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Global Civil Society and International Morality

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The politics of identity, particularly in its nationalist form, provokes a cosmopolitan reaction. Nationalists hold that we have special obligations to our compatriots in view of our shared national identity. Cosmopolitans, by contrast, deny this, holding instead that we have the same ethical obligations to everyone in the first instance, with the possible exception of family and friends. But, more especially, we have no ethical obligations deriving directly from our membership of national or similar identity groups; none, that is, from the positions we are in corresponding to our actual or desired political memberships. We may, of course, have political obligations and they may thus give rise indirectly to special ethical obligations. But this is, broadly speaking, the result of political arrangements justified by administrative convenience, and, perhaps, psychological constraints. Such special obligations to compatriots are not fundamental and thus cannot themselves ground political groupings, which would, ideally, be genuinely cosmopolitan. Nor, on the cosmopolitan view, can such special obligations be allowed to obscure the fact that our fundamental ethical outlook should be that of a citizen of the world “in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun,” as the Stoic philosopher Seneca put it. (Dower, 2003:22)

This view is commonly backed up by a claim seemingly not available to the ancient Stoics, namely that we now live in a global civil society, if only in an emergent form. This claim is, I think, intended to support cosmopolitanism in at least three ways. The first is psychological: we are able to think of ourselves as citizens of the world rather than only of smaller units, and thus to embrace wider obligations, in view of our sense of being members of a worldwide society. The Greeks and Romans, for example, with their knowledge of, but lack of contact with, societies beyond their own were not in this position, leaving the Stoic aspiration to world citizenship purely notional. The second plank of the argument is normative: on the assumption that the special obligations supposed to derive from national identity are generated by certain sorts of relationship in which we stand to our compatriots, it is held that relationships in no way ethically different subsist between members of global civil society, so that the same sort of obligations exist among them too. Our fundamental identity, insofar as identity is ethically relevant, is a global identity. The third plank is political: whatever grounds there are for basing the political arrangement of statehood on its correspondence to a civil society carry over in principle to global governance and, at the least, to the sort of political equality among people generally that exist among members of an equitable state; for this sort of claim to shared governance and political equality will derive from their shared membership of a global civil society.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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