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Cosmopolitanism as Virtue

Toward an Ethics of Global City Life

By James Farrer | January 21, 2010

Cosmopolitanism in Asia's Global Cities

Cities may attract and successfully incorporate migrants at the same time that national governments may be reluctant to let them in. This is true in Shanghai as well as in Tokyo. Both have become cities of immigration as well as remaining departure points for emigration. Cities also are centers of cultural creativity distinct from nations. Cultures of cities are amenable to social experimentation and political efforts on a human scale, making new local cultures of immigration also imaginable, even in inhospitable national climates.

Finally, cities, as Derrida points out, have a history as places of refuge, governed by a law of hospitality. Medieval European cities were supposed to provide refuge to strangers. More recently, some cities have served as havens during time of war and persecution. One of the most remarkable examples of this is Shanghai, which for a hundred years served as a place of refuge for millions of Chinese and foreign migrants fleeing war and persecution. Arguably, this history of serving as a refuge is largely responsible for making Shanghai the creative center of modern China.

I want to focus on city life in thinking about the ethics of migration, and my standpoint is that of a privileged and relatively affluent migrant in one of Asia's largest global cities, Tokyo, as well as a frequent resident of another, Shanghai. Although I will not discuss these cities in detail, they are the background against which I imagine a virtue of cosmopolitanism, and I will begin with a simple personal example of my life in Tokyo.

Halloween as Hospitality

Last Halloween my wife led our Tokyo neighborhood in our second annual celebration of "trick or treating," an American custom that she actually never experienced as a child growing up in Shanghai, but has picked up from me, since I did grow up in the United States. Although a few families in our generally affluent neighborhood had lived in places where Halloween was a tradition, most had no direct experience of the ritual of soliciting and handing out treats. Still, roughly 80 children put on colorful costumes and knocked on doors or visited tables set up in front of homes