Meditations on cosmopolitanism
Cynicism will probably set you free, but first it will definitely piss you off
Diogenes the Cynic, that philosopher-punk who was living in a clay pot and walked around with a lamp in broad daylight searching for "a man", was the one who allegedly coined the word. Exiled from his native Sinope in Turkey, in Athens he called himself a citizen of the world, cosmopolites. This was quite an unorthodox thing to say for a moral philosopher at the time when loyalty to one's city-state was, perhaps, among the top three cultural virtues. But, again, this was Diogenes who also masturbated in public and told Alexander the Great to buzz off.
Cynic means dog-like, hence the doggos.
The word cosmopolites itself is paradoxical. The second part, polites, comes from polis, the same city-state a loyalty to which any decent cosmopolite was supposed to abandon. The first part, kósmos initially meant "the world order". Over time the two words, world and order, diverged and went their separate ways.
The world-kósmos became serious and respectable and is now used in the words like cosmology or cosmogony. The order-kósmos became a synonym for "dressing up" and now is the foundation for the word cosmetics, further strengthening an already inescapable association with the popular women's lifestyle magazine. What a bizarre coincidence! Or perhaps not, perhaps whoever came up with the name for the magazine was really onto something.
In any case, the cosmopolitan meme-complex has proven itself to be quite resilient. Born in Asia Minor, it travelled to Athens and later to Corinth inside the head of its father, Diogenes. It was later adopted by the Roman stoics who believed that by the virtue of being human we belong to at least two communities: the local and the universal, the latter being the commonwealth of reason.
“The commonwealth of reason”! Makes my skin shiver. Stoic cosmopolitanism is first and foremost an ethical doctrine. It presumes the equal moral status of all individuals, regardless of their citizenship. It obliges us to consider the good of all humankind in our actions. Our first form of moral affiliation, according to stoics, is our affiliation with rational humanity.
From stoics cosmopolitanism was smuggled into Christianity, one of the first trans-national religions, under the guise of human equality before God. It re-emerged again as an idea independent of theology in the works of the Enlightenment thinkers: pantheists, agnostics, atheists even. After philosophy came politics and culture.
The American Declaration of Independence echoed the cynic/stoic ideas: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." in 1776. At about the same time Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest moral philosophers of modernity, wrote a Philosophical Sketch on Perpetual Peace arguing for the world government, capable of preventing wars.
In 1920 his vision was realised by the founding of the League of Nations. The organisation was hardly a paragon of effectiveness, but it was a breakthrough political achievement for cosmopolitanism. The idea became institutionalised on a scale it is supposed to exist, which is the global scale. The Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, brought the idea of human moral equality to the mainstream.
Cultural cosmopolitanism in the 21st century became widespread to the point of being unavoidable. Thanks to the Internet almost any cultural artefact is now almost instantly available to almost anyone at almost no cost. At first sight it seems like the cosmopolitan idea is alive and flourishing. That is until we notice there's still plenty of warfare going on.
The bright side
As an ideological orientation, cosmopolitanism is probably something to aspire to. I've read an extensive review of psychological research related to Global Human Identification and Citizenship (GHIC), a fancy-schmancy name for cosmopolitanism by McFarland et al (2018). Their conclusion was that GHIC is definitely something both important and desirable.
Consistently, GHIC is related to lower ethnocentrism, lower prejudice, and lower dehumanization toward many groups, and a greater willingness to accept members of outgroups as immigrants, fellow citizens, friends, and into even closer relationships. It strongly predicts greater concerns for human rights, global injustices and poverty, and for the global environment.
Cosmopolitanism is at odds with the ills of our time, with tribalism and xenophobia, with wars and genocides. It's the expansion of one's circle of empathy to all people. How can one be a humanist and not a cosmopolitan? It is hardly conceivable. Abraham Maslow in his popular (if empirically unsupported) hierarchy of human needs postulated that “self-actualized” people are the ones that have “a deep feeling of identification, sympathy, and affection for human beings in general”. Self-actualization, of course, is at the top of his pyramid.
I’m doubtful that cosmopolitanism is the end of human moral development. You can expand your circle of empathy even further, to non-human primates, mammals and other animals, plants, rocks, the whole Universe. That said, it is hardly an avoidable phase.
I know what you're thinking: these are just a bunch of cosmopolites praising their own worldview. How widespread is this notion among the general public? Sadly, not very much. Here are the best numbers I was able to find: in 2008 researchers had 360 US students complete a survey and found out that only 13% of the respondents “feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for all humans everywhere” at a “very much” level. The average identification with humanity was at “somewhat” level. At the same time, however, 47% believed that "a mature and moral person would" identify with humanity as a whole (McFarland, Brown, & Webb, 2012).
