Cosmopolitan Moralism and Human Rights

Sometimes I have the impression that all intellectuals have become cosmopolitans. But there is an increasing gap between what intellectuals think and preach and what the ordinary people feel. There is a growing divergence between the demos and the elites, especially concerning the perception and the treatment that should be reserved to the “diverse”: immigrants, minorities, gays and so on are more and more perceived as a threat. When xenophobia is rising, the intellectuals have a responsibility to help to distinguish between the real and apparent reasons, even at the price to become isolated from great parts of the population.

– Daniele Archibugi

In this post I want to both feature and expand upon an upcoming special issue (Volume 12, Issue 1) of Human Rights Review, which I  guest edited with my colleague and friend Marta Iñiguez de Heredia. The special issue focuses on human rights as an ideal and practical politics, opening some initial space to consider why the interaction between moral ideals and practical politics is important, and provoking discussion of how the clear divide between them is unsustainable.

To set the stage, we find Daniele Archibugi and Seyla Benhabib discussing Cosmopolitanism at Open Democracy. For both authors the place of universal rights in cosmopolitan politics is central, but the moral principle expressed through universal human rights works in a very particular way. This approach to human rights prioritizes what, in the paper, we call the “philosopher’s” understanding of rights, which begins from rational moral principles already known before political action is taken.

In the above quote, Archibugi sees cosmopolitan standards as obvious and necessary, the challenge is to bring that knowledge to the masses and to save the weak from injustice. He continues:

The principal risk is that it [cosmopolitanism] is used to impose the vision of society of the elites of the West to other parts of the world. Since today the West is the most powerful not only economically, not only socially, not only culturally, but also militarily, I am worried that some misunderstood cosmopolitan principles might be used to impose the will of the West with force rather than with persuasion.

What’s striking is that despite recognizing that cosmopolitan principles (through human rights interventions in particular) are an ambiguous expression of power, he makes no link between how his understanding of the moral principles and potentially unjust uses of power that intended to defend them. It’s not that Western standards shouldn’t be imposed upon others, it’s that they should only be imposed by persuasion.

Where does this will to impose come from? Cosmopolitan moralism starts from a universal imperative, therefore there is no unjust imposition in enforcing universal principles. The practical failure of any particular human rights intervention can have no bearing on the rightness of the principles themselves. Yet, those principles still demand practical application in the political world. As Benhabib makes clear:

So I would say that for me cosmopolitanism really begins where Kant rightly put it: in terms of trans-borders right claims, which can be protected by a global civil community for all human beings.

Human rights are the political vernacular of cosmopolitan moralism because they easily translate the imperative of universal moral respect into a global political program that gives status to every individual as citizens of a single universal community.

The philosopher of cosmopolitan moralism knows the universal principles that should guide political life, they need only be applied. Speaking of irregular migrants, Benhabib links the concern for universal humanity to the sense of mission that infuses cosmopolitan thinking.

So, the identity card gives them a civil status. They are part of civil society. They do not have political membership, but they are part of civil society and they even exercise political rights. I am very enthusiastic about this movement which falls under the notion of “disaggregation of rights”. I think it is a way of civil society communities to protect migrants, protect undocumented workers, because you stand up for them, you give them papers, you protect them. [emphasis added]

In our contribution to the special issue we analyze the way cosmopolitan moralism frames the relationship between theory and practices (also available in an earlier form sans pay-wall, here). We’ve done this through looking to stylized renderings of “Philosophers” and “Activists” who fulfill different roles in the cosmopolitan moralist’s human rights project. Where the task of philosophers is to divine the certain moral principles that guide the universal rights project, the activist is the figure through which the moralised politics of that project is played out. The activist becomes a special kind of actor, dedicated to a moral cause, saving the powerless from evil – the activist, like the philosopher, has nothing to learn from his political actions that is not strategic. The moral ends of the rights project are already known.

