“Proponents of nationalism in politics and in education,” Martha Nussbaum writes, “frequently make a thin concession to cosmopolitanism.” They say that “although nations should in general base education and political deliberation on shared national values, a commitment to basic human rights should be part of any national educational system. . . .” Nussbaum identifies me with this position, which she says is “a fair comment on practical reality” but not a sufficient moral ideal. The nationalism she describes is not my position. More importantly, it neither fairly reflects practical reality nor expresses an attractive moral ideal. Practical reality is far worse, and a moral ideal demands far more.
Most nations do not teach, let alone practice, anything close to basic human rights, which include rights to freedom of speech and religion, due process and equal protection under the law, education and economic security, and equal representation in a genuinely democratic politics. As this incomplete list indicates, basic human rights are so extensive that teaching them cannot be fairly characterized as a thin concession to anything. If most nations effectively taught basic human rights, practical reality would be immeasurably better than our present reality.
The same cannot be said for basing education and political deliberation on shared national values, whatever those values happen to be. This nationalistic view is abhorrent. It’s strange, to say the least, that Nussbaum associates my defense of democratic humanism with such a view. How does she manage to do so? She identifies as nationalistic the idea that a public educational system should teach children the skills and virtues of a democratic citizenship that dedicates itself to furthering liberty and justice for all. She then translates this idea into the advocacy of teaching national values, whatever they happen to be. But such advocacy would clearly be incompatible with a commitment to the teaching of democratic humanist values.
What are democratic humanist values? They subsume basic human rights but also go beyond them in morally important ways. All children — regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, race, or class — should be educated to deliberate together as free and equal citizens in a democracy that is dedicated to furthering social justice for all individuals, not just members of their own society. Are democratic humanist values “national values,” as Nussbaum suggests by way of criticism? Only in the innocuous sense that they recommend themselves to be taught within the United States and every other society as part of its common public education. But in this sense, Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan values are also national values, and can be misleadingly tarred by the same nationalistic brush. Putting labels aside, I suspect that Nussbaum and I agree that children should be taught to respect the dignity of all individuals. They should also be empowered as democratic citizens. Both are necessary (and compatible) conditions for a just democracy. The constitution of just democracies, in turn, is necessary to achieve justice in the world.
This is also the cosmopolitan view of Kant, but it is a cosmopolitanism that roundly rejects Nussbaum’s claim that our “primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world.” Yes, we have duties to respect the rights of individual human beings the world over, and schools the world over should teach children (not indoctrinate them) to appreciate these duties. But it does not follow that we are “citizens of the world” or that our primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world. This cosmopolitan position might be attractive were our only alternative to give our primary allegiance to the United States of America, or to give it to some other politically sovereign community. But we have another alternative, which Nussbaum neglects (and does not recognize as the position defended by democratic humanism): to reject the idea that our primary allegiance is to any actual community, and to recognize the moral importance of being empowered as free and equal citizens of a genuinely democratic polity.
Why not empower individuals as citizens of the entire world? We can truly be citizens of the world only if there is a world polity. Given what we now know, a world polity could only exist in tyrannical form. Nonetheless, we need to be citizens of some polity to be free and equal, and we need therefore to be educated to those (particular as well as universal) skills, understandings, and values that secure full participation and equal standing in our own polity. Being empowered as a free and equal citizen of some democratic polity should be an opportunity open to all individuals. Democratic citizenship is an essential demand of justice in the world as we know it, and individuals the world over recognize it as such.
Does this emphasis on democratic citizenship imply that students in our society should therefore “learn that they are above all citizens of the United States” (another repugnant position that Nussbaum seems to attribute to me)? Far from this being a sufficient standard for a democratic humanist education, such teaching is clearly antithetical to it. It is one thing to say that publicly-subsidized schooling should teach students the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship (something Nussbaum never clearly recognizes) and quite another to say that it should teach them that they are “above all citizens of the United States.” Our primary moral allegiance is to no community, whether it be of human beings in our world today or our society today. Our primary moral allegiance is to justice — to doing what is right. Doing what is right cannot be reduced to loyalty to, or identification with, any existing group of human beings. Morality extends even beyond the current generation, for example, requiring that we consider the well-being of future generations.
Suppose that we leave behind both the view that Nussbaum articulates — that the community of human beings in the entire world commands our primary allegiance — and the view she mistakenly attributes to democratic humanists — that “national boundaries are morally salient.” We are left with an important distinction, which Nussbaum collapses in her criticism, between taking national boundaries as morally salient and recognizing them as politically salient, and likely to be so for the foreseeable future. A philosophy of democratic education rejects the idea that national boundaries are morally salient. If they are politically salient, however, then public education ought to cultivate in all students the skills and virtues of democratic citizenship, including the capacity to deliberate about the demands of justice for all individuals, not only for present-day citizens of the United States. Deliberating about the demands of justice is a central virtue of democratic citizenship because it is primarily (not exclusively) through our empowerment as democratic citizens that we can further the cause of justice around the world.
What is Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan alternative? To teach students that their primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world. Where is there any such community? There are human beings throughout the world and they are entitled to be treated as equals, according to principles of right and justice. If this is what Nussbaum means by community, she is agreeing with what democratic humanists say. If she means to refer to a community with claims that take precedence over these rights, a community that requires its members to respect those claims “above all” because they are “above all” citizens of the world, then she is recommending a vision that we should reject. It is another parochial form of nationalism, this time on a global scale. Its parochialism may be concealed by the fact that Nussbaum supplies little or no content to the world community’s values. She talks about how we should understand more about other people’s “histories, problems, and comparative successes,” but this does not address the question of what the world community’s moral values are. Understanding other people’s situation, however important, is not the main aim of moral education. Respecting every person’s claims of justice is. What are those claims? Nussbaum does not say. Were she to give cosmopolitanism content, I suspect that it would look a lot like democratic humanism.
Democratic humanism supports an education that empowers citizens to deliberate about justice as part of their political culture — justice for their fellow citizens as well as their fellow human beings, who are citizens of other societies. What is the cosmopolitan alternative? Publicly-subsidized schools could teach students that it is their duty as individuals, regardless of their role as citizens, to further justice. We do have duties of justice quite apart from our role as citizens. But this lesson is incomplete, both morally and politically speaking, and its incompleteness helps explain why democratic citizenship is morally important. Our obligations as democratic citizens go beyond our duties as politically-unorganized individuals because our capacity to act effectively to further justice increases when we are empowered as citizens, and so therefore does our responsibility to act to further justice. Democratic citizens have institutional means at their disposal that solitary individuals, or “citizens of the world” only, do not. Some of those institutional means are international in scope, but even those (the United Nations being the most prominent example) tend to depend on the cooperation of sovereign societies for effective action.
By teaching students to deliberate about justice as democratic citizens, not only as individuals, schools can encourage citizens to support effective institutional ways of moving toward both a better society and a better world. Schools should also teach students that there are demands of morality and justice that do not depend on democratic citizenship for their realization — for example, the demands of family and friendship. But to teach either lesson with intellectual integrity, schools must move beyond the morally misguided and politically dangerous idea of asking us to choose between being above all citizens of our own society or above all citizens of the world. We are, above all, none of the above.