Martha Nussbaum puts the case for the moral and rational superiority of cosmopolitanism with uncommon lucidity, conviction, and eloquence. It is heartening, in an era of erupting nationalisms, to recall the eminently rational Greek concept of the world citizen. Since classical antiquity, she reminds us, that wise, secular ideal has been available as an alternative to humanity’s habitually fierce parochialism. Can there be any doubt that our planet would be a better place to live if more people gave primary allegiances “to the community of human beings in the entire world”?
And yet, having said this, I must admit that the beautiful, clear-cut simplicity of Professor Nussbaum’s thought is disconcerting. She achieves that crystalline clarity by situating her argument, as moral philosophers since Plato have done, in an abstract realm of largely affectless rationality. She removes her key ideas, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, from their actual history, detaching them from the kinds of group interest — the tendrils of power and politics — that cling to all ideas held by living people. She seems reluctant to acknowledge the significance of experience that has little or no moral or rational justification. Thus she casually dismisses the importance of most people’s place of birth — hence their national identities — as merely “accidental,” “local,” “non-necessary” aspects of their lives. But to disregard the role in human experience of the contingent and the irrational, unfortunate as that role may be, is to risk adopting merely visionary, hence infeasible, programs of action.
The abstracted, hothouse character of Professor Nussbaum’s discourse, its distance from the actual record of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, provokes a host of skeptical questions. If cosmopolitanism is as superior, among conceivable views of the world as she persuasively demonstrates, why has it so rarely been adopted? Why has its appeal been so largely restricted to small, eccentric, avant-garde, or elite groups? Why have institutions like the League of Nations or the United Nations, or movements like the World Federalists, failed to elicit wide- spread support? Why do more parochial — nationalistic — creeds usually carry the day? Doesn’t the historical record over millenia give credence to the primacy, in the hierarchy of entities capable of eliciting actual human allegiance, of the local? How shall we account for most people’s lifelong, intense, emotional, sensuous, aesthetic attachment to their native places and cultures? How explain the astonishing loyalty of whole populations to terrains and ways of life that seem, by most other peoples’ standards, uncomfortable, grim, forbidding, intolerable, even life-threatening? Does it make sense to pin our hopes on a doctrine which prides itself on being superior to — makes so few concessions to — the powerful, nearly universal affection that most human beings have for their native places?
It is one thing to establish the rational and moral superiority of cosmopolitanism, but quite another to get it adopted. If most people really chose their beliefs according to those criteria, nationalism would have disappeared long ago. Professor Nussbaum’s case for cosmopolitanism would be a lot stronger if she acknowledged, and somehow dealt with, the deep non- or extra- or ir- rational roots of its triumphant rival, nationalism. As a result of the history of the two concepts of over some three millenia, cosmopolitanism has been — still is — associated with urban sophistication, learning, privilege, high status, and a quasi-aristocratic intellectuality and aestheticism; on the other hand, nationalism has been — still is — identified with the relatively straightforward, passionate, anti-elitist programs of land-oriented, populist mass movements. When we consider the roles the two actually have played in cultural history, choosing between them becomes a far more intractable problem than Professor Nussbaum suggests. It is bound to generate a deep, discomfitting ambivalence in left-wing intellectuals.
Her neglect of historical particularities also mars Professor Nussbaum’s views of the American case. She seems to regard American nationhood as indistinguishable from other routine embodiments of nationalism. But the originating concept of the American republic was exceptional in at least two respects. First, unlike virtually all other nations, the United States was founded on precisely defined political principles; and second, those principles, as set forth by Jefferson and his committee, were not selected for their particular local, ethnic, racial, cultural, or geographic relevance, but rather for their putatively universal moral and rational validity. Whatever the record of actual American practices since 1776, the fact is that this nation initially was — and in principle remains — dedicated to an Enlightenment brand of cosmopolitanism. When Professor Nussbaum asks why we should think differently of Chinese people when they become Americans, the answer that the founders would have given is clear: these people of Chinese origin are different because they ostensibly have sworn allegiance to the universal principles of American republicanism. Unlike adherents of most forms of nationalism, we Americans have endorsed an exacting set of standards by which we would have our national behavior judged. (Those standards embodied in our founding documents and institutions, incidentally, provide a useful basis for repudiating the cruder, more jingoistic expressions of American patriotism of our constitution.) It is odd that Professor Nussbaum should ignore her own country’s unique commitment to the kind of cosmopolitan, supra-nationalistic and eminently rational principles she would have humanity embrace.
Richard Rorty’s thoughts on intellectuals and patriotism are a useful corrective to Martha Nussbaum’s overly abstract but otherwise impressive argument. To be sure, Rorty is inaccurate and needlessly provocative in singling out today’s academic left as peculiarly “unpatriotic”; several other groups in our society are more deserving of that charge. But his overall conception of patriotism is more realistic and pliant, finally, than Nussbaum’s. She all but dismisses patriotism as indistinguishable from jingoism; Rorty recognizes that most people genuinely and not unreasonably want to take pride in their own country; he also recognizes how politically self-destructive it can be for left-wing intellectuals to allow themselves to be cast as unpatriotic.
Rorty’s viewpoint suggests how Professor Nussbaum might formulate a more down-to-earth argument. He hints at the potentially ideal status of American patriotism as an historic halfway house between the old irrational, ethnically defined brand of nationalism, and an emergent, innovative form of global cosmopolitanism. What makes the American republic distinctive, after all, is that its citizens are not asked to pay their primary allegiance to any one group of people; rather they are required to declare their allegiance to a particular kind of multicultural polity, a polity “dedicated,” as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, to a “proposition” — a rational and moral principle. Doesn’t this constitute an important step in the direction that Professor Nussbaum would have the world take? I would expect her to be something of a patriot. As an American citizen, she has an unusual option: she can be patriotic and, at the same time, she can give her primary allegiance to a principled cosmopolitanism.