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date: 18 January 2018


Summary and Keywords

Cosmopolitanism refers to the ideology that all human beings belong to a single community, based on a shared morality. A cosmopolitan community might be based on an inclusive morality, a shared economic relationship, or a political structure that encompasses different nations. The argument that all citizens of the world possess an equal moral status can be interpreted as a statement that all humans deserve to be given equal respect, or that their interests deserve to be treated equally. Cosmopolitanism was initially thought to have been established by the Cynics (classical cosmopolitanism), then further interpreted and elucidated by the Stoics, and later polished and cultivated by the Enlightenment scholars (enlightenment cosmopolitanism). Cosmopolitanism is an analytical viewpoint that defends the concept of global citizenship. Global citizenship is most commonly associated with a “way of creating a personal identity,” along with various ideas about one’s moral responsibilities and political rights. It is also worth noting how within the domain of international ethics, cosmopolitanism is currently being presented as a stand-alone paradigm, apart from rival approaches including nationalism, social libreralism, and realism. However, the difficulty of distinguishing cosmopolitanism from these rivals becomes apparent, and there are those who think that such discerning lines create more confusion than clarity about the various disagreements within the field.

Keywords: cosmopolitanism, global citizenship, shared morality, cynics, stoics, Enlightenment, international ethics, nationalism, social liberalism, realism

Cosmopolitanism is a perspective in the study of international ethics that takes as its starting point the idea that all persons belong to a universal community of humanity and enjoy equal moral status as citizens of the world (Lu 2000). The idea that we belong to a community of humanity has been interpreted variously as a claim about the primary object of our sense of identity or allegiance (Nussbaum 1997), the contours of the moral landscape and the duties it imposes on us (Beitz 1999), and the appropriate structure of our political or legal arrangements (Held 1995). The contention that citizens of the world enjoy an equal moral status has also been interpreted in different ways: as a claim that all persons deserve to be shown some kind of equal respect or a claim that their interests deserve to be treated equally in a more substantive sense (Miller 2007:27–31).

Cosmopolitanism is, of course, a very old idea. It is commonly thought to have been introduced by the Cynics, before being given a fuller philosophical explication by the Stoics, and then developed and refined by thinkers of the Enlightenment (Fine and Cohen 2002). These historical debates inform, but are at the same time quite distinct from, recent and current treatments of cosmopolitanism in the field of international ethics. The following discussion charts the development and content of cosmopolitan thinking through adopting a historical and thematic approach. The idea is to provide a survey of cosmopolitan thinking about important questions of citizenship, justice, and institutions. It begins by exploring the implications of cosmopolitanism for debates about personal identity and political allegiance, from Greek and Stoic ideas about global citizenship to developments in more recent philosophical thought. The focus then shifts to cosmopolitan accounts of global justice, particularly those that proceed from utilitarian, rights-based, and contractual assumptions. The essay concludes with a discussion of cosmopolitan thinking about the organization of world politics, examining how global citizenship is presented not merely as a moral ideal but as a status with legal and political implications.

The aim of this essay is primarily exegetical. At the same time, in a more critical vein, it raises some thoughts about the current state of cosmopolitan theorizing. These observations relate to the prospects for presenting cosmopolitanism as a distinctive theoretical paradigm in the study of international ethics, which competes with the rival perspectives of “nationalism,” “social liberalism,” and “realism.” As shall become apparent, the wide variety of “cosmopolitanisms” on offer in the literature – “moral and cultural,” “extreme and moderate,” “weak and strong,” “interactional and institutional” – means that it is sometimes difficult to discern clear blue water between cosmopolitanism and these alleged rivals. Although this may be disappointing to those who pine for clear and simple distinctions between the plethora of “isms” that compete for our attention in international ethics, it may be more welcome news to those who think that such dividing lines often obscure more than they reveal about complex and substantive disagreements in the field.

Citizenship, Identity, and Allegiance

Cosmopolitanism is a theoretical perspective that interprets and defends the idea of global citizenship. Global citizenship is often identified with a certain “way of being in the world” or “a way of constructing an identity for oneself” (Waldron 2000). It has also been associated with a range of different ideas about our moral duties and our legal or political rights. This section provides a necessarily brief and highly selective genealogy of cosmopolitan thinking, focusing on the diverse connotations of global citizenship in different historical epochs.

Classical Cosmopolitanism

The Cynic philosopher Diogenes is the starting point for almost every discussion of cosmopolitanism, thanks to his infamous self-identification as a citizen of the universe. This commitment encapsulates the basic cosmopolitan idea that there exists a universal community of humanity deserving the allegiance of all persons. The power of Diogenes' assertion derives from the fact that many of his fellow citizens in Sinope would declare allegiance not to the universal community but to their home city or polis. This apparent tension between the local and global as a source of identity or object of allegiance constitutes a running motif throughout almost all philosophical discussions of cosmopolitanism.

The idea that Diogenes should be seen as the father of modern cosmopolitanism is by no means uncontroversial. His denial of parochial affiliation represented one claim among many that were typically advanced by Cynics as part of their challenge to all forms of conventional morality. At the same time, there appears to be little doubt that Diogenes directly influenced the early cosmopolitan thought of the Stoics. The central idea that links Stoic thought, from the early writings of Zeno through to the Roman Stoicism of Cicero, is that all persons can share a divine reason that allows them, at least in principle, to appreciate virtue and justice. The capacity of reason is, however, interpreted by Stoics in a specific sense, as involving the acceptance of substantive norms of just and virtuous conduct. Only those who possess reason in this sense – the just, the good, or the wise – can be genuine citizens of the universe (Schofield 1991). This means that the Stoics do not endorse a universal community of humanity in a literal, all-inclusive sense (Pagden 2000). Still, the underlying cosmopolitan logic of Stoicism is that reason is not limited to members of a particular city, country, sex, race, or religion. It can form the basis of a community that transcends particularity and commands the identification and allegiance of all reasonable persons.

