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Cosmopolitan Humility

by Bernard Yack

Cosmopolitanism comes in at least two distinct forms. On the one hand, there is the broadened perspective we associate with individuals who move comfortably within the standards of more than one culture. On the other hand, there is the higher loyalty to humanity defended by individuals who claim to be citizens of the world. Call these two sets of attitudes cultural and ethical cosmopolitanism.

Increasing cultural cosmopolitanism seems to me a perfectly appropriate goal -- alongside many other equally worthy goals -- for American education. Greater familiarity with the history, languages, and moral experience of other cultural communities is a good in itself. A broader, somewhat less ethnocentric perspective on morality and politics is a welcome side-effect of increased familiarity with other cultural standards. Moreover, cultural cosmopolitanism softens the harsher expressions of national pride without directly challenging patriotic commitments. For it seeks to broaden the citizen's perspective on morality and politics, rather than promote a higher, supranational form of loyalty.

In her timely celebration of cosmopolitanism, Martha Nussbaum defends ethical rather than cultural cosmopolitanism. It is thus quite fitting that she illustrates the cosmopolitan temperament with Stoic boasts about being citizens of the world (or, perhaps more accurately, citizens of the universe, since it is the reason in the nature of things to which the Stoics expressed loyalty.) Ethical cosmopolitanism has two drawbacks as an educational goal. It diminishes the importance of cultural and historical knowledge in education, because the citizen of the world sees the variety of cultures merely as a catalogue of shared delusions and partial approximations of the true standards of human morality and loyalty. In addition, ethical cosmopolitanism promotes an unjustifiable pride in our ability to reason our way to universally applicable moral and political standards. Our dependence on one particular cultural and political community or another may often rest on nothing more than meaningless accidents of birth. But Professor Nussbaum, like Stoic philosophers who denied the reality of physical pain, gives us little reason to believe that our moral reasoning can completely transcend this inconvenient fact of our embodied existence.

So by all means let us try to increase the cosmopolitan content of American education. But we need not turn to the boastful universalism of ethical cosmopolitanism in order to fight the narrowness and harshness of ethnocentric chauvinism. Indeed, Americans have rarely acted in a more ethnocentric way than when claiming to be the executors of universal standards of reason and goodness. A more cosmopolitan education is a reasonable and useful idea. But it should aim at promoting greater breadth and humility about our moral judgments, rather than greater pride in our capacity to reach "humanity's" perspective on the difficult issues that confront us in the modern world.

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