I find much to agree with in Martha Nussbaum’s discussion — in particular, the forceful rendering of the cosmopolitan moral ideal and the call for a systematic effort to broaden the moral horizons of American children beyond the boundaries of a national society whose public culture too often inclines toward a complacent inwardness. Nussbaum’s new articulation of a very old theme is significant and timely.
About the relationship of cosmopolitanism and patriotism, however, I believe there is more to be said. Cosmopolitanism is, first of all, a question of moral principle; patriotism, of self-conception or moral identity. The connection between principle and identity bears examination.
Cosmopolitanism holds that we inhabit one moral world, regardless of differences in social position or religion, gender or race, or nationality; any person’s standing in that world, as a possible subject of rights and obligations, is the same as anyone else’s. At the most fundamental level of morality, your neighbor is not more important than a compatriot who is a stranger, and a compatriot is not more important than the most distant foreigner.
As Nussbaum observes, cosmopolitanism isn’t naive; it acknowledges that these differences can matter in contexts of practical choice. The cosmopolitan principle insists only that we need a justification for treating a difference as significant, and that the justification be reasonable from a point of view in which all interests (neighbor or stranger, compatriot or foreigner) are treated with equal concern. This is a serious qualification, but even in this qualified form, cosmopolitanism is a powerful and even a revolutionary principle; for example, it certainly calls into question the comfortable acceptance of global inequality found on nearly every part of the American political spectrum today.
The implications of cosmopolitanism for the question of moral identity seem to me legitimately controversial. The dominant tendency in the cosmopolitan tradition has been to denigrate all forms of particularism, on the grounds that sectional loyalties (Bande Mataram) can only undermine a commitment to the good of humanity as a whole. Tolstoy’s case against patriotism is possibly the most extreme example of this, though not unrepresentative of the larger tradition: he saw patriotism as a virulent, aggrandizing chauvinism, dangerous in its tendency to induce war and aggression, and pernicious as a device for mobilizing masses of people to act against their own best interests.
In contrast, many cosmopolitans have thought it possible to sustain extensive and powerful loyalties to both neighbors and compatriots without giving up the universality of moral concern that distinguishes cosmopolitanism as a moral principle. Against Tolstoy, these more moderate cosmopolitans would observe that patriotism per se needn’t be either morally obtuse or subversive. Everything depends on the content: whether the patriot’s institutions are just or unjust, and whether allegiance to them is understood as one loyalty among several, at varying degrees of abstraction, or as exclusive of all others.
The more moderate view is more persuasive: a patriotism based on loyalty to a just constitution, and which acknowledges obligations to outsiders that could override obligations to compatriots, seems plainly consistent with cosmopolitan morality. Of course, this would be no more than a nice philosophical point in a world without (more or less) separate states. But states are what we have, and although states are hardly sovereign in the way the great theorists of statehood once imagined, they are still the standard unit into which humanity is organized politically.
This fact has two consequences that cosmopolitans should attend to. First, if human flourishing requires a political setting, including institutions that allow a reasonable prospect of self-government and organized social cooperation, then that setting, for the moment, is likely to take the form of (something like) a state. The state’s capacity to enlist the cooperation of its citizens, and the people’s willingness to participate actively in public life, will be essential conditions of human flourishing. And some degree of communal loyalty — though certainly not an uncritical loyalty — is plausibly a precondition of a successful public life.
Second, the prominence of the state in the world’s political geography — or at least that of the industrial democracies — means that most of the practically effective efforts to address urgent human suffering beyond a state’s borders will involve the state, either directly or as a contributor, as a vehicle. But without the ability to motivate collective sacrifice, the state will be incapable of playing a constructive global role.
Patriotism, therefore, poses a more complex challenge to cosmopolitans than it may seem. For cosmopolitan reasons, we should recognize the intrinsic and consequential significance of patriotic loyalties, and reflect more intently than we have done on what a reasonable patriotism would be like. (Indeed, it seems at least as important for cosmopolitans to be concerned about the content of civic education as about cosmopolitan education.) At the same time, we must understand that patriotism shares the morally imperialistic proclivities of all other loyalties, and be prepared to lean against them when they appear.
As a matter of educational practice, I suspect that the international doctrine of human rights can serve as a valuable organizing principle for a form of moral education that is both civic and cosmopolitan — certainly more valuable than Nussbaum’s puzzling comments about human rights allow. It is a mistake to conceive of human rights doctrine as “a thin concession to cosmopolitanism” that serves mainly to mask nationalistic values. For better or worse (and for philosophical reasons one might wish it were otherwise), the doctrine of human rights is the closest the international community has come to a cosmopolitan moral language; there is simply no alternative remotely as legitimate. And, for all its philosophical shortcomings, the language of human rights is surprisingly successful in drawing attention to the common elements of the human condition that constitute us as a single moral community. To propagate a form of civic education that took seriously the state’s responsibility to respect human rights of persons everywhere would be no small accomplishment.