The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal
By Martha C. Nussbaum
(Harvard University Press, 2019)

Imagine that I am speaking to a room of conservatives and say, “The ultimate source of both moral autonomy, and, through it, political sovereignty, is the conscience of the individual.” The room erupts in applause.

Suppose I add that “human rights are prepolitical, in the sense that they are grounded in facts about the human being that pre­exist the state, and that do not cease to exert their claim when the state does not recognize them.” Members of the audience who have read their MacIntyre might balk at the invocation of human rights. Otherwise, I’m on solid footing, especially with the libertarians who serve as watchdogs against government incursion.

So far so good. But what if I then say, “Dignity gives the person a claim both to freedom from aggression and to the basic necessities of life”? I can already see frowns starting to form.

These statements are not excerpts from an exhortation by a conservative to conservatives. They are quotes from philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum shows us an oversight in the Western tradition, namely our tendency to think of justice in the language of abstract rights, not material obligations. It is profoundly strange to interpret our founding documents and traditions in a way that grounds a natural right to life in prepolitical moral law but denies any claim to material things necessary to sustain life. In The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum explores this indifference, showing how the Stoic argument that external circumstances don’t affect our flourishing has subtly biased the Western tradition. The alternative she proposes is a renewed cosmopolitanism that learns from the Stoics but doesn’t repeat their fatal error.

Conservatives often dismiss Nussbaum as just another liberal. Senator Josh Hawley even denounced Nussbaum in his speech at the recent national conservatism conference. So before outlining her argument, it’s helpful to describe what her project might be assumed to be—but is not.

First, Nussbaum’s book is not a call for open borders or a demand that we renounce allegiance to particular nations. On the contrary, Nussbaum asks us to balance recognition of universal ties with a robust “cherishing [of] our own nations as sources and vehicles of human autonomy and human connection.” She is adamant that “to be a world citizen one does not need to give up local identifications and affiliations.”

Instead, Nussbaum points to Hellenistic philosopher Hierocles’s understanding of the self as surrounded by a series of concentric circles that include the family, then neighbors, countrymen, and finally humanity as a whole. Nussbaum is clear that the Stoics think of obligation within this framework, such that “we usually promote the goals of humanity best by doing our duty where life has placed us—raising our own children, for example, rather than trying vainly to care for all the world’s children.” In phrases that could have been written by Edmund Burke, Nussbaum argues that “for the most part the intense love of the near supports the worldwide goal” because “the love of family and friends gives depth and energy to a personality devoted to justice.”

Second, Nussbaum’s book is not a call for world government. In fact, Nussbaum is critical of the EU and other entities that concentrate power away from everyday people. In another statement that sounds rather conservative, Nussbaum insists that smaller-scale “institutions . . . are good protectors of people, because of their responsiveness to people’s voices.” Nussbaum explicitly argues against world government as a “uniform structure that excludes alternative structures, languages, and constitutional choices that may all be morally decent.” In accord with Augustine, she notes that “there is not one unique right way to construct a state; instead, the moral law suggests a zone of moral permissibility, with many possible realizations,” and she argues that “removing this variety is itself a harm to human beings.”

Third, Nussbaum’s book is not a call for technocratic progressivism. Indeed, Nussbaum cites Adam Smith’s denunciation of the “ ‘man of system’ who is ‘so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal plan of government’ that he is unwilling to compromise at all with popular sentiment” and instead “treats his fellow citizens as pieces on a chess board that he can arrange as he likes.” But Nussbaum also notes that Smith advocated for what we might call a living wage. That goes to show that thinkers are generally more multifaceted than they appear in our ideologically biased accounts.

Far from the caricature of her own view, then, Nussbaum appeals to premises that conservatives are likely to share. Despite the provocative label, we can learn from her version of cosmopolitanism.

The central insight of the cosmopolitan tradition is that all human beings have intrinsic dignity. The challenge is that human beings are not gods: we are not self-sufficient, invincible, capable of producing our own fulfillment. Nussbaum thus compares our intrinsic human dignity to “a tender plant that will wither if it encounters a severe climate.”

While Nussbaum develops the metaphor in richer detail in The Fragility of Goodness, this is the cipher that unlocks all of Nussbaum’s works and places them in the tradition of the Greek tragedians rather than the political utopians. Socrates was right about a lot, but when he said that the good man cannot be harmed, he wasn’t telling the truth. I should mention that I first read Fragility around the time someone close to me told me about her experiences of sexual assault. Nussbaum herself experienced sexual assault and does not shy away from drawing attention to rape as one of the single greatest acts of violence against human dignity.

So while the Stoics would have us believe that even “the sage on the rack is happy,” I think we can conclude that he is not. And while we can agree with Socrates that it is “better to suffer injustice than to commit it,” we should recognize that neither is tolerable in the just republic. This is not to say that we aim simply for the absence of violence, as in some versions of libertarianism. A plant that isn’t watered will wither away. Often a person, particularly a child, who is abandoned to poverty will likewise wilt.

