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In The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, renowned philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum offers a set of essays that take their cue from the Cynic and Stoic traditions to explore the tensions within the cosmopolitan ideal through the works of Cicero, Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith. Questioning the book’s positioning of the nation state as the practical and moral site for realising cosmopolitan goals, Alex Sager argues that far from being a ‘noble but flawed’ ideal, a commitment to cosmopolitanism may be our best hope of survival. 

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. Martha C. Nussbaum. Harvard University Press. 2019.

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During the brief interval of hope after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Martha Nussbaum’s Boston Review essay ‘Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism’ played a central role in resurrecting cosmopolitan ethics. Invoking Diogenes the Cynic’s proclamation, ‘I am a citizen of the world’, Nussbaum thoughtfully discussed Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, The Home and the World, to defend a cosmopolitan ideal against a politics of nationalism, patriotism or ethnic or religious difference. Even then, Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism was largely a benign moral ideal, coupled with a tepid vision for multicultural education. Still, it may come as a surprise for some that, 25 years later, Nussbaum has cast her lot with the nationalists. She affirms the nation state not only as a practical site for realising cosmopolitan goals, but, following Grotius, holds that the nation state has a fundamental moral role as ‘the largest unit that is an effective unit of human autonomy and accountability to people’s voices’ (14).

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal is based around four loosely connected essays that take their cue from Cynic and Stoic cosmopolitanism. Nussbaum identifies the Cynic and Stoic traditions as a central source of the insight that humans possess equal worth and dignity, independently of their social membership. Nonetheless, she sees this tradition as committed to a problematically radical ideal of self-sufficiency in which virtue alone is good and the human flourishing of Stoic sages is unaffected by events beyond their control; misfortune, extreme poverty, and even slavery, do not undermine the sage’s human flourishing.

Nussbaum traces the influence of these ideas in Cicero, Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith. She sees Cicero as pioneering a fundamental distinction between duties of justice and duties of beneficence. Duties of justice are universal duties based on the law of nature, and extend beyond the boundaries of political communities; they forbid harming others and protect private property. Duties of beneficence demand material aid, are less stringent and are owed only to compatriots. Grotius extends Stoic ideals of respect for humanity to international relations and makes headway on moral duties to aid, as well as psychological questions about motivating international duties while maintaining allegiance to one’s nation state. Smith, especially in The Wealth of Nations, provides a sophisticated analysis of how economic institutions such as wage labour under the factory system can crush human dignity and debase human capacities.

Nonetheless, on Nussbaum’s reading, Grotius and Smith do not go far enough in overcoming their Stoic influences. Smith, in particular, continues to adopt a macho-Stoical idealisation of self-command and indifference to misfortune in his moral philosophy. Instead, the tradition culminates in Nussbaum’s version of the capabilities approach in which justice requires that people are able to exercise substantial freedoms to enjoy life, bodily health and bodily integrity; exercise their senses, imagination and thought; develop attachments to other people; associate with groups where they are treated with dignity and respect; form a conception of the good; live with non-human animals, plants and nature; play; and exercise control over one’s political and material environment (241-42). Nussbaum sees these capabilities most likely to be realised by liberal nationalism (8-9).

The most glaring shortcoming of Nussbaum’s wide-ranging narrative is that it is unclear that she plausibly identifies a cosmopolitan tradition (let alone the cosmopolitan tradition). Cicero famously privileges the Republic and Grotius articulates the first major philosophical defence of the nation state. While Smith is frequently identified as a proponent of economic cosmopolitanism, his nuanced view of international relations complicates his cosmopolitan credentials. We could just as easily appropriate Cicero, Grotius and Smith for a history of nationalism.

Furthermore, Nussbaum does not attempt to situate Cicero, Grotius and Smith in their own political and social contexts, but rather to use them to tell a story. Unsurprisingly, she finds them wanting from the vantage point of contemporary, liberal egalitarian philosophy, especially insofar as they were influenced by the Stoic rejection of the need for external goods. Whatever effect Stoic self-sufficiency had on Cicero, Grotius and Smith, it holds little sway over contemporary cosmopolitanism. Indeed, readers may wonder if anyone has written any cosmopolitan theory worth noting since Nussbaum’s Boston Review essay. She makes no mention of theoretical developments by scholars such as Daniele Archibugi, Ulrich Beck, Seyla Benhabib, Gillian Brock, Luis Cabrera, Gerard Delanty, David Held, Alejandra Mancilla or Thomas Pogge (to name only a few).

Finally, we should be wary of Nussbaum’s turn to liberal nationalism as a middle way between resurgent, racist nationalism and neoliberal globalisation. Readers searching for a nuanced defence of the nation state will not find it here. Instead, Nussbaum does little more than decry the ‘me-first tub-thumping nationalism that is too familiar in our time’ (11). She declares that: ‘If one sees the history of the United States as built upon a commitment to human equality – as does Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (albeit with some historical implausibility) – then it is possible to see this experiment as fostering, as well, respect for human dignity all over the world’ (211). Unfortunately, she provides little guidance for how one might reconcile this vision of the United States with chattel slavery, the dispossession, expulsion and confinement of Native Americans, brutality toward immigrants and imperialist wars.

A central task for cosmopolitans today is to reconcile the local and global in forms of political organisation that take us beyond the parochial horizons of the nation state. Climate change and forced migration may well make human flourishing or dignity impossible unless we create supranational political institutions. While Nussbaum has retreated to nationalism, other scholars have been advancing the cosmopolitan tradition to meet these challenges. Far from being a noble but flawed ideal, a commitment to cosmopolitanism may be our best hope of survival.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Alex Sager – Portland State University
Alex Sager is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Portland State University. He is the author of Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World (Palgrave Pivot, 2018) and Against Borders: Why the World Needs Free Movement of People (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020). Follow him on Twitter: @aesager.

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