The status and value of our local or particular attachments in early cosmopolitan philosophy are complex. Diogenes appears to denigrate local attachments, embracing a self-imposed abstinence, or “exile,” from the comforts of local loyalties (Nussbaum 1997:35). At the same time, it is certainly not the case that Stoic cosmopolitans attach no significance to local ties or allegiances. The Stoic writer Seneca recommends that his contemporaries “embrace with our minds two commonwealths: one great and truly common … the other the one to which the particular circumstances of our birth have assigned us” (quoted in Schofield 1991:93). This formulation acknowledges the value of attachments to particular communities but leaves open the question of how such ties might be balanced or reconciled with allegiance to the universal community of humanity. According to the influential interpretation offered by Martha Nussbaum, Stoics such as Hierocles and Cicero address this issue through the metaphor of a self surrounded by a series of concentric circles:

The first circle is drawn around the self; the next takes in one's immediate family; then follows the extended family; then, in order, one's neighbors or local group, one's fellow city dwellers, and one's fellow countrymen. Outside all these circles is the largest one, that of humanity as a whole. Our task as citizens of the world will be to draw the circles somehow towards the center, making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers.

(Nussbaum 1997:32–3)

The idea of concentric circles allows the self to acknowledge the validity of special ties without forsaking the universal community. This would have been a particularly useful device for Roman Stoics, who had to reconcile their cosmopolitan sympathies with their duties to Rome. The basic idea appears to be that special ties are an appropriate component of our identities, but that our understanding of these ties should be informed by, and certainly not obscure, our awareness that we are also members of a larger community.

The cosmopolitanism of the Cynics and Stoics is more a rationalization of an enlightened sensibility than a comprehensive doctrine about politics. It apparently has little to say about the questions of political or legal reform that would occupy cosmopolitans of later generations. This is fairly explicit in Diogenes, whose cosmopolitanism appears to be much more oriented toward self-perfection than the perfection of the polis. It is also a feature of Stoic philosophizing. Malcolm Schofield argues that although the early Stoic philosophy of Zeno had much to say about the design of the polis, the overall effect of Stoic cosmopolitanism was to de-politicize the ideas of citizenship and community. He argues that Stoic cosmopolitans ultimately recommend a general ethic of respect for persons as persons, rather than an account of the relation between citizens mediating their common affairs through law and politics (Schofield 1991:102–3). Other scholars, by contrast, have suggested that Stoic cosmopolitanism had a political complexion, but mainly in the sense that it provided a philosophical rationale for the projection of a particular way of life onto the world. As Anthony Pagden puts it, “far from extending a benign cultural relativity to all possible peoples, Stoicism was, in origin, a philosophy particularly well suited to the spread of empire” (Pagden 2000:6). These or similar concerns have also been voiced in relation to later interpretations of cosmopolitanism in political and social thought.

Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism

The elaboration of cosmopolitanism in Enlightenment philosophy is marked by greater emphasis on questions of individual rights and international peace. The writing of this period is, notwithstanding its different emphasis, manifestly influenced by Stoicism. The key influence is the Stoic notion of reason as a natural, even divine, property of humankind, which is the basis of a universal community. Samuel Pufendorf, for example, explicitly identifies himself with the “reasonable theory of the Stoics,” against what he saw as the “Epicurean theories” of Hobbes and Grotius, in defending an innate sociability that could underpin a civil condition in national and international relations (quoted in Pagden 2000:12).

The most important Enlightenment contributor to this tradition is undoubtedly Immanuel Kant. The Stoic idea of a universal community of citizens, each of whom deserves to be treated as an end irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, or race, is, as Nussbaum (1997) contends, the underlying idea of Kant's cosmopolitan project. Kant proposed a blueprint for “Perpetual Peace” that had three components: each state must adopt a republican form of government that guarantees the individual rights of its citizens; states must agree to enter a voluntary federation based around the mutual recognition of each republic as free and equal; and states must uphold the universal right of all citizens of the world to receive hospitality (Kant 1970). A feature of this architecture is that each element references the interests of individuals: each person has an interest in living under republican authority, in avoiding the uncertainty of war, and in receiving guarantees of hospitality should he or she enter foreign lands. The latter requirement identifies a universal right to present oneself to the society of others, based on joint possession of the earth's surface, with a corresponding duty of states not to treat visitors with hostility. Though this may appear to be a somewhat weak requirement, its significance is that it identifies all global citizens as bearers of a moral and legal right. This right is not limited to “reasonable” persons, but provides a genuinely universal basis for a form of “cosmopolitan law” (Brown 2006).

The question of how cosmopolitans reconcile membership in the universal community with local attachments is particularly important in the Enlightenment period. By this time, the city had been displaced by the nation-state as the principal site of citizenship. The idea of the nation-state was identified by many thinkers as part of the natural order of things and as prescribed by reason (Toulmin 1990:128). Given the growing prominence of nation-states, it is perhaps unsurprising that many Enlightenment thinkers, in an echo of their Stoic predecessors, chose to embrace a strategy of reconciling local and global attachments. John Stuart Mill, for example, sought to combine cosmopolitan sentiments with nationalism. His method was to criticize vulgar forms of nationalism built upon denigration of foreigners and defend an enlightened patriotism that is compatible with attachments to the universal community (Varouxakis 2006). In response to concerns about the plausibility of this kind of enlightened self-identification, cosmopolitans looked to long-term historical tendencies. Kant noted the pervasive and long-term effects of the spread of republicanism, global commerce, and advances in communication, concluding that “the peoples of the earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere” (Kant 1970:107–8). The rise of cosmopolitan sympathies is thus not attributed to any kind of deliberate political project, but identified as the happy outcome of a series of seemingly unconnected developments in human affairs.

