Strumenti personali
Tu sei qui: Portale Articoli, libri e interviste - Articles, books and interviews Cultural Diversity, Cosmopolitan Principles and the Limits of Sovereignty

Cultural Diversity, Cosmopolitan Principles and the Limits of Sovereignty

David Held - 24 giugno 2008 Thinking about the future of humankind on the basis of the early years of the 21st Century does not give grounds for optimism. From 9/11 to the 2006 war in the Middle East, terrorism, conflict, territorial struggle and the clash of identities appear to define the moment [...]


David Held

Thinking about the future of humankind on the basis of the early years of the 21st Century does not give grounds for optimism. From 9/11 to the 2006 war in the Middle East, terrorism, conflict, territorial struggle and the clash of identities appear to define the moment. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/Lebanon and elsewhere suggest that political violence is an irreducible feature of our age. Perversely, globalization seems to have dramatized the significance of differences between peoples; far from the globalization of communications easing understanding and the translation of ideas, it seems to have highlighted what it is that people do not have in common and find dislikeable about each other. Moreover, the contemporary drivers of political nationalism – self- determination, secure borders, geo-political and geo-economic advantage – place an emphasis on the pursuit of the national interest above concerns with what it is that humans might have in common.        

Yet, it is easy to overstate the moment and exaggerate from one set of historical experiences. While each of the elements mentioned poses a challenge to a rule based global order, it is a profound mistake to forget that the 20th century established a series of cosmopolitan steps toward the delimitation of the nature and form of political community, sovereignty and “reasons of state”. These steps were laid down after the first and second world wars which brought humanity to the edge of the abyss - not once but twice. At a time as difficult as the start of the 21st century, it is important to recall why these steps were built and remind oneself of their significance.   

From the foundation of UN system to the EU, from changes to the laws of war to the entrenchment of human rights, from the emergence of international environmental regimes to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, people have sought to reframe human activity and embed it in law, rights and responsibilities. Many of these developments were initiated against the background of formidable threats to humankind - above all, Nazism, fascism, and Stalinism. Those involved in them affirmed the importance of universal principles, human rights, and the rule of law in the face of strong temptations to simply put up the shutters and defend the position of only some countries and nations. They rejected the view of national and moral particularists that belonging to a given community limits and determines the moral worth of individuals and the nature of their freedom, and they defended the irreducible moral status of each and every person. At the centre of such thinking is the cosmopolitan view that human well-being is not defined by geographical or cultural locations, that national or ethnic or gendered boundaries should not determine the limits of rights or responsibilities for the satisfaction of basic human needs, and that all human beings require equal moral respect and concern. The principles of equal respect, equal concern, and the priority of the vital needs of all human beings are not principles for some remote utopia; for they are at the centre of significant post-Second World War legal and political developments.

What does 'cosmopolitan' mean in this context?[1] In the first instance, cosmopolitanism refers to those basic values which set down standards or boundaries which no agent, whether a representative of a global body, state or civil association, should be able to violate. Focused on the claims of each person as an individual, these values espouse the idea that human beings are in a fundamental sense equal, and that they deserve equal political treatment; that is, treatment based upon the equal care and consideration of their agency, irrespective of the community in which they were born or brought up. After over two hundred years of nationalism, sustained nation-state formation and seemingly endless conflicts over territory and resources, such values could be thought of as out of place. But such values are already enshrined in the law of war, human rights law, the statute of the ICC, among many other international rules and legal arrangements.

            Second, cosmopolitanism can be taken to refer to those forms of political regulation and law-making which create powers, rights and constraints which go beyond the claims of nation-states and which have far-reaching consequences, in principle, for the nature and form of political power. These regulatory forms can be found in the domain between national and international law and regulation - the space between domestic law which regulates the relations between a state and its citizens, and traditional international law which applies primarily to states and interstate relations. This space is already filled by a host of legal regulation, from the legal instruments of the EU, and the international human rights regime as a global framework for promoting rights, to the diverse agreements of the arms control system and environmental regimes. Cosmopolitanism is not made up of political ideals for another age, but embedded in rule systems and institutions which have already altered state sovereignty in distinct ways.

