I grew up in a country where football – that’s the soccer variety – is almost a religion and it’s virtually impossible to go through life without attaching yourself to one team or another. It all becomes rather tribal. But it reflects a need to belong to groups or clans. Many of us eventually grow out of that need to belong to a group and detaching like that is an essential part of personal and spiritual growth and development.
One of the most pernicious ideas is born of a myth that we are separated and segregated into groups that are defined by criteria like gender, language, race, religion or some other kind of boundary. And it is easy to see that these boundaries are a major cause of conflict.
I just finished an enthralling book - Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers - by Kwame Anthony Appiah, in which he challenges this kind of separative thinking by resurrecting the ancient philosophy of “cosmopolitanism.” Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all of humanity belongs to a single moral community. This is contrasted with ideologies of patriotism and nationalism. This school of thought dates back almost 2500 years to the Cynics of Ancient Greece. They first articulated the cosmopolitan ideal that all human beings were citizens of the world. Later on, these ideas were elaborated by another group of philosophers: the Stoics.
According to Appiah, a Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, the influence of cosmopolitanism has stretched down the ages and through to the Enlightenment. He takes Immanuel Kant’s notion of a League of Nations and the Declaration of the Rights of Man to be two manifestations of this ancient idea.
Appiah sees cosmopolitanism as a dynamic concept based on two fundamental ideas. The first is the idea that we have responsibilities to others that are beyond those based on kinship or citizenship. Second is something often forgotten: just because other people have different customs and beliefs from ours, they will likely still have meaning and value. We may not agree with someone else, but mutual understanding should be a first goal. I think that most of us can agree with that.
In parts of Europe, there have recently been misgivings about the growing diversity and multiculturalism of countries like the United Kingdom, with people asking whether it is doing no more than fracturing society. Appiah has this to say, “If we want to preserve a wide range of human conditions because it allows free people the best chance to make their own lives, there is no place for the enforcement of diversity by trapping people within a kind of difference that they long to escape. There simply is no decent way to sustain those communities of difference that will not survive without the free allegiance of their members.”
Cosmopolitanism, balances our “obligations to others” with the “value not just of human life but of particular human lives,” what Appiah calls “universality plus difference.” He remains skeptical about simple maxims for ethical behavior such as the Golden Rule. He demonstrates its failings as a moral precept. He argues that cosmopolitanism is the name not “of the solution but of the challenge.”
Cosmopolitanism is an important concept that bears close examination, particularly in the light of some of the new discoveries about ethics and the brain and also about the fundamental inter-connectedness of all life. I shall have a little more to say about that in another post.