Cosmopolitanism and its Enemies

June 27, 2016


Diogenes famously responded, when asked where he came from, that he was “a citizen of the world” (kosmopolitês). This concept, that brazenly undermines the then-current notion of sovereignty of city-states, and later nation-states, inspired some Stoic philosophy which saw the individual as inhabiting a number of concentric spheres of affiliation, with humanity as the overarching sphere. To some of these Stoics, our task is to draw those spheres together. Our shared humanity, from which our duties to each other to treat each other according to the categorical imperative, is also integral to Kantian ethics. Modern Humanists like Paul Kurtz have also expressed similar notions, referring to global ethics and seeking international accord on issues of human rights and “global ethics.” In the “Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values” (which I signed) it states in accord with cosmopolitanism: “Neo-Humanists recognize that humanity needs to move beyond egocentric individualism or the perspective of chauvinistic nationalism.  The planetary community needs to develop new transnational institutions. The new reality of the twenty-first century is the fact that no one on the planet can live in isolation, and every part of the world community is interdependent. This applies equally to nation-states, which are arbitrary jurisdictions based on historic contingent events of the past.”

I lived for six years in Europe, and experienced while I was there a sort of embodiment of the Cosmopolitan ideal, as well as the sense that it is under siege by a certain mentality. We have witnessed with the recent UK referendum on EU membership an expression of that mentality. That reaction, the urge to pull back from the world, is anti-humanistic. The new reality of life on this planet is that borders are increasingly a hindrance to human prosperity and liberty. States, with the arbitrary manners of affiliation and contraction of rights of movement and affiliation, impede the free flow of ideas as well as people, and interfere with commerce and association. I benefitted from cosmopolitanism, which allowed me and my family to move rather freely to The Netherlands, and there, as immigrants to a EU state, to enjoy freedoms that we take for granted in the United States, and that many are now on the verge of rejecting for the sake of irrational fears.

It would shock many Americans who have not travelled to nor within Europe that one may drive one’s car across thousands of kilometers and through dozens of nations and across their borders without ever once stopping for customs and inspection, or showing your passport, or applying for visas. While we lived there, we took great advantage of this freedom, driving and taking trains to a number of European countries and exposing ourselves when possible to its many cultural treasures. The Netherlands is a rather tiny country, and so having the ability to leave when we wished, without concerns about border crossings, encouraged us to take in the sights and multifaceted culture as much as possible. We could also easily conduct our business, if we wished, in any of the EU member states, even as non-EU citizens. If we were citizens, not only could we move freely, but we could have sought employment throughout the EU without visa concerns, and employers who wished to could draw upon talent throughout the EU can easily do so, enhancing competition and commerce. EU citizens who fall in love and have families with those across its almost imperceptible borders need not fear that they cannot easily migrate and live with one another, nor seek employment to raise their children, nor travel to visit family, just as we do from state-to-state in the US. The Bureaucracy behind all this serves primarily to maintain those freedoms, to prevent local bigotries from intervening with EU citizens’ expanded rights, and is largely invisible.

The enemies of cosmopolitanism sometimes cite increased competition (for instance among and within labor markets) as an argument against it, and the left refers to “globalization” derogatorily just as the right cites concerns about Muslim and other immigrants bringing anti-democratic sentiments and sometimes violence as reason enough to abandon it. This is bad science from both sides. Markets and competition are risky, whether in ideas or human congress. The general trend of liberalism, which exposes us to a plethora of ideas and encourages experimentation and disagreement in the hopes that the best will overcome the worst, is progressive. There are failures, including horrible ones, along the way. There are even violence and deaths. Failures are to be expected, and the enemies of both liberalism and cosmopolitanism will latch onto them, and our fears of their consequences, to try to argue for the rejection of those ideals themselves. Restricting our freedoms, building walls and borders both metaphorical and real will serve to keep out the good as well as the risky or bad, and excessive aversion to risk will always impede progress.

We have to believe that in the long run that exposure to the best we have to offer as liberal, cosmopolitan societies will, ultimately win over regressive, tribal, and hateful sentiments. The best arguments win over the worst when we are free to argue them, when we aren’t averse to listening to counterarguments and through examples.

The cosmopolitan ideal embraces our shared humanity as primary. More important than states, ideologies, religions, culture or ethnicity, the cosmopolitan human is a citizen of the world, and above all seeks to be in it rather than shy away from it. Liberalism and secularism are necessary to help it succeed, and can be best encouraged and expressed by weathering its failures and ensuring its ultimate success in expanding human freedom and flourishing. The enemies of cosmopolitanism would like nothing better than for us to fear the other, to build up barriers against its encroach, and to embrace tribalism, nativism, and parochialism. We should not bend to these anti-humanistic temptations.