Slightly less than half of the young educated people in one of the most developed countries in the world believe that being a citizen of the world is something to aspire to. Not bad, but frankly, I hoped for more. And only 13% “very much” consider themselves to be global citizens! Why? What's wrong with cosmopolitanism so that most people tend to avoid it?
The dark side
Cosmopolite, of course, means traitor to the people. Stalin's campaign against rootless cosmopolitanism exemplified that idea perfectly. Caring for kin is one of the widely shared moral universals and nation states promote themselves as a sort of extended family. Preferring strangers to family is definitely something only bad people would do.
To the people on the left side of the political spectrum, cosmopolitan is synonymous with globalist and member of intellectual and probably financial elite. In theory, it should be a synonym for the internationalist as well, but to my utter surprise, it's not.
Internationalist is a globalist aligned with the proletariat, the working people. Cosmopolite is globalist aligned with the bourgeoisie and Bourgeois, as some of you probably know, is a French cosmetics company. There is no cosmetics company called Proletarian, not even in the Soviet Union there wasn't. There were, of course, many factories with Proletarian in their name, but it was something heavy industrial or petrochemical, at the very least.
Point being: contemporary cosmopolitan speaks sissy affluence. This is a direct reversal from Diogenes' cosmopolitanism, which was deliberately macho déclassé: brave as fuck and poor as a church mouse. Contemporary cosmopolitanism is comfortable. He belongs to the first world while residing anywhere. He lives in a luxurious downtown condo or in a beach house when he grows tired of his noisy metropolis, he travels the world extensively contributing to global warming without much remorse, he watches European arthouse films and wears Prada if only ironically.
His credo is “A combination of education and intelligence with a tinge of advantageous birthplace makes one's life mostly good”. The golden passkey to cosmopolitan identity is education. It's golden because it's expensive, even in the counties where higher education is free. Spending time in the classroom means you're not spending it at work. A study of World Values Survey data across 46 countries found the strongest predictor of agreeing with the statement, “I see myself as a world citizen” was one's level of education.
The cosmopolites claim to be citizens of the world. Trouble is, the idea of cosmopolitanism itself is a product of the Western civilisation. Few cosmopolites are truly world-centric, instead, they mostly espouse abstract post-Cristian Eurocentrism. Yes, they might read a Japanese novel on occasion or watch a Korean TV show, but they mostly consume Western art and non-fiction literature written in English. They speak English and French, languages spoken by the elites, very few non-Western cosmopolites would learn Urdu or Swahili.
Cosmopolitans claim to identify with humanity, but most of them do not. They identify with other cosmopolitans, and even that is only partly true. Cosmopolites do not support everything and anything cosmopolitan. ISIS was cosmopolitan and it was bombed out of existence by a rather cosmopolitan alliance of nations.
Cosmopolitans identify with pro-Western cosmopolitans. Suppose the cosmopolites win the fight with nationalists. Suppose the world does become one global melting pot. Which languages, laws, moral values then are to dominate the united Earth? Of course it’s Western, but why Western? Why not Chinese? The Chinese won't be happy and rightly so.
There's little to be happy about if you need to learn a different language to do your day job. Acquiring a foreign language is hard, especially if your mother tongue is worlds apart linguistically from Romance or Germanic languages. Cosmopolitanism thus attracts linguistically-gifted people because they would suffer the least communicative handicap. But even for them, don't get me wrong, the handicap would still be huge.
Liberals love to call out the native English privilege, but don't you even get the conservatives started on values and morals. Why should we tolerate homosexuality when our traditional culture traditionally maintains homosexuality is a sin? What do we get out of this tolerance talk? Dissolution of families, the nucleus of our community?
To conclude: for the political left, the cosmopolite's biggest moral failing is being bourgeois globalists, exploiters of the third-world nations. For the political right, the mortal sin is the complete disregard for the saintly land of one's fathers. Is it possible to be a good, ethical cosmopolitan though?
The bright side again
In the 1970s, a pharmaceutical company Merck was developing a veterinary drug to treat parasites in livestock. It was later discovered that a modification of the drug might work against Onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, a human parasite-induced disease widespread in Africa. The problem was that the drug would generate no revenue for the shareholders. The people and the countries affected by river blindness were too poor to pay for it. Here's a question: as the CEO of Merck, would you spend tens of millions of dollars developing the human version of your drug with no hope of ever recuperating the incurred costs?
Merck decided to go along with it. As expected, it cost them millions to develop and made them absolutely no money if only in goodwill. As of today, Merck continues to produce and distribute the drug throughout the world for free. This is what good cosmopolites do. Incidentally, the drug is called Ivermectin, and I only learned about it because of all the controversy surrounding the drug's alleged effectiveness for treating Covid (spoiler: it's not effective).
Here's another question: suppose either you or your fellow countrymen were sick with river blindness and then they got cured. Would you say it is unfair that most of the research studies around Ivermectin (or virtually any other drug) was published in English rather than in your native tongue? Is it unfair that English is the language of science and international cooperation?