Cosmopolitans are likely to push back against this argument. In part we presented the distinction to elicit just such a reaction, but despite the responses that cosmopolitans may offer, it remains a challenging provocation. Benhabib, for example, defends an account of human rights based on democratic iterations, in which the institutionalization and full-content of rights are worked out by democratic communities, not simply given by universal standards. This is an important and thought provoking accommodation on Benhabib’s part, but it still quite limited. The common people of the world, operating under legitimised democratic conditions, are given space to determine the accent of their human rights standards, but not to determine the terms of the cosmopolitan rights project itself – at that point it is the philosopher’s voice that prevails.

Without wanting to repeat the argument of the paper here,  we try to reconstruct our understanding of the ideal and practical modes of human rights politics. We do this via a third stylized figure of the “radical.” The key features of this position are (1) that rights ideals are understood not only as ideals but concrete ends developed out of and pursued through political struggle; (2) that the terms of the human rights project are not always already known, see my earlier post; and (3) that both “philosophers” and “activists,” in their conception of human rights as moralised politics, are prone to silencing the voices of people engaged in human rights politics – especially those making more challenging demands. In the paper we look at MST and the Zapatistas as democratic social movements articulating their own conception of fundamental rights.

Opposing the cosmopolitan moralist’s political framing is vital to developing a more fully democratic politics of human rights. Doing so, however, requires a reconstruction of human rights politics in its ideal and practical modes – which is more fully addressed in the paper. The key features of this reconstruction are that human rights are political claims about the meaning of humanity and the basis of legitimate political authority – this is in addition to the role as normative claims specifying the ideals of the good human life lived in community.

In her commentary for the special issue, Kirsten Ainley suggests that “the practices of theorising about human rights and ‘doing’ human rights, while they may at times be undertaken by the same agents, have different logics and incommensurable goals.” (Draft version available here) While I would agree that this is true of conventional accounts of human rights as these accounts are premised on a separation of the moral and political, in which they are defined as incompatible, this is not necessarily the case. While Ainley is correct that breaking down the clear barriers between different human rights practitioners (between philosophers and activists) and focusing on the contestation of human rights politics complicates our analysis, but this criticism raises the question of why we ever thought it would be simple or neat.

If one gives up on absolute and objective moral standards (known through reason rather than experience) and accepts that moral principles are part of the contingent world of practical politics, a corresponding change is required in how we understand practical action – we must see that it is oriented towards ends and directed by our values. Drawing on the ethical theory of John Dewey, theorizing human rights and doing human rights can be brought together. Our principled ends are only realized and their worth only confirmed through action, we do not always already know that the human rights program is actually valuable. Our practical activity, however, withers into mere behavior, a crude instrumentalism, if it is kept apart from moral reflection, which is necessary to raise practical activity to reflective moral conduct.

Our depreciatory attitude toward “practice” would be modified if we habitually thought of it in its most liberal sense, and if we surrendered our customary dualism between two separate kinds of value, one intrinsically higher and one inherently lower. We should regard practice as the only means (other than accident) by which whatever is judged to be honorable, admirable, approvable can be kept in concrete experienceable existence. In this connection the entire import of “morals” would be transformed. How much of the tendency to ignore permanent objective consequences in differences made in natural and social relations; and how much of the emphasis upon personal and internal motives and dispositions irrespective of what they objectively produce and sustain are products of the habitual depreciation of the worth of action in comparison with forms of mental processes, of thought and sentiment, which make no objective difference in things themselves?

– John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty

This reconstruction of human rights does highlight the always political content of those rights, and Ainley lays out an important challenge to anyone who would try to approach human rights in this way, asking, where is the “call to action”? There is a problem with this question if it is motivated by a sense that our account of human rights has more political content, which must be expressed in “real-world” political commitments, than cosmopolitan moralism do – as this takes the “philosopher’s” and “activist’s” disavowal of their politics at face value, rather than demanding that they too make their partisanship explicit.

But here is the key point of critique, this confession of partisanship is impossible for cosmopolitan moralist – as we see in Archibugi’s contortions to provide a moral and rational but not political form of imposition and Benhabib’s unarticulated framework of human rights as a practice of salvation. My own partisanship is radically democratic, it is with the everyday people that fight to exert control over their own lives and express their own values. Yet, this commitment and the political project it entails is not something that is always and already known, it is contingent and subject to ongoing reconstruction, especially when we express solidarity with those who we do not directly interact with.


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