Cosmopolitanism & Humanism

By Centner, C. Martin | The Humanist, May-June 2014 | Go to article overview

Cosmopolitanism & Humanism


Centner, C. Martin, The Humanist


I FELT AT HOME wandering the Taj Lifestyle Center (commonly called the Taj Mall) in Amman, Jordan. It housed international retailers like H&M and Victorias Secret and offered an exotic seasoning of high-end Jordanian brands. Even without speaking Arabic I could stumble through a purchase of tea and clothes, wander among the young locals dressed in the latest fashions, see families enjoying a late iftar meal at Buffalo Wings & Rings, and hear an oud player serenading mall visitors with local tunes. Had I entered one side of the mall in Jordan and exited on another side in Maryland it would not have seemed too surprising.

This is the modern world that some decry for its secularism, global brands, and "cultural imperialism." But what's really happening in business centers and other public spaces around the globe is the slow but sure emergence of a cosmopolitanism that we should welcome and encourage. This new world, where national and religious identity becomes less important, will require a common ethical foundation based upon an open and flexible humanism.

A "cosmopolitan" is generally thought of as a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitanism itself is interpreted in somewhat varying ways depending upon whether one is discussing sociology, political entities, colonialism, norms and behavior, or markets and trade. Princeton philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah describes it as a philosophical postulation that links you to every other individual by common heritage and by economic, social, or political activity that often goes unnoticed.

So, just who is a Cosmopolitan? When we hear the term, we often think of wealthy jet-setters and educated, urbane elites. However, a cosmopolitan in the philosophical and ethical sense has certain attributes.

Ethically, cosmopolitans hold that each individual has universal and equal worth and dignity because they belong to the human species, not because they belong to any particular religion, tribe, nation, state, or station. Cosmopolitans can also see in others' differences a broader manifestation of our common essence and humanity. While there may be local laws and taboos based upon heritage and culture, there are also universally appreciated and understood values. Our similarities thus provide the basis for international standards, laws, and norms applicable to all persons in all cultures.

Finally, cosmopolitans recognize obligations beyond "kith and kin" and realize that, as Immanuel Kant stated, "violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world." Justice, therefore, has global relevancy and application. Serious disagreements remain among cosmopolitans about how to interpret our obligations: Should we "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy" in the name of justice, or redistribute resources to ensure greater opportunities and fairness? A cosmopolitan outlook does require us, at a minimum, to be alert to distant events and consider ways we might contribute to solutions.

Cosmopolitanism was conceived in ancient Greece by those who understood that they and their non-Greek (barbarian) enemies were human beings with similar desires, capacities, and goals. "[W]e should regard all men as our fellow-citizens and local residents," wrote Plutarch. Greek Stoics believed all individuals were equal and subject to common natural law.

The concept gained strength in the European Enlightenment when men of letters--through secret societies, clubs, and coffeehouses--built a philosophical community that crossed borders and languages to exchange ideas and revolutionary concepts. The greatest theorist of enlightened cosmopolitanism was Kant, whose views on universal law influenced modern cosmopolitan theory as well as modern ethics and humanism. Kant even conceived of a "cosmopolitan order" that established "a lawful external relation among states" and a "universal civic society." The United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are cosmopolitan, humanistic, and Kantian ideals manifested. …

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