            Yet, the precise sense in which these developments constitute a form of 'cosmopolitanism' remains to be clarified, especially given that the ideas of cosmopolitanism have a long and complex history. For my purposes here, cosmopolitanism can be taken as the moral and political outlook which builds upon the strengths of the post 1945 multilateral order, particularly its commitment to universal standards, human rights and democratic values, and which seeks to specify general principles upon which all could act. These are principles which can be universally shared, and can form the basis for the protection and nurturing of each person's equal interest in the determination of the forces and institutions which govern their lives.

            Cosmopolitan values can be expressed formally, and in the interests of brevity, in terms of a set of principles[2]. Eight principles are paramount. They are the principles of: 1. equal worth and dignity; 2. active agency; 3. personal responsibility and accountability; 4. consent; 5. collective decision-making about public matters through voting procedures; 6. inclusiveness and subsidiarity; 7. avoidance of serious harm; and 8. sustainability. While eight principles may seem like a daunting number, they are interrelated and together form the basis of a compelling political orientation – an orientation which helps illuminate what it is that humankind has in common.

            The eight principles can best be thought of as falling into three clusters. The first cluster (principles 1-3) set down the fundamental organizational features of the cosmopolitan moral universe. Its crux is that each person is subject of equal moral concern; that each person is capable of acting autonomously with respect to the range of choices before them; and that, in deciding how to act or which institutions to create, the claims of each person affected should be taken equally into account. Personal responsibility means in this context that actors and agents have to be aware of, and accountable for, the consequences of their actions, direct or indirect, intended or unintended, which may substantially restrict and delimit the choices of others. The second cluster (principles 4-6) form the basis of translating individually initiated activity, or privately determined activities more broadly, into collectively agreed or collectively sanctioned frameworks of action or regulatory regimes. Public power can be conceived as legitimate to the degree to which principles 4, 5 and 6 are upheld. The final principles (7 and 8) lay down a framework for prioritizing urgent need and resource conservation. By distinguishing vital from non-vital needs, principle 7 creates an unambiguous starting point and guiding orientation for public decisions. While this 'prioritizing commitment' does not, of course, create a decision procedure to resolve all clashes of priority in politics, it clearly creates a moral framework for focusing public policy on those who are most vulnerable. By contrast, principle 8 seeks to set down a prudential orientation to help ensure that public policy is consistent with global ecological balances and that it does not destroy irreplaceable and non-substitutable resources.

It could be objected at this point that, given the plurality of interpretive standpoints in the contemporary world (social, cultural, religious and so on), it is unwise to construct a political outlook which depends upon overarching principles. For it is doubtful, the objection could continue, that a bridge can be built between ‘the many particular wills’ and ‘the general will’.[3] In a world marked by a diversity of value orientations, on what grounds, if any, can we suppose that all groups or parties could be argumentatively convinced about fundamentally ethical and political principles?

            It is important to stress that cosmopolitanism does not deny the reality and ethical relevance of living in a world of diverse values and identities - how could it? It does not assume that unanimity is attainable on all practical-political questions. The elaboration of cosmopolitan principles is not an exercise in seeking a general and universal understanding on a wide spectrum of issues concerning the broad conditions of life or diverse ethical matters (for example, abortion, the conditions for genetic research and public goods provision). This is not how a modern cosmopolitan project should be understood. Rather, at stake is a more restrictive exercise aimed at reflecting on the moral status of persons, the conditions of agency, and collective decision-making. It is important to emphasize that this exercise is constructed on the assumption that ground rules for communication, dialogue and dispute settlement are not only desirable but essential precisely because all people are of equal moral value and their views on a wide range of moral-political questions will conflict. The principles of cosmopolitanism are the conditions of taking cultural diversity seriously and of building a democratic culture to mediate clashes of the cultural good. They are, in short, about the conditions of just difference and democratic dialogue. The aim of modern cosmopolitanism is the conceptualization and generation of the necessary background conditions for a ‘common’ or ‘basic’ structure of individual action and social activity.[4]

            Contemporary cosmopolitans, it should be acknowledged, are divided about the demands that cosmopolitanism lays upon the individual and, accordingly, upon the appropriate framing of the necessary background conditions for a ‘common’ structure of individual action and social activity. Whether cosmopolitanism is an overriding frame of reference (trumping all other moral positions) – strong cosmopolitanism - or a distinctive subset of considerations (specifying that there are some substantive global rules, norms and principles of justice which ought to be balanced with, and take account of, those derived from individual societies or other human groupings) – weak cosmopolitanism - is not a question which will be focused on here.[5] However, some comment is in order if the rationale and standing of the eight principles are to be satisfactorily illuminated.

