Against all forms of nationalism and ethnocentrism, Martha Nussbaum challenges us to take seriously, in education as in politics, the cosmopolitan ideal that grants equal respect to all. She illuminates both what is most persuasive in this ideal and the questions it inevitably raises in practice.

Few would disagree with her call for children to “learn a good deal more than is frequently the case about the rest of the world in which they live, about India and Bolivia and Nigeria and Norway and their histories, problems, and comparative successes[.]”

I can attest to the expansion of interests and concern that such an education can bring, having grown up in four richly diverse societies and relished moving from a narrowly oriented Swedish school to the International School in Geneva, with its ethos of internationalism and of respect for cultural and other differences. But I have also seen the aimlessness, and, indeed, the debilitating sense of being an exile everywhere among many young people brought up in international contexts without any prior culturally rooted education.

And so I would ask of Nussbaum: must the education she has in mind — inviting children to view themselves primarily as citizens of the world — instruct them to regard all claims to national or other identity as “morally irrelevant”? In that case, why should we, as she urges, spend more time on our nation’s history and politics? Why not conclude, with the 18th century political theorist, William Godwin, that if two persons are drowning and one is a relative of yours, then kinship (or, presumably, nationality) should make no difference in your decision as to whom to try to rescue first?

The metaphor which Nussbaum cites from Hierocles, of concentric circles of human concern and allegiance, speaks to the necessary tensions between what we owe people inside and outside the many interlocking groups in which we find ourselves. It is a metaphor long used to urge us to stretch our concern outward from the narrowest personal confines toward the needs of outsiders, strangers, all of humanity, and sometimes also of animals, as Peter Singer holds in The Expanding Circle. But more often, it has been invoked to convey a contrasting view: that of “my station and its duties,” according to which our allegiances are dependent on our situation and role in life and cannot be overridden by obligations to humanity at large.

From each of the two perspectives, the risks of misjudgment, abuses, even idolatry on the part of holders of the other perspective are seen as considerable. Nussbaum has rightly pointed to the evils that we witness in so many parts of the world in the name of loyalty to kin, ethnic group, and nation, and to the harm done by moral hypocrites who use only the language of universalizability. Dickens immortalizes such hypocrites in the person of Mr. Pecksniff, in Martin Chuzzlewit, who cheated his fellow humans with gusto even as he intoned the language of universal love. Sometimes what is at issue is, rather, “inner hypocrisy.” Marcus Aurelius’s inspiring reflections on cosmopolitanism, equality, and the love of one’s fellow human beings did not prevent him from overseeing intensified persecution of Christians voicing those very same ideals.

From whatever perspective we view the image of the concentric circles, it speaks to our ambivalence about the conflicting calls on our concern and on our sense of responsibility. Certain distinctions ought indisputably to be morally irrelevant: thus the wrongfulness of taking an innocent human life should not depend on that person’s nationality. Other distinctions, such as those concerning special responsibilities toward children we have brought into the world or of citizenship, do carry legitimate weight for most people, as Nussbaum points out.

But whose obligation is it to protect rights, such as those not to be killed or tortured, when violated by others abroad? And at what cost? These are questions that many cosmopolitan and non cosmopolitan thinkers and human rights activists find equally bewildering today.

An additional distinction to which the concentric circles metaphor lends itself concerns the direction in which learning should go. Is it better to begin at the outer edges and to move inward? To move back and forth between the two? Or to begin with the inner circles and to move outward? Alexander Pope wrote, in “An Essay on Man”:

God loves from Whole to Parts: but human soul
Must rise from Individual to the Whole.
Self love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
The centre mov’d, a circle strait succeeds,
Another still, and still another spreads,
Friend, parent, neighbour, first it will embrace,
His country next, and next all human race,
/. . . /

Pope’s interpretation of how we learn to reach beyond the innermost circles is persuasive, and worth taking into account in teaching. Having learned to move “from individual to the whole,” one can then shift back and forth between the circles in debating and working out one’s stance with respect to interlocking identities, loyalties, and obligations. The same is true of our collective debates. From such a point of view, there is nothing wrong with pride in, and love for, members of one’s family, one’s friends, or one’s native or chosen community, region, religion, or culture. Such pride need not blind one to problems among one’s own, nor involve exceptionalism or disparagement of others. Without learning to understand the uniqueness of cultures, beginning with one’s own, it may well be impossible fully to honor both human distinctiveness and the shared humanity central to cosmopolitanism.