The aim of some of the most prominent cosmopolitan thinking in this era is to locate the classical Stoic ideal of a universal community in a modern world of nation-states. There was intense debate, however, on the most appropriate institutional form that the universal community should assume. Jeremy Bentham called for the creation of a “common court of judicature,” which could adjudicate conflicts between states but whose decisions would not be backed by the threat of coercion (Bentham 1962). After some vacillation over the institutional form of Perpetual Peace, Kant defended the idea of a voluntary federation that would guarantee peace while preserving the sovereignty of republics. He stringently opposed the idea of a world state by arguing that it would inevitably become a “soulless despotism” doomed to collapse into “anarchy” (Kant 1970:113). Although this critique of a world state would become widely accepted in philosophical debates, a problem for proposals like Bentham's and Kant's is that a stable peace is difficult to secure if it is based solely on the mutual trust and voluntary self-restraint of states. Pauline Kleingeld (1999) describes how this concern was raised by several of Kant's contemporaries. Fichte, for example, complained that Kant neglected the possibility that states might delegate a part of their sovereignty – roughly that which corresponds to their relations with each other – but retain sovereignty in their internal affairs. He proposed a “league of nations” that would not involve all states merging into one, but would have the authority to impose international law through force. Though this proposal reminds us of the variety of schemes proposed by Enlightenment thinkers, it should be pointed out that Fichte limits his discussion to international law, the legal rights of states, and does not address the imposition of cosmopolitan law, the legal rights of global citizens, on states. As shall become clear later in this essay, these debates about the institutional form of cosmopolitanism anticipate contemporary concerns to a striking degree.

Contemporary Cosmopolitanism

Global citizenship in contemporary debates is interpreted as an aspect of personal identity, a topic sometimes discussed under the broad heading of “cultural” cosmopolitanism, and also as a source of duties and obligations that transcend national borders, discussed under the heading of “moral” cosmopolitanism (Scheffler 1999). The elaboration of cosmopolitanism proceeds through a critical engagement with nationalist conceptions of culture and morality, which stress the centrality of nationality to personal identity and the special duties that are owed to co-nationals (Miller 2000). The contrast between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is a prominent feature of the current theoretical landscape, but there are signs that – like their Stoic and Enlightenment predecessors – some contemporary cosmopolitans are attempting to transcend this opposition between global and local attachments.

The idea of cosmopolitanism as a way of life has been rigorously defended by Jeremy Waldron (1992). He associates global citizenship with an identity that is a hybrid of different cultures and practices. The idea, which echoes Diogenes, is that one refuses to be defined by a particular cultural or national identity, at least where such an identity is understood in a parochial and prescribed fashion. This way of thinking associates cosmopolitan identity with a self-reflexive or “ironic” attitude toward our cultural or national affiliations (Turner 2002). The idea of global citizenship is given a rather different interpretation by Martha Nussbaum (1997). She also sees global citizenship as an aspect of personal identity, but prioritizes the allegiances and obligations that should be associated with that identity. Global citizens should recognize and discharge moral obligations to humanity that transcend their more particular communities and attachments. Nussbaum does not claim that local commitments are not important, but she does at times imply that global allegiances have a certain priority over them. She draws on her reading of the Stoics to argue that the special care we devote to our own families or nations should, ultimately, be justified on cosmopolitan grounds. This means that the care and attention we devote to special relationships, including our relations with co-nationals, is justified as an instrumental means of indirectly satisfying our duties to humanity.

Samuel Scheffler (1999) identifies Waldron and Nussbaum as exponents of cultural and moral cosmopolitanism, respectively. Picking up on a theme that occupies Stoic and Enlightenment thinkers, he claims that there is an ambiguity in both kinds of cosmopolitanism about the way in which global citizens should understand their particular identifications and special relationships. In its “extreme” formulation, cosmopolitanism about culture claims that persons can flourish only if they transcend the limitations imposed by parochial traditions. In its “moderate” form, by contrast, the value of living within a single cultural tradition is acknowledged and a cosmopolitan lifestyle is merely defended as one among many viable accounts of the good life. In the extreme formulation of cosmopolitanism about morality, special relationships are said to have no justification apart from the instrumental role they play in enabling us to discharge cosmopolitan duties. In its “moderate” formulation, special relationships are allowed to possess justificatory value that is independent of cosmopolitan duties. The “extreme” formulations of cosmopolitanism are given this label because they appear to go against allegedly widespread intuitions about the possibility of living fulfilling lives within a particular culture and the nonderivative, or “intrinsic,” value that many people place on their special relationships, including their national ties (Miller 2007:34–43).

The moderate cosmopolitan position may strike some as more attractive than its extreme variants, but, as Scheffler suggests, it may be difficult to avoid the latter if one takes seriously the idea of global citizenship. On the assumption that a “moderate” form of cosmopolitanism is at least possible, several theorists have argued that particularistic attachments, including nationalist or patriotic allegiances, are quite compatible with it. Kwame Anthony Appiah (1998) recalls the spirit of J.S. Mill through coining the term “cosmopolitan patriot” to describe someone who is deeply attached to his or her homeland but who also appreciates the pleasures of different places and cultures. This view suggests that cosmopolitans must, in an important sense, be committed to the preservation of a diversity of discrete cultures and traditions because such diversity is a precondition of the kind of engagement with multiple cultures favored by cosmopolitans. Kok-Chor Tan (2004), writing specifically about cosmopolitan morality, argues that it is possible to defend a radical account of our global duties while giving nationalist and patriotic allegiances their due. Tan denies the extreme cosmopolitan claim that the justification or value of special care to compatriots is necessarily reducible to an account of our global obligations. He argues that cosmopolitanism requires us to establish global justice as a “background condition” against which global citizens can legitimately give their compatriots special care and consideration. The common theme of these two arguments is that cosmopolitanism is, at least on some formulations, compatible with an enlightened ethos of patriotism or nationalism, which means that citizens can consistently identify with their global and national communities.

Cosmopolitanism and Global Justice

The claim that global citizenship entails global duties naturally turns our attention toward the content of these duties. According to Kant, as we saw above, global duties are limited to the right of universal hospitality. The current drift in cosmopolitan thinking is toward theories of global justice that generate a rather more demanding set of duties. This section charts these developments. It starts by summarizing utilitarian, rights-based, and contractual conceptions of cosmopolitan justice, then turns to prominent objections to these accounts, and concludes by reflecting on the current debate between “cosmopolitan” and “social” liberals.

Cosmopolitan Justice

Cosmopolitan justice is often identified with the view that the individual is the “ultimate” unit of moral concern. This means that cosmopolitan approaches specify the content of global justice through reference to the interests or well-being of individuals, rather than states or communities. Cosmopolitans are also committed to the view that each individual has an equal moral status, which is taken by some theorists as the basis for proposing conceptions of global justice that have a pronounced egalitarian complexion.

