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2010 words

The needs of strangers

22 October 2019

Books | Most of us are cosmopolitan, but how does that mean we should behave?

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Founder of a tradition: Marcus Tullius Cicero watching over the Palace of Justice in Brussels. Reinhard Tiburzy/Alamy

Founder of a tradition: Marcus Tullius Cicero watching over the Palace of Justice in Brussels. Reinhard Tiburzy/Alamy

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal
By Martha C. Nussbaum | Harvard University Press | $59.99 | 320 pages


Aristotle, that pioneer of empirical science, thought it obvious that some humans are more worthy of respect than others. Free citizens, he believed, have qualities that make them morally superior to peasants and slaves. Men are more deserving of moral regard than women, and Greeks more than barbarians.

We don’t agree with Aristotle. These days we believe that all humans have equal worth and dignity, a doctrine enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Our morality has become cosmopolitan. How this fundamental change in morality came about, its implications, and the difficulties that still attend it are the subject of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book.

The cosmopolitan tradition can be traced back as far as the ancient Greek Cynic Diogenes, who regarded wealth and class distinctions as irrelevant to the capacity to live a virtuous life. To prove his point he made his home in a barrel. A more reasoned attempt to make a distinction between the moral worth of a person and his or her social position was made by the Stoics and Cicero, the great Roman statesman and philosopher of the first century BC. Cicero believed in the existence of a human community in which everyone possessed an equal status. This equality, he believed, is ours by nature and entails universal duties of justice. We are embraced, he says, by the same law of nature and this forbids us to do violence to others and requires us to protect them from the violence of others.

Nussbaum credits Cicero with founding a cosmopolitan tradition that was revived and built on by European thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The philosophers of international relations, Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf, were influenced by Cicero and so were Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. Cicero’s book De Officiis (Of Politics) became a kind of biblical text, she says, for the makers of public policy around the world. “But in one important respect this Bible was more like the serpent in the garden.”

Cicero’s account of justice was flawed, she believes, because of its indifference to the needs of strangers. Cicero thought that people have special duties for the wellbeing of their family members, friends and fellow citizens, but are not obliged to inconvenience themselves for the sake of people outside these relationships. If these individuals are poor, hungry or suffering from a maldistribution of resources this is no concern of theirs. Nussbaum thinks that this view of Cicero’s is not only morally wrong but also inconsistent with his own account of justice. A duty to protect individuals from violence requires us to make sacrifices for their sake.

Nussbaum’s quarrel with Cicero is not philosophical nit-picking. She thinks his mistaken view of justice continues to influence our approach to cosmopolitan justice. We agree that it is wrong to violate the rights of others, but we are less inclined to believe that we ought to help them obtain the resources they need. We accept duties to our fellows but believe that helping strangers is merely a matter of charity. Nussbaum thinks that a morally sound cosmopolitanism must be concerned for the wellbeing of all humans (and indeed sentient animals). In her exploration of the cosmopolitan tradition she wants to discover why it is flawed and how it can be repaired.

The flaw, she thinks, can be traced back to Stoicism, a philosophy that spread through the ancient world from the third century BC. Like Diogenes, the Stoics believed that human dignity has nothing to do with social status. The ability to reason and to live a virtuous life, they insisted, belongs to every human being; Aristotle was wrong about the variability of human worth because he focused on superficial differences between people. But if the difference between a slave and a free person is only superficial — if a slave can live a life of reason and virtue — then why object to slavery? And why should poverty matter if the soul is free?

Stoicism encouraged an indifference to the fate of others. Good Stoics are supposed to curb their emotional responses to their own fate or the fortune of those near to them and to concentrate their attention on serving humanity as a whole. Nussbaum considers this an impoverished point of view that denies the affection and concern we have for those near and dear, and praises Cicero for breaking with Stoicism by insisting on special duties to family, friends and fellow citizens. But the problem for cosmopolitanism remains. How do we reconcile these special duties with an insistence that all humans have an equal moral value?


These are the philosophical problems that European thinkers had to wrestle with when they adapted the cosmopolitanism of the ancient world. Two of these thinkers made important advances, says Nussbaum, though they failed to overcome all of its flaws.

Grotius, the seventeenth-century Dutch political philosopher, adapted cosmopolitanism to serve the cause of religious and political freedom. Every person, he insisted, is by nature autonomous and ought to be free to determine his or her beliefs and way of life. Slavery is incompatible with individual rights and so are attempts by one nation to dominate others. Nations should treat each other with respect in peace and war. His belief that people of every nation have a right to decide how they should be governed is the basis for his pioneering contribution to international law.

Grotius also believed that individuals have a right to have their needs satisfied. People have no right to monopolise resources that others need. Nussbaum notes the tension between this idea and Grotius’s insistence on the right of national sovereignty but credits him with a concern for human welfare that Cicero and the Stoics lacked.

