Rules and reasons are not enough for an ethics without God
It’s not just me, you and everyone we know. Citizens of the world have moral obligations to a wider circle of humanity
Who should we care about: queuing for food in Haiti. Photo by William Daniels/Panos
Nigel Warburton is a former lecturer in philosophy. He founded the Humanist Philosophers Group and presents the Philosophy Bites podcast series. His latest book is A Little History of Philosophy (2011).
Near the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus opens the flyleaf of his geography textbook and examines what he has written there:
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Most of us will, no doubt, remember writing a similar extended address as children, following through the logic of this series of ever-larger locations. The last two entries in Dedalus’s list are, obviously, redundant in any real address. Only an alien sending a postcard home from another universe would think to add them. We are all, in some loose sense, ‘citizens of the world’, or at least its inhabitants.
And yet, as adults, we don’t usually think about much outside our immediate surroundings. Typically, it is our nation that defines us geographically, and it is our family, friends, and acquaintances who dominate our social thinking. If we think about the universe, it is from an astronomical or from a religious perspective. We are locally focused, evolved from social apes who went about in small bands. The further away or less visible other people are, the harder it is to worry about them. Even when the television brings news of thousands starving in sub-Saharan Africa, what affects me deeply is the item about a single act of violence in a street nearby.
Life is bearable in part because we can so easily resist imagining the extent of suffering across the globe. And if we do think about it, for most of us that thinking is dispassionate and removed. That is how we as a species live. Perhaps it’s why the collective noun for a group of apes is a ‘shrewdness’.
Yet there is a tradition that stretches back to the fourth century BCE that encourages us to see ourselves not as citizens of a state or nation, but of the world. It began with the eccentric philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (today’s Sinop is in modern Turkey). Sometimes known as Diogenes the Cynic, he should not be confused with his namesake, Diogenes Laertius, whose account of the life of Diogenes the Cynic is the fullest that has survived. Our Diogenes famously renounced all worldly wealth, begged for his food and slept in a kind of empty storage jar that he would roll from place to place. Known as ‘the dog’ (the Greek word gave us the name ‘Cynic’), he defecated at the theatre, masturbated in public, and cocked his leg to urinate on some youths who teased him by barking and throwing bones to him. Diogenes was certainly a philosopher, albeit a quirky one, and he was respected as such. But today we would probably see him as a cross between a satirical comedian and a homeless performance artist.
Diogenes believed in expressing his philosophy through creative actions. He told people what he thought, but he also showed them. When Plato was teaching a class of eager students that man was ‘a featherless biped’, Diogenes turned up brandishing a plucked chicken and shouting ‘Look, I’ve brought you a man!’ Plato called him a ‘mad Socrates’. He used to wander the Athenian marketplace in full daylight, carrying a lit lantern and claiming to be looking for an honest man — which, of course, he would never find. Alexander the Great visited him at home in his storage jar and asked whether there was anything he’d like. Diogenes replied to the most powerful person on the planet: ‘Yes, please move, you’re blocking my sunlight.’ Unfazed, Alexander said that if he wasn’t Alexander, he’d have liked to be Diogenes. Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, and if I wasn’t Diogenes, I’d like to be Diogenes too.’
It’s wishful thinking to imagine that transition to a world government could be achieved without triggering terrorism and war in the process
He might have been the first Cynic, but Diogenes’ cynicism was not a flood of relentless negativity and bile: unlike modern cynics, he had a profoundly idealistic streak. When asked where he was from, Diogenes said ‘I’m a citizen of the world.’ The word he used was kosmopolites, from which our ‘cosmopolitan’ derives, so strictly speaking he was expressing allegiance with the cosmos; but the term is usually translated as ‘citizen of the world’. This would have sounded heretical to an Ancient Greek: strong allegiance to your city-state was meant to be the source of your identity, security, and self-respect.
But Diogenes wasn’t simply trying to scorn orthodoxy and shock those around him. His declaration was a signal that he took nature — the cosmos — as his guide to life, rather than the parochial and often arbitrary laws of a particular city-state. The cosmos had its own laws. Rather than being in thrall to local custom and kowtowing to those of high status, Diogenes was responsible to humanity as a whole. His loyalty was to human reason, unpolluted by petty concerns with wealth and power. And reason, as Socrates well knew, unsettled the status quo.
