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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Cosmopolitanism De-fanged

I'm working on a review of Appiah's new book, "Cosmopolitanism."  Here's how it starts:

When I was in graduate school, it was radical to be a cosmopolitan.  Not only did cosmopolitans have a very capacious view of the duties we all owe to strangers in foreign lands, but they also suggested that our affinities and affections for our families, friends, and fellow countrypeople likely stand in need of substantial justification: all human beings are entitled to the same concern and respect and we are only being parochial when we construct theories of distributive justice that exclude classes of persons and peoples.  Ultimately, many cosmopolitans had to accommodate what seems like a psychological imperative, that we have duties first and foremost to our intimates; for what use is a moral system that is wholly out of touch with the people it purports to guide?  But even those who made concessions of this kind insisted that our duties to strangers were very substantial – and that we perennially fail to be “citizens of the world.”

I never could sign onto the cosmopolitan agenda in full – especially not the versions that endorsed the dissolution of all states to form one world government – but I appreciated the severity and importance of the set of views that comprised moral and political cosmopolitanism.  Those old-school, hard-core cosmopolitans demanded a lot from our sympathetic imaginations in getting us to feel the pain of distant others and from our wallets in suggesting that our moral and political duties required very substantial financial commitments to alleviate that distant pain.  But those demands, however extreme they seemed at the time, contributed to a thorough-going sentimental education that really has succeeded in part in changing the way many people – political theorists, political philosophers, and citizens of many nations – think about obligations to strangers.  In 1971, the late John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, the treatise of liberalism credited with getting people to think about how to distribute justice within a state.  In some measure, the tide has turned to focus on the project of thinking about global distributive justice among nations.  And it could not have been done without the hard-core cosmopolitans that demanded a shift from pursuing justice in the nation-state.

Enter Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah with Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, committed to de-fanging cosmopolitanism. 

More when the piece is done.  But comments as I think through the book are welcome.

Posted by Ethan Leib on February 25, 2006 at 02:48 PM in Books | Permalink


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One more thing. Not to go Hans Morgenthau on you or anything, but I'm a little skeptical of the following: "In some measure, the tide has turned to focus on the project of thinking about global distributive justice among nations. And it could not have been done without the hard-core cosmopolitans that demanded a shift from pursuing justice in the nation-state." How do you know that "global distributive justice" (assuming it's actually made any meaningful progress) is partly the result of cosmopolitanism? Consider: Bill Gates is giving zillions of dollars to fight diseases in third world countries. Is cosmopolitanism a significant factor why? Or another: According to last week's New Yorker, W. is giving more money than Clinton did to fight AIDS in Africa. Is he and other such conservatives doing so b/c of cosmpolitanism--or in spite of it? These aren't meant to be rhetorical questions; they're meant to complicate what I fear is a pious story.

Posted by: John M. Kang | Feb 26, 2006 10:31:52 PM

I haven't read the book, at least not yet. But from what I have read from self-styled cosmopolitans, I have one nagging question for them that centers on the partiality problem. A major problem for cosmopolitanism, at least as I see it, is its inability to quite explain away the problem of partiality in two respects: One, partiality understood as being partial to yourself or something else (like your family, your friends, your religion and race, and more). Two, partiality understood as having access to only a partial glimpse of the big picture (as in the big picture concerning racial toleration or the big picture concerning govt welfare or religious pluralism). The cosmopolitanism that I've read hopes to move us, as far as possible, away from these partialities. But these partialities, especially the first kind, are deeply constitutive of our very identity as individuals and members of groups. Call them irrational, if you like, but they are entrenched in some sense and no argument for faceless strangers in a far away (or even not so far away) land will be able to diminish their importance. I make this observation both based on global and historical observations as well as the very local. Perhaps you're right: "political theorists, political philosophers" have been influenced by cosmopolitanism. But what about everyone else? How convincing is cosmopolitanism for your average (or even not-so-average) Jane and Joe in Kentucky, in Michigan, in even places like Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even, dare I say, San Francisco (not the SF evoked by Tony Bennett's lovely crooning and on the front boxes of Rice-a-Roni but the real SF which showed a glimmer of its fangs in Yick Wo v. Hopkins)? And let's not even mention places like the Middle East....

Many, many years ago, Thomas Hobbes was overwhelmed by diversity among strangers; so overwhelmed that he trembled in fear and wrote a big fat book called *Leviathan*. Instead of counseling cosmopolitanism, he counseled insincerity as a means of securing peace among radically diverse strangers. It was instinctively easier given people's partiality. O.K., shameless plug: it's part of my dissertation and can be found at 15 Law & Literature 371-93 (2003), but it's meant as a response, if oblique, to the advocates of cosmopolitanism. I don't hold any grudges against cosmpolitanism. But if it proves the superior option, then I think it would need to go through the thicket of partiality (and its proposed antidote in insincerity), and not just among the likes of John Rawls--but John Doe--to earn its worth.

Posted by: John M. Kang | Feb 26, 2006 10:07:46 PM

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