The notion of a ‘border’ or ‘boundary’ is both straightforward and highly complex. When it comes to our most intimate spaces – our bodies or our homes, for example – most of us have a relatively clear idea of what our personal boundaries are, that is: of who may and may not enter those spaces; of what they may and may not do there, and of how and when certain kinds of permissions or exceptions are and are not to be granted. Moreover, with respect to these closest of personal boundaries, we seem to have a special kind of authority such that our preferences are decisive. Things change however when the space hemmed in by a given boundary is less intimate. Consider, for example, what the appropriate conditions are on who may or may not enter your neighborhood. Or on who may or may not live there. Questions at this level are harder to answer for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that your neighborhood is not ‘yours’ in the same sense as your body or your home are. So even if you feel you may have some idea about how to answer these further questions, chances are you also think that it is not to be settled by you alone, but in concert with the other members of your community. Having said this much, it should be clear that when we ask similar questions about boundaries (who may cross them and when and why, and for how long, etc.) while widening the space beyond your neighborhood, to your city, your state, or your country, things are likely to seem even more difficult.

One natural thought is that such broader questions are best settled by vote. This is intuitive, and certainly voting has many advantages: as a process, it’s relatively simple, it has an air of fairness about it, and offers the additional bonus of providing a new kind of authority to replace the personal authority that settles questions about more intimate boundaries, namely: legal authority. The main trouble with voting of course is that by generating majorities, it also generates minorities. While the generation of minorities may be tolerable in certain kinds of cases (where the stakes are sufficiently low, for example), in others it is highly problematic, such as when they are based on the wrong kinds of factors, like colour, creed, or cultural background. And of course, questions about borders and boundaries – immigration and or refugee rights, to name just two – are particularly susceptible to these kinds of problems, since it’s often members of such minorities who are seeking entry into a given country. Moreover, this particular species of democratic injustice is also self-perpetuating insofar as it’s the majority groups that make and enforce the laws that constrain the social and legal situation for various minority groups, and make it harder for their political voice to be heard. As a result the aforementioned injustices can easily become systemic and entrenched.

Some will no doubt want to deny the fact of systemic and cultural injustice, but it is really not controversial. Others who recognize such injustices may be led to question the legitimacy of legal authority when it comes to settling questions about borders and boundaries, or, for that matter, any question upon which racial or cultural groups are consistently divided. This situation raises deeper issues about the relationship between legal and moral authority generally. Thus, while most of us likely believe we have a general obligation to obey the law, it seems patently obvious that the law can be, and often is, unjust. What are we to do in such cases? One way into this issue is to consider what, if anything, grounds or justifies our obligation to obey the law, and how far that justification goes. For example, is the said obligation a moral one, like the obligation we have to help someone in dire need, for example? Or is it an obligation of some other kind, like, say, the one children have to obey their parents? If it’s a moral one, then it ought at least to be sensitive to other kinds of moral considerations – like those related to fairness and justice – and we will face the issue of how and when certain kinds of moral reasons yield to others. If it’s a non-moral obligation, then we will face the issue of how and when it can be trumped by moral considerations of the sort just mentioned, which most of us take to be fundamental and non-optional.

Faced with the often painful realities of life in our boundary-laden world, such abstract questions can seem irrelevant, but reflecting on them can help shed new light on these difficult issues. For example, considering the ground of our legal obligations can help us get clearer on the nature of obligations generally – especially moral ones, and on when they matter most, and why. Moreover, asking these kinds of questions may help us to uncover the various thoughts and feelings that give rise, perhaps unthinkingly, to our own personal views about who to let across our borders. We may discover, for example, that our unwillingness to open up to certain people, even in times of extreme need, is grounded in some irrational fear, be it of the people themselves, or of some threat we take them to pose to our nation. Once we expose these fears, we can work to suppress them so as to better attune ourselves to the hardship and suffering faced by so many of those who find themselves forced to flee their own nations, often for reasons beyond their control. From this new perspective, the various borders and boundaries that keep some in and others out (along with the laws that “guard” them) will likely seem far less important than the plight of real people who, however different they may be from us in various superficial ways, are nevertheless alike in their basic wants and needs, in their desire to be happy and safe, and to have, like us, a place to call home.