Martha Nussbaum begins and ends her essay with stories of marriage. In the first, a woman is seduced by nationalism — and a nationalist — only to recognize that she ought more properly to have submitted to her (cosmopolitan) husband, the feudal landlord. In the closing story, a woman finds her fulfillment in public copulation with her (cosmopolitan) husband. In each story’s “happy ending” the woman submits herself entirely to the will and superior judgment of her husband.
To turn these stories into parables of cosmopolitanism Nussbaum has to overlook feudalism, patriarchy, the strategic course of nationalist struggles in India, and any questions that might arise concerning the virtues of public copulation. To make the case for cosmopolitanism, she has to overlook a little more. The great scriptural religions that treated all men as brothers saw it as their duty to extend that fraternity indefinitely. The 19th century colonizers who sought to spread the light of democracy, constitutionalism, and fair-play to the benighted domains of Oriental despotism, saw their deliberate attempts at acculturation and assimilation as efforts to achieve the end that Nussbaum assigns to all virtuous cosmopolitans.
Our task as citizens of the world, she writes, will be to make “all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers.” Cosmopolitanism here collapses into a parochialism narrower than nationalism, and species-being uniformity becomes the end of a project of cultural cloning. Self-subversion and moral dangers do not appear to be limited to nationalism.
Cosmopolitanism, then, has some of the vices Nussbaum fears in nationalism. Moreover, nationalism has the capacity to cultivate virtues: the same virtues, in fact, that Nussbaum claims are so well served by cosmopolitanism. Nationalism teaches a sense of limits. A sense of limits discourages us from the simple vices of theft and adultery, cultivates the more subtle virtues of temperance and toleration, and encourages qualities which, if they are not virtues, are highly admirable: decency, a sense of propriety, and elegance. The recognition that there are lands that do not belong to us discourages nations from conquest as it discourages individuals from theft. The recognition that there are practices that are not proper to us is necessary to a sense of decency, while the recognition that those same practices belong to others obliges us to acknowledge that what is indecency in us may be not only decent but beautiful and admirable in another. Nussbaum, for her part, appears to admire the ascetic Gandhi and the exhibitionist Crates. The public copulation that appears virtuous (or at least impressive) in the case of Crates would be no virtue in Gandhi. There are different moral goods and morally good lives, and these are not always consonant with one another — that, too, is a lesson one can learn from nationalism.