Like globalist, cosmopolitan has become a freighted term, not least for its anti-Semitic undertones. On the right, it is an epithet for bleeding-heart liberals who support looser immigration policies, foreign aid, and multilateral efforts to confront climate change. On the left (and the nativist right), it is used to describe the Davos crowd and footloose capitalists. But as the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us in The Cosmopolitan Tradition, cosmopolitanism has a rich history as a mode of political and ethical thought, one that “urges us to recognize the equal, and unconditional, worth of all human beings.”
The cosmopolitan tradition has its roots in the fourth century BCE, when Diogenes the Cynic declared himself a “citizen of the world” (kosmopolitês), and insisted on the dignity of all people, no matter their origin or rank. His example would go on to inform Greek and Roman Stoicism, conceptions of international and natural law and human rights, and much else in Western political philosophy. Yet as Nussbaum shows, cosmopolitanism, owing to its origins, has always been vulnerable to a critique from within. “Precisely because they are so determined to insist that the basis for moral duties is never effaced by life’s contingencies and hierarchies,” she writes, many exponents of cosmopolitanism refuse to acknowledge the extent to which penury can limit one’s capacity to exercise individual agency, moral or otherwise. As a result, to this day, cosmopolitanism—be it in the form of trade and capital market liberalization, the contemporary human-rights regime, or liberal internationalism—tends to make insufficient provision for the amelioration of poverty, inequality, malnutrition, and other socioeconomic deficiencies.
Nussbaum’s journey through the cosmopolitan tradition begins with Cicero, particularly his final treatise, De Officiis (On Duties), which she regards as a foundational contribution to the Western tradition of political philosophy. In that work, Cicero makes a distinction between “duties of justice,” which he sees as strict and universal, and “duties of material aid,” which are far more discretionary. In practical terms, duties of justice oblige us to prevent, punish, or otherwise object to crimes such as torture, rape, and murder wherever they occur; that is, we must not only avoid such unjust acts, but also intervene to prevent them if we are able. Duties of material aid imply merely that there are instances when we should extend assistance to the needy, but with a preference for those in our own family, tribe, or nation.
Nowadays, the Ciceronian distinction between duties is manifested in the difference between “first-generation” religious and political rights and “second-generation” economic and social rights. But Nussbaum sees this bifurcation as incoherent. If one has a duty to prevent aggressive war, torture, rape, and other crimes, one likewise ought to prevent hunger and poverty. And besides, upholding political justice costs as much money as, and usually more than, providing material aid does. Inasmuch as one accepts the universality of human dignity, one must acknowledge all assaults upon it, whatever form they take.
Tracking the evolution of cosmopolitan thinking over time, Nussbaum finds a partial corrective to Cicero in the works of Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith, the founding fathers of international law and economics, respectively. Although Smith was thoroughly influenced by the Stoics, he broke from them in recognizing that economic and material conditions are indispensable ingredients of human dignity. Nonetheless, when it comes to upholding duties of justice and aid, Nussbaum notes, “Smith actually takes Cicero’s unhelpful distinction even further than Cicero did,” because he makes no allowance for positive duties (what one ought to do).
For Smith, justice implies only negative duties (what one ought not to do), such that, as he writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.” Still, between Cicero’s recognition of both positive and negative duties and Smith’s acknowledgment of the importance of material conditions, Nussbaum finds a “moral starting point” for thinking about justice in the modern context.
As for Grotius, she credits the seventeenth-century legal theorist with bringing Stoic cosmopolitan thinking into a modern world defined by diverse models of human and economic development and competing conceptions of the good. Grotius assigned significant moral weight to the nation-state, but also made an argument for international redistribution that remains radical to this day. In a Grotian system, Nussbaum explains, there are “certain minimum welfare rights for all world citizens, even when the wherewithal to meet those needs must come from another nation’s store.”
But how such claims are to be determined and adjudicated remains unresolved. Nussbaum’s intent is not to argue for a world government; nor does she put much store in the modern system of foreign aid. Rather, her purpose is to determine whether cosmopolitanism can be made sufficient for a world in which it has already become necessary—that is, a world of nation-states comprising individuals on deeply unequal material footings, who are nonetheless more interconnected than ever.