It might be tempting to see this kind of thinking as simply a quaint notion from the museum of the history of ideas — a utopian fantasy. On the contrary, I suggest that it has a special relevance for us in the 21st century.
Cynicism evolved into Stoicism, and aspects of Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism found eloquent and refined Roman defenders in Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. But it was Hierocles in the second century who provided the most useful way of understanding the basic concept. He described a set of concentric circles. The individual self was at the centre, then came the immediate family, then the extended family, neighbours, nearby towns, your nation, and eventually, on the outer ring, the entire human race. The task before us, Hierocles believed, was to draw these circles ever more tightly towards the centre. We were to move from a state of near-indifference to humanity as a whole, to a state where humankind was a major part of our daily concern.
This target-like image vividly captures the problem for anyone attracted to cosmopolitanism. How can we see ourselves as citizens of the world when we seem so naturally drawn to the centre of Hierocles’ model? Indeed, why would we even want to, since it seems to be going so much against our natural inclinations?
Some religions have encouraged us to think this way for millennia, saying that it is God’s will that we recognise a common maker and a common humanity. Christianity isn’t alone in affirming the equality of individuals and the need to love everyone as you do yourself. Nonetheless, believers see themselves as subjects of God at least as much as citizens of the world and that is not what I understand by cosmopolitanism.
Nor do I believe that we can only truly be cosmopolitans by having some form of world government with nations as federal states rather than independent entities, and that we should bring this about as soon as possible to avoid the catastrophes of war, environmental destruction and poverty. Few cosmopolitans seriously advocate this as the best way of achieving lasting peace. It is hard enough to keep a connected Europe from self-destruction, and it’s wishful thinking to imagine that transition to a world government could be achieved without triggering terrorism and war in the process. Besides, even if world government were practically achievable, it is not something that many people would like to see realised, given the corrupting effects of power.
What hope then for cosmopolitanism? Great hope, in my view. Not as a manifesto for world government, or a religious-based movement, but as a philosophical stance that transforms our outlook, a starting point for thinking about our place in the world.
If a child was burning to death in the museum, who would save the painting first?
It is a cliché to say that the internet has transformed the nature and speed of our links with people around the world, but it is true. I no longer need to rely on national news reporting to learn about what is happening around the globe: I can discover citizen journalists Tweeting, blogging, or uploading their stories to YouTube, and I can get access to Al Jazeera or Fox News as readily as I can to the BBC. This connection is not merely passive, delivered by journalists who alone have access to the people in far-off lands. I can, through comments on blogs, email, Facebook, and Twitter, interact with the people about whom the news is being written. I might even be able to Skype them. I can express opinions without having them filtered by the media. And it isn’t only facts and angles on the news that we can share. We are connected by trade and outsourcing in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago. Our fellow workers and collaborators might just as easily live in India as in London.
In Republic.com (2001), the American legal scholar Cass Sunstein expressed the fear that the internet would make us more entrenched in our own prejudices, because of our ability to filter the information that we receive from it. We would find our own niches and create a kind of firewall to the rest of the world, allowing only selected angles and information: the ‘Daily Me’, as he put it. Racists would filter out anti-racist views, liberals wouldn’t need to read conservatives and gun freaks could have their stance on the world confirmed. That risk might still exist for some. Yet even within conventional media, new voices are being heard, their videos and Tweets providing first-person, human stories with an immediacy that no second-hand report could achieve. And this is happening on a scale that is breathtaking.
One source of evil in the world is people’s inability to ‘decentre’ — to imagine what it would be like to be different, under attack from killer drones, or tortured, or beaten by state-controlled thugs at a protest rally. The internet has provided a window on our common humanity; indeed, it allows us to see more than many of us are comfortable to take in. Nevertheless, in principle, it gives us a greater connection with a wider range of people around the world than ever before. We can’t claim ignorance if we have wi-fi. It remains to be seen whether this connection will lead to greater polarisation of viewpoints, or a new sense of what we have in common.
