The Cosmopolitan Tradition: Noble, But Flawed

Martha Nussbaum on cosmopolitanism's flaws.

Nussbaum Martha2

Asked where he came from, Diogenes the Cynic answered with a single word: kosmopolitês, meaning, “a citizen of the world”. This moment, however fictive, might be said to inaugurate a long tradition of cosmopolitan political thought in the Western tradition. A Greek male refuses the invitation to define himself by lineage, city, social class, even free birth, even gender. He insists on defining himself in terms of a characteristic that he shares with all other human beings, male and female, Greek and non-Greek, slave and free. And by calling himself not simply a dweller in the world but a citizen of the world, Diogenes suggests, as well, the possibility of a politics, or a moral approach to politics, that focuses on the humanity we share rather than the marks of local origin, status, class, and gender that divide us. It is a first step on the road that leads to Kant’s resonant idea of the “kingdom of ends,” a virtual polity of moral aspiration that unites all rational beings (although Diogenes, more inclusive, does not limit the community to the “rational”), and to Kant’s vision of a cosmopolitan politics that will join all humanity under laws given not by convention and class but by free moral choice. Diogenes, they say, “used to make fun of good birth and distinctions of rank and all that sort of thing, calling them decorations of vice. The only correct political order was, he said, that in the world (kosmos) as a whole”. Cynic / Stoic cosmopolitanism urges us to recognise the equal, and unconditional, worth of all human beings, a worth grounded in moral choice-capacity (or perhaps even this is too restrictive?), rather than on traits that depend on fortuitous natural or social arrangements. The insight that politics ought to treat human beings both as equal and as having a worth beyond price is one of the deepest and most influential insights of Western thought; it is responsible for much that is fine in the modern Western political imagination. One day, Alexander the Great came and stood over Diogenes, as he was sunning himself in the marketplace. “Ask me for anything you want,” Alexander said. He said, “Get out of my light”. This image of the dignity of humanity, which can shine forth in its nakedness unless shadowed by the false claims of rank and kingship, a dignity that needs only the removal of that shadow to be vigorous and free, is one endpoint of a line that leads to the modern human rights movement.

In the tradition I shall describe, dignity is non-hierarchical. It belongs—and in equal measure—to all who have some basic threshold level of capacity for moral learning and choice. The tradition explicitly and pointedly excludes non-human animals, rejecting that judgment; in some versions, though not that of Diogenes, it also excludes, though less explicitly, humans with severe cognitive disabilities. These shortcomings must be addressed in any contemporary version of the idea. The idea of dignity is not, however, inherently hierarchical or based on the idea of a rank-ordered society. In the medieval and early modern era, versions of the idea of dignity did crop up that were hierarchical and suited to a feudal society. I do not study these ideas here, or the traditions they ground. It is important to emphasise the egalitarian heart of this Stoic type of cosmopolitanism, since some scholars writing about dignity recently have supposed that the entire history of that concept derives from ideas of rank and status in hierarchical societies.


"If one really believes that human dignity is totally immune to the accidents of fortune, then slavery, torture, and unjust war do not damage it, any more than hunger and disease" 


Taken by itself, this vision need not involve politics: it is a moral ideal. In the thought of many of the tradition’s exemplars, however, the idea of equal human dignity does ground a distinctive set of obligations for international and national politics. The idea of respect for humanity has been at the root of much of the international human rights movement, and it has played a formative role in many national legal and constitutional traditions. Nor is the idea of equal human dignity peculiar to the philosophical traditions of the West, although those traditions will be my focus in the present book. In an India riven by hierarchical ideas of caste and of occupations assigned at birth, Buddhism has long brought a different idea, the idea of human equality. Although Gandhi reinterpreted the Hindu tradition in a more egalitarian manner than was conventional, the Buddhist antecedents of the new nation’s founding principle of equal citizenship were dramatised by Gandhi, Nehru, and the other national founders by placing the Buddhist wheel of law at the centre of the flag. The main architect of India’s constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, one of the great legal minds of the twentieth century, converted to Buddhism late in his life and remained entranced by it throughout his life. An “untouchable” (now dalit), he insisted on framing the constitution in ways that put the idea of equal human dignity front and centre. He wrote an entire book on the Buddha, published in 1957, shortly after his death, in order to make clear that tradition’s idea of human equality.

Similarly, the freedom movement in South Africa made respect for human dignity the centre of a revolutionary politics. In this case, Stoic doctrines did play a role—alongside traditional African ideas of ubuntu. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has emphasised the formative role of Cicero’s idea of world citizenship in the life and work of his father, Joe Appiah, founder of the modern nation of Ghana, discussing the ubiquity of Cicero’s ideas in at least all the Anglophone parts of Africa. But recently it has emerged that Nelson Mandela—who later titled a book of interviews and letters Conversations with Myself, alluding explicitly to the influence of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, had access to the Meditations already as a prisoner on Robben Island. When South Africa’s constitution was written, it contained these ideas. Whatever the role of Stoic ideas in the founding document, at least they dovetailed with ideas Mandela had already derived from his own traditions and his experience. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was framed, its framers included representatives of many world traditions, including those of Egypt, China, and Europe. As French philosopher Jacques Maritain relates, they explicitly avoided language that was the sectarian property of a particular tradition—for example, the Christian language. 

