Cosmopolitan Ethics In World Politics

Posted on by Seyi Oduyela
Seyi Oduyela

Seyi Oduyela

Seyi Oduyela

Cosmopolitan thinking can claim a long and venerable lineage in (western) political theory that runs through Greek philosophy, Christian theology, Kantian critical theory and liberalism (See Smith and Vaughan-Williams in this Issue). In recent decades and due to the work of a few key scholars cosmopolitan thinking has undergone a revival across the social sciences. Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and (partly funded by) a newfound zeal within international institutions like the UN, cosmopolitan thought has now achieved the status of an ‘-ism’ (Fine, 2003). This subtle grammatical change has telling implications for the discussion of cosmopolitan ethics in world politics. On the one hand, the political nature of cosmopolitan thought is consolidated by its shift to an ideological, or at least, paradigmatic status. Reflexively, a key reason for looking at cosmopolitanism over other equally important traditions is a recognition that cosmopolitan agendas and authors are in a golden period of productivity and influence. On the other hand, the broadening of the term has created a problem of caricature. As Booth, Dunne and Cox (2001) argue: Defenders of such thinking have sometimes had their work labelled ‘Kantian’, which for some critics implies the embracing of an out of date package of Enlightenment outlooks (with all this implies for their views about international politics, including an untenable universalism) (2001, p. 7).Such caricature has often led critics to miss the often diverse and nuanced positions that fall under the broad rubric of cosmopolitanism. And to the extent that the papers presented here depart from the caricature they must all be considered in some sense beyond. So it is perhaps better to think about cosmopolitans as inspired by certain ideas. These ideas are those of the avoidance of unnecessary suffering because of war or poverty, and the possibility of building institutions that can allow for the realization of freedom.

An interesting point is that such ideas can lead to remarkably different projects. Indeed, in his contribution, ‘Anticipating a Cosmopolitan Future: The Case of Humanitarian Military Intervention,’ Will Smith identifies a striking divergence between cosmopolitans over the issue of humanitarian intervention by military means. While some authors have taken widespread abuses of human rights as a clear justification for the use of military intervention in ‘this world’, Daniele Archibugi (2003: 268) is against it; unable to condone ‘humanitarian violence’ until suitable cosmopolitan legal and institutional reforms have been achieved. However, against the latter position, Smith suggests: It seems counterintuitive to effectively postpone the possibility of military responses to these crises until the arrival of a cosmopolitan world, where there may, for all we know, be less need for military interventions. The challenge for cosmopolitans is how to orient themselves in a world where serious humanitarian crimes occur but where few effective means are available to respond to them.Smith thus pursues a careful critique of cosmopolitan thinking as it is actively applied to humanitarian intervention. He focuses on how one particular cosmopolitan, Jurgen Habermas, has articulated his thought in the context of specific military interventions in Kosovo and Iraq. By moving to context Smith is able to draw out an important point that is often missed by the more ardent critics of cosmopolitanism: its sensitivity to context. He shows how in the consideration of military intervention, Habermas uses his belief in cosmopolitan principals as regulative ideals. Such regulative ideals inform but do not dictate the contours of a response to intervention, by addressing the context of each decision. Indeed, for Smith, a critical analysis of this faculty leads to a question of whether ‘perhaps in complex non-ideal conditions, general principles can not play a decisive role in guiding judgements about the use of force?’

The importance and difficulty of cosmopolitan judgement is a crucial element in the cosmopolitan paradigm that is sometimes overlooked by critics and supporters alike. The judgement faculty that Smith identifies between regulative ideals and the specific context of political decision points to an interesting dichotomy between the ideal and the real. On the one hand, scholars like David Held and Andrew Linklater seek to identify the evolution of a specific form of rationality in human society, charting the way in which reason can foster inclusion and reduce exclusion. On the other hand, such writers are often quite able to move from the role of dispassionate observer to a position of political advocacy. In one of the discussions at the workshop, Andrew Linklater listed the ‘political effectiveness’ of the concept of citizenship as a means to emancipate previously marginalized peoples. Similarly, in a past debate with Barry Buzan, David Held (1998) contended: …the contemporary world is one in which we need to re-invent the idea of democracy — not surrender it. The project of cosmopolitan democracy — involving the deepening of democracy within nation-states and extending it across political borders — is neither optimistic nor pessimistic with respect to these developments. It is a position of advocacy (1998: 394).The use of terms like ‘political effectiveness’ and ‘advocacy’ infers a step into a world which is far less certain, far more contingent, and perhaps far more open to scrutiny than the dry world of philosophical reflection about ideal conditions. To put the point bluntly, it is one thing to identify that Kant is universalistic on certain points, or, that cosmopolitanism is Eurocentric (though these critiques repay consideration). However, it is quite another proposition to engage with a cosmopolitanism that is self-consciously political and therefore more able to reflect on the precariousness of its own moral judgement. Indeed, as Smith concludes in his piece, while there may be weaknesses with Habermas’ interventions on intervention, particularly his tendency to overstate the sense in which Continental European powers and the Kosovo intervention promoted the ideal of a cosmopolitan legal order […] It is in and through the judgements of politically engaged sympathisers like Habermas that cosmopolitanism appears not just as a distant and somewhat abstract political ideal, but as an embedded way of thinking about the world…The notion of embedding cosmopolitanism in current practices is taken up by Andrew Linklater in his defence of cosmopolitan obligations to distant suffering. In a context of mounting criticism of the cosmopolitan project on grounds that it ‘is not neutral between different moral codes and contains the seeds of new forms of power and domination’ Linklater explores the contours of an ‘embodied cosmopolitanism’. Such a model is not a blueprint for world government, nor is it lost in philosophical abstraction. Rather it is grounded reflection on the capacity and likely avenues for increasing sensitivities to, and sympathy for, human suffering. Such ‘cosmopolitan emotions’, he argues, can foster both the kind of charitable responses to natural disaster witnessed after the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and the possibility to foster more long-term transformations of the global system posited by writers like Thomas Pogge (2002).

