by Paul J. Weithman
Martha Nussbaum begins her defense of cosmopolitanism by asking whether children should learn to describe themselves as citizens of a nation state or of the world. She closes by remarking that "the life of a cosmopolitan . . . need not be boring, flat or lacking of love." Nussbaum's closing thought should, I believe, be the premise and not the conclusion of an essay on moral education and group membership.
I base this belief on the psychological conjecture that the sense of group membership depends upon the development of a capacity for love. A child's sense of belonging to religious, ethnic or family groups, for example, depends upon her learning to love the traditions and the rituals, the languages and the cultures, the heroines, heroes and histories, of the groups in which she feels at home. This is as true of children educated for cosmopolitanism as it is of those destined for parochialism, for the cosmopolitan does not leave her loves behind to become a citizen of nowhere. She is, rather, a citizen at home anywhere. Her love embraces, not only the group in which she was raised, but the beauty and the achievements of other cultures as well. The challenge of moral education for either patriotism or cosmopolitanism is therefore, as Augustine would maintain, the challenge of teaching human beings to love rightly.
As Augustine also pointed out, human love is chronically subject to misdirection. We all too readily make idols of our nations and families, our churches and tribes, our wealth and cultural achievements. These idolatries, he would argue, are the many faces of pride, a vice ultimately rooted in love of self. We erect these objects of what Nussbaum calls "our first allegiance" because of their perceived connection with us. In loving our tribes, our countries or our religions, we love some facet of ourselves. Because every human love is in some way flawed, even the lover of all humanity risks idolatry. Even the best of us too often love in other human beings just those moral capacities on which we pride ourselves.
Augustine provides three lessons for the debate that Nussbaum has so helpfully initiated. First, because human beings are moved by love and human love is marred by sin, politics at its best falls short of what we hope. The primary task of moral education in any generation is therefore to prepare children to make the best of the deeply flawed institutions their elders will bequeath them. Thus the cosmopolitanism of the Roman Stoics depended upon the reach of an empire that Augustine subjected to devastating moral critique in The City of God. Nussbaum's revival of their Stoicism is in part a response to the global hegemony of an economy whose injustice it does not take an Augustine to document. Educating the next generation to live with our legacy requires teaching them all we can about the world they will inherit. It requires teaching them to love their own institutions enough to improve them but not so much that they are blind to their shortcomings. It requires teaching them that they will make their own mistakes with their own consequences. And it requires teaching them that the education they receive from us will not include all that their children need to learn from them. Moral education must be a perennial subject of conversation.
Second, even a flawed cosmopolitanism seems relatively benign, lacking as it would the excesses of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and religious fanaticism. But if, as Augustine would maintain, human beings are drawn to love their country and themselves, then the features which make cosmopolitanism an attractive ideal make it difficult to sustain in practice. Given this difficulty, children might be better educated in forms of patriotism and religious commitment that are informed by the demands of justice. Rather than being taught cosmopolitanism, they should be encouraged to pursue those elements of their religious and national ideals that support feeding the hungry, housing the poor and comforting the afflicted.
Finally, Nussbaum's discussion is about how we should teach our children to regard the rest of the world. But if human beings really are as proud as Augustine claimed, this should be complemented by discussion of how we want the rest of the world to regard us. I once heard George McGovern remark that America's greatest strength is the world's opinion that the American people are fundamentally decent. This is a proposition the world will not long believe if we continue to neglect the overwhelming poverty, ignorance, and discrimination in our midst. We should cultivate in our children sufficient love for national ideals that they feel shame and guilt at our failure to improve our inner cities, protect our forests and wetlands, or clean our air and water. Moved by pride in these ideals and knowledge of our shortcomings, they may then do better than we.