Foolish Cosmopolitanism

"Foolish Cosmopolitanism," reply to Martha Nussbaum, Boston Review, October-November 1994, 10.


Martha Nussbaum is one of the most eminent female philosophy professors of our time, but when it comes to politics, she’s a girl scout. Indeed, she has less useful acquaintance with American politics than a schoolchild of either sex who has recently been exposed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — unless, thanks to the foolish cosmopolitanism she encourages, these items are no longer in the curriculum.

I can see why Professor Nussbaum rejects the groundless patriotism of Richard Rorty, which is truly liable to being perverted into jingoism or worse. But she seems to agree with him that a reasonable patriotism is impossible, and so she leaps to the opposite of patriotism and concludes that we all ought to become citizens of the world. For this acrobatic counter-move to Professor Rorty she claims the support, or the authority, of the Stoics and of Kant. Why does she ignore the liberalism and the constitutionalism of the country in which she lives?

The Declaration of Independence is not jingoistic. It shows a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” It explains that the independence of America is not “morally arbitrary,” as Professor Nussbaum loftily asserts, but rather the result of the consent of the people. Their consent is the exercise of a right they have in virtue of their human nature; so the particular is not arbitrary but rooted in a universal. The Constitution is also the result of consent. It represents, said Alexander Hamilton, an attempt to provide a model for mankind of good government from “reflection and choice” as opposed to “accident and force.” It provides a structure carefully designed to empower reasonable majorities and to frustrate unreasonable ones.

In sum, the cure for noxious patriotism is not cosmopolitanism but democratic government. Has Professor Nussbaum not heard the commonplace truth, available in Kant as well as the magazines, that democracies do not fight one another? Of course, democracy is not a guarantee of perfection, as we know from American history; but it accords better with the facts of our nature than does cosmopolitanism. Although we are arbitrarily born in this country rather than that, we are necessarily born in a country, not in “the world.” Our purview is limited. We can be generous to other countries, but rather out of self-respect than for the sake of universal justice by which any foreigner has the same claim on us as a fellow-citizen. A bored observer might like to see a presidential election in which the Democrats nominate Aristide and the Republicans, Fujimori; but I can’t think this would improve our children’s education.

Boston Review