Individuals are defined by diversity in terms of race, faith, culture, language, and even food habits. However, such physical spaces defining people are slowly fading.
Each citizen of the world is now woven into the same fabric that stretches beyond traditional nation-state boundaries and ideological blocs. And this makes understanding cosmopolitan ethics important, especially in this era of globalisation, to provide a moral framework for guiding human interactions and achieve global justice.
Cosmopolitan ethics by nature is human-centric. The ideological belief of cosmopolitanism is that all human beings are citizens in a single community, and they share a particular morality. According to Kwame Anthony Appiah, a modern philosopher, individuals -- despite their origin and differing beliefs -- can bond based on mutual respect to form a cosmopolitan community.
The moral theory of cosmopolitanism holds two sets of ethical obligations for all of humanity -- positive and negative ethical duties. The positive ethical duty calls everyone to assist the people in need, while the negative ones require one not to harm or benefit from the suffering of other human beings.
A modern phenomenon?
Many assume cosmopolitanism to be a modern phenomenon.
However, its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece. Over the years, the idea of cosmopolitanism has manifested into several forms such as economic cosmopolitanism, political cosmopolitanism, and moral cosmopolitanism.
Even many notable poets of the Indian sub-continent projected cosmopolitan thoughts in their work.
They elegantly illustrated agrestic and cosmopolitan rural life through their rich verbiage. Through their literary work, the poets envisioned a village life where people of different identities and religions lived in harmony.
Unfortunately, the nostalgic writings of poets romanticised a far-fetched utopia. In reality, there rarely was any justice as the agrarian lifestyle often harboured violence, prejudice, and injustice.
As a matter of fact, the rural communities failed to give basic rights to its women. Not so long ago, the village ordeals required a Hindu woman to voluntarily commit suicide or immolate herself on her husband’s pyre in order to achieve eternal peace.
Even modern India is segregated by the caste system. The social structure denies the lower castes basic human rights.
This is no different than the indulgence of countries of the past in the slave trade.
A little history
Sugar was a profitable commodity, but growing the sugar-cane meant working long hours in malaria-infested fields. People were reluctant to work in such deplorable conditions, so the plantation owners switched to slaves.
In short, the owners considered slaves less human.
History shows that global unity has been temporary. The cloth on which the world citizens are stitched together unravels every now and then
Following the Great War, the Weimar government favoured eugenic policies which were later adopted, along with racial segregation policy, by the Nazis. In the name of eugenics, the Nazis forcefully sterilised hereditary ill and euthanised 200,000 mentally and physically disabled Germans.
The racial segregation was in place to subdue and persecute non-Aryans, starting with the Jews, who were considered to be inferior and impure.
Similarly, the Bengal Famine, in 1943, had taken the lives of 3 million Bengal subjects of the British Raj because Sir Winston Churchill had ordered stockpiling of foods away from the starving people of the Bengal. Churchill did not consider the Bengalis to be part of the world citizen.
Many more such horrifying portraits of world leaders, communities, countries, and empires stand out on the canvas of history.
The world today
Currently, the storm of nationalism is brewing and gradually dividing the world into “them” and “us.” The changing global order has led to structural exclusion of the Syrians and Rohingya, creating an endemic refugee crisis.
In the West, people are blaming the minorities, immigrants, and the intellectuals for their economic convulsions. Such cynicism have led to economic and political unrest in Europe and Britain. After 40 years of being tied in economic matrimony with the European Union, Britain filed for a bitter divorce.
However, after every period of global dissension, the world citizens always come to realise that imaginary lines had separated them for too long. They become cognisant of their moral obligations to the rest of humanity.
And by understanding the moral obligations and mutual fate, the world has periodically shown unity for the betterment of humanity.
In the last 50 years, the world community has created global institutions and formed agreements as part of their cosmopolitan project.
After the devastating World War II, the United Nations was formed so that countries can support each other in the quest for international peace and security, economic development and, most importantly, to cultivate universal human rights.
Consequently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted to ensure basic rights to humans, while the International Criminal Tribunal was instituted to make states more accountable for their crimes against humanity.
Furthermore, in the name of humanity, international relief efforts like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were formed and NGOs were established to protect and serve the vulnerable people regardless of their nationality.
The world leaders have also forged global agreements to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty every five years to avoid nuclear war.
In addition, consciousness against global risks such as climate change have been formed by the world community. This led to the adoption of the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. More importantly, they vowed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for global development while committing to leave no-one behind.
As mentioned before, history shows that global unity has been temporary. The cloth on which the world citizens are stitched together unravels every now and then. Nevertheless, narratives of the past show that the cosmopolites would also pick up the thread to fulfil their civic duties.
John Lennon had asked us to imagine a world where there are no countries. Sadly, we can only form mental images of Lennon’s conception since nation-states, borders, and cultures are part of our reality.
However, history tells us that we can achieve mutual peace by realising our moral obligations towards humanity.
Md Kamruzzaman Aman works as Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).