In 412 B.C., Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of the Greek Cynic movement, was asked where he came from. His response, “I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitês],” founded the ethical framework of cosmopolitanism. The central tenant of cosmopolitanism is that all humans belong to a culturally diverse world community that ascribes to a common set of moral, political and economic ideologies. Martha Nussbaum writes of the Greek Stoic conception of cosmopolitanism: “Each human being dwells in two communities—the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration.” Cosmopolitanism has guided my own policy views, especially in regards to immigration. A policy is ethically justified if it correlates with the ideals of the world community—ideals that are decided through a democratic process with the world as the constituents. Human rights and justice come from humanity’s commitment to universal respect and hospitality, and that commitment is solidified through international laws.
In 1795, Immanuel Kant outlined the first legal order for cosmopolitanism in an essay titled, “Perpetual Peace.” Kant argued that perpetual peace could be achieved if the world subscribed, with a league of nations as the enforcer, to a set of common principles and rules. The rules implored nations to abolish standing armies, end economic sanctions and avoid divisive methods in war—like assassinations, inhumane weapons, etc.—and required all states to have republican constitutions. Although Kant’s rules were never adopted, they did influence the founding principles of the League of Nations and eventually the United Nations. The United Nations is a good modern-day example of cosmopolitanism: Its resolutions and decrees aim to represent humanity’s universal ideals.
Some versions of cosmopolitanism encourage the establishment of a world state, but my take on cosmopolitanism does not go so far. The world order should be an institution powerful enough to enforce universal principles, but it should not be a despotic universal government. There must still be some state sovereignty within the system in order to check the authority of the world order. Embedded in this idea is support for immigration reform. I do not endorse open borders, but I do support lessening current worldwide restrictions on immigration. All states should evaluate immigration applications on the basis of need—not ethnicity, skill level or educational background. We should promote consistent immigration law across all states so as to better prevent instances of human trafficking and support claims for asylum. Some states might object to fewer restrictions—fearing a subsequent influx of immigration, so states should only be obligated to accept immigrants until they reach ‘capacity,’ as defined by the world order. This capacity might be defined in terms of resources, like the availability of housing or employment.
Cosmopolitanism is appealing to deontologists because it is founded upon the idea that universal principles exist and should be enforced. For consequentialists, cosmopolitanism is appealing because it encourages individuals to follow rules that, more often than not, produce good outcomes. For environmental issues, cosmopolitanism would overcome previously plagued attempts to curb carbon emissions. Even as the United States attempts to curb its own burgeoning carbon emissions, developing nations have racked up their emissions in pursuit of growth. If the world subscribed to cosmopolitanism, there would be a mutual agreement to curb carbon emissions with universal participation. A world order could punish nations that deviated from the commitment. It could also ensure that no nation bears the brunt of energy reform and that the burden of cutting fossil fuels is spread equally.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of cosmopolitanism is that nationalism and patriotism are strong, valued and virtuous traits. Many individuals would refuse to join a cosmopolitan world fearing diminished sovereignty and the potential amalgamation of human culture. My brand of cosmopolitanism, however, does not call for subscription to a world culture. I, along with other philosophers, affirm quite the opposite: I ask the citizens of the world to recognize and affirm the differences between peoples while concurrently accepting a set of universal norms.
With the advent of technological connectivity, our perceived notions of nationalism have expanded. Our world was once defined by nation-states, but cross-cultural exchange has exposed us to different paradigms. Over time, different groups of people have come to realize that—while they may look, act and sound different—at their cores, they are all the same. All humans love, fear, fight, rejoice and dream. It has taken us a long time to realize it, but we already are citizens of the world. Clearly, Diogenes was ahead of his time.
Patrick Oathout is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Patrick a message on Twitter @PatrickOathout.