The Cosmopolitan v Communitarian Debate

What is the Cosmopolitan / Communitarian Debate?

What are the implications of drawing boundaries around the community relevant to moral questions?

The universality of morality is a key feature of cosmopolitanism. Such a universal moral code is said to transcend national boundaries in its application to everyone regardless of racial and cultural differences, since ‘what defines us morally is our humanity. ( Baylis 2014, p. 199).

To Communitarians relying on strands of realism and pluralism, however, the significance of drawing national boundaries around the community is the existence of ethical constraints that are particular to the cultural and  historical context of a locality.

The realists in emphasizing international anarchy and sovereignty posit that ‘the only viable ethics are those of self-interest and survival’ while the pluralists allude to a ‘mininimal core of standards for existence’ agreed upon by states.  ( Baylis 2014, p. 199).

I argue that the cosmopolitan paradigm of valuing every individual’s moral worth is intuitively appealing. The Kantian principle of categorical imperative is enshrined in Immanuel Kant’s deontological philosophy:

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another , never simply as a means , but always at the same time as an end’ ( quoted in Linklater 1990, p.101).

This cosmopolitan ideal conceives individual moral worth as contingent upon the fact of human existence rather than on the membership of one’s own state or nation.

The fact that the most basic constituent element of the artifice of the political state and that of its social contract is —

the individual human being lends support to the plausibility of the underlying philosophy of cosmopolitanism.

The famous Dutch scholar and theorist of International Law, Hugo Grotius living in the 17th century, writing in the Prolegomena or ‘Preliminary Discourse’ ‘conferred on natural law  ‘primacy as a source of law …which binds all human beings.” ( Bull, p. 112).

From this perspective,

‘the rights and duties of individuals may therefore be directly asserted in transactions between states’ in relation to, for example, ‘the right of humanitarian intervention’ .( Bull, p. 112)

Grotius conceives the  magna communitas humani generis or global legal community  ‘by asserting the bonds of natural law binding the persons who ruled states and the communities of persons of whom they are composed.'( Bull, p. 112).

Adopting the Grotian approach, it is submitted that principles of natural law,  protecting the human rights of for instance stateless refugees and ethnic minorities, may be conceived to be embedded in international law —

in ways that transcend the positive laws of sovereign states and recognize that individuals rather than the states they compose are subjects rather than objects of International law.

The cosmopolitan ideal is however challenged by the national ideal exemplified by increasingly nationalistic states and their governments.

Beitz considers the grounds for accepting the principle of priority in relation to compatriots as opposed to accepting the elements of private morality,  but goes on to assert that:

‘it is a mystery why we should regard the national point of view as having the kind of significance for morality that attaches naturally to the personal  point of view.(Beitz p. 598).

It is arguable that there are no clear grounds for equating the communitarian ethics of a state, which may be significantly influenced by consequentialist government policies requiring  ‘sacrifices that impersonal morality demands in order to pursue their own commitments’ ( Beitz p. 598), with individual morality.

States may for instance, craft immigration policies that determine the ethnic, religious and racial composition of its membership , and introduce punitive laws that incarcerate ‘outsiders’ or illegal immigrants —

by justifying the ethicality of such actions on the basis of the need for loyalty to a national ideal that promotes ethnocentrism and patriotism.

Do such nationalistic values represent the values of all individuals in such States?

Consider the insidious effect of Donald Trump’s family separation policy in McAllen Texas bordering Mexico. The Guardian reporting on Christmas Eve 2018 noted that ‘more than 2,700 minors remained in custody at the temporary facility next to the Tornillo-Guadalupe port of entry.’ (The Guardian 2018).

Texas state senator José Rodriguez , who was present with a group of local protestors, stated that both the children in the camp and the White House should know Donald Trump’s hardline policies do not represent the values of the country. (The Guardian 2018).

Yet Trump’s immigration policies have had fatal consequences for some.

Eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who had traveled with his father  2,000 miles from his home in Guatemala to reach the US border, died ”just 12 minutes before Christmas Day, and after 155 hours in US custody,  becoming the second child to die in US custody this month.” (The Guardian 2018)

It is intriguing to note that when the Greek philospher, Diogenes, was asked by anyone where he came from, he said:

“I am a citizen of the world.” (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Diogenes the Cynic). 

Martha Nussbaum writes that the Stoics went on to develop Diogenes’ idea of the Kosmou polites ( world citizen) ‘arguing that each of us dwells in effect in two communities – the local community of  our birth, —

and the community of human argument and aspiration that is ”truly great and truly common , in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun.’ ( Seneca, De Otio, quoted by Nussbaum in Cohen p.740). 

Such an inclusive rather than an exclusive perspective of humanity is one that transcends limitations such as national , cultural and religious identities that nation States impose on individuals, and recognizes, as the Stoics after Diogenes did, that—

”we should not allow differences of nationality or class or ethnic membership or even gender to erect barriers between us and our fellow human beings.” (Nussbaum (1996) in Cohen p. 740).