            I take cosmopolitanism ultimately to denote the ethical and political space occupied by the 8 principles. Cosmopolitanism lays down the universal or regulative principles which delimit and govern the range of diversity and difference that ought to be found in public life. It discloses the proper basis or framework for the pursuit of argument, discussion and negotiation about particular spheres of value, spheres in which local, national and regional affiliations will inevitably be weighed. In some respects, this is a form of strong cosmopolitanism. However, it should not be concluded from this that the meaning of the eight principles can simply be specified once and for all. For while cosmopolitanism affirms principles which are universal in their scope, it recognizes, in addition, that the precise meaning of these is always fleshed out in situated discussions; in other words, that there is an inescapable hermeneutic complexity in moral and political affairs which will affect how the 8 principles are actually interpreted, and the weight granted to special ties and other practical–political issues. This cosmopolitan point-of-view builds on principles that all could reasonably assent to, while recognizing the irreducible plurality of forms of life.[6] Thus, on the one hand, the position upholds certain basic egalitarian ideas – those which emphasize equal worth, equal respect, equal consideration and so on – and, on the other, it acknowledges that the elucidation of their meaning cannot be pursued independently of an ongoing dialogue in public life. Hence, there can be no adequate institutionalization of equal rights and duties without a corresponding institutionalization of national and transnational forms of public debate, democratic participation and accountability.[7] The institutionalization of regulative cosmopolitan principles requires the entrenchment of democratic public realms.

            A cosmopolitan perspective of this kind shares a particular commitment with thin cosmopolitanism in so far as it acknowledges a plurality of value sources and a diversity of moral conceptions of the good; it recognizes, accordingly, different spheres of ethical reasoning linked to everyday attempts to resolve matters concerning modes of living and social organization. As such, it seeks to express ethical neutrality with regard to many life questions. But ethical neutrality of this sort should not be confused with political neutrality and its core requirements.[8] The point has been succinctly stated by one commentator: ‘a commitment to ethical neutrality entails a particular type of political arrangement, one which, for one, allows for the pursuit of different private conceptions of the good’.[9] Only polities that acknowledge the equal status of all persons, that seek neutrality or impartiality with respect to personal ends, hopes and aspirations, and that pursue the public justification of social, economic and political arrangements can ensure a basic or common structure of political action which allows individuals to pursue their projects – both individual and collective – as free and equal agents. Such a structure is inconsistent with, and, if applied systematically, would need to filter out, those ends and goods, whether public or private, which would erode or undermine the structure itself. For value pluralism and social pluralism to flourish, political associations must be structured or organized in one general way – that is, according to the constituting, legitimizing and prioritizing principles specified above.  Arguments can be had about the exact specification of these; that is, about how these notions are properly formulated. But the eight principles themselves constitute guiding notions or regulative ideals for a polity geared to autonomy, dialogue and tolerance. 

These principles are not just western principles. Certain of their elements originated in the West; that is, in the struggle for a democratic culture and a distinctive conception of the person as a citizen who is, in principle, ‘free and equal’ in a manner comprehensible to everyone. But their validity extends much further. For these principles are the foundation of a fair, humane and decent society, of whatever religion or cultural tradition. To paraphrase the legal theorist Bruce Ackerman, there is no nation without a woman who yearns for equal rights, no society without a man who denies the need for deference, and no developing country without a person who does not wish for the minimum means of subsistence so that they may go about their everyday lives.[10] The principles are building blocks for articulating and entrenching the equal liberty of all human beings, wherever they were born or brought up. They are the basis of underwriting the autonomy of others, not of obliterating it. Their concern is with the irreducible moral status of each and every person - the acknowledgement of which links directly to the possibility of self-determination and the capacity to make independent choices.

            It has to be acknowledged that there is now a fundamental fissure in the Muslim world between those who want to uphold universal standards, including the standards of democracy and human rights, and reform their societies, dislodging the deep connection between religion, culture and politics, and those who are threatened by this and wish to retain and/or restore power on behalf of those who represent 'fundamentalist' ideals. The political, economic, and cultural challenges posed by the globalization of (for want of a better label) 'modernity' now face the counterforce of the globalization of radical Islam. This poses many important questions, but one in particular should be stressed; that is, how far and to what extent Islam - and, of course, parts of the resurgent fundamentalist West (for instance, the Christian right in the USA) - have the capacity to confront their own ideologies, double standards and limitations.

