Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Cosmopolitanism, Freedom, and Indifference: A Levinasian View

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Cosmopolitanism, Freedom, and Indifference: A Levinasian View

Article excerpt

Despite cosmopolitanism's concern for the world's poor and its concomitant heavy moral demands, cosmopolitans establish a limit to the self's responsibility for the global poor. This contrasts with Emmanuel Levinas's view that the self has an infinite responsibility for the other, a responsibility that derives from the self's questioning of the impact of his freedom on others. From a Levinasian perspective, cosmopolitanism's restriction of the self's responsibility for others creates a sphere of rightful indifference to the needs of the other; lends legitimacy to a disregard of the other; forestalls an ethical awakening to the other; constrains the achievement of a more just global order, given that, from a Levinasian perspective, a better justice is built on the self's open-ended responsibility for the other; and points to a tension at the heart of cosmopolitanism, considering the coexistence of elements that both frustrate and aspire to the achievement of global justice. It is concluded that the achievement of cosmopolitanism's goals would require the acceptance of an open-ended responsibility for the other. KEYWORDS: Levinas, cosmopolitanism, responsibility, otherness, the global poor.

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In an introduction to a collection of his papers, one of the leading cosmopolitan theorists, Thomas Pogge, expresses his dismay at our indifference to the world's poor through two questions. He asks, "How can severe poverty of half of humankind continue despite enormous economic and technological progress and despite the enlightened moral norms and values of our heavily dominant Western civilization?" and "Why do we citizens of the affluent Western states not find it morally troubling, at least, that a world heavily dominated by us and our values gives such very deficient and inferior starting positions and opportunities to so many people?" (1) Pogge's short answer is because we do not find the eradication of global poverty "morally compelling." (2) Such indifference to the needs of the global poor flouts the central tenet of (moral) cosmopolitanism, which holds that "every human being has a global stature as ultimate unit of moral concern," (3) which is usually interpreted as saying that responsibility and distributive justice do not end at national borders. Indeed, cosmopolitan writing in recent decades has been marked by a deep concern for the plight of the world's poor and by arguments that we have a greater responsibility for them than we generally recognize.

Despite moral cosmopolitanism's imputed concern for the world's poor and the heavy demands this would presumably place on us, cosmopolitans nevertheless establish or enable a limit to the self's responsibility for the global poor. Cosmopolitanism's restriction of the self s responsibility for the poor contrasts with Emmanuel Levinas's view that the self has a bottomless and inescapable responsibility for the other, a responsibility that stems from the self's deep questioning of the impact of its freedom on others. According to Levinas, moral progress and the achievement of a greater justice are founded on the self-questioning and infinite responsibility brought about by our catching sight of the "face" of the other. A Levinasian perspective assists us in bringing to the fore a number of closely related implications of cosmopolitanism's restriction of the self's responsibility for others. First, because cosmopolitans speak from a moral high ground, their permitting of a restriction of the self's responsibility for the other lends legitimacy to such a turn away from the other and the creation of a sphere of rightful indifference to the demands of the other. Second, if even a moral outlook as demanding as cosmopolitanism allows indifference to the global poor, then it should come as little surprise that we are able to maintain a good conscience amid the preventable dying of the world's poor. Third, although cosmopolitanism has established a reputation for the seemingly heavy moral demands it would place on us, it should be recognized that cosmopolitanism is perhaps not quite as demanding as we are led to believe, particularly if one considers the variety of ways to establish some freedom from responsibility for the other on offer in cosmopolitan theory. …

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