In recent years, two Princeton-based philosophers, Peter Singer and Kwame Anthony Appiah, have presented competing views of our human connectedness. For Singer, it is obvious that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad, no matter who endures them or where they are located. If we could prevent such things occurring, he maintains, most of us would. Singer does not couch his arguments in terms of cosmopolitanism, but he does want to minimise suffering on a world scale. His utilitarian tradition gives equal weight to all those who are in need, without privileging those who happen to be most like us.
Singer makes his case forcefully through a thought experiment designed to show that most of us share his assumptions. Imagine, he asks, that you are walking past a pond and hear a young child in trouble, drowning. You are wearing expensive shoes. Even so, you wouldn’t hesitate to jump into the pond and rescue the child, no matter what it did to your shoes in the process. Why, then, he asks in his book The Life You Can Save (2009), don’t you make a small sacrifice to your lifestyle and donate at least five per cent of your income to aid agencies? That alone would save numerous children from suffering and even death from curable disease and malnutrition.
There are now an estimated 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty — almost a quarter of the world’s population. If we see ourselves as citizens of the world, with responsibilities and concerns for suffering wherever we find it, surely we should follow Singer’s line. We should do everything we can to help others rise above a threshold that will make life tolerable for them, even if this involves some sacrifice on our part: fewer exotic holidays; no expensive laptops, designer watches or diamond rings. Singer takes this point further, arguing that a rich philanthropist who donates millions of dollars to a museum to save a 13th-century painting by Duccio should really have spent that money saving children: if a child was burning to death in the museum, who would save the painting first? Yet for the price of a Duccio, one could save a whole football stadium of children.
We only have an obligation to pay what is fair for us – we needn’t feel bad if we fail to go beyond this
There are numerous potential replies to this, most of which Singer pre-empts. One of the more challenging, however, comes from Appiah. A cosmopolitan figure himself (he combines British and Ghanaian parentage with US citizenship), Appiah is an eloquent defender of a notion of cosmopolitanism as universalism plus difference. He insists that all humans share a common biology and overlapping needs and desires. At the same time, he argues in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), we can celebrate our diversity: cosmopolitanism does not entail homogeneity. Far from it. His ideal requires us to balance a recognition of our common humanity, and the moral obligations that follow from that, with our sense of where we have come from, where we belong.
Appiah is sympathetic to the view that we have significant obligations to our fellow human beings wherever they are. He agrees that we should see ourselves as connected, our lives inextricably intertwined. Even so, he argues, Singer goes too far. For Appiah, the affluent have a duty to pay their fair share to alleviate extreme poverty around the world. But that needn’t entail giving until you yourself become relatively poor. His point is that we only have an obligation to pay what is fair for us, and that we needn’t feel bad if we fail to go beyond this. We in the West don’t have to follow Diogenes’ example of giving everything away and sleeping rough: ‘If so many people in the world are not doing their share — and they clearly are not — it seems to me I cannot be required to derail my life to take up the slack.’
Singer has responded to this with a variation on his pond thought experiment. What would you do if there were 10 children in the pond and 10 adults, including yourself, nearby? If only you and four others jumped in while the other five adults strolled on, you wouldn’t just save your ‘fair share’ of one child and let the others drown, and no one would excuse you if you did that. Singer is convinced that our obligation to others goes far beyond our sense of a fair share of the solution.
Is this a sticking point for cosmopolitanism? If you want to see yourself as a citizen of the world, as I think you should, does that mean you have to give up most of your worldly goods, forego opera, fine wine, live football, or any other expensive indulgences? Even if Singer is right about our moral obligations, there is a danger that the sacrifices he demands will just make the whole view unattractive. Who is ready to follow him even as far as donating five per cent of their annual income? This is a genuine philosophical problem about how to live. It is a serious challenge to complacency and indifference. And there are many ways of avoiding the problem, including embracing inconsistency — the ‘living high and letting die’ option.
However, there is another, more acceptable solution — to recognise the power of Singer’s arguments, and even his conclusions, without choosing the life of a latter-day Diogenes. We can each give at least our fair share, even if it isn’t really such a consistent approach to world citizenship. We can recognise that our fair share is insufficient, that most of us fall short of ideal morality in many ways. That shouldn’t stop us moving in the direction that Hierocles recommended. The more we can haul in that outer circle of humanity, the better for all.
Published on 4 March 2013