Of Cosmopolitanism, Patriotism, and Academic Freedom

My Laidlaw research project was supposed to focus on human rights theory – on the puzzles that refugees generate for human rights theory. But, since my Laidlaw internship started in July, I had a bit of time in June to do some reflection on the exact questions and direction I wanted to pursue with my research. I realised I was a lot more interested in a broader question: what is the ethical significance of nationality when it comes to global justice?

At the heart of this question is what Kok-Chor Tan calls the tension between patriotism and cosmopolitan justice. The idea behind cosmopolitan justice is a simple one: people should matter equally purely in virtue of being human. It’s also common sense: we don’t think we should give greater consideration to people of a specific gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. On the other hand, for many of us, patriotism – the love for one’s country – requires that we show greater concern for one’s compatriots. For example, as Charles Beitz notes, it’s fairly uncontroversial to think that a government should prioritize the domestic poor over the foreign poor when redistributing income to improve welfare – even if the foreign poor are a lot worse off than the domestic poor. In short, cosmopolitan justice tells us that everyone is entitled to equal consideration, while patriotism tells us that compatriots are entitled to greater consideration. My research investigates the possibility of reconciling this tension.

“Picture of People of the Five Nations: Walking in Line” by Sadahide, 1861

Many respond to this tension by setting limits on patriotism, informed by our commitment to cosmopolitan justice. For example, Kok-Chor Tan argues that people may give greater consideration to their compatriots only when the rules and principles of the overarching institutions meet the conditions of cosmopolitan justice. Robert Goodin suggests that being patriotic is just an effective way of discharging our more general cosmopolitan duties; but, in world of great inequality, it is this commitment to cosmopolitanism that compels countries to put worse off foreigners first. Others argue for a conception of cosmopolitan justice that does not conflict with patriotism. Richard Miller, for example, argues that cosmopolitan justice means equal respect for all but not equal concern for all. On such an account, individuals are under an obligation show equal respect for non-compatriots but are under no obligation to show them equal concern, especially when it often comes at a cost to their compatriots.

One of the best things about the Laidlaw internship has been the academic freedom. I have moved seamlessly from focusing on human rights theory to the tension between cosmopolitan justice and patriotism and, more recently, to solely on patriotism. This academic freedom is unlike anything else in my undergraduate degree. I got the chance to take intellectual risks and pursue my research in the direction that most interests me, with no fear of an impending deadline for an essay or a mark to collect at the end. It’s been the best introduction to academia that I could ask for.

I want to thank my supervisors Dr Elizabeth Ashford and Dr Natasha Saunders for supporting and inspiring me, CAPOD for the incredibly helpful leadership component of the internship, and Lord Laidlaw for making all of this possible.