Nussbaum concludes that the cosmopolitan tradition “must be revised but need not be rejected.” She proposes that it be replaced by her own version of the “Capability Approach” to development. Conceived by the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen as an alternative to the prevailing mode of Western-exported market fundamentalism, the Capability Approach challenges the central tenets of economic globalization in its modern context: free trade, floating exchange rates, capital account and labor market “liberalization,” and so forth. In lieu of a sole focus on GDP and strictly monetary metrics of growth, the Capability Approach advocates a concern with the positive freedoms and opportunities that follow from investments in education, health care, leisure, environmental sustainability, and other factors.
But does the cosmopolitan tradition have more to offer to Nussbaum than to her opponents, market liberals? “Insisting that all entitlements have an economic and social aspect,” as she characterizes her stance, implies some role for economic redistribution. The leading Stoics in the cosmopolitan tradition, however, seemed to oppose redistribution and, in many cases, even taxation. “Concord,” wrote Cicero, “cannot exist when money is taken from some and bestowed upon others.” Likewise, as Seneca wrote in his essay On the Happy Life, “The wise man…does not love wealth but he would rather have it...and what wealth is his he does not reject but keeps, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.”
No less instrumental to a market-oriented outlook is the Stoic view that material needs are irrelevant to the realization of human fulfillment. More to the point, this contention is inextricably bound up with cosmopolitanism’s conception of natural equality, because membership in the Stoic “polity of the cosmos” depends on the one thing we humans share regardless of wealth or status—the capacity for moral reasoning. Precisely because the existence of this common denominator is deduced by stripping away all “external” variables, any consideration of material means would call it into question.
Stoic advice for conquering the “passions” and, as Marcus Aurelius put it, approaching “each action as though it were your last,” have long had a practical appeal, which is why Stoicism has been ransacked by corporate consultants and self-help gurus in recent years. But more broadly, Stoic thinking can easily become an alibi for iniquitous socioeconomic arrangements. After all, if true freedom is exclusively available within the self—through mastery of the passions and acceptance of the whims of Fortune—then it is consonant with the natural outcome of “free markets.”
For the same reason, Stoic cosmopolitanism has long served as the basis for a particularly business-friendly conception of natural law. Proponents of this view believe that, like the outcomes of free markets, the conventions governing international commerce emerged naturally over thousands of years. Accordingly, the law of commerce is said to represent a higher authority than the laws of any single state.
In the context of today’s global economy—which is in fact a concessionary political arrangement built for and by Western economic interests—that higher authority is now represented by multilateral financial institutions, sovereign bond markets, and the like. These entities decide on the metrics by which the outcomes of economic policy are assessed, and then set the limits of what governments can and cannot get away with when it when it comes to formulating economic policy.
Under these conditions, developing countries that have played by the rules of economic liberalization could adopt an economic program geared toward maximizing individual capabilities rather than GDP growth; yet they would likely be penalized by the market in the form of higher borrowing costs and withheld investment. But, on the other hand, anyone who truly wants to build a global market society on the foundation of the cosmopolitan tradition must also allow for a state—or something fulfilling the same function—large enough to police all forms of economic externalities and exploitation, including those based merely on asymmetric information.
As Yale historian Samuel Moyn has argued, the modern framework for determining duties of justice—the human-rights regime—has “contributed little of note” with respect to social and economic rights precisely because it refuses to challenge “the neoliberal giant whose path goes unaltered and unresisted.” Nussbaum’s approach could pose such a challenge by rejecting the idea of “negative liberty” and insisting on an affirmative role for government in securing both first- and second-generation rights for all people. At a minimum, it reserves a role for nation-states that are genuinely accountable to their people, rather than to the “discipline” of international capital markets (much of which clear through Western financial hubs such as London and New York). Prudently eschewing coercion or interventionist overreach, Nussbaum has offered a promising first step toward a more rigorous framework for sustaining liberalism under modernity.
We should wish her project well. Even if one believes in a “natural right” to pursue production, commerce, and exchange without hindrance, the basic fact of climate change refutes the notion that such activity exists beyond the prerogative of states. Regardless of whether we adopt “cosmopolitanism,” we are already living in a “polity of the cosmos,” where citizenship confers duties in addition to privileges. Indeed, not even Adam Smith would approve of free exchange that not only fails to ensure “the continuance and perpetuity of the species” but even threatens “its intire extinction.”