            It would be a mistake to think that this is simply an outsider's challenge to Islam. Islam, like the other great world religions, has incorporated a diverse body of thought and practice. In addition, it has contributed, and accommodated itself, to ideas of religious tolerance, secular political power and human rights. It is particularly in the contemporary period that radical Islamic movements have turned their back on these important historical developments and sought to deny Islam's contribution both to the Enlightenment and the formulation of universal ethical codes. There are many good reasons for doubting the often expressed Western belief that thoughts about justice and democracy have flourished only in the West.[11] Islam is not a unitary or explanatory category.[12] Hence, the call for cosmopolitan principles speaks to a vital strain within Islam that affirms the importance of autonomy, rights and justice.

            The cosmopolitan principles set out above lay down some of the universal or organizing principles which delimit and govern the range of diversity and difference that ought to be found in public life. And they disclose the proper framework for the pursuit of argument, discussion and negotiation about particular spheres of value, spheres in which local, national and regional affiliations will inevitably be weighed. These are principles for an era in which political communities and states matter, but not only and exclusively. In a world where the trajectories of each and every country are tightly entwined, the partiality, one-sidedness and limitedness of 'reasons of state' need to be recognized. States are hugely important vehicles to aid the delivery of effective public regulation, equal liberty and social justice, but they should not be thought of as ontologically privileged. They can be judged by how far they deliver these public goods and how far they fail; for the history of states is, of course, marked not just by phases of corruption and bad leadership but also by the most brutal episodes. 

            The same can be said about political agents and forces operating in civil society. They are by no means necessarily noble or wise, and their wisdom and nobility depend on recognising necessary limits on their action, limits which mark out the legitimate spaces for others to pursue their vital needs and interests. Actors in civil society, like states, need to be bound by a rule based order which articulates and entrenches the eight cosmopolitan principles. Only such an order can underwrite a political system which upholds the equal moral standing of all human beings, and their entitlement to equal liberty and to forms of governance founded on deliberation and consent. Here are the clues needed to build a politically robust and ethically sound conception of the proper basis of political community, and of the relations among communities in a global age. We need to build on the cosmopolitan steps of the 20th century and deepen the institutional hold of this agenda.   


[1] See D. Held, ‘Law of States, Law of Peoples’, Legal Theory, 8:1, 2002, pp. 1-44, from which I have adapted the following four paragraphs.

[2] Ibid., for an elaboration of these principles and the Appendix of D. Held, Global Covenant (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

[3] See T. McCarthy, Ideals and Illusions (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 181-99. 

[4] Cf. J. Rawls, ‘Justice as fairness: political not metaphysical’, Philosophy of Public Affairs, 14(3), 1985, pp. 254ff.

[5] Cf. B. Barry, ‘International Society from a Cosmopolitan Perspective’, in D. Mapel and T. Nardin (eds), International Society (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1998); and D. Miller ‘The Limits of Cosmopolitan Justice’, in Mapel and Nardin, ibid. 

[6] Cf. J. Tully, Strange Multiplicity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[7] See J. Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1996); and T. McCarthy, ‘On reconciling cosmopolitan unity and national diversity, Public Culture, II, 1999, pp. 175-208.

[8] See A. Kuper, ‘Rawlsian global justice’, Political Theory, 28, 2000, pp. 640-74, esp. p. 649f. 

[9] K. Tan, ‘Liberal toleration in the law of peoples’, Ethics, 108, 1998, pp. 276-95, pp. 276-95, esp. p.283.

[10] B. Ackerman, ‘Political Liberalism’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 91, 1994, pp. 382-3.

[11] See A. Sen, ‘Humanity and citizenship’, in J. Cohen (ed), For Love of Country (Boston: Beacon, 1996).

[12] See F. Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation  (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996).


This article was first published in D. Held - H. Moore (eds), Cultural Politics in a Global Age, OneWorld, 2008. 

Questo documento è soggetto a una licenza Creative Commons


Azioni sul documento