“Principles of cosmopolitan order” by David Held

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Cosmopolitanism, broadly speaking, reflects on ethical, cultural, and political issues from the position that states and political communities are not the exclusive centers of political order or force.

Held begins his article in Brock’s and Brighouse’s The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism by differentiating between cosmopolitanism that shifts from the polis to the cosmos, and the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitan attitude of maturity and reflexivity. The former insists that individuals’ first allegiance is to humanity rather than the community, whereas for the latter cosmopolitan right “meant the capacity to present oneself and be heard within and across political communities; it was the right to enter dialogue without artificial constraint and delimitation” (11).

Held’s article is subsequently divided into four sections. The first identifies cosmopolitan principles, the second distinguishes between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ cosmopolitanism, the third justifies cosmopolitan claims, and the fourth section sketches how to transition from justifications to law. The ultimate aim is to understand the aim and scope of cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitan Principles

Held identifies eight cosmopolitan principles – they are listed with brief explanations.

Cluster (1) – (3) sets the “fundamental organizational features of the cosmopolitan moral universe” (15).

Cluster (4) – (6) establishes the guidelines that must be met if public power is to be seen as legitimate across all spectrums of life.

Clusters (7) and (8) establish the cosmopolitan’s moral framework and prudential orientation, respectively.

(1) Equal worth and dignity

  • All humans belong to a single moral realm and as such they should (morally) be treated as having the same worth and dignity as all other humans.

(2) Active Agency

  • All humans have the ability to reason self-consciously, be self-reflective, and be self-determining. (This is significantly drawn from Enlightenment’s ideal of maturity though, as will be seen, lacks the monological twist that Kant’s notion of maturity had while avoiding the Hegelian totalization of reason.)

(3) Personal responsibility and accountability

  • This principle supplements principles (1) and (2) – it acknowledges that agents must be aware of, and accountable for, the consequences of their actions, regardless of whether the consequences are direct, indirect, meditated, or accidental.

(4) Consent

  • People’s lives are interlocked. As a result, those that are affected by a process must be able to participate in the discourse without fear of unjustified coercion.

(5) Collective decision-making about public matters through voting procedures

  • Voting is used as the way of generating consent because, if genuine consent of all were required, then minorities could prevent public responses to critical issues.

(6) Inclusiveness and solidarity

  • Those that would be affected by a decision should have an equal opportunity to shape the decision that is reached.

(7) Avoidance of serious harm

  • In the cases of finite resources, situations must be prioritized and the most critical first attended to. While this will leave some situations unresolved because of inadequate resources, if this principle guides political action it stands to reason that there will be fewer and fewer instances where situations are so severe that they gain moral priority.

(8) Sustainability

  • Before engaging in actions it is important to consider their future effects – we live in an age when our actions could forever reshape the lives of our children, which means we ought to be conservative in the actions that we take.

Thick or Thin Cosmopolitanism?

Thick Cosmopolitanism – Insists that special attention to any particular person or group must be in accordance with universalistic principles that include all of humanity.

Thin Cosmopolitanism – While a greater attachment may be felt towards some people, such attachment is only one of many spheres of moral responsibility to others.

Held himself argues for a layered (i.e. thin) cosmopolitanism that tries to maintain ethical neutrality by not privileging a particular good-life over any other. This neutrality doesn’t suggest that there are no ethics, or that they are necessarily equal to one another, just that his procedural account leaves political environments open for individuals to freely pursue their notions of the good so long as they do not harm others.

Cosmopolitan justification

There are two important distinctions to make: Questions about the principles’ origins and their validity. The justificatory rationale between cosmopolitan principles depends on the metaprinciple of autonomy (which is cultural and historical) and the metaprinciple of impartialist reasoning (which is philosophical).

Metaprinciple of Autonomy (MPA)

There are deep roots for this principle in history – autonomy was valued in Greece and Rome, but its contemporary realization emerged with the Enlightenment. While there have been different understandings of what autonomy is, the general aim has always been towards egalitarian principles, of democratic regulation of public life, and that individuals’ interests in self-determination or self-governance be protected (20). In essence, the MPA is the guiding thread that has motivated democracies around the world. While some may argue that Held’s position prefigures a commitment towards the MPA that ignores divergent cultural values, he returns that this value is shared across Western and non-Western cultures. Non-Western cultures demand protection of language on the basis of their equal status or worth when compared to Western cultures – this alone belies the fact that these other cultures value the leading tenants of the MPA.

Metaprinciple of Impartialist Reasoning (MPIR)

The MPIR “is a moral frame of reference for specifying rules and principles that can be universally shared; and, concomitantly, it rejects as unjust all those practices, rules, and institutions anchored in principles not all could adopt” (22). Rather than acting as a way of establishing particular principles the MPIR calls for adopting norms such as Rawls’ Original Position, Habermas’ ideal speech situation, and Barry’s formulation of impartialist reasoning (21). This lets the MPIR act heuristically, to evaluate actual principles for their moral worth and, when they are found invalid, justifies discarding them. In this way, it operates similarly to Habermas’ principle of universalization. By adopting a method of impartialist reasoning it becomes possible to divide matters of the good from those of the right, enabling conversations to focus on the validity of arguments, rather than their worth.

From Cosmopolitan Principles to Cosmopolitan Law

Principles (1) – (8) are more expansive than Kant’s limited right to hospitality – the cosmopolitan right that Held is engaging with subordinates regional, national, and local sovereignties to trans-regional, -national, and -local sovereignties. In the system he outlines, because citizens are caught in a plurality of diverse conditions and sovereignties, many of which are outside of the scope of their current memberships, citizenship should be reassessed as including everyone in a sphere that affects them. Hence, a citizen of France that is being affected by the pollution of Chernobyl would also be a (limited?) citizen of the Ukraine.

While Held doesn’t suggest this, perhaps a more satisfying conclusion would be the discarding of traditional citizenships, and recognizing citizenship according to issues such as particular environmental issues, outbreaks of violence, et cetera. In this situation the nation-state, enmeshed in a network of conflicts, would be responsible for applying coercion but not be responsible for actually pronouncing a verdict – the citizen-group that was affected would have to be the authors and addressees of any law that the nation levelled. This would create a nightmare of a political situation – I don’t know how to fit the nation into this kind of a framework, though it might be interesting to explore later.