Martha Nussbaum on cosmopolitanism — and why I once again disagree with her

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most influential contemporary public philosophers. Her books, from Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities to The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, are must read for anyone who is interested in modern political philosophy, philosophy of justice, and their ancient Greco-Roman roots.

But she is persistently, surprisingly, wrong about some aspects of virtue ethics, and in particular Stoicism. I have already written an in-depth rebuttal of her general take on Stoicism, but more recently she has written about cosmopolitanism, a topic that is close to my heart not just as a Stoic, but as a fellow progressive liberal. So I’d like to take her criticisms of the cosmopolitan stance seriously, and explore what we can learn from them.

Her essay, published by the Institute of Art and Ideas, begins with an encomium of cosmopolitanism, particularly as expressed by the flamboyant Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (the guy that Plato referred to as “Socrates gone mad”). Almost immediately, however, Nussbaum appears to commit a double blunder: first, she attributes to Diogenes a political program centered on the notion of cosmopolitanism; second, she assumes that cosmopolitanism is a “Cynic/Stoic” idea, thereby making no distinction in this respect between the two philosophies.

As I have explained in a separate essay, scholar John Sellars has published a landmark paper on the differences between Cynic and Stoic cosmopolitanism, a paper that makes clear why Nussbaum is incorrect on the two points raised above. 

First, the Cynics were absolutely not in the business of proposing political programs. Quite the contrary, Cynicism was a street protest kind of philosophy, which could never, and was never intended to, scale up to societal level. The role of the Cynic is that of a gadfly who keeps reminding people that they’ve got their priorities out of line. A philosophy that encourages its adherents not to own property, not to marry, not to have children, and so forth is simply not suited for any political program whatsoever.

Second, as Sellars explains, there is a continuum, as far as cosmopolitanism is concerned, linking the Cynics, the early Stoics, and the late Stoics, so that later versions — while rooted in the Cynic ideal — are increasingly distinct from it. In fact, cosmopolitanism really goes back to Socrates, who was the one that influenced both Cynics and Stoics. To simplify a bit, the Cynics were not invoking a political ideal, but rather a lifestyle that can be practiced in the here and now. The early Stoics, like Zeno of Citium, envisioned not an ideal state, Plato-style, but rather, as John puts it “an individual cosmopolitan ethic that would, in theory, form the foundation for a future world-wide community in which everyone would be a sage, along with an intermediate stage in which sages — whether geographically dispersed or together in one location — would acknowledge each other as ‘fellow-citizens.’ … There appears to have been an attempt to offer both a pragmatic ethic that can be put into practice here and now alongside a speculative vision of a possible future grounded upon that ethic.”

But it is only with the Romans that we get an actual outline of a political program. Cicero (who was not a Stoic, though sympathetic to the school) clearly rejected the Cynic approach, articulating instead one of the first humanistic versions of cosmopolitanism. But he was, in fact, strongly influenced by the middle Stoic Panaetius, who himself discarded the Cynic “wing” of Stoicism. Cicero articulates his version of cosmopolitanism in De Officiis (On Duty), where he denies a distinction between wise and foolish, affirming the value of the ordinary individual, in turn leading to a vision of humanity as made up of equal fellow citizens. According to both Panaetius and Cicero, all humanity shares in the ability to be rational, and this ability is in turn the basis for a universal brotherhood. Their view is realistic: the citizens of the cosmopolis are not sages, so they do require legislation (as distinct from an enlightened anarchic society) to keep things working smoothly.

To recap what we got so far: (i) Nussbaum is incorrect in attributing a political program to the Cynics, or even the early Stoics. Such program began to be outlined only later on, by Panaetius, Cicero, and eventually Seneca. (ii) There is no such thing as “the Cynic/Stoic” conception of cosmopolitanism, for the reasons just outlined.

But Nussbaum is just getting started with her criticism of cosmopolitanism. Her first real strike comes with this bit: “The [cosmopolitan] tradition explicitly and pointedly excludes non-human animals. … In some versions, though not that of Diogenes, it also excludes, though less explicitly, humans with severe cognitive disabilities.”