The problem with the Stoic mantra is that by saying inner virtue is all that is needed for happiness, we are also saying “if people are really good they don’t mind the loss of externals, so by implication, if they do mind that shows they are morally defective.” Such a line of reasoning leads to the notion of the ungrateful poor. Nussbaum points out that “it is incoherent to salve one’s conscience on the duties of material aid by thinking about their non-necessity for true flourishing, and at the same time to insist so strictly on the absolute inviolability of the duties of justice, which are just other ways of supplying human beings with the external things they need”—such as a tax-funded police force.

The deeper criticism, though, is that the Stoics have a flawed anthropology. Nussbaum writes: “The human being is not like a block or a rock, but a body of flesh and blood,” and our “hope, desire, expectation” are all things “shaped by material surroundings.” Elsewhere, she describes the human psyche as “porous and vulnerable, even if determined and strong.” Nussbaum thus maintains that “the fact that moral character can sometimes survive the blows of fortune unaffected does not show that the blows of fortune do not deeply affect it, or that any such effect is the result of weak or bad character.”

When the vicissitudes of life thwart the full development of personhood or wound the soul, we should react not with Stoic indifference but as tragic poets who underscore dignity by highlighting the horror of suffering. Nussbaum argues that such a response is characterized by “respect and awe for the intact humanity that is manifest even in disaster, but also with real sorrow for the eclipse of human activity and full human flourishing.” In addition to bearing witness to dignity amid suffering, we should also recognize our obligations to alleviate that suffering, such that dignity is not further degraded.

Thin language in support of human dignity

For all the sympathy it deserves, Nussbaum’s project has a serious flaw. She eschews any robust metaphysics to undergird her normative claims. To her credit, Nussbaum admits what she is doing. She writes that “basic political principles must be formulated in a neutral language.” And not simply a neutral language but one that is “thin,” by which she means “not using metaphysical concepts that belong to one tradition rather than another.” For Nussbaum, the UN’s Declaration is the perfect example of this neutrality: in her view, “the language of equal human dignity” is an “ethical notion attached to no particular metaphysics.”

This strikes me as naive. Consider the unsatisfying way that Nussbaum describes her use of the term human dignity: “some sufficient cluster” of potentialities “for emotional expression, for pleasure, for movement, for sensory experience.” Perhaps that is the best one can do when trying to avoid a specific ontology tied to a particular tradition of discourse. But it is hard to see it as the basis for a human response to suffering.

To be fair, Nussbaum might identify the background tradition as Western liberalism. But even then, I am not satisfied. At least since the French Revolution, the abstract language of human rights has been attached to human dignity. Yet no such language prevented the construction of Auschwitz. Nussbaum might read David Bentley Hart’s essay “Human Dignity Was a Rarity Before Christianity” and reconsider whether you can ground human dignity in secular reason. Or perhaps she’s simply telling her own version of the noble lie.

Thankfully, there are richer sources on this point. I think especially of the late Jean Vanier, the Catholic founder of the L’Arche communities for disabled persons. Vanier’s ontology affirms being as intrinsically good, and therefore of immeasurable value, quite apart from any capabilities or lack thereof. In fact, Vanier learned from persons we call “disabled” (he called them friends) about a deeper joy that awaits all of us when we reject the meritocratic assumption that we are valuable based on what we can do. 

Nussbaum’s metaphysical shortcoming does not invalidate the political frameworks she proposes for a pluralistic world. Nussbaum cites Jacques Maritain as a model: Maritain was one of the framers of the UN Declaration and approached that task through his Catholic tradition while proposing principles that could be shared even by those outside that tradition. The crucial point, however, is that the language of human dignity is worthless if there is no adequate metaphysics to support it. Nussbaum’s project runs the risk of irrelevance if she continues to disregard metaphysics entirely.

The Cosmopolitan Tradition does not give policy prescriptions, nor does it tell us for whom we should vote. But I think the insights on offer here are as relevant to, say, Senator Mike Lee’s project on social capital as they are to the local SJW organization. The bottom line is that material conditions matter, so our obligations as citizens and fellow human beings involve money and not just behavior. Poverty is not so different from torture. Neither should be tolerated in a just republic.

Regardless of your tradition or political persuasion, then, Nussbaum’s book is an illuminating guide to our contingencies, vulnerabilities, and needs, and a reminder of our obligations to pursue the good life together in the realm of matter and not simply the realm of ideas. Nussbaum will likely never find herself on the stage of a conservative conference, but her ideas should certainly have a place in conservative discourse. For she reads the same classical texts, and her arguments are grounded in some of the same traditions, even if her conclusions are less familiar. Perhaps shared study of texts and rigorous debate regarding their meaning can provide us with a concrete way to attain to the cosmopolitan ideal. ♦

Anthony M. Barr is a recent graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University and currently works as an assistant teacher at Main Line Classical Academy.


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