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The US Border Wall as a Failed Moral Project from a Second Person Standpoint

GVER, Vol. 6 No. 2, (2011)

This paper argues that the US-Mexico border wall is a failed moral project if viewed from a second-personal standpoint, like that espoused by Stephen Darwall. The US functions as an agent of harm by its sustaining support of the continued construction and maintenance of the border wall because it fails to recognize the legitimacy of the moral claims made by border citizens. The US border wall obliterates a reciprocal authority/accountability relation between the US as a moral agent and the southern border cities as moral patients. For the US to gain efficacy as a moral agent with respect to the border wall, it must act as though those people directly impacted by the construction of the wall weigh in on the moral deliberations over the border wall.
To date, philosophical discussion concerning the morality of the border wall has largely hinged on agent-neutral reasons from nationalistic or libertarian perspectives, and from the mainline topics of economics, national security, or civil rights. In this project I refocus the debate over the border wall, and contend that the border wall is, ultimately, a failed moral project—but not for its effects, but because the current agent-neutral reasons the United States has given for a border wall strip the US government of moral authority to act .
Darwall’s recent The Second Person Standpoint offers a unique foundation from which to build an argument that the fundamental moral difficulty with the United States’ continued commitment to the border wall is that it makes the US an agent of harm by acting outside of a second-person standpoint. I draw from two case studies (the maquiladoras, and US/Mexican colonias) to show that the moral result of the border wall is that citizens of US and Mexican border towns are denigrated to a less-than-person moral status.
Moral obligations, according to Darwall, are second-personal, so that one’s actions make claims on others’ conduct and will. A characteristic of many morally impermissible acts, according to Darwall, is that they skew the shared moral accountability balance, so the agent does not properly recognize her moral relationship to the other. Herein is the fundamental moral difficulty with the US border wall. The act of constructing the US border wall—from its implications on US landowners and environment, to its effects on Mexican workers (documented, national, and otherwise), to its empowerment of the Secretary for Homeland Security—is reasoned solely from the basis of a first-person plural perspective, that of the (not unimportant) epistemic, agent-neutral reason of national security. In this debate, there is no moral “other” with whom the US government can relate. Moral authority presupposes an accountability relation that simply does not exist with citizens on the US/Mexican border because the US has not acted from agent-relative, second-personal reasons. People, as Rawls famously noted, are self-originating sources of moral claims (Rawls, 1980, p. 77) and when an entity acts for reasons that are divorced from the specific persons directly tied to its act, the entity acts wrongly as an agent of harm. The US border wall, then, if constructed independent of reasons tied to the persons affected by it, minimizes the US’s moral authority along the border.

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