Linklater is keen to make the move from ‘charity’ to ‘duty’ in the construction of cosmopolitan ethics. By charting a nuanced line between negative duties not to harm and the way positive duties to alleviate suffering are socially constructed, Linklater’s contribution places human vulnerability at the heart of cosmopolitan ethics. His point is that the most basic ‘human vulnerabilities are much the same everywhere’ and that ‘[a] sense of responsibility for endangering these universal pre-requisites can be developed from emotional dispositions regarding harm to others…’ These dispositions do not need to be invented; they are common to most societies. And for Linklater, ‘[t]his emphasis on the immanence of universal obligation in everyday realities is the key to embodied cosmopolitanism.’ Such a view is obviously political in its desire to engage immanent social possibilities. And it also speaks to what could be understood as a core theme of ethics and the ethical: how do we understand and mitigate suffering?

For Linklater, the question is answered by expanding the scope of ethical concern via the anticipation of immanent trends in social relations. In this way he highlights the social basis of ethics — for so long a bulwark of the cosmopolitan-communitarian debate. However, by looking to practice in this way Linklater implies that the cosmopolitan-communitarian divide is in fact far less rigid than may be supposed. Situated or embedded cosmopolitans understand and actively theorize community-related issues. Indeed, when it comes to concrete political engagement it is arguable that the two ‘sides’ often share far more in practical terms than this dichotomous framing would suggest (see Parker and Brassett, 2005).

This possibility of crossing the divide is explored more explicitly by Toni Erskine, in her contribution entitled: ‘Qualifying Cosmopolitanism: Solidarity, Criticism, and Michael Walzer’s ‘View from the Cave’. Accepting that cosmopolitanism must face significant charges — including a neglect of local culture by adopting a spurious objectivity — the question that motivates Erskine is ‘whether it is conceivable to somehow qualify the standard ethical cosmopolitan perspective so that it allays the apprehensions of its critics and sceptics — without forfeiting its claim to an inclusive and critical moral purview.’ To do this, she turns to the concept of embedded cosmopolitanism and asks how the work of Michael Walzer can help to situate ethics.

Michael Walzer is one of the most significant of the so-called communitarian philosophers and by engaging with the broad scope of his work Erskine takes discussion beyond the common IR framing of Walzer as just a just war theorist. Erskine makes a critical review of Walzer’s body of work in terms of his attempt to mediate between a ‘radically particularist’ (Walzer, 1983, xiv) starting point for morality and certain minimal universal codes. Walzer’s various proposals for mediating between the universal and the particular have included the idea of ‘connected criticism’ — where a thin universal morality can serve as background forum for debates and discussion between thicker communities — and ‘empathetic attachment’ — which allows for a thin solidarity to evolve due to sentimental identification. However, Erskine argues that any attempt to step outside of the particularity of community must impose some form of impartiality, thus contradicting the project. This problem is not so much an issue of coherent argument, as a foundational question of how the particular community is defined. She is especially concerned that Walzer all too easily falls back on a spatial and often state-centric ontology.

For Erskine, an embedded cosmopolitan project can be salvaged via re-thinking the social ontology of ethics: ‘One way of approaching such a redescription is to envisage the community in a way that is not necessarily spatially defined like Walzer’s ‘cave’.’ Erskine looks to the work of feminists who reflect on the experience of what Marilyn Friedman calls ‘dislocated communities’ and proposes that ‘the communities that define us are best understood as multiple, multifarious, overlapping, and often territorially dispersed […] A web of intersecting and overlapping morally relevant ties — with the moral agent radically situated in the centre — seems a more appropriate image of these communities than the model of separate caves.’ By adopting this image: One is not limited to a process of exposing contradictions in the espoused norms and practices of a single, bounded community. Instead, there is a possibility of revealing internal tensions across the multiplicity of communities to which one belongs. Indeed, this very multiplicity (where it exists) will militate against the acceptance of norms that advocate exclusion and enmity towards those outside any one community. In this way, Erskine echoes Smith and Linklater by envisaging a form of embedded ethics that attempts to work within existing social realities. The approach is suitably qualified in terms of outcome and seeks to think through the important ontological foundations of ‘where we start from’. Smith locates in the context of one cosmopolitan judging. Linklater is concerned by the possibility of immanent trends toward sympathy for suffering in multiple contexts. And Erskine asks the question of what is the appropriate conception of community for embedding cosmopolitan ethics. To the extent that they eschew any crude universality they all take us beyond the caricature of cosmopolitanism. However, as the next section will argue, this move may suffer from undue optimism regarding the possibility of ‘knowing’ the reality we seek to embed within.

Credit – Palgrave Macmillan (International Politics).


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