The eighteenth-century philosopher and economist Adam Smith was an heir of the Ciceronian tradition but he was also a keen observer of society. Like Cicero and the Stoics, he endorsed a morality of human equality based on the capacity of each person for rational choice. But he was also well aware that working and living conditions could so degrade individuals as to make them incapable of exercising meaningful choice. People need education in order to develop their rationality, he argued, and they also need resources sufficient for a decent life. Smith is famous for his support of free enterprise and trade, but he also believed that workers should get a fair share of the wealth of their nation and that nations should cooperate on equal terms for the sake of the wellbeing of all humankind.

Nussbaum thinks that Smith was working his way towards a position that she would support in his most famous work, Wealth of Nations. She is disappointed by his later reversion to the Stoic doctrine that material conditions should make no difference to the ability of a person to be virtuous. The virtuous person, says Smith, demonstrates a manly indifference to the blows of fortune; he can think and act impartially by refusing to be moved by womanly sentiments. His idea of virtue is clearly infected by gender stereotypes and an assumption of masculine superiority, and Nusbaum thinks they are mainly responsible for his reversion to Stoicism. But the old conundrum of the Stoics also lurks in the background. If people can be degraded to the extent that their ability to be rational and moral is diminished then it becomes more difficult to insist that humans are of equal worth.


In a global economy, where people are linked together through trade and manufacture, where some are affluent while others are impoverished, and where an increasing number of refugees are seeking a place to live, a cosmopolitan theory and practice is more necessary than ever before. The flaws in the tradition need to be faced and overcome. Nussbaum thinks her survey points in the right direction. The tradition’s philosophical flaws, she thinks, are best overcome in the framework of the capabilities approach that she has developed with the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.

An appeal to capabilities stresses the commonality of human needs while allowing for the different goals and desires that humans develop within their cultures. Humans are born with innate endowments that give them the potential to develop further capabilities through nurture and education. But what defines the entitlements of human beings, according to the theory, are the capabilities that they ought to be able to exercise in their political and social environment. These include not only good health, adequate shelter and freedom from assault, but also an adequate education, and being able to form attachments and affiliations, engage in critical thinking, enjoy recreational activities and participate in politics. Cosmopolitan justice depends on these capabilities being realised for all humans, and everyone in world society shares the responsibility for realising this goal.

All humans are equal, according to Nusbaum’s theory, because their basic capabilities give them the potential to develop and exercise capabilities intrinsic to a flourishing human life. But humans with severe mental disabilities do not have these basic capabilities and some humans have them to a greater degree than others. If the properties that make humans valuable occur to a greater or lesser degree in individuals, then the very idea of human equality is once again under threat. Any account of human equality that depends on properties that individuals possess, whether actual or potential, is bound to run into the same difficulty. It will not escape Aristotle’s case for believing that all human beings are not of equal worth.

Nussbaum downplays an aspect of the cosmopolitan tradition that might prove helpful. Cicero and the Stoics emphasise human sociability — not merely as a capability that individuals should be able to develop but as a basic fact about human existence. For them, being human and being a world citizen go together. Grotius gives this idea a new twist by claiming that human beings possess the Earth and its resources in common. This is why he thinks that those with unmet needs can legitimately take from those who have more than enough to satisfy their needs. If it is a basic moral fact that individuals are world citizens by virtue of being human, then they get all the rights of membership just by being born. Their particular properties are irrelevant. This way of grounding human equality also has its problems, but it may turn out that cosmopolitanism can be more successfully defended as a philosophy if it takes a communitarian rather than an individualist direction.


But getting the philosophy right is only a small step in overcoming the difficulties that cosmopolitanism faces. How can it be put into practice? What responsibilities does it give us?

Nussbaum has a few things to say about cosmopolitan practice. She agrees with Grotius that political self-determination is best achieved in a world where the sovereignty of nation-states is respected. She does not think that the goal of cosmopolitanism ought to be a world state or a world regulated by international organisations. She worries about violations of human rights within states but thinks that they are often best countered by the moral pressure of international forums. She thinks that we all have a duty to ensure that the capabilities of all the world’s people are achieved, but she also thinks that foreign aid is almost always counterproductive. She suggests that we can help people help themselves by writing reports, books and articles they can use. It is difficult not to suspect that she is privileging the activities that she does herself: participating in international forums and writing books.

Most of us are cosmopolitans. We believe in the existence of human rights. But we aren’t sure what they are, why they exist, or what a cosmopolitan morality requires. Nussbaum’s book doesn’t answer all of the questions, and the answers she gives are open to debate. But her book not only provides a valuable perspective on the cosmopolitan tradition. It also encourages us to consider how we can realise the moral ideal of cosmopolitanism in our own time. •

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Vulnerable but not endangered: the earliest known image of the long-haired rat, from John Gould’s Mammals of Australia, published in London in 1854.

Vulnerable but not endangered: the earliest known image of the long-haired rat, from John Gould’s Mammals of Australia, published in London in 1854.