I’m not sure which version of cosmopolitanism excludes humans with cognitive disabilities, and Nussbaum does not say. As for non-human animals, that’s a good point. But here I’m going to go against the currently prevalent grain in moral philosophy and outright state that non-human animals, insofar (and this is an empirical issue) they do not have the capacity of articulating reasons for what they do or don’t do, should not be thought of as moral actors. Indeed, it would be unfair (to them) of us to do so. Chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and so forth, so far as we know, do not qualify as “persons” (again, contra recent opinion, philosophical and even legal) because they are not moral agents. They act as a result of instinct ingrained by natural selection. We, of course, share the same instincts, but we have also evolved a sophisticated ability for language, which allows us to better represent to ourselves and to others what we are doing, or intend to do, and why.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with a supposed license to treat other animals as we please. That is a non sequitur. It is perfectly logically coherent to bestow special status on human beings qua rational agents (or at least potential rational agents), and at the same time to say that we have a moral responsibility toward all sentient beings — as the Buddhists claim. Indeed, we have such responsibility, while other animals don’t, precisely because we are capable of reason. Our behavior toward other species should be guided by the principle so clearly and forcefully articulated by Jeremy Bentham in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation: “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’ 

Nussbaum continues: “The founders of this Western tradition [cosmopolitanism] also introduce a problem with which the tradition has been wrestling ever since. For they think that, in order to treat people as having a dignity that life’s accidents cannot erode, they must scoff at money, rank, and power, saying that they are unnecessary for human flourishing.”

No, they don’t. Here Nussbaum is treating the Stoics as if they were Aristotelians, which they very obviously were not. It is Aristotle that is concerned with flourishing. The Stoics are concerned with a life worth living, which may or may not include flourishing, depending on circumstances. The confusion is in part due to the fact that all Hellenistic schools used the same word to indicate the kind of life they thought was worth pursuing: eudaimonia. But they cashed out the meaning of that word differently. Indeed, once can differentiate the various schools in great part precisely on the basis of what they meant when they said that one should be eudaimon.

Regarding the Stoics, who are the focus of Nussbaum’s criticism, they never claimed that externals — such as money, rank, power — are not welcome as constituents of a flourishing life. In fact, they class them among the preferred indifferents, meaning that they are preferred, but do not have moral value. This is to be understood in the specific sense that having (or not having) money, rank, or power does not make you a better (or worse) person. What the Stoics did claim is that one can live a life worth living even when deprived of all that. Take one of Nussbaum’s favorite role models, Nelson Mandela, who wrote a book entitled Conversations with Myself, a direct reference to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which he read, and was greatly influenced by, while in prison on Robben Island.

For the Aristotelian, much of Mandela’s life was not one of flourishing. Certainly not for the 26 years of his life that he spent in three different prisons in South Africa. Yet, for a Stoic Mandela was living a life worth living, because he was fighting a just cause against an oppressive regime. Seen this way, the Stoic concept that what makes a human being deserving of dignity is his moral integrity, not the circumstances of his life, is liberating. It is a feature of the system, as they say, not a bug.

Nussbaum’s criticism continues along the same lines: “Cosmopolitan politics appears to the framers to impose stringent duties of respect, including an end to aggressive war, support for people who have been unjustly attacked, and a ban on crimes against humanity, including genocide and torture. But it imposes no duties of material aid — on the grounds that human beings do not really need the goods of fortune.”

But this comes close to a category mistake. Cosmopolitanism is not a type of politics, it’s a philosophical moral stance. A number of different political positions are compatible with such a stance, and a number of others are not. My version of cosmopolitanism, for instance, does include positive rights, not just negative ones, similar to what Nussbaum wants. But I still maintain — with the Stoics — that thinking that externals are of paramount importance in life is a mistake, because they are not under our control, which means that by betting on them, so to speak, we leave our eudaimonia in the hands of fortune. As Seneca says:

“That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away.” (Letters to Lucilius, LIX.18)

Nussbaum again: “[the cosmopolitan position] involves the pretense that fulfilling the duties of justice does not require material expenditure, something that is empirically false, if we include among the duties of justice duties to protect people from aggressive war, from torture, from slavery, and from other crimes against humanity.”