There are a number of ways of grounding and interpreting the cosmopolitan view that all global citizens enjoy equal moral status. The first is through “utilitarianism,” which defends actions or rules that maximize the utility or well-being of the greatest number of people. Peter Singer combines a utilitarian framework with a cosmopolitan outlook. In his 1972 article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” he argues that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought morally to do it” (Singer 1972:231). To avoid the accusation that this is too demanding, Singer weakens this requirement to specify that persons are duty-bound to act only if they can do so without sacrificing anything of moral importance. The cosmopolitan element in this argument is the claim that it makes no moral difference whether the bad one prevents would have befallen a compatriot or a noncompatriot. Singer argues that citizens in affluent societies have a duty to help alleviate severe poverty in other societies through making financial donations to aid agencies. A feature of his view is that cosmopolitan duties obtain between persons even in the absence of institutional cooperation between them. This is an example of “interactional” cosmopolitanism, a perspective that prescribes first-order principles of ethics for individual conduct (Pogge 2002:170).

The second strategy is to defend cosmopolitan duties through a “rights-based” approach to ethics, which specifies duties that must be discharged if all persons are to enjoy fundamental human rights. Henry Shue suggests that rights provide individuals with “the rational basis for a justified demand that the actual enjoyment of a substance be socially guaranteed against standard threats” (Shue 1996:13). He argues that the most important rights are to subsistence and security, as without these basic rights, which constitute the minimum that rights-bearers can demand of others, no other rights or entitlements can be enjoyed. These two basic rights generate three correlative duties: a duty to avoid depriving persons of the right, to protect persons from deprivations, and to aid those who have been deprived. The significance of this tripartite structure is that securing basic rights entails negative duties not to violate rights and positive duties to assist in the realization of rights.

Thomas Pogge, by contrast, defends a rights-based account of cosmopolitanism that appeals only to negative duties. He argues that the existing global order, shaped by wealthy democratic societies to reflect their interests, is directly implicated in the inability or unwillingness of governments in poorer countries to secure the human rights of their populations (Pogge 2002:15–20). This is described as a violation of our negative duty not to cooperate in the imposition of a rights-violating institutional order, at least insofar as the rights violations that arise under this order could be avoided through introducing feasible institutional reforms. In order to discharge their negative duty, wealthy societies must introduce remedial reforms to the global economic order. A feature of Pogge's view is that cosmopolitan duties arise in the context of global institutional arrangements. This is an example of “institutional” cosmopolitanism, which specifies second-order principles of justice that apply to the rules and practices that regulate interpersonal activities (Pogge 2002:170).

The third approach is to defend cosmopolitan duties through an extension of the “contractual” reasoning that is often used to ground principles of justice for domestic contexts. Charles Beitz pioneered this approach in his monograph Political Theory and International Relations (1999), which proceeds from a sympathetic critique of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1972). In that work, Rawls had argued, in effect, for two social contracts. The first selects principles of justice for domestic societies. These principles guarantee extensive rights and opportunities for all citizens and ensure that economic inequalities operate to maximize the expectations of the worst-off group in society. The second selects principles to regulate relations between societies. These principles guarantee the sovereign equality of all societies but apparently do not require restrictions of economic inequalities between them. Beitz challenges this approach in two ways. First, he contends that, even if we accept the “two-stage” procedure, the second contract would generate principles of justice with greater egalitarian implications. This is because contractors would want to ensure that their society does not suffer as a result of the morally arbitrary distribution of the world's natural resources. Contractors would agree to a resource redistribution principle to ensure that the wealth generated through natural resources is distributed equitably between societies. Second, Beitz argues that we should, in any case, reject the two-stage procedure, given the level of interconnectivity that now characterizes international society. The claim is that, at least in the contractual theory developed by Rawls, principles of distributive justice are designed to regulate social cooperation that generates benefits and burdens for participants. The extent of cooperation at the global level suggests that it should be regulated according to the same principles of justice that are defended by Rawls for the domestic level.

This line of contractual argument has been pursued by other cosmopolitans who believe that the fact of interconnectivity at the global level triggers a need for global principles of justice (Buchanan 2000). This brand of cosmopolitanism may have a more egalitarian hue than rights-based approaches, at least insofar as the latter aims to provide persons with a basic minimum rather than the more generous provisions that might be mandated by a globalized principle of distributive justice. Such an approach is also, at least according to some critics, more egalitarian than utilitarian accounts that are insensitive to the distribution of utility across the global community (Tan 2004:54). Cosmopolitans drawn to contractual reasoning often endorse institutional cosmopolitanism, in that their principles of justice are generally applied to the institutional arrangements that regulate global cooperation. It should be noted, however, that the distinction between institutional and interactional cosmopolitanism can cut across the three approaches discussed here. In other words, utilitarian, rights-based, and contractual theories can all develop institutional and/or interactional approaches to cosmopolitanism.

Objections to Cosmopolitan Justice

The objections that are typically raised against these conceptions of cosmopolitan justice fall into two categories. There are objections against specific interpretations of cosmopolitanism that are advanced from an alternative cosmopolitan framework. These are constructive criticisms designed to strengthen the case for cosmopolitan justice. There are also objections that are advanced from apparently noncosmopolitan theoretical frameworks. These criticisms, although often targeted at specific theories, are designed to cast doubt on the very idea of cosmopolitan justice.

The utilitarian approach of Singer has been criticized by many, though few are willing to deny his central assertion that the affluent should do more than they currently do to assist the global poor. A frequently heard complaint is that individuals might do better to campaign for global institutional reform than donating money to charities. The cosmopolitan theorist Andrew Kuper goes so far as to suggest that Singer's influential argument may indirectly harm the global poor, in so far as it obscures the structural causes of global poverty and distracts attention from the urgent task of institutional reform (Kuper 2002). Singer has also been accused of displaying insensitivity to the issue of moral responsibility for global poverty. The nationalist theorist David Miller argues that if there are multiple agents capable of remedying harm, then it is implausible to ascribe all the responsibility to particular agents without first exploring how the harm came about (Miller 2007:233–8). The most common criticism is that Singer's cosmopolitanism is too demanding on affluent individuals, particularly given the danger that some may end up compensating for the lack of action of other relevant agents. Charles Jones, writing from a cosmopolitan perspective, suggests that utilitarian approaches can only escape this criticism if they ascribe duties to institutions capable of coordinating a collective transfer of wealth from rich to poor (Jones 1999:33–9). This suggestion leaves intact the possibility of constructing alternative utilitarian accounts that defend institutional rather than interactional cosmopolitanism. It is unclear, however, whether such an account could account for the moral importance of basic rights (Jones 1999:39–49) or account for their importance in such a way that utilitarianism remains a philosophically distinctive approach to cosmopolitanism (Tan 2004:44–6).

