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Martha Nussbaum, author of The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal.

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  • Title: The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal
  • Author: Martha Nussbaum
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Pages: 320 pages

“The gates of the cosmic city,” Martha Nussbaum writes, “must open to all.” The “cosmic city” here is the global community envisioned by the cosmopolitan – the citizen whose loyalty is to the whole of humanity. In her new book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum argues that if aspiring global citizens are true to the best arguments for the universal human dignity they claim to revere, a particular consequence ensues: The circle of those held to have moral rights expands. The cosmopolitan will thus be obliged to work for deep and real freedoms, for fellow beings whom cosmopolitan ethics has historically excluded or slighted: migrants, the mentally disabled, non-human animals.

The Cosmopolitan Tradition is profound, beautifully written and inspiring. It proves that Nussbaum deserves her reputation as one of the greatest modern philosophers. For Nussbaum, dignity flows not from the ability to make moral decisions, as the Stoics (architects of the cosmopolitan way) long held. Rather, dignity flows from the awe-inspiring fact of sentience. Nussbaum argues that cosmopolitan ethics can only be set right by a searching re-evaluation of who that ethics assigns dignity to (and of what that “vague” dignity is, and is not). Doing this intellectual work is hard. But the reward, it turns out, is a true cosmopolitan view: a map to a “cosmic city,” where we all have the resources to lead good lives.

The rights of migrants, for their part, are in a strange limbo pursuant to the cosmopolitan tradition. Indeed, the tradition is silent on the question of migrant rights. For the tradition does not acknowledge the power and claim of national boundaries – those very real barriers which are the migrant’s stumbling block. The basic solution Nussbaum sketches is a renewed, accidentally ironic respect for the legitimacy of national sovereignty on the part of the aspiring global citizen, combined with a real but limited place for international law.

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There has been something rotten in the idealized “cosmic city,” Nussbaum says, since Diogenes the Cynic first mapped that vision’s outline in fourth century BCE. In calling himself “cosmopolitan," Diogenes evoked a global citizenship that rejects rank, wealth, gender and city itself as worthy recipients of fealty. His claimed loyalty was to all people, everywhere. Nussbaum sees this “Cynic starting point” to cosmopolitanism as good. But Diogenes saw voluntary poverty as a core virtue. As Nussbaum observes, this policy provides no basis for the redistribution of wealth needed to create real justice, and to make equality practical. Nussbaum’s criticism of the cosmopolitan tradition proceeds from this admirably pragmatic concern.

The Stoics refined Diogenes’s proposal – in ancient Greece and Rome, but also in the modern Stoic-influenced cosmopolitan tradition. (Nussbaum focuses illuminatingly on Grotius and Adam Smith as examples of key thinkers who corrected much in the Stoic cosmopolitan tradition, while at the same time building on it.) The ancient Stoics envisioned “the cosmic city” as the true, global community of humans, understood as bound together with a divine moral energy giving rise to universal rights and obligations. But Nussbaum has worries about how the Stoics conceive of the human dignity so admirably protected by those global duties and rights.

The Stoics held dignity to be totally invincible, so long as the capacity for moral decision-making remained intact. The idealized Stoic sage could truly flourish – lead an excellent life – in any situation, so long as she exercised her moral reason wisely, that is, dispassionately. She just had to keep her cool. For the Stoics, the victim tortured on the rack is not in a truly worse situation than the person who is spared, for both have intact moral capacity.

Nussbaum responds to the flaws in the Stoic approach in a few ways. Bitingly, she observes that torture (and bad luck in its many forms) can indeed sap or shatter our ability to think morally, and indeed our ability to think at all. And, more to her central point, Nussbaum here amplifies her concerns about Diogenes’s voluntary poverty. The Stoics suggest that we all ought to be cosmopolitan, not minding our own material deficits nor those of the rest of humanity – that multitude whose moral capacity we nonetheless honour.

But, as Nussbaum argues, this accidentally elitist view provides nothing for the systems of education needed to build up people’s moral reason. Nor does it provide for health care and other services essential to making the idea of human dignity mean something coherent. In these ways, the Stoics (and their modern heirs) fail cosmopolitanism’s potential. Part of the genius of Nussbaum’s book is that it makes these ancient arguments sing in a contemporary key.

Nussbaum is perhaps most famous for her articulation of the Capabilities Approach – an ethical framework for social development that focuses on the freedoms humans need for physical and spiritual flourishing. In The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum proposes that morally serious people have to start respecting and facilitating the capabilities of non-human animals, too. This is one key way to the potential purification of cosmopolitanism.

“The idea of justice,” Nussbaum writes, “thus becomes, so to speak, not just horizontal, extending over the entire globe, but … vertical (though this is something of a misnomer, since no animals are lower or higher than others in the evaluative sense), extending into the depths of the oceans and high up into the air, and embracing many different creatures.”

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Nussbaum does not go so far as to say that dignity, and thus rights, ought to be assigned to plants. She limits her explicit expansion of cosmic “citizenship” to non-human animals. This is regrettable. At the shocking rate at which rare plant species are being lost, and at which the Amazon is burning, we need a true language of rights for wild-flowers and trees. But Nussbaum’s view of “perception” and “ability to move” as markers of “creatures” with dignity provides a basis for inclusion of plants in the future. And, on the flip-side, if the world were to embrace Nussbaum’s proposals for animals, fragile ecosystems would be preserved, and their plant “citizens” with them.

We still have opportunities to realize the corrected and practical vision of global citizenship that Nussbaum offers. We have a federal election in Canada this fall – a democratic race, in which several credible parties are debating the most important national and global issues. The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration began this year, building on the work and spirit of the UN Decade on Biodiversity just ended. If we are true to the revised, and thus authentically universal and loving cosmopolitanism for which Nussbaum argues, that new Decade may well bear fruit.

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