The value of cosmopolitanism

(By Emma Brooks, Queen’s University)

The overarching purpose of cosmopolitanism is to consider all citizens of the world as equal and promote the idea that human beings should look out for one another. While nationalism is more popularly valued and practiced, cosmopolitanism looks at the bigger picture and prioritizes the common good of all. Nationalism and cosmopolitanism continue to be portrayed as opposites by scholars and political theorists due to their contrasting views and beliefs on justice, globalization, and the world. Nationalism is concerned with “basic structures of domestic society,”[1] promoting justice within the state,[2] and practicing collective self determination.[3] It believes that cosmopolitanism fails to uphold notions of responsibility,[4] disregards cultural diversity,[5] makes universalist assumptions[6], and promotes notions of imperialism.[7] On the other hand, cosmopolitanism has three contemporary forms: justice based, ideals about the good life, and political cosmopolitanism. These three forms can be identified by the central belief that “persons are citizens of the world.”[8] , demanding justice on an individual basis[9] and arguing that we each have a moral obligation to one another that must disregard consequences and physical boundaries.[10] Cosmopolitanism has become well known for upholding a utopian stance[11] and having high ethical aspirations for what globalization can offer.

Flourishing in the 18th century during the Enlightenment,[12] cosmopolitanism was practiced by Cynic and Stoic philosophers as well as more “modern-day thinkers” including Pogge, Waldron, Mill, Marx and Kant.[13] Although political theorist John Rawls thought that his original theory of justice could only be applied at a domestic level,[14] his students disagreed and persistently fought for his theory to be expanded at global level. They saw something wrong about the fact that “some individuals fare much worse than others through no fault of their own.”[15] Through this revolution, the basis of cosmopolitanism was founded.

Cosmopolitanism is not the same as nationalism. Nationalists emphasize theorist David Miller’s argument that redistributive justice, a component of cosmopolitanism, “fails to track responsibility of social choices” and that “some inequalities are justified if they are a product of decisions or practices that the nation has made.”[16] Cosmopolitans would reject this notion. They fight for the justice of individuals and would never allow inequalities to exist in the first place due to their consequentialist approach, which believes that people have a duty to alleviate suffering and promote well being.[17]

One of nationalists’ largest critiques is that cosmopolitans are unable to accommodate cultural differences and political identities,[18] and that cosmopolitans “make biased assumptions about what counts as ‘good’ or brings advantages to citizens.”[19] Yet, the basis of one of cosmopolitans contemporary forms regarding the good life explains that the “value of living life is in which one draws on a multiplicity of different cultural traditions and norms.”[20]

Nationalists believe that cosmopolitans make assumptions regarding justice as universal,[21] however they do so to emphasize their support for equal opportunity at the domestic level. Cosmopolitans believe that all citizens from different nations should “enjoy equal opportunities, and that no two people should face worse opportunities because of their nationality.”[22] Lastly, nationalists argue that cosmopolitans attempt to enforce their views in similar ways as imperialists, implying concepts of Western hegemony, norms, and values.[23] However, with Western nations supporting basic human rights, civil liberties, and democracy, it is difficult to suggest a challenge against these Western efforts since they are perceived as positive and contributing to an increased quality of life.

Mill’s realization that capital and human interactions exceed national boundaries and Marx’s notion that cosmopolitanism is “global in its nature and reach,”[24] together contribute to promote the three forms of contemporary cosmopolitanism. All three forms relate to humanitarian intervention, just war, and institutional design.[25] The first form is the ethical and justice-based. Justice based cosmopolitans believe that there are “civil, political and economic principles of justice that apply to all individuals,”[26] and can further and best be described through Rawl’s difference principle, which elucidates that “inequalities should be organized so as to maximize the condition of the least advantaged,”[27] and should be applied to citizens at a global level. As well, a justice-based approach defends nationalist critiques addressing that, despite nationalist notions for self-determination, “friends, families and colleagues have special obligations to one another”[28] that simply cannot be ignored.

The second form is cultural, as it includes the cosmopolitan perspective of the good life and explains that cosmopolitans must create a form of the good life for citizens that incorporates all cultures and traditions.[29] Waldron is a prominent scholar for this form of cosmopolitanism, as he believes that “if you do not follow a cosmopolitan good life, you are failing to recognize the hybrid nature of modern social existence,”[30] and claimed that cultures are constantly interacting with one another and therefore evolving through their interactions.

The final form is political cosmopolitanism, and argues for global political institutions to realize and enforce cosmopolitan principles of justice.[31] Although it is incorrectly perceived that all cosmopolitans desire a ‘world state’, most cosmopolitans, such as Pogge, believe that power and authority should be equally divided between a multiplicity of global, state, and local levels.[32] That way there is no domination or final authority that dictates universal laws and principles.

In conclusion, cosmopolitanism creates sweeping challenges for existing political practices and physical boundaries,[33] and is continually rejected by supporters of cultural relativism, international realism, and nationalism. However, since I believe that humans are inherently good individuals with the desire to look out for one another, I have adapted a cosmopolitan view. I think that a person’s stance on nationalism and cosmopolitanism must stem from their view of human nature. Although nationalists do not see cosmopolitanism as necessarily realistic, the three types of contemporary cosmopolitanism attempt to create desirable outcomes. They should be credited for the fact that they promote an individuals universal right for justice and believe that this right should not be restricted by barriers or boundaries. We owe it to ourselves and to one another to ensure that all citizens are looked after.





Duncan Bell, Margaret Moore and Simon Caney, Ethics and World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 130-163.


[1] Duncan Bell and Margaret Moore, Ethics and World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 135.

[4] Ibid, 137.

[5] Ibid, 138.

[6] Ibid, 140.

[7] Ibid, 142.

[8] Duncan Bell and Simon Caney, Ethics and World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 146.

[9] Ibid, 152.

[10] Ibid, 147.

[11] Ibid, 161.

[12] Ibid, 147.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bell and Moore, 132.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 138.

[17] Bell and Caney, 153.

[18] Bell and Moore, 133.

[19] Ibid, 138.

[20] Bell and Caney, 155.

[21] Bell and Moore, 140.

[22] Bell and Moore, 140.

[23] Ibid, 142.

[24] Bell and Caney, 147.

[25] Ibid, 154.

[26] Ibid, 148.

[27] Ibid, 152.

[28] Ibid, 161.

[29] Ibid, 149.

[30] Ibid, 156.

[31] Ibid, 160.

[32] Ibid, 150.

[33] Ibid, 161.