The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Lior Erez is largely impressed by an attempt to adapt the ancient ideals of cosmopolitanism to the challenges of today

August 29, 2019
Kos, Greece - October 2015: Volunteers give a hand to migrants from Afghanistan who arrived at Kos from Turkey on a dinghy
Source: iStock

At a time of growing national chauvinism, Martha Nussbaum’s excellent restatement of the cosmopolitan tradition is a welcome and much-needed contribution. Masterfully tracing the development of the idea of universal human dignity from antiquity to the present, she highlights the major contributions of this tradition to our thinking about morality and law, while also providing a persuasive critique of its limitations. Her revision of the tradition, articulated here and in many of her other works, is illuminating and thought-provoking.

Nussbaum’s book is best read as an attempt to rescue cosmopolitanism from what she perceives as its two main flaws, both deriving from its Stoic origins. The first is a division of the virtue of justice into two parts: one dealing with violations to the body or property rights; and the second, more lax, dealing with duties of material aid. This distinction is vehemently rejected by Nussbaum, not least because it obscures the social and economic basis for justice. The second flaw concerns the Stoic rejection of external aids to human dignity: health, political freedom and family relations are all deemed unimportant. This belief in a socially and materially independent internal self, Nussbaum argues, ignores the role of education in developing one’s moral personality and the importance of material and social goods in exercising freedom. Moreover, this leads to a confusion of human dignity with the macho virtue of self-reliance and self-command, and risks blaming the poor for their own condition. Instead, Nussbaum calls for an expansion of our idea of dignity, recognising the necessity of material and social conditions in developing one’s innate capacities.

The careful and sympathetic reconstruction of historical figures brings with it some surprising observations. Nussbaum’s reading of Hugo Grotius’ theory of ownership, where the rich lose their claim to their surplus wealth in times of widespread poverty, leads to the radical conclusion that poor states may have a just cause for war against wealthy states. She also reverses the popular perception of Adam Smith, arguing that, due to Stoic influence, he fails in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to appreciate the compelling arguments about dignity and material needs he himself makes in The Wealth of Nations. Such sophisticated internal critiques are prevalent throughout the book.

Arriving at the more policy-oriented chapters, however, the reader cannot help but feel somewhat disappointed. The normative prescriptions, while undoubtedly an improvement on the status quo, don’t differ much from those of other writers in the global justice literature, including, one might add, self-proclaimed anti-cosmopolitans. Their modesty also seems inconsistent with the radical theory presented in previous chapters. For example, in her discussion of migration, Nussbaum seems to implicitly accept the distinction between duties to refugees fleeing political persecution and duties to economic or climate migrants, replicating the bifurcation of justice and beneficence she so persuasively rejected earlier. While she convincingly articulates the notion of “passive injustice”, or injustice by lack of action, her scepticism about the legitimacy and efficacy of both international human rights law and foreign aid seems to leave little room to address such injustice. In short, Nussbaum’s book defends a powerful and compelling moral ideal, the radical political implications of which it does not fully pursue.

Lior Erez is a research fellow at the Minerva Center for Human Rights, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 


The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press
320pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780674052499
Published 30 August 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Expanding our human dignity

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