A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism: Part Three

The cosmopolitan wonders what is valuable and common to all – that can be recognised by all as valuable. The answer is not reason or ‘reasonableness’ but our humanity itself – one’s need and care for others, one’s sociability. It is not reason or theory that should underlie a care and regard for others but a care and a regard for others stands as the foundation, by itself.

The materialist recognises that, quoting Milstein, ‘the cosmopolitan is above all concerned with the unavoidable confrontation of difference on the global stage. …the starting point for reflection on cosmopolitanism is not unity but heterogeneity…It thus concerns humanity not as a mere idea but as an empirical set of interacting participants who must learn to coexist simultaneously.’23

One’s care and regard for others – one’s humanity – is the basis for the acceptance of, embracing of difference, uncertainty and change, the recognition that in reasoning about and acting on these are the tools for interpersonal and personal development and for the deepening of our knowledge of the world.

Rather than presenting others with reasons or reasonability that is followable and requiring reasons of others in turn, the materialist seeks out difference and welcomes the incorporation of that difference in his or her perspective.

These unities of difference will contribute to the development of a richer, more meaningful social fabric. In her theorising on ‘the Scarf Affair’ in France Benhabib wrote ‘the girls themselves and their supporters, in the Muslim community and elsewhere, have to learn to give a justification of their actions with “good reasons in the public sphere.” In claiming respect and equal treatment for their religious beliefs, they have to clarify how they intend to treat the beliefs of others from different religions, and how, in effect, they would institutionalise the separation of religion and the state within Islamic tradition.’24

A materialist would welcome the girls and require nothing of them other than that they contribute productively to the society they have chosen to become members of. The influence will naturally flow in both directions, enriching French and human culture. Those in Western culture would do well to reflect on the debt they owe to Islamic scholarship.

Benhabib herself adds ‘The constitution of “we, the people” is a far more fluid, contentious, contested and dynamic process than either Rawlsian liberals or decline-of-citizenship theorists would have us believe. …The presence of others who do not share the dominant culture’s memories and morals poses a challenge to the democratic legislatures to re-articulate the meaning of democratic universalism. Far from leading to the disintegration of the culture of democracy, such challenges reveal the depth and the breadth of the culture of democracy.’25

Cosmopolitan philosophers, with their focus on individuals,26 fail to understand and address class relations in capitalist societies. This is well exemplified in their treatment of the state which is frequently regarded as a neutral framework, as something that ‘we’ might use for cosmopolitan purposes.

Sandel wrote that ‘the rights based self finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework.’27 Nagel believes that the legal framework is under collective control and subject to social justice, that the state makes demands on the citizens or the citizens make demands on each other via its mechanisms – he does not consider that the capitalist class makes demands of the citizens, using its state mechanisms, with the assistance of its ideology.28

Pogge well exemplifies key problems of cosmopolitan philosophy. At the beginning of World Poverty and Human Rights he dismissed Marx’s account of the ‘causal factors that influence how our social world and moral values interact with each other (as) rather too neat.’29 He further exemplified his hostility to economic analysis and to mouthpieces who pose as disinterested in ‘Real World Justice’.30

Yet Pogge himself fails to understand capitalism and how it functions. He writes that ‘the rules governing economic transactions…are the most important causal determinants of the incidence and depth of severe poverty and of the human rights deficit more generally.’31 and ‘the rules structuring the world economy have a profound impact on the global economic distribution’.32

What is the most important causal determinant of global poverty, the human rights deficit not to mention global economic distribution is the dynamic of capitalism – unwilled, beneath rules and without conscious intention. No amount of rules on behalf of the capitalist class can ultimately deny that dynamic – as World War I, World War II, the Great Depression and the current Global Financial Crisis have shown.

Part three/to be continued…


23. Brian Milstein, “Kantian Cosmopolitanism beyond ‘Perpetual Peace’: Commercium, Critique, and the Cosmopolitan Problematic”, European Journal of Philosophy, pp. 1-20, pp. 2-3. (forthcoming); published online 11.11.10

24. BenHabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., 57

25. Ibid., 68, 69

26. Rawls’ is on ‘peoples’

27. Michael J. Sandel, ‘Morality and the Liberal Ideal’, in Michael Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2005, pp. 147-55, 153

28. ‘the broader legal framework…is subject to collective authority and justification and therefore to principles of social justice…In short, the state makes unique demands on the will of its members – or the members make unique demands on one another through the institutions of the state’, Thomas Nagel, ‘The Problem of Global Justice’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Spring, 2005), pp. 113-147, 130

29. Thomas W. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2008, 4

30. ‘While economists like to present themselves as disinterested scientists, they function today more typically as ideologists for our political and economic ‘‘elites’’ – much like most theologians did in an earlier age.’ Thomas W. Pogge, ‘Real World Justice’, The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9 No. 1-2, 2005, pp. 29-53, 30

31. Thomas W. Pogge, ‘Recognised and Violated by International Law: The Human Rights of the Global Poor’, Leiden Journal of International Law, 18, 2005, pp. 717-745, 742

32. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, op. cit., 122

A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism: Part Two

Further, cosmopolitan morality is bound to an ideal.10 Couture and Nielsen wrote:

‘A cosmopolitan is a world citizen, but “world citizenship” should not be taken literally for it is basically the expression of a moral ideal. We, as the Stoics thought, should give our first allegiance to the moral community made up of the humanity of all human beings. We should always behave so as to treat with respect every human being, no matter where that person was born, no matter what the person’s class, rank, gender, or status may be. At the core of the cosmopolitan ideal is the idea that the life of everyone matters, and matters equally. This, in broad strokes, is the cosmopolitan moral ideal.’11