The rights-based approach has also been subjected to criticism. The most frequent objection is that basic rights are often identified without clear specification of who has the duty to guarantee the right and how that duty should be discharged. Onora O'Neill argues that while rights-theorists such as Shue have advanced our thinking about the nature of basic rights, they have not provided adequate accounts of the distribution of duties or obligations that correspond to those rights. This problem is particularly pertinent for cosmopolitan justice because, unlike justice within states, there is no obvious central institution that can be identified as the principal duty-bearer. In the absence of identifying specified duty-bearers, cosmopolitans risk defending empty “manifesto” rights. O'Neill proposes an alternative “duty-based” cosmopolitanism, which takes duties as fundamental and identifies a need for new institutions capable of discharging these duties (O'Neill 2000:115–42). There is some uncertainty, however, whether a “duty-based” account offers a distinct philosophical interpretation of cosmopolitanism or an approach that may have certain strategic or political advantages over standard rights-based accounts (Tan 2004:49–53).

This rights-based approach defended by Pogge might be less vulnerable to duty-based criticisms, given the considerable time that he spends identifying wealthy societies as the principal cosmopolitan duty-bearers. His difficulty is to convince his readers, particularly those who may not share his cosmopolitan sympathies, that wealthy societies harm the poor through the imposition of the global economic order. It is sometimes objected that Pogge does not identify the relevant causal mechanism through which the global order can be held responsible for global poverty. Indeed, some have suggested that it is equally plausible to contend that the global order has actually benefited the poor (Risse 2005). Others cite the role of internal or domestic factors, such as bad governance, in causing poverty. If poverty is thought to emerge through a complex interaction of internal and external factors, then the responsibilities for ending poverty should at the very least be “shared” with members of the poorer societies (Miller 2007:238–47). And even if wealthy societies are involved in a chain of events which leads to global poverty, it is not immediately obvious that those societies should be held morally responsible for violations of human rights. It has been suggested, for instance, that allegations of rights-violations against a specific agent need to demonstrate intention to violate rights or sufficient negligence about its likelihood on the part of that agent (Meckled-Garcia 2008). These considerations, if sound, cast doubt on the concept of rights-violations or harm that animates Pogge's critique of the global economic order and wealthy societies.

The contractual approach has been the subject of much discussion. Although there has been some cosmopolitan criticism of contractual approaches (Caney 2005), most of the objections originate from theorists who claim to reject cosmopolitanism. Given that contractual approaches to cosmopolitanism often proceed from Rawls's methodological framework, it is particularly significant that Rawls himself explicitly rejects prominent cosmopolitan readings of his theory. He responds to these readings and reaffirms his commitment to the two-stage social contract procedure in The Law of Peoples (1999). The cosmopolitan idea of a “global” contract, representing the interests of all individuals as interpreted through a liberal conception of the person, is rejected by Rawls on the grounds that it would show a lack of toleration to nonliberal but decent societies. A decent society is based around a “common good” conception of justice, which reflects the interests of all members of society but does not interpret these interests in the same way as a liberal conception of justice. A decent society respects fundamental human rights, consults all persons in its political process, and affirms a reasonable foreign policy, but does not guarantee the full range of rights and liberties associated with liberal justice. The two-stage social contract procedure respects decent peoples by generating a conception of international justice that does not require all societies to adopt liberal constitutions.

The account of international justice defended by Rawls also explicitly rejects the two principles of distributive justice favored by Beitz. He does not defend a resource redistribution principle, on the grounds that, according to Rawls, the wealth of societies derives from their political culture rather than their stock of natural resources. And he rejects a global analogue of the difference principle that might require ongoing wealth transfers between or across societies. The cosmopolitan case for a global difference principle is criticized by Rawls on the grounds that it fails to take seriously the idea of a politically autonomous people that must take collective responsibility for its levels of wealth and prosperity. Of course, Rawls recognizes that many societies are “burdened” by circumstances that prevent them from being autonomous in this way. In order to account for this, his theory of international justice includes a “duty of assistance” that should be discharged by the society of peoples. This duty is not like the difference principle in that it has a “target,” the achievement of just or decent domestic institutions, and a “cut-off point,” the cessation of assistance once these “well-ordered” institutions have been achieved. Rawls does claim, though, that if global institutional arrangements have unjustified distributive effects, perhaps similar to those that Pogge identifies in the current global order, then these would need to be taken into account in the application of the duty of assistance. The general idea is that the global realm exhibits features that rule out the application of a liberal conception of justice worked out for domestic contexts, particularly the presence of self-determining peoples that adopt a plurality of reasonable conceptions of justice.

Cosmopolitan and Social Liberalism

This response has led to a fierce debate between followers of Rawls who affirm something analogous to the cosmopolitan reading of his theory (Moellendorf 2002; Kuper 2004; Tan 2004) and those who elaborate and defend his rejection of cosmopolitanism (Reidy 2004; Wenar 2006; Freeman 2007). This ongoing debate turns on genuine and substantive disagreement among liberal political theorists. However, contrary to the apparent convictions of its protagonists, it is not immediately obvious that the debate marks a clear divide between pro-and anti-cosmopolitan positions.

