the vast inequality between states that makes so many people want to move. This is not the natural order of things. It is a set of social arrangements that human beings have constructed and that they maintain.


Joseph Carens Wikipedia