Onora O’Neill’s views on vulnerability and the desirability of porous borders: Some important challenges

Gillian Brock

Summary: 1. Introduction. 2. The importance of need, vulnerability, and reexamining borders in O’Neill’s normative theorising. 3. Some challenges in evaluating the porosity of borders: the salience of need and vulnerability. 4. Policy options. 5. Towards just migration policy: my position and why I think O’Neill would have to agree with the main conclusions. 6. Justice in migration: Distributing responsibility. 7. Summary and Conclusions.

Abstract: Philosophical theorizing about global justice has evolved into a flourishing, sophisticated, and respectable field. This was not the case about two decades ago and O’Neill’s pioneering work on these topics has been highly influential in these welcome developments. In this paper I aim to review the important role agency, need, and vulnerability play in O’Neill’s normative theorizing, as well as the importance she places on being able to allocate responsibilities, in evaluating how porous borders should be to persons who want to cross them permanently. Some of the most important questions needing resolution in political philosophy today include how to distribute responsibilities for moving towards global justice. Just how difficult this is will soon become obvious. I discuss a case study which helpfully illustrates some of the complexity. It also provides an interesting challenge for O’Neill’s work. As I show, focusing on vulnerabilities gives us a richer understanding of the nature of our ethical and political obligations in a world characterized by multiple injustices. But it also adds more challenges in our quest to assign responsibility fairly.

Keywords: philosophical anthropology, ethics, political philosophy, global justice, Onora O’Neill, vulnerability.