The impression that it does so derives from the labels that have been employed to differentiate the two camps (Beitz 1999:214–16). The first group of theorists have been described as “cosmopolitan liberals.” Their distinguishing commitment is to the global application of liberal principles of justice that are designed for domestic contexts. The second group of theorists have been labeled “social liberals.” Their commitment is to a two-stage procedure for selecting principles of justice that results in different principles being selected for domestic and global realms. The principal distinction between cosmopolitan and social liberalism is sometimes said to be that the former takes the interests of individuals and the latter the interests of peoples as basic. This reading is supported through noting that Rawls rejects cosmopolitanism on the grounds that its “ultimate concern … is the well-being of individuals and not the justice of societies” (Rawls 1999:119). This may appear to differentiate social liberalism from the core cosmopolitan commitment that the individual is the ultimate unit of moral concern. In fact, this impression is misleading. The “justice of societies” is, for Rawls, measured by how they treat individuals. This is true whether or not a society adopts a liberal or a common-good conception of justice. Erin Kelly (2004) describes this as the “cosmopolitan roots” of Rawls's theory of international justice: he takes seriously the interests of societies precisely because he thinks that doing so is a requirement of taking seriously the interests of their individual members.

This reading suggests that the argument between cosmopolitan and social liberals can be interpreted as a debate that is internal to cosmopolitanism. In other words, the debate can be situated on a “cosmopolitan plateau” that affirms the equal moral status of all global citizens. The distinction often drawn between “weak” and “strong” cosmopolitanism is relevant in this context (Tan 2004:11–12). This distinction relates to the different ways in which the core cosmopolitan commitment to the equal moral status of individuals can be interpreted. A weak cosmopolitanism holds that all persons have an equal moral claim to the satisfaction of the basic requirements that are necessary to live adequate lives. A strong cosmopolitanism holds that even after this threshold has been reached, persons might have a legitimate claim against global or international actors to further improve their position. The disagreement between social and cosmopolitan liberalism maps onto this distinction. Social liberals think that global arrangements should work to ensure that all persons are able to lead adequate lives. This is best achieved, they argue, through promoting a world of well-ordered peoples that are capable of looking after the needs of their own populations. This world must be regulated according to international principles that safeguard the political autonomy of well-ordered peoples, including a specified duty to assist burdened societies that are incapable of becoming well ordered. Cosmopolitan liberals, by contrast, think that global arrangements should work to ensure that the interests of all persons receive equal treatment in a more substantive sense. This is best achieved, they argue, through applying principles of distributive justice directly to the global realm. This ensures that the interaction between states, corporations, or other global actors that has a profound impact on people's lives takes place against just background conditions.

The point here is not to obscure the important differences between these two positions. There is, for example, a real difference between their respective attitudes toward state or national borders. The theorists classed as social liberals are committed to the view that the nature and extent of human interaction within borders is significantly different to that which takes place across or between borders. Some have suggested that a liberal conception of justice can only be applied in contexts where a group of persons author their affairs through a coercive modern state (Nagel 2005). Others have argued that the moral significance of the state is not its coercive function but its provision of a particular class of goods that are typically not supplied by the global order (Sangiovanni 2007). Still others have treated national, rather than state, borders as morally significant on the grounds that liberal conceptions of distributive justice depend in some respect on the resources provided by a shared national culture (Miller 2000:161–79). The theorists classed as cosmopolitan liberals would want to reject all of these claims in order to support their view that the scope of liberal justice is genuinely global. It is appropriate, however, to urge caution about identifying cosmopolitanism as a whole with this position. The cosmopolitan claim that each person has equal moral status, or is the ultimate unit of moral concern, can, as we have seen, be interpreted in a variety of ways: weak formulations may be compatible and strong formulations incompatible with social liberalism. This recalls our earlier observation that cosmopolitan ideas of identity and allegiance can be interpreted in an “extreme” way that contradicts or a “moderate” way that complements nationalist accounts.

Cosmopolitanism and Global Institutions

The debates canvassed in the previous section focus on justice as a moral idea. These debates have implications for, but are generally kept separate from, investigations into the nature of cosmopolitan institutional arrangements. These investigations return to themes of international and cosmopolitan law that are prominent in Enlightenment thought, particularly Kant's ideal of Perpetual Peace. This section surveys current thinking about global institutional arrangements, beginning with the debates provoked by proposals for “cosmopolitan democracy,” then turning to the related idea of “cosmopolitan law enforcement,” before concluding with some brief reflections on “cosmopolitan realism.”

Cosmopolitan Democracy

The global institutional proposals of Enlightenment thinkers generally affirm the existence of the state-system and focus primarily on the issue of how to secure international peace. The current debates, by contrast, revolve around proposals that tend to be highly critical of the state-system and defend ambitious schemes of global governance. The case for designing these schemes in accordance with democratic principles is advanced by cosmopolitans who believe that all political authority should be subject to democratic norms. The case is also supported through noting that these kinds of schemes are the only means of safeguarding democracy in an era of globalization.

The idea of “cosmopolitan democracy,” championed by David Held, is perhaps the most widely discussed example of this kind of proposal. The nation-state, according to Held, is an inadequate means of realizing democracy in an age where opportunities for cross-border interference are rife and political communities lack the capacity to determine their own affairs. He argues that a new global community must be constituted through the establishment of what he calls “cosmopolitan democratic law” (Held 1995:226–31). This law guarantees the basic rights of all global citizens and must be incorporated into national and transnational constitutions, with international courts on hand to adjudicate citizen complaints against their own governments. Cosmopolitan law distributes political power across different spatial levels, with competences determined according to which level offers the most effective democratic governance of a particular issue or policy area. The institutional innovations proposed by Held include “the possibility of general referenda cutting across nations and nation-states in the case of contested priorities concerning the implementation of democratic law and the balance of public expenditure, with constituencies defined according to the nature and scope of disputed problems” (Held 1995:273). He also envisages the creation of a world parliament, an assembly whose members would be directly elected by the populations of democratic nations. The long-term hope is that this parliament will replace the United Nations General Assembly and become the principal forum for debating pressing global problems, such as health and disease, food supply, debt and poverty, and global warming.

