The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has her doubtsby Ada Bronowski / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
In her latest contribution to her extensive work on humane values and how to attain them, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum examines cosmopolitanism—defined as describing yourself as a human being first, and a national citizen second. Through an analysis of texts from antiquity and their reception in modern times, she traces the guiding principles of a tradition she sees as taking an overriding concern in the dignity of fellow human beings regardless of race, religion, state or sex.
Cosmopolitanism, she claims, has all the right ingredients—respect for fellow humans, demands for universal justice, aspirations to egalitarianism—but the ideal is too lofty. Its flaw is to have separated moral values from the means to substantiate them. The values embodied by cosmopolitanism cost money: good education and healthcare for everyone are laudable, but expensive. If you separate the financial aspects from the moral imperatives, you will forever be all talk and no action.
Worse still, the ideal collapses into contradictions. It’s impossible to honour the bond of human fellowship (with strangers, slaves or women) without paying for every person to get access to the same conditions of health, security and education.
Nussbaum sees the ideas of Adam Smith as the remedy—but is she right? His identification of the essence of man as homo economicus paves the way for her solution: the “capabilities approach,” in which for every human function (from living healthily to expressing ideas and emotions) there is a reciprocal duty to fund its actualisation.
It is not clear for whom this book is written: historians of philosophy will frown at over-simplifications, while ethicists will not find much fresh meat. And as for law-makers and those Nussbaum calls “real people,” the gap between the dream and its actualisation still keeps the philosopher at a planetary distance from reality.
The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal by Martha Nussbaum is published by Harvard, £22.95