Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights

Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights

Article excerpt

Abstract

The piece outlines the importance of the idea of cosmopolitanism and its relationship with human rights. Beginning with the proposition of human rights as a contradictory and relative social form the article seeks to articulate a kind of genealogy of cosmopolitanism and human rights that identifies four moments in which their contradictory character is played out: republicanism, imperialism, totalitarianism and our current moment; arguing that a cosmopolitan perspective can begin to confront the radical incompleteness of human rights politically--that is, without reducing the idea of right to the logic of power, conspiracy or mere contingency.

Keywords:

Cosmopolitanism, Kant, Arendt, Human Rights, Republicanism, Imperialism, Totalitarianism.

1. Introduction

Let me begin with a working definition of the relationship between cosmopolitanism and human rights: it is that cosmopolitanism imagines a world order in which the idea of human rights is a basic principle of justice and in which mechanisms of global governance are established for the protection of human rights. Cosmopolitanism may be understood as a normative ideal which expresses the existence of human rights in the form of an intellectual realm and which measures all existing societies against this norm. Cosmopolitanism may have the defects characteristic of any abstract ideal but its basic intuition, that the right to have rights should belong to every human being by virtue of their humanity, is more than a platitude. It is of supreme importance in a world in which the right to have rights has been systematically denied to swathes of people and in which the denial of the right to have rights is invariably accompanied by a violence designed to demonstrate conclusively the inhumanity of those who are denied this meta-right. The more people rage against the idea of cosmopolitanism, as in the old Stalinist phrase 'rootless cosmopolitan Jew', or the more they declare it a fraudulent cover for great power politics as we often find today, the more vital I find it to hold onto the concept.

I am wary of any new 'ism' intellectuals advance as a solution to the wrongs of the world. I see my own writings as an attempt, as it were, to take the 'ism' out of cosmopolitanism. The proposition I would begin with, then, is that human rights are not an ideal but a contradictory and relative social form. Contradictory because of the gap between the universality of human rights and their particular instantiations--between the freedom, equality and solidarity the concept promises and the dependence, class division and moral indifference their existence contains. Relative because human rights are a finite achievement in relation to all other rights--be they the rights of property, rights of moral conscience, rights of association in civil society or rights of political participation in the nation state--and should not be turned into a new kind of absolute. A social form because human rights are a precarious achievement of the modern age and neither an artefact of nature (as is imagined by natural law theory) nor a mere construction of the state (as is imagined in legal positivism). And finally a form because all right, human rights included, express various aspects of subjectivity in contemporary capitalist society.

With these introductory propositions in mind, I want to offer here a kind of genealogy of cosmopolitanism and human rights that identifies four moments in which their contradictory character is played out. These are republicanism, imperialism, totalitarianism and whatever it is that we have today. Each of these moments can be associated with a particular historical period, but I want to suggest that they should be seen more like archaeological layers of the present. The history of cosmopolitanism may be read in this light as a history of attempts to come to terms with the unfolding of the contradictory character of human rights. …

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