This is a bold agenda, which, although often praised for its ambition, has been criticized as unnecessary, undesirable, and unrealistic. It has been alleged that these and similar proposals are based upon an inaccurate diagnosis of the nature and effects of globalization. There is no shortage of skeptics who contend that the likes of Held exaggerate the constraints imposed by globalization on nation-states (Hay 2005). In addition, while critics acknowledge that it does not entail the creation of a world state, it is frequently noted that cosmopolitan democracy works with a rather statist conception of political authority. It aims for the establishment of familiar styles of government – binding legal norms enforced in a top-down fashion by system-level institutions – albeit on a much larger scale. The problem is that this may reproduce and even exacerbate the vicissitudes of these institutions, such as their unresponsive and hierarchical modes of administration (Dryzek 2006:151–4). By far the most common complaint is that cosmopolitan approaches do not provide a plausible account of the social preconditions of democracy and how they might be replicated at global levels. The claim, often advanced by nationalists or communitarians, is that democracy requires a certain commonality among citizens – including a shared culture and language, ties of mutual trust, commitment to political principles – which is simply absent at the global level (Miller 2000:94–6; Kymlicka 2001:323–6). The problem with cosmopolitan democracy, in short, is that there is no “global demos” and this situation appears unlikely to change in the near future (Brown 2002:227).

This concern is also shared by cosmopolitans who are broadly sympathetic to Held's agenda. In reformulating the cosmopolitan outlook, theorists have pursued two related but distinct strategies. The first, which might loosely be described as a “top-down” approach, is to retain the case for global institutional arrangements, but limit aspirations for the kind of global demos favored by cosmopolitan democracy. Jürgen Habermas defends a form of “global constitutionalism” that, in a similar fashion to cosmopolitan democracy, distributes political authority across three spatial levels. The first, supranational level is a global organization, run by the representatives of nation-states, that is limited in its duties to securing international peace and upholding human rights. The second, transnational level consists of democratic communities at regional or continental levels, modeled loosely on the European Union, which have the capacity to resolve problems that are beyond the control of individual nation-states. The third, national level remains an important mechanism for the democratic regulation of domestic issues. The contrast between global constitutionalism and cosmopolitan democracy is that the former renounces the ambition of reproducing democracy at the global level. The global organization cannot be democratic, according to Habermas, because the shared identity that is necessary to sustain democratic politics is only feasible at national and transnational levels: “[the] ethical–political self-understanding of citizens of a particular democratic life is missing in the inclusive community of world citizens” (Habermas 2000:107). The idea is to respect nationalist or communitarian concerns without abandoning ambitions for transnational or global institutions that are capable of implementing cosmopolitan norms.

The second strategy, which works from the “bottom up,” is to associate cosmopolitanism with the transformation of existing national communities. Andrew Linklater and Seyla Benhabib develop this kind of cosmopolitan approach. They each start from the observation that national communities are constituted by logics of inclusion and exclusion. This practice is defended by the communitarian Michael Walzer, who upholds the right of national communities to decide who can become members of their association (Walzer 1983). The important role that exclusion plays in making political community possible is conceded by Linklater and Benhabib, but a case is made for a cosmopolitan renegotiation of this process. Linklater pursues this aim through calling for political communities to engage in “dialogic relations” with systematically excluded groups, within and beyond their borders, in order to explore the scope for greater inclusivity (Linklater 1998:85). Benhabib focuses on “democratic iterations,” through which political communities reinterpret their underlying norms in light of internal or external criticism (Benhabib 2006:47–51). The common theme is that national communities, through a collective process of critical self-reflection steered by progressive elements in society, must be transformed in cosmopolitan directions. It is important to note that top-down and bottom-up strategies are by no means mutually exclusive: Habermas emphasizes the importance of promoting an ethos of cosmopolitan solidarity within nation-states, while Linklater and Benhabib see the transformation of political communities as going hand-in-glove with the development of global institutional arrangements.

Cosmopolitan Law Enforcement

The cosmopolitan proposals discussed above all converge on one important commitment: that there is, or should be, such a thing as “cosmopolitan law,” based on the inalienable rights of all global citizens, which imposes legal duties on states. This is perhaps Kant's principal legacy to contemporary debates, though his followers aim to avoid what they see as his unfortunate attachment to a conception of sovereignty that would preclude the imposition of cosmopolitan law on states by global actors.

Cosmopolitans reject the principle of nonintervention that had been a formal rule of international relations under the so-called “Westphalia” system (Brown 2002). Cosmopolitans typically believe that sovereignty is conditional on respect for human rights; states that systematically violate the rights of citizens fail to discharge their fundamental responsibilities and hence lose their entitlement to nonintervention (Falk 1998). Cosmopolitan arguments against nonintervention do not by themselves justify the use of military tactics by intervening parties. There are, after all, non-coercive tactics for influencing the internal affairs of states or for shoring up respect for human rights, such as diplomacy or incentives. Though a few writers with cosmopolitan sympathies prefer to rule out the use of force in principle, on the grounds that it is too blunt and dangerous as a tool to protect human rights, most cosmopolitans accept that, in some circumstances at least, the use of military methods might be necessary to safeguard the rights of global citizens (Kaldor 2001). Some cosmopolitans argue that military intervention can only be triggered by the most severe and obvious human rights abuses, such as ethnic cleansing and genocide (Archibugi 2004). Others favor a more flexible approach, which would sanction military force if it constitutes a proportionate and effective response to rights violations (Caney 2005).

These arguments do not seem to differentiate cosmopolitanism from approaches to humanitarian intervention that explicitly appeal to the just war tradition. The distinctive feature of the cosmopolitan perspective, according to their advocates, is that it develops a legal paradigm based around the rights of global citizens. Cosmopolitans argue that humanitarian interventions should be understood as “police actions” designed to enforce cosmopolitan principles as legal entitlements (Kaldor 2001). This means that they should be authorized by global bodies, such as a political or legal organization that is organized along nonstatist lines (Archibugi 2004). They should be carried out by military forces, acting under the auspices of these global bodies, which are specially trained for the requirements of humanitarian intervention. The idea of a “cosmopolitan military” has been introduced to describe the range of tasks that intervening armies must carry out, including peacekeeping, providing humanitarian assistance and safe havens, protecting humanitarian workers, and establishing the conditions for politics to supplant violence. It also highlights the changes in military ethos and culture that must take place if armies are to become effective bearers of cosmopolitan values (Elliott and Cheeseman 2004). Cosmopolitans defend a new regime where the aim of interventions is to prevent human rights abuses and arrest perpetrators, with a view to their prosecution in suitably arranged legal forms. Their long-term aim is to transform the categories that govern our assessment of the use of force, replacing the “moral” framework of just war with the “legal” framework of cosmopolitan law enforcement (Habermas 2006).