The language of equal human dignity, however, as an ethical notion attached to no particular metaphysics, was something they felt they could use and make central. The ideas of the cosmopolitan tradition have, then, been immensely fertile, and they have also intersected with related ideas from other traditions. But the founders of this Western tradition also introduce a problem with which the tradition has been wrestling ever since. For they think that, in order to treat people as having a dignity that life’s accidents cannot erode, they must scoff at money, rank, and power, saying that they are unnecessary for human flourishing. The dignity of moral capacity is complete in itself. Diogenes doesn’t need to ask Alexander for a decent living, citizenship, health care: all he needs to say is, “Get out of my light.” Moral personality is complete, and completely beautiful, without any external aids. Cosmopolitan politics appears to the framers to impose stringent duties of respect, including an end to aggressive war, support for people who have been unjustly attacked, and a ban on crimes against humanity, including genocide and torture. But it imposes no duties of material aid—on the grounds that human beings do not really need the goods of fortune. Without such aid, human dignity is still inviolate.

martha nussbaum SUGGESTED READING Martha Nussbaum On How To Escape Fear By Paula ErizanuDavid Maclean A second problem with the bifurcation of duties is that it involves the pretense that fulfilling the duties of justice does not require material expenditure, something that is empirically false, if we include among the duties of justice duties to protect people from aggressive war, from torture, from slavery, and from other crimes against humanity. Indeed, the cost of a defensive war may vastly exceed the costs involved in alleviating hunger. Once we see this, we should grant that the distinction is one of degree rather than of kind, and perhaps not even one of degree, so far as spending our resources is concerned. But there is a deeper incoherence. The tradition appears to hold that material possessions make no difference to the exercise of our capacities for choice and other aspects of our dignity. If one really believes that human dignity is totally immune to the accidents of fortune, then slavery, torture, and unjust war do not damage it, any more than hunger and disease. But this seems false: people who are ill-nourished, who have no clean water, and who have no access to resources connected to health, education, and other “material” goods are not equally able to cultivate their capacities for choice or to express their basic human dignity. (To put this in terms of the modern human rights movement, the “first-generation rights,” such as religious freedom and political liberty, require the “second-generation rights,” the economic and social rights.) The mind and soul are aspects of a living body that needs nutrition, health care, and other material goods. The Stoic position appears internally incoherent, granting that in some ways the world makes a difference to human dignity and that in other (very similar?) ways it does not.

Incoherent or not, the bifurcation of duties between duties of justice and duties of material aid has exercised a decisive influence on the course of international politics and on the developing human rights movement. We have a fairly well worked-out set of doctrines about duties of justice, which command wide assent and have become the basis for widely agreed accounts of “first-generation rights.” We have no equally worked-out doctrines on the other duties, those in the “second generation,” and we do not seem even to know where to begin, once we step outside of national boundaries. 

The cosmopolitan tradition has another deep problem, which lies in the realm of human psychology. Second-century CE Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius's work poses some questions relevant to the bifurcation of duties, asking us to ponder what type of treatment human dignity requires, if it is, as the Stoics hold, inalienable. What damage is done by slavery, for example, if the dignity of the slave is never affected by it? I ponder these questions about dignity, showing that Stoicism needs, but does not yet have, a distinction between levels of “capability,” which I shall ultimately attempt to supply through my Capabilities Approach (different in some key respects from Amartya Sen’s). Meanwhile, Marcus’s cosmopolitanism also reveals aspects of the motivational and emotional underpinning of cosmopolitanism that make our worries deepen. Can a cosmopolitan politics provide real people with a basis for emotions toward one another sufficient to motivate altruistic conduct, without losing a sense of personal meaning? Surely some statements by Marcus, asking us to renounce close personal ties to family, city, and group, seem to threaten deep concern and the very sources of our motivation to act. They appear to leave us with a barren life in which nothing is worth loving or doing.

Excerpted from THE COSMOPOLITAN TRADITION: A NOBLE BUT FLAWED IDEAL by Martha C. Nussbaum, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by Martha C. Nussbaum. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Emmanuel Fantaisie 17 September 2019

Great article - very interesting to see the contribution of the Stoic thought to the modern laws.
There seem to be apparent inconsistencies in what the Stoics say but I believe that a closer look at their doctrine in good faith allows us to see that they were not so extreme in their vision of dignity. I do not see from Marcus Aurelius writings such a strong call to renounce “to renounce close personal ties to family, city, and group” like you said, but rather an invitation to not get so attached to them that any change or destruction bestowed upon these entities by fortune would destroy us as well.
Stoics push for dignity to be self-generated and indifferent to what is not under one’s control such as being tortured, being a slave, etc. It is to help everyone to get to the state of “contentment” in a purely self-reliant way; it builds fortitude of character in the face of fortune. It does not say not to change these circumstances if possible. And Stoic thought also insists on following the natural role one human has to be kind and tolerant towards a fellow human because they are equal on moral grounds and in their capacity to reason.
However paradoxically, Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor and filled his role as such, for example not abolishing slavery which would have destroyed the economy of the Empire and arguably brought more suffering? Again there seems to be a sort of passivity towards the betterment of the political society from an ancient Stoic point of view, because being a slave like Epictetus was should not be an impediment to one’s dignity.
I think though that more modern views on Stoicism completely incorporate the need for each individual to take care of their fellow humans and treat them as they would like to be treated themselves. The ancient notion of “preferred indifferent”, although highly debated in the Stoic community, shows the acknowledgement from the Stoic thought that an individual’s ability to consider their dignity as separate from what happens outside of their control would be made much easier if not constantly pitted against war, hunger and disease.
It feels to me like the principle accepts and encourages that the political structures, fed by the will of each individual in them to do so, also protect people from external indifferents. It is obviously an ideal, but nonetheless from my point of view an integral part of the cosmopolitan movement this train of thought created.