Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

To be able to live up to the dignity as true citizens of the world

The Cosmopolitan Tradition. A Noble but Flawed Ideal
HOLBERG PRICE / Material inequality is part of the order of the day in the 21st century. Nussbaum takes care of one of our most pressing challenges to make the world a better place.


Most of us take human rights for granted. There are strings of international organizations and NGOs that monitor the situation around the world and point out flaws and shortcomings. We are really happy with that.

It stands to reason more when it comes to social and economic rights. Material inequality is part of the order of the day in the 21st century, but international law and common moral thinking do not have much to say about what obligations, if any, come with these inequalities. There are initiatives around, but there is virtually no international consensus on this important issue.

Martha C. Nussbaum, one of America's leading thinkers, has taken up this issue in her latest book. It is about the concept of cosmopolitanism, that is, our sense of being world citizens, and Nussbaum uses it as an opportunity to describe an idea that is beautiful on paper, but which has a number of serious biases as it looks today.

Cicero and the Stoics

Nussbaum traces much of our Western tradition back to the Roman thinker Cicero. In his work The Officiis he sees very strictly the duty of justice and demands a high moral standard across national borders. But he also emphasizes that the duty to provide material assistance to one's neighbors must be elastic, understood in the sense that one must think of one's own first. In Cicero's conceptual world, one must not provide material support if it leads to decisive material loss for oneself.

Even though most religions talk about love for fellow human beings, there will always be a doctrine that puts one trooper over the others.

It is this legacy of antiquity that, according to Nussbaum, makes modern cosmopolitanism limp. Cicero's thoughts have been carried up through history through Grotius and Pufendorf, and on to Kant and Adam Smith. They all refer implicitly to Cicero, and that is why modern people tend to push the material obligations to the world community into the background, preferring the part that does not cost money.

This line of thinking will become even clearer when we go back to the generation before Cicero, to the Stoics. Here it was a basic idea that all people have the same value and dignity, regardless of social and material status. A beautiful thought which means that a slave has the same value as the free man. However, it causes the problem that the material difference between the two is insignificant. Poverty does not affect the picture, and it is this stoic thinking that has survived when we in the modern world hear that poverty in the world is either due to external factors over which we have no control, or that poverty is more or less self-inflicted and rooted in moral weakness. And that frees us from taking a serious stand on the problem of poverty.

Photo: pixabay

Moral world citizens

Therefore, stoic thinking must be rejected if we are to call ourselves real world citizens, Nussbaum believes. We must understand that the material side of the matter often means as much as the intangible, ie human rights. Human dignity needs support and respect, and poverty is an insult to precisely these elements, she believes. It is therefore a blatant misconception that people can have a dignified life in hunger and poverty if only human rights are in place – for the West this is often a convenient excuse, because we can therefore live with a clear conscience without having to shell out.

Today we have come closer to each other than Kant and Adam Smith could have imagined. Thus, we cannot drink a Pepsi without it having an effect on a worker in Mumbai. Therefore, it is a typical Western blindness to think that we are helping anything by, for example, boycotting companies that use child labor.

Stoic thinking is rejected if we are to call ourselves real world citizens, he believes

Cosmopolitanism raises a number of modern problems that we must address in order to call ourselves moral world citizens:

First of all, we must strive for sand pluralism. It is difficult in a time when religion is filling up more and more, because even though most religions talk about love for fellow human beings, there will always be a doctrine that puts one faith above the others. Some are more open than others – Nussbaum presents his own liberal reform Judaism as one of the very open and open-minded – but as a starting point one must formulate all political principles neutrally.

The French Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, who in 1948 helped formulate the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasized that this does not mean showing skepticism about religion, but merely a crucial expression of respect. So you can take into account without forgetting yourself.

International law has its limitations. A string of resolutions and laws have been adopted, and the importance of this must not be underestimated. The documents serve as guides and moral compasses. Nussbaum mentions the women's issue as a good example of how they have had an effect – even Saudi Arabia gave women the right to vote in 2015, and this can be attributed to this international work. But there is no guarantee that all these moral guidelines will also be respected.

One must take into account the individual nation states and their differences to get the full picture.

The international

Closely related to this are the international funding. There is a jungle of organizations that, alongside Western governments, have aid projects running around the world, but there is very little knowledge about how much all of this actually benefits. Economist William Easterly talks about "the forgotten rights of the poor" and "expert tyranny", and Nussbaum shares his view. She believes that the help is often patronizing and performed by people who do not know enough about local conditions at all.

Finally, there is one of the most acute problems of the time, namely migration and refugees. This cannot always be prevented by material support in the home countries, as the reasons why people break up can be many. In order to live up to the dignity as true citizens of the world, Nussbaum believes that we need a change of attitude in this area. When a refugee influx occurs, one can not afford to sort, but must accept everyone, and this with full respect. Refugees almost always seek out places where there is a surplus to take off, and it may very well be a material surplus. In this connection, we as citizens of the world must know that all resources are common property, and this ultimately also means that refugees have a natural right to share in the profits that exist in the rich part of the world. Therefore, helping the refugees should be seen as a natural thing and not as an alms.

Cosmopolitanism is a beautiful thought and we are not that far from being there. As far as international law and human rights are concerned, the principles are more or less in place. It is the material part that is missing. Cicero and the Stoics had a series of thoughts that seemed right in their time, and the problem then lies in the fact that these thoughts have followed humanity to this day, without being revised and adapted well enough along the way. According to Nussbaum, this is where we must strive to become better world citizens in a better world.

What the corona crisis of our time will mean for the world citizen remains to be seen.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

You may also like