The answer largely depends on one's definition of fairness. But even if we are to conclude that it's not, should the French or the Germans, the closest runner-ups, wage a bloody war against it? Actually, when you come to think of it, the Germans kinda did wage a bloody war if only for a subtly different reason. We don't take that as a crowning achievement in the history of moral deeds.
So, here's the deal: if your lifespan is to double but in exchange you have to devote around 5% of your lifetime learning another language — would you take the deal? If your personal income triples, if the world around your becomes better on every possible measure — but more than 50% of your country's GDP will be produced by the foreign companies and you will have to tolerate homosexuality, would you think of yourself as better off overall? That's pretty much the deal.
Like with any deals, there's no guarantee that the other side will upheld its part. The globalists might plunder your country, steal its natural resources and then fly away to ski in St.Moritz. They might create an environmental disaster like the one in Bhopal in 1984 causing half a million injured and 15 thousand dead. This is a definite possibility. But for the purposes of this thought experiment, suppose there is a guarantee. Would you take the deal?
Because if you would, we are only arguing about details. We are in agreement that human life, well-being, dignity and happiness have priority over whatever ideas local leaders promote as "traditional". River blindness is traditional. Maybe it's a bit of a leap in reasoning, but if you think Merck-developed Ivermectin delivered through UNICEF is better than traditional river blindness with all the wonderful cultural rituals surrounding it, you are at least in part a humanist, a globalist and a cosmopolitan. In your heart's heart you do understand that there's little sacred about local culture. For the most part, it's just an adaptation to the environment.
Ok, here's the kicker. You don't need to abandon your nationalistic, patriotic or religious beliefs to become cosmopolitan. The conservative British PM Theresa May famously quipped “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, but this is simply not true. This is what the conservatives want to be true, but it's not. You can be a member of both communities, local and global. There's actually little conflict between the two.
Overall, cosmopolitanism correlates only weakly negatively, less than −.25, with both patriotism and nationalism (Kosterman & Feshbach, 1989), self-reported religiousness, Christian orthodoxy, and Christian fundamentalism (McFarland, 2019). And it should not come as a surprise, Christianity is a global religion. People can live with both local and global allegiances.
Religious teachings are ambiguous and are subject to ever changing interpretations. Cultures morph all the time, people adapt their beliefs to changing environments. On a rare if crucial occasions one has to choose one over another. And when you have a choice it is always a choice between cultural conservatism and general economic prosperity. Choose prosperity.
Human wealth reliably leads to less suffering and it is invariably produced by cooperation, not war. All of humanity's greatest achievements came to life thanks to cooperating, and the larger was the scale of cooperation the larger were the achievements.
Cooperation has to be global. Karl Marx was exactly right when he wrote that the imperatives of capitalist production inevitably drove the bourgeoisie to establish connections everywhere. There is simply no reasonable alternative to globalisation. There are many different versions of globalism, you don't have to endorse the one endorsed by the IMF or the Davos-attending crowd.
The effects of globalisation are unequal but very few people are actually worse off now compared to 30 years ago. For the vast majority globalisation worked wonders. If you don't believe this, look at the numbers. Is there a single indicator of human flourishing that is down compared to what it was 30 years ago? Median salary, child mortality, life expectancy, anything? The only countries that are worse off are failed states like South Sudan or those in which the elites tried to isolate themselves from globalisation like North Korea.
In conclusion, ladies and jellyspoons
The meaning of life for a cosmopolite is to produce the most good through our life's work. If the best you can do is contributing to your own culture or writing in your local language, so be it. Translations are possible.
It is hard to be a cosmopolitan cobbler (though not altogether impossible), so cobblers feel threatened by cosmopolitanism and rightly so. Though probably not cosmopolitan, they are definitely human and thus do belong to our moral sphere of responsibility. Shouting "learn to code" at them doesn't do much good and frankly, we have very little idea how to help them cope with change. Let's figure that shit out.
Kosterman, R., & Feshbach, S. (1989). Patriotism and nationalism measure. PsycTESTS Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/t33076-000
McFarland, S., Hackett, J., Hamer, K., Katzarska-Miller, I., Malsch, A., Reese, G., & Reysen, S. (2019). Global human identification and citizenship: A review of Psychological Studies. Political Psychology, 40(S1), 141–171. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12572
McFarland, S., Webb, M., & Brown, D. (2012). All humanity is my ingroup: A measure and studies of identification with all humanity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(5), 830–853. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028724
Smith, W. C., Fraser, P., Chykina, V., Ikoma, S., Levitan, J., Liu, J., & Mahfouz, J. (2017). Global citizenship and the impor- tance of education in a globally integrated world. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 15, 648–665. https://doi.org/ 10.1080/14767724.2016.1222896