Trump's border separation policy is morally wrong


National Post, 27 June 2018

When the administration announced that the separation of children would itself prove a deterrent to would-be illegal entrants, a line was crossed in terms of the moral analysis

This column does not often do moral philosophy, but the recent controversy over family separation at the American-Mexican border offers an opportunity to do just that. The Trump administration policy of criminally charging illegal entrants and thus separating them from their children was widely denounced as not just unwise but immoral. Why?

Separating children from their criminally charged parents of course is routine. In Canada if parents are charged with a crime and denied bail — hence detained — then their children will be separated from them during the time of detention. The children are not detained along with the parents. If children had to remain with their parents, and children could not be remanded, then no parents could be detained, either before or after trial.

So “family separation” in the criminal justice system is not immoral, but necessary. At the border it is more painful, as the children have to be taken into separate temporary custody; the alternative of going to stay with family and friends is rarely possible.

The Trump administration decision to charge all those entering illegally set in motion the process of detention for the parents and their separation from their children. That is not an altogether new policy, but rather the more strict application of existing law. Going from lax enforcement to strict enforcement is not obviously immoral, if the existing law itself is morally just. Few dispute that laws which regulate entry are just laws.

So why then the widespread recognition that something was morally awry at the border? It can’t just be that the scenes were heart-rending. Heart-rendering outcomes can be morally correct.

A helpful clarification comes from traditional moral philosophy — the analysis of whether an act is morally good or evil. Every conscious, voluntary act has two aspects. Its “object” or what is being done, and the intention of the one doing it. Both have to be good for an act to be morally good.

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