Cosmopolitans are guilty here of downplaying the concern of just war theorists with questions of legality, though it may be appropriate to differentiate cosmopolitan law enforcement from the statist interpretations of just war given by some recent theorists (Brown 2002:102–10). Cosmopolitan schemes have provoked two contrasting and not altogether consistent lines of criticism. First, insofar as their theories abstract from the messy complexities of contemporary politics, cosmopolitans are accused of developing utopian proposals that cannot offer a practical guide for action and judgment in our noncosmopolitan present (Miller 2003; Fine 2007; Smith 2007). Second, insofar as their theories are employed in practical contexts, cosmopolitans are accused of providing a rationale for intervention that can be exploited by powerful states. This concern is pressed by critics of a “realist” persuasion, who analyze the international arena through exploring the power relations between its principal actors. The fear is that powerful states will seek to exploit their capacity to intervene in the affairs of weaker states and legitimate their self-interested actions through appeals to cosmopolitan morality (Zolo 2002). The regime of cosmopolitan law enforcement is, according to this line of attack, worse than the Westphalia system it seeks to usurp because it removes the legal protections bestowed upon weaker states by the norm of nonintervention (Chandler 2003). The damning verdict of realists is that cosmopolitans propose idealist blueprints that will inevitably be blocked or exploited by powerful international actors. This criticism has some pedigree, in that it recalls the objection that Stoic cosmopolitanism provided a convenient morality for the spread of empire over two thousand years earlier.

Cosmopolitan Realism

Cosmopolitans tend to give short shrift to these kinds of realist objections, pointing out that the goal of combating global power inequalities plays an important role in shaping their proposals. Cosmopolitans have long objected to realism in international relations, criticizing its ethical claim that states should pursue self-interest in foreign policy at the expense of morality and its empirical claim that international relations cannot be governed according to moral norms (Linklater 1998; Beitz 1999; Caney 2005). Cosmopolitanism and realism are radically different traditions, though recent developments in the literature suggest that, even here, it is becoming harder to police the boundaries between these two bodies of thought.

There are signs that at least some cosmopolitans are increasingly conscious of the need to engage with the concerns of realists. The standard realist complaint is that cosmopolitans do not and perhaps cannot connect their normative theories to an empirical analysis of global power dynamics. This complaint has also been advanced from within the cosmopolitan paradigm, most notably by the sociologist Ulrich Beck. Although Beck is committed to familiar tenets of cosmopolitan morality, he believes that cosmopolitanism has not been well-served by philosophical advocates who have presented it solely as a normative perspective. He worries that this has created a more or less unbridgeable chasm between a cosmopolitan ideal and a degenerate noncosmopolitan reality. His response is to refashion cosmopolitanism as a sociological project, developing a conceptual framework that is geared toward explaining social and political realities. Cosmopolitanism is identified as an ongoing process, involving the creeping emergence of multiple identities, the experience of global risks and the transnationalization of law, politics, and capitalism. The focus of Beck's investigation is the evolving “meta game” of power in the global age, understood as the transnational strategies that nation-states, corporations, and civil society organizations must adopt to pursue their aims and objectives. His aim is to transform cosmopolitanism into a quasi-realist theoretical framework; indeed, Beck presents cosmopolitanism as an improvement on traditional, state-centered conceptions of realism, arguing that states should adopt cosmopolitan priorities as the best way of pursuing their strategic interests. He also illustrates the political strategies that must be adopted if cosmopolitan ambitions for human rights and global democracy are to be realized. The concept of “cosmopolitan realism” is introduced by Beck to describe this form of cosmopolitanism, which is grounded in a “science of reality” and “based on power politics” (Beck 2005:110–15).

This plea for cosmopolitan realism is unlikely to see the intellectual barriers between realism and cosmopolitanism come crashing down, but it does illustrate the surprisingly porous boundary between these traditions. This returns us to a recurring theme in this discussion: although cosmopolitanism can be associated with a range of identifiable claims and positions in international studies, it is not as easy as one might expect to differentiate it from alternative theoretical paradigms. This is because, as is perhaps to be expected, cosmopolitans disagree with each other almost as much as they disagree with their noncosmopolitan rivals (Rengger 2005). An awareness of the internal disagreements within cosmopolitanism informs the work of scholars who explore the potential for bridging the divide between it and rival perspectives (Cochran 1999). It has even been suggested by some that the very idea of presenting cosmopolitan thought as a system or doctrine is misguided. The concern is that such an approach risks presenting cosmopolitanism as a fixed position, rather than a diverse and evolving body of thought. There is also an ethical motive behind this objection, in that a doctrinal cosmopolitanism may ultimately mirror the excesses of the perspectives that it sets itself against. Robert Fine (2007) argues that it is time for us to “take the ‘ism’ out of cosmopolitanism.” He prefers to associate cosmopolitan thought with a “research program” in the humanities and social sciences, unfolding within and across different disciplines and underpinned by an ethical commitment to the idea of global citizenship. There is much to be said for this recommendation, particularly in view of the wide range of positions that have been presented in this brief and incomplete survey of cosmopolitan thought. The key point is that this research program is ongoing: it may be impossible to predict its trajectory, but it will continue to have a profound impact on the contours of our intellectual landscape.


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The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. At Contains an excellent online entry on cosmopolitanism, which covers classical, modern, and contemporary debates. This site is devoted to the research of David Held and his colleagues on global transformations. It contains useful materials on the implications of globalization for democracy and cosmopolitan proposals for political reform.

openDemocracy. At The online magazine contains columns and forums exploring various issues surrounding human rights and democracy in a global context. It regularly includes contributions by authors affiliated with cosmopolitanism.

Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. At The website contains materials on a range of issues of relevance to cosmopolitanism, including global governance, international justice, and the ethics of war and military intervention.

Oxfam. At The website of the UK charity organization contains materials about teaching global citizenship. It is a good source of information for those interested in exploring the educational implications of global citizenship.