Cosmopolitanism & Humanism

Photo © Indos82 |

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 Victoria’s 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.

Cosmopolitanism aims to bridge cultural differences through experience, communication, and the exchange of ideas. As author Edward H. Sebesta explained it to me:

[Cosmopolitans] are less of any one place, or at least they realize that they are of one place, but that place is not the center of the world, its standards are merely local, and that there is a big world out there. So the person is less ethnocentric or realizes what ethnocentricity is. They are more skeptical of nationalistic claims or regard them as being dubious. They are more aware that some of their views might be local and not universal or at least are alert to the possibility. They reject nationalistic ideology that the world is naturally divisible into discrete nations, nationalities, and geographical territories.”

Unlike multiculturalism, which values cultural and regional differences, cosmopolitanism emphasizes the individual, the exchange of ideas, universal rights and global values. Exposure to other cultures creates a “free market” where individuals can apply lessons and successes to their own conditions and provide examples to others.

Globally understandable ideas and arts can promote cosmopolitanism. Audiences worldwide admire the humanistic themes of films like The Bicycle Thief, A Quest for Fire, and the films of Charlie Chaplin and Pixar Studios. The globe devours episodic entertainment and online videos because their themes can be widely understood and appreciated. Science encourages a cosmopolitan culture that freely exchanges theories and findings (typically in English), and cosmopolites from a variety of professions work abroad, including in the diplomatic corps, observing and attempting to comprehend foreign cultures.

Several other developments in the last generation or two have expanded cosmopolitan opportunities. For one, social media has allowed individuals from diverse cultures to meet and converse. The media, however, are only a tool; if there is no exchange of ideas or civil discourse the media fails to send a cosmopolitan message.

Secondly, cultures worldwide embrace English. International science and business is in English and authors write in English to gain the largest potential audience. A common language is another tool to build understanding. As long as English remains culturally current and adopts foreign terms and phrases, it’s likely to remain the global language.

Intergovernmental agreements and organizations also provide common standards that permit travel, safety, and communications worldwide. Your email crosses the globe. Your passport is recognized wherever you deplane. The Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals helps drivers everywhere understand traffic rules. Other entities like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency work to ensure chemical plants don’t make chemical weapons and nuclear power plants don’t feed nuclear weapons programs. These organizations and agreements bind the world without eliminating national sovereignty or hindering local solutions and problem solving.

Cosmopolitanism is certainly unwelcome by many factions. To its right is nationalism, a patriotism that fears contamination by new ideas and other cultures. Hitler declared cosmopolitanism as a sort of infectious pollution that caused “national decomposition.” As Soviet Communism morphed into imperialist autocracy it too rejected cosmopolitanism. In 1949 Russian author F. Chernov wrote: “The most poisonous ideological weapon of the hostile capitalist encirclement is bourgeois cosmopolitanism.” U.S. conservatives use cosmopolitan as a euphemism for anything unpatriotic or foreign.

To the left is radical multiculturalism that demands rights for cultures and insists that individuals be viewed and judged using the group’s religious or tribal standards. This can perpetuate unjust cultural practices inconsistent with human rights and the rule of law. Cosmopolitanism is not a moral relativism that accepts cultural behaviors uncritically; rather, it requires choosing aspects of cultures that are beneficial and rejecting those that are inhuman or detrimental.

As Appiah states, “People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from another what it is right to think, feel, and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”

Some critics of cosmopolitanism also seek to preserve indigenous cultures from the perceived ills of modern society. Freezing cultures to preserve their uniqueness can doom people to live in an artificial, colonial Williamsburg-like society that appeals only to tourists. Claims of “cultural imperialism” array cultures into hostile camps while in reality cultures by necessity adopt and adapt to outside influences constantly. Appiah notes that what most people think of as traditional West African clothes also have Javanese and Dutch origin. Everyone’s cultural heritage includes diverse ancestors. We are all cultural mutts.

Appiah also warns of “universalism without toleration,” whereby universal creeds demand adherence to a particular social vision for a perfect society. The Church once claimed a right to dictate politics and morality. Industrialization inspired Marxist utopian dreams of a new society for the “universal class” of workers at the cost of millions. Now, Islamists demand pure societies based upon their narrow interpretation of the Koran.

In an essay from his 1991 collection Imaginary Homelands author and humanist Salman Rushdie stated that those who threatened to kill him over perceived blasphemy in The Satanic Verses

are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world… It is a love song to our mongrel selves.

Kant and others hoped that cosmopolitanism would bring about perpetual peace among nations. This remains a dream. In his 2007 book, Carnage and Culture, classics scholar and conservative pundit Victor Davis Hanson pessimistically notes that “those consumers of different races, religions, languages, and nations, who all wear Adidas, buy Microsoft computer programs, and drink Coke, are just as likely to kill each other as before—and still watch Gilligan’s Island reruns on their international television screens afterward.” Despite Hanson’s skepticism, common experiences and cultural touchstones form the natural basis for mutual understanding.

Cosmopolitanism is an ongoing effort to understand behaviors and needs beyond one’s normal cultural horizon. It requires both imagination and empathy. Cosmopolitanism applied to foreign affairs helps policymakers comprehend their counterparts’ unspoken interests and needs, reducing the possibility of needless bloodshed. But wherever you are and no matter what you do for a living, you can participate in the cosmopolitan universe in the following ways:

  • Seek out people, art, food, and other experiences from a variety of cultures. Find distant individuals with similar interests who can help you understand the world from a different perspective. Iran, Israel, India, Norway, the United Kingdom and other countries produce thoughtful movies to rent. African and Asian art has inspired Western painters and sculptors for centuries. Seek out world music and international cuisine in urban neighborhoods where you live. Travel if you can and ask questions about everyday issues.
  • Give to charitable causes unrelated to your personal concerns. 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was proud of the size of his charitable tax deductions, but he contributed selfishly to his own church and family foundation. In contrast, philosopher Peter Singer donates 25 percent of his income to charities such as UNICEF and Oxfam, from which he is unlikely to receive any personal benefit.
  • Be open to foreign solutions for problems facing our culture. When someone says, “America is the greatest country in the world,” they’re suggesting we can learn nothing from outlanders. Claims of American exceptionalism romanticize our history and underestimate the successes of other cultures. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world and is the world’s largest consumer of cocaine. China is ahead of the United States in patent applications. We consume more fat, drink more alcohol, and have a higher infant mortality rate than Canada and other developed nations. We must be open to foreign solutions that work.

Humanism and cosmopolitanism are from common Greek and Enlightenment stock. Modern humanist ideas are built on the cosmopolitan writings of Kant and others, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union is both cosmopolitan and humanist in outlook. Could ethical humanism become the norm for a growing cosmopolitan world?

This may depend on humanists. “Cosmopolitans,” Appiah notes, “think human variety matters because people are entitled to the options they need to shape their lives in partnership with others.” Many individuals share humanist values but retain ancient religious and cultural traditions as anchors for their lives. Have we done enough to make room for people from other cultures and faith traditions? Are there trappings and customs that some humanist communities might adopt and adapt to help others feel more comfortable in their houses, rather than houses of worship? Successful political and religious groups fashion their messages to new cultures and conditions. We have much to learn from these organizations. And learning what works from others is, of course, a most cosmopolitan practice.