The orientation to and around the concept ‘ideal’ recurs throughout cosmopolitan theorising: Kok-Chor Tan writes of ‘the cosmopolitan egalitarian ideal that the terms of distributive justice ought to be defined independently of people’s national commitments’,12 Pogge writes that he is ‘guided by the cosmopolitan ideal of democracy’13 and of ‘an ideal world of reasonably just and well-ordered societies’ – although our world is ‘non-ideal’.14

Wallace Brown wrote ‘Kant’s theory of justice is an a priori ideal…Kantian justice is…meant to provide an ideal standard from which all existing civil legislation is to be judged. …As Kant argues, “such is the requirement of pure reason, which legislates a priori, regardless of all empirical ends.” ’15

Beitz wrote ‘We might begin by asking, in general, what relevance social ideals have for politics in the real world. Their most obvious function is to describe a goal toward which efforts at political change should aim. …Ideal theory…supplies a set of criteria for the formulation and criticism of strategies of political action in the non-ideal world, at least when the consequences of political action can be predicted with sufficient confidence to establish their relationship to the social ideal’16

O’Neill, critical of idealisation, argued that it can easily lead to error. ‘An assumption, and derivatively a theory, idealises when it ascribes predicates – often seen as enhanced, “ideal” predicates – that are false of the case in hand, and so denies predicates that are true of that case.’17

She adds that ‘ordinary processes of confirmation and testing are likely to detect and reject (idealisations). Idealisations are far more dangerous in practical reasoning, because it aims at guidance’18 Further, ‘A convincing conception of practical reasoning…must start from the gritty realities of human life’.19

She wrote that conceptions of practical reasoning may be divided into two broad types – teleological (Platonist) or action-oriented (which embody types or principles of action and are Kantian).

But there is a ‘third’ type of ‘practical reasoning’ – materialist. Both of the types O’Neill identified give priority to consciousness (as perfectionism) over that which is independent of it – ‘matter’.20 O’Neill puts her constructive approach forward as practical, yet she shies away metaphysically from a materialist theoretical basis – which lies not in the considered observation of ‘gritty reality’ but in the recognition and understanding of the necessary relationship between theory and practice – i.e. how theory arises from the abstraction of perception and is tested through practice in the material world.

Besch wrote: ‘The fact (if it is a fact) that I tend to accurately represent my environment does not supply me with a guideline by which I can avoid misrepresenting it, but supposes that I have some such guideline.’21 That guideline, the vehicle for ever deepening truth is praxis.

Lenin summarised the process: ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature’22 The truth of knowledge is practically verified.

Part two/to be continued…


10. Any uncritical use of the concept ‘ideal’ or its derivatives is to place consciousness prior to matter – with one exception: ‘X is idealistic’ implies an emotional response to the world, not a linguistically reasoned position. Marx never theorised about communism because he knew that to do so would be to prioritise consciousness over the objective world. However ‘communism’ itself is an ideal which fails to cater for contingency and the profundity of contradiction which drives the world (which the theory of evolution does do). It is most noteworthy that two of the greatest dialecticians – Hegel and Marx – believed there was an ‘end point’ – either in the Prussian state or communism.

11. Jocelyne Couture and Kai Nielsen, ‘Cosmopolitanism and the compatriot priority principle’, in Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse, Eds., The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 180-195, 183. They continue ‘To be committed to such an ideal involves understanding that we are part of and committed to the universal community of humanity whether there is anything actually answering to the idea of there being such a community or not. If we are at all tough-minded, we will realise there is no world community and that the actual world is more like a swinerai (pigsty).’ 184. A little further on they wrote ‘it is unfortunately only in ideal theory that we can find a global order that is just.’ Ibid., 189.

12. Kok-Chor Tan, ‘The demands of justice and national allegiances’, in The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 164-179, 167.

13. Thomas, W. Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’ Ethics Vol. 103 No. 1 (Oct., 1992), pp. 48-75, 70.

14. Thomas W. Pogge, ‘An Egalitarian Law of Peoples’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Summer, 1994), pp. 195-224. pp. 201-202.

15. Garrett Wallace Brown ‘Kant’s Cosmopolitanism’, The Cosmopolitan Reader, op, cit., pp. 45-60, 49. Rawls, though not a cosmopolitan, was consistent with this, writing that Utopian requires the use of political/moral ideals, principles and concepts. John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999, 14.

16. Charles R. Beitz ‘Justice and International Relations’, The Cosmopolitan Reader, op. cit., pp. 85-99,  97.

17. Onora O’Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, 41.

18. Ibid., 42.

19. Ibid., 61.

20. ‘We have reconstructed O’Neill’s attempt to ground a Kantian constructivist conception of practical reasoning on a fundamental requirement of all reasoned thought, and we have seen that this attempt fails. …O’Neill’s case for Kantian constructivism…is self-defeating.’ Thomas M. Besch, ‘Constructing Practical Reason: O’Neill on the Grounds of Kantian Constructivism’, The Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 42, no. 1, 2008, 74. Also, in failing, O’Neill’s ‘case about the scope of practical reasoning (shows that) there are perfectionist value judgements at the normative core of Kantian constructivism.’, Thomas M. Besch, ‘Kantian Constructivism, the Issue of Scope, and Perfectionism: O’Neill on Ethical Standing’, European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-20, 2.

21. Ibid., 9.

22. V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.