Jacob M. Appel is a bioethicist and fiction writer. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
Appel has also published short fiction in more than one hundred literary journals. His short story, Shell Game With Organs, won the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest in 1998. His story about two census takers, "Counting," was shortlisted for the O. Henry Award in 2001. Other stories received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and 2007.
He is admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.
Appel contributed a Dangerous Idea to Big Think's "Month of Thinking Dangerously," advocating that we add trace amounts of lithium to our drinking water to help reduce the suicide rate.
Appel is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What is the most pressing ethical issue of our time?
Jacob Appel: I think it is, to phrase it bluntly, the rights of foreigners. It is the arbitrary distinction that people have more or fewer rights because they were born on one side of the border of another side of a border. Once you accept the premise that all human beings are endowed with equal rights and of equal value, then there’s no moral or ethical justification treating them differently simply they were born in different countries.
We can’t grant everybody rights by invading all the countries in the world and forcing our values upon them. What we can do is grant anybody who has the wherewithal or power to come within our borders the same set of rights that we grant the people that are already here.
I should add that was the American tradition up until the 1920’s with the exception of Asian Americans, all other groups until the 1920’s who came here volitionally were granted a certain set of basic rights and the borders were open to them. And that really was the fundamental difference between the United States and the countries of Europe. You came to America, you had the opportunity to become a citizen, you had an opportunity to take part in “The American Dream.” That’s what the Statute of Liberty is all about. The people who waved their American flags and shout about patriotism and at the same time don’t want immigrants to come across our borders or are concerned about illegal immigrants have missed the entire point of America.
Question: Wouldn't such a massive influx of immigrants overtax government entitlement programs?
Jacob Appel: It’s not at all clear that having more immigrants coming to the country wouldn’t generate more revenue and make more revenue available to provide the entitlements that people seek. Immigrants tend to be among the most productive members of our society. And historically, people have studied this. It’s second generation, third generation Americans, the children of immigrants who are the powerhouse to the American economy. If you were really concerned about expenditures on entitlements, you would take people whose families have lived here for a very long time and weren’t being economically productive and you would deport them and then you have more money for entitlement programs or you would spend less on entitlements in relation to economic progress. I think it’s a terrible idea, but I think it’s worth noting that many of those same people or of people who have waived their flags complaining about the criminality of illegal immigrants.
The objections to all of these phenomena are really not what people say they are.