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An Empty Morality


by Chester A. Janiak

Martha Nussbaum contrasts patriotism to cosmopolitanism and argues that we should reject the former and embrace the latter. The heart of her argument is that patriotism is the identification with particular groups, based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc., and the use of those (in Nussbaum's view) morally irrelevant distinctions to make moral decisions; cosmopolitanism, in contrast, is the recognition of our common humanity found in our shared capacities for rational deliberation and moral conduct, which, if recognized and acted upon, will lead to a "community of dialogue." In Nussbaum's view patriotism leads to division and factions, while cosmopolitanism leads to the unity of a community. This dichotomy between the many and the one is, I believe, false.

Nothing in Nussbaum's conception of cosmopolitanism -- a common humanity and shared capacities for rational deliberation and moral conduct -- prevents the emergence of factions among those who accept a cosmopolitan view. In this regard, we need only examine debates about what human nature is and what the resolution of those debates implies for social, political, economic, and moral issues. Consider, for example, the alleged natural differences between women and men or the alleged natural differences in intelligence between racial or ethnic groups. Similarly, the concept of rational deliberation is notoriously difficult, involving, as it necessarily does, underlying value judgments about the nature of rationality.

A community is a group of persons who share beliefs and values and on that shared basis engage in dialogue to resolve issues. Cosmopolitanism does not produce the requisite shared beliefs and values, because it is necessarily rooted in the abstractions of an alleged common humanity. There is certainly no agreement on how those abstractions may be reduced to the shared beliefs and values that are necessary for a "community of dialogue." The danger posed by accepting cosmopolitanism as a political and moral perspective that embraces all of humanity, rather than the less inclusive groups of patriotism, is that it may become factionalism on a grand scale. This, in essence, is no different than the internationalism of the totalitarian Marxists of this century.

We should not, however, confuse cosmopolitanism as a political and moral perspective with cosmopolitanism as a pedagogical program, as Nussbaum appears to have done. Cosmopolitanism in this sense deepens our understanding of ourselves and others, including what we take to be best, natural and morally relevant, by forcing us to step out of the narrow perspective of our own time and culture by looking at ourselves, others and the world from the perspectives of other historical times and different cultures. Indeed, it is cosmopolitanism as a pedagogical program which casts doubt on cosmopolitanism as a political and moral perspective. A cosmopolitan education teaches us that people live their lives through the great variety of beliefs and values that they hold and institutions that structure their societies, and that any effort to move beyond the specifics that divide us produces the nearly empty abstractions of an alleged common humanity, which cannot be the basis for resolving differences.

Also, Nussbaum is wrong in supposing that we can both embrace cosmopolitanism as a political and moral perspective while retaining any meaningful identification with nation, group, or family. What cosmopolitanism in this sense requires is precisely that we cease to act as we do toward nation, group or family. I cannot be a cosmopolitan, if I continue to give so disproportionate a share of the world's goods to my children, while the children of so many others have so little. Cosmopolitanism in Nussbaum's sense requires that we abandon what we find most emotionally satisfying and meaningful in our lives in favor of cold abstractions. It is a morality no one can live by.



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