Despite the level of pessimism about the current state of world affairs (and understandably so, given the terrible events happening everyone from Sudan to Wall Street), there has long been a strain of thought known as cosmopolitanism that suggests that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. While the theoretical roots of cosmopolitanism lie deep in the philosophical past, the earliest mainstream acceptance of the theory dates back to the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century and accelerates after the successive triumphs of Western liberalism following the Second World War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
At its most abstract level, most liberal-minded people (liberal being used to refer to those who believe in individual freedoms and human rights, not referring to contemporary political parties or movements) have little trouble accepting the high-minded ideals that all humans are equal and belong to one community. The problem, as Andrew Dobson describes in high 2006 article (the link to which is posted below), is that of motivation, or how to convince human beings on a moral level to sacrifice their own interests for the interests of those halfway across the world.
Most people are predominantly concerned with what immediately affects them and their loved ones, and even those who consider themselves world citizens and humanitarians typically don’t dwell on the suffering of poor, war-torn regions of the world for weeks on end unless they have a personal stake in those issues. Indeed most people believe more in a sense of communitarianism, bound by material ties to their immediate neighbors, than true cosmopolitanism. We may talk about the differences in the attitudes of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama towards Afghanistan, Syria, or Iran, but what really matters to the majority of voters in the election will be healthcare laws and tax brackets.
How then does one go about motivating others to feel what Dobson calls a sense of ‘nearness’ to their fellow human beings regardless of physical distance? Dobson argues that it is not enough merely to convince people to contribute to humanitarianism based on moral persuasion (thin cosmopolitanism), one must convince them of the idea that they have a major, tangible stake in the state of the human race in its entirety rather than in minutia.
In order for people to become truly motivated, they have to see themselves as agents of justice and responsibility in a world which they have the ability to affect. If I drive my car less, it will have an impact on the forests of the world. If I refrain from buying products made by child labor, it will improve social conditions in poor regions of the world. The widespread impact of communications, social media, and international cooperative organizations are already raising many of these issues in a concrete way. In order for people to start making a difference in the regions of the world that require critical social change, they have to be exposed to the real consequences of their decisions. They have to feel like they are making an impact.
A truly cosmopolitan world, one in which people in Beirut, Shanghai, and Paris all feel like part of a single global community that everyone holds stock in, is a long way off and may not even be possible. Certainly , the theory of cosmopolitanism has more than its share of critics. However, if the currents trends in international society continue to hold true, maybe we can allow ourselves just the tiniest bit of hope that the human species is headed in the right direction.
Andrew Dobson, “Thick Cosmopolitanism” http://www.politicalstudies.org/pdf/dobson.pdf