I’m not sure where this comes from, but certainly not from the Stoics. The virtue of justice does mean that we have a duty to alleviate suffering and unfair treatment of others. And it goes without saying that such duty requires material resources. Indeed, the Stoics think that externals — including money — acquire value precisely because they allow us to exercise virtue. Money, per se, is neither good nor bad. It is what we do with money that is good or bad. Epictetus is explicit about this:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

Accordingly, of course protecting people from aggressive war, torture, slavery, and other crimes against humanity is a virtuous use of money and other material resources.

But is there a deeper incoherence at the heart of Stoicism, and particularly Stoic cosmopolitanism? Nussbaum responds in the affirmative: “The tradition appears to hold that material possessions make no difference to the exercise of our capacities for choice and other aspects of our dignity. If one really believes that human dignity is totally immune to the accidents of fortune, then slavery, torture, and unjust war do not damage it, any more than hunger and disease. But this seems false.”

It’s false only if one assumes what the Stoics see as the misguided equivalency between possession of externals and human dignity. Again, there is a reason why externals are “preferred,” meaning that they are choiceworthy. So, no Stoic would ever think that slavery, torture, or war aren’t conditions from which we want to escape. But people are entitled to dignity and respect even if they happen to be slaves, subject to torture, or war refugees. It is hard to see how or why Nussbaum would deny this basic point.

When she asks “What damage is done by slavery, for example, if the dignity of the slave is never affected by it?” she seems to be astoundingly naive about Stoicism. Without contradiction, the Stoic answer is both “none” and “quite a lot.” None in the sense that the slave maintains his dignity qua human being. Quite a lot because he is being deprived of personal freedom and externals, which do contribute to a life of flourishing (but are not necessary for a life worth living). Here is Seneca on this point:

“Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLVII.10)

Finally, Nussbaum just barely mentions a very large topic right at the end of her essay, throwing a philosophical bomb just before leaving, so to speak: “Can a cosmopolitan politics provide real people with a basis for emotions toward one another sufficient to motivate altruistic conduct, without losing a sense of personal meaning? Can a non-cosmopolitan politics ever do away with nationalism, xenophobia, and war? Surely some statements by Marcus, asking us to renounce close personal ties to family, city, and group, seem to threaten deep concern and the very sources of our motivation to act. They appear to leave us with a barren life in which nothing is worth loving or doing.”

This would require a separate essay to unpack, but Nussbaum is seriously, even dangerously, off the mark here. First off, Marcus and other Stoics are not at all telling us to renounce personal ties to family, city, etc.. The Meditations begins with an entire chapter where Marcus engages in a long exercise of gratitude toward all the people who have been closed to him and have mentored him, providing him with good examples on how to conduct himself. Second, consider this:

“My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” (Meditations VI.44)

Here Marcus is very clearly articulating the cosmopolitan principle as hierarchical: it’s not the world to the exclusion of everything else, but rather the world first, my chance association with a particular nation second. Again, hard to imagine Nussbaum would disagree with this.

Similarly, Epictetus presents his role ethics in a hierarchical, not exclusivist, fashion, whereby our role as citizens of the world gets priority, but does not preclude more specific roles, such as citizen of a given nation, member of a given family, friend, co-worker, and so forth:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses, III.23.3–5)

As for the bit about providing people with motivating emotions, two comments. First, we hardly live in a world where people don’t have enough emotions to motivate their actions. Every time someone criticizes Stoicism for its emphasis on reason I’d like to know if they really are under the impression that the problem with the world is that there is too much reason.

Second, and more importantly, the Stoics subscribed to a psychology theory — validated and expanded by modern science — that makes no distinction between emotions and reason. It is precisely because emotions are an inextricable mix of feelings and cognitive judgments that we can intervene on the latter in order to reshape the former.

When Nussbaum is skeptical that cosmopolitanism “threatens … the very sources of our motivation to act … appear[ing] to leave us with a barren life in which nothing is worth loving or doing,” is she implying that we should keep going with the same sort of tribalism that has given us endless wars, misery and destruction (as she herself observes)? Because, let us no kid around, that is the alternative on the table. For my part, I am emotionally-rationally motivated to fight for a unified world, where we are all brothers and sisters, care for each other, and set aside xenophobe and nationalistic agendas in favor of universal human dignity and flourishing. Call me crazy, but I’m in good company.

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