Like most of my contemporaries, I have inherited or acquired more than one “identity” — I am an American, a practicing Jew, a late 20th century philosopher. But it would never occur to me to say that I am a “citizen of the world.” If I were asked, for example, why discrimination is wrong, I would not say “because we are all citizens of the world.” Martha Nussbaum’s challenging piece has forced me to think about why this is so.
To a fellow theist, I might say “because we are all made in the image of God.” To someone to whom this would seem absurd, I might quote Dickens’s beautiful remark (in “A Christmas Carol”) about Scrooge’s coming to see other people as “fellow passengers to the grave,” or mention Primo Levi’s haunting statement that the look an official in the concentration camp gave him “was not the look a man gives a man.” (Cora Diamond called both of these passages to my attention.) That someone is a fellow human being, a fellow passenger to the grave, has moral weight for me; “citizen of the world” does not.
But why not? Well, I can understand the idea of patriotism as loyalty to a good constitution (written or unwritten), but there is no such thing as a world constitution. Nor is there any such thing as a world way of life (thank God). But what is wrong with Martha Nussbaum’s idea of “universal reason” as that to which the “cosmopolitan” owes loyalty? This sounds to me like “Voltaire’s conception of enlightenment as being identical in essentials wherever it is attained,” a conception that implies that “Byron would have been happy at table with Confucius . . . and Seneca in the salon of Madame du Deffand” (Isaiah Berlin).
I am no cultural relativist. There is such a thing as reasoning well about moral issues, but it does not need a funny something called “universal reason” to guarantee its possibility. And actual reasoning is necessarily always situated within one or another historical tradition. To be sure, members of different traditions can enter into discussion and debate. But in such discussions we typically find ourselves forced to renegotiate our understanding of reason itself. It is, in part, because “reason” calls for such endless renegotiation that it cannot function as a neutral source of values for “world citizens” to live by, while they view their cultural inheritances as if they were merely the loved (to be sure) but regrettably parochial family one happens to have. We all have to live and judge from within our particular inheritance(s), while remaining open to insights and criticisms from outside.