Why do we continue to witness a growing apathy and indifference evinced by Sovereign States towards appalling violations of human rights, for instance, suffered by the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang China, the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the Yazidis in Northern Iraq, South American refugees at the US border and the Syrian refugees?

One of the reasons for the rejection of a Cosmopolitan ethic is an increasing sense of parochialism and patriotism pervading the US, Europe and and Asia.

The political rhetoric employed by communitarian  and Socialist States that an individual’s identity and moral obligations are derived from his or hers membership of the nation state may be juxtaposed against American and European patriotism and its intolerance of refugees of ethnic minorities.

Consider the EU’s political strategy for dealing with migrants fleeing the horrors of war and torture in countries such as Syria and Libya.

The Human Rights Watch reports:

”Determined to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat after a surge in 2015, European governments enacted plans that trap people in abusive conditions under the guise of saving lives. The high risk of human rights violations upon return to Libya is precisely why it is unlawful for EU-flagged ships to take people back there.”
”And yet in 2009, Italy struck a deal with then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean and hand them over to Libyans at sea.” (Human Rights Watch 2017).

It seems as if the morality of treating humans humanely ends, for some, at the geographical and political boundaries of their nation State; a nation State that very often engenders ethnocentric and nationalistic sensibilities among its people.

Martha Nussbaum’s excellent essay, ‘Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism’, succinctly  encapsulates the idea of our global status as world citizens when she writes:

“We should recognize humanity wherever it occurs, and give its fundamental ingredients, reason and moral capacity , our first allegiance and respect.” (Nussbaum (1996) in Cohen, p. 740)

It is submitted that advocating  a form of patriotism and nationalism that privileges itself by excluding the global community and its citizens from the respect they deserve as fellow human beings—

violates the very moral ideals of justice and equality that Nation States claim to uphold. 

Such sentiments seem to reflect Nussbaum writings when she  quotes the words of the cosmopolitan Hindu landlord, Nikhil, in Rabindranath Tagore’s novel “the Home and the World”:

“I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country.””To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it”.

Nussbaum asserts:

” I believe that Tagore sees deeply when he observes that, at bottom, nationalism and ethnocentric particularism are not alien to one another, but akin–
that to give support to nationalist sentiments subverts, ultimately even the values that hold a nation together, because it substitutes a colorful idol for the substantive universal values of justice and right.” (Nussbaum (1996) in Cohen p.739) 


Challenges to the Cosmopolitan paradigm

The cosmopolitan attempt to invoke universal standards of morality is further challenged by John Rawls’ theory of Justice and his work ‘Political Liberalism’ which alludes to the need  for a plurality of ‘reasonable comprehensive doctrines’ , arguing that:

justice as a political rather than as a metaphysical concept ‘must be based on principles that are capable of being the object of an overlapping consensus’. ( Brown p.8).

Thus, the particular religious, moral or cultural  beliefs of a social group could not be used to challenge,  for instance, a stance on seemingly discriminatory or coercive immigration policies, —

since they ‘must employ only those arguments to which believers in other reasonable comprehensive doctrines can reasonably be expected to respond.’ ( Brown, p.8).

It is submitted that such a prerequisite for the creation of ‘just society’  as argued by Rawls appears restrictive in failing to take into account the ambiguity surrounding the conception of ‘public reason’,  and the lack of consensus among philosophers on whether such a term is an adequate criterion for legitimizing political action.

The idea of ‘public reason’ as applied to a set of moral or political rules, assert that:

‘the rules in question are not legitimate, or lack normative authority, unless the rules in question can be justified, or are reasonably acceptable, to all those to whom the rules apply.’

Scholars such as Raz, however, argue such a conception of ‘public reason’ is self- defeating since ‘the idea itself cannot be justified to all those to whom the idea applies’. (Quong 2018)



Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. The Globalisation of World Politics, 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Beitz, Charles R. “Cosmopolitan Ideals and National Sentiment.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 80, no. 10, 1983, pp. 591–600

Brown, Chris. “The Construction of a ‘Realistic Utopia’: John Rawls and International Political Theory.” Review of International Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2002, pp. 5–21

Bull, H., ‘The Grotian Conception of International Society’, in Butterfield, H. and Wight, M. (eds.), Diplomatic Investigations (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), pp. 5173.

‘Carols at Tornillo: protesters sing for children held in Trump’s tent city’, The Guardian, 24 December 2018. Online:

COHEN, M. (2018). Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts from Plato to Populism. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

“Saving lives at sea”, Human Rights Watch, 2017. Online:

Linklater, A. (1990), Men and Citizens in the Theory of International Relations, 2nd edn (london: Macmillan).

‘Timeline shows final hours of second Guatemalan child to die in US custody’, The Guardian, 26 December 2018. Online:

Quong, Jonathan, “Public Reason”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta

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