Oil on troubled waters–cosmopolitans to the rescue!

I don’t want to get too stuck in a rut of just criticizing other philosophies, but this kind of thing could provoke a camel. Is this seriously the point to which “alternative,” “progressive” political philosophy has led itself? That the new inspiring ideal that is going to unite the oppressed masses is–cosmopolitanism? I’m reminded how important it is, no matter how widely one travels or mingles in the outside world, that one not become cosmopolitan. In the rather unappetizing form presented here, it doesn’t seem like much more than a loss of principles. The author claims: “There is a strange presumption in recent thought about human values. When we think about basic issues in ethics and politics, it is taken as a given that we face a choice between liberalism and relativism…There are many things wrong with this dichotomy. One of the most obvious is that it is highly parochial. Liberalism may look like the only game in town these days, but just a generation ago there were Marxists, anarchists, socialists and others who believed a systematic alternative to liberal society was desirable, imaginable and practically feasible. ” Well, I know plenty of liberals, and I can’t think of one of them who believes that liberalism is the only integral uiversal value system in existence. They just believe it’s the best one available.

To continue: “In Appiah’s view cosmopolitanism has two intertwined strands: the idea that we have obligations to other human beings above and beyond those to whom we are related by ties of family, kinship or formal citizenship; and an attitude that values others not just as specimens of universal humanity but as having lives whose meaning is bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own…As a position in ethical theory, cosmopolitanism is distinct from relativism and universalism. It affirms the possibility of mutual understanding between adherents to different moralities but without holding out the promise of any ultimate consensus.” To me this seems like an almost totally empty point. To take one of the most extreme examples, I don’t know almost anyone that is not aware that the lives of Islamic terrorists are “bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own.” At the same time, this awareness does not make them any more inclined to sympathize with those practices and beliefs, or any less committed to their own brand of liberalism, conservatism, socialism or whatever. Usually quite the contrary. And forgive if I’m wrong, but the knowledge that an “ultimate consensus” probably cannot be achieved, it seems to me, is an instigator of open conflict at least as often as it is of tolerance.

I get the feeling that this hollow attempt to pass off “awareness” as tolerance and to receive commensurate credit for it derives at some level from the uncomfortable, even if subconscious, realization that tolerance is not necessarily a very admirable thing. Tolerance of that of which we don’t disapprove is more or less redundant, and tolerance of that which we do implies basically putting up with what we consider to be wrong. I don’t of anyone whose moral beliefs would allow that to be a good thing. The article implies a bogus distinction between things which are objectively, indisputably wrong, like murder or genocide, and things about which one can have ethical beliefs but also tolerate deviation in others, like personal religious habits. This is bogus because I would argue that it is only the views about which one is intransigent that count as one’s true moral beliefs. I certainly don’t care about other people’s personal religious habits (unless they involve harm to others), but these do not hold any place in my moral framework because they are indifferent to me. In fact, an issue on which one will not tolerate deviation from what one considers to be right might count as a definition of an ethical belief. The sorry denouement of this concept of cosmopoolitanism is evident in this little gem at the end of the article: “In international relations this idea is expressed in the prevailing belief that only regimes that respect human rights or practice democracy (it’s not always clear which) can be legitimate–a view that has been used by the neoconservative right to justify the calamitous attack on Iraq. If we are to avoid similar disasters in the future, we need an account of legitimacy as applied in the society of states that is not just a recent version of liberalism writ large. ” Right, so the problem with the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous concern with human rights, and apparently the job of cosmopolitanism is to find up with some means by which to legitimize regimes which don’t respect human rights. Well, let’s face it, this is what cosmopolitans tend to spend a large portion of their lives doing anyway, so this would likely not be too drastic a change in course.

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