Cosmopolitanism

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It’s a label I believe effective altruists should adopt to better explain a core part of what effective altruism is. Historically, it comes from Greek roots meaning “world” and “city,” and is associated with Diogenes of Sinope’s (c. 404-323 BC) declaration that he was a “citizen of the world.” Without the metaphors of world-cities or citizenship, I mean by “cosmopolitanism” a moral and political stance that gives the interests of people of other nationalities a weight equal (or at least nearly equal) to those of one’s compatriots.

Support for cosmopolitanism among effective altruists is, as far as I can tell, unanimous. There is no wing of the effective altruist movement exclusively focused on fighting poverty in the US, for example. But effective altruists don’t talk about cosmopolitanism much. When they do, they call it “impartiality,” which is too vague. Judges, juries, journalists, and so on (to limit myself to the “j”s) are expected to be impartial in a sense, but only in specific domains. Cosmopolitanism’s demands are much broader.

I think effective altruists don’t talk about cosmopolitanism more because they take it for granted. Peter Singer, in his influential and now more than forty year old article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” devoted only a paragraph to the subject, saying “I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account.” But there are good reasons to doubt most people are fully on board with cosmopolitanism.

This is most obvious in politics. Can you imagine a politician advocating free trade on the grounds that, while it might hurt the politician’s own country a little, it would have enormous benefits for people living in other countries? Or making the same argument for immigration? In the United States, critics of military intervention tend to focus on the costs in terms of American lives and dollars, and the “lack of a compelling national interest.” The fact that these interventions often wreak enormous havoc on the countries we bomb and invade can seem to come in as a distant fourth in anti-war rhetoric.

I suspect this also explains much of why most people aren’t more committed to fighting global poverty. People may claim to believe, for example, that their donations will just get stolen by corrupt governments, but often this sounds like an excuse. And imagine what would happen if you went beyond praising the cost-effectiveness of anti-malarial bed nets, and told them to direct efforts away from specific local causes they support. In response, they probably wouldn’t quite tell you they care about geographic neighbors more than foreigners, but you might hear a little speech about the importance of responsibility towards your own community.

There’s a paradox here. The label “anti-foreign” has some negative connotations, but it’s not really taboo in the way racism is. This is in spite of favoritism based on place of birth being no less arbitrary than favoritism based on skin color. In America, there’s a notorious anti-immigration blogger named Steve Sailer who’s often accused of racism. I’ve looked at Sailer’s writings, and concluded that if he’s racist, he’s much less driven by racism than nativism. Sailer prefers to call it “citizenism”; Wikipedia quotes him as saying, “I believe Americans should be biased in favor of the welfare of our current fellow citizens over that of the six billion foreigners.” That may sound racist to many people, but it’s hard to explain America’s current immigration policies without assuming a lot of quiet support for Sailer’s views.

In America, the relative taboo-ness of racism and nativism may be influenced by America’s history regarding race. Still, critics of anti-immigrant parties in Europe often seem to go out of their way to criticize those parties as racist, as if it weren’t enough to criticize them for being anti-immigrant. It would be nice if people would treat nativism as bad enough in itself, whether or not it’s paired with racism.

So far, I’ve just been trying to argue that effective altruists take cosmopolitanism too much for granted, and should more see cosmopolitanism as something distinctive about themselves. I haven’t been trying to argue that effective altruists should be actively supporting immigration reform or other cosmopolitan political causes. I don’t actually know if it would be worth the effort. I think it would be hugely beneficial if major governments became more cosmopolitan, but making that happen may be a cause that’s too crowded and too intractable.

That said, I’m enthusiastic about the Open Philanthropy Project’s research on policy advocacy, because it may lead to finding cost-effective ways to influence government policy in a more cosmopolitan direction. Even if there is not much we can do now directly, explicitly advocating for cosmopolitan ideals may have important long-run benefits. Finally, it can be enlightening to analyze politics through a cosmopolitan lens. It can be depressing, because government policy is so often un-cosmopolitan, but it can also be a source of common ground between superficially different political camps.

Many criticisms of the standard left-right political axis are well-known. Libertarians like to describe themselves as socially liberal and economically conservative (strangely, few people do the opposite). Another proposed taxonomy uses three axes: individualist vs. authoritarian, winners vs. losers, and progress vs. decay. But I think cosmopolitanism vs. nationalistic, nativistic, and parochial outlooks is often more a more important axis.

For instance, I find an enormous amount to like in libertarian writer Bryan Caplan. Our disagreements on taxes or consequentialism vs. deontology feel like minor issues compared to his excellent writings on immigration and war. That’s because we’re both cosmopolitans. On the other hand, there are parochial libertarians who are much more focused on opposing federal regulations and taxes but don’t much mind if the local police bully perceived “outsiders.” I don’t find much common ground with them. But nor do I find much in common with parochial liberals focused on things like the welfare of local middle-class union members.

I want to say something about religious conservatives here, since they are such an important force in the US (though I know this is not true in all countries). Religion often seems to end up aligned with nationalism, perhaps because religious and national boundaries often coincide. But there’s no reason this must be so. Modern religions aspire to cross national boundaries. Many Christian thinkers play up Christianity’s cosmopolitan streak—to hear them tell it, Christianity invented cosmopolitanism. This isn’t true; as already noted cosmopolitanism can be traced back to ancient Greece. By the time Christianity came on the scene, cosmopolitanism had gone mainstream in the Roman world via Stoicism. Nevertheless, Christianity’s cosmopolitanism is real: think of the parable of the good Samaritan, or Paul’s “neither Jew nor Gentile” line in Galatians.

There are a handful of policy issues where the implications of cosmopolitanism seem relatively clear: governments should give the interests of foreigners more weight in decisions that affect them, including immigration, trade, foreign aid, and global environmental issues (including global warming). But rather than say much about those issues, I want to finish this post by talking about a slightly more complicated issue, foreign military intervention.

The US has been justifying military actions in altruistic terms since at least the Spanish-American War, which was sold partly as defending Cubans from their Spanish oppressor. Other countries have engaged in similar rhetoric. What are we to make of it? Should it be dismissed as obvious propaganda? Or proponents of altruistic intervention deserve to be taken seriously for having the right ideals?

Philosopher Richard Chappell proposes a useful test here, which he calls the cosmopolitan civilian test for proportionality in war. It asks, “Would these civilian casualties be considered ‘proportionate’ if the civilians in question were of a different nationality?” Framed in those terms, I think it is obvious that the answer is all too often “no.” As Caplan puts it, “If a policeman fought crime the way that ‘civilized’ armies wage war, we'd put him in jail.”

But there may be exceptions, so I think it is important to emphasize the standard, rather than specific applications. Presumably proponents of altruistic intervention would claim the actions they advocate pass the cosmopolitan civilian test. After all, it’s not as if interventionists are going to say they place great value on foreigners’ liberty, but not so much on their lives. Asking proponents of particular interventions to explain how an intervention passes the cosmopolitan civilian test may be a good way to distinguish genuine (if misguided) altruists from people whose real motives are less noble.

Again, none of this is to say that trying to enact a cosmopolitan policy agenda should necessarily be a top priority for effective altruists. But I think the effective altruist movement would benefit from being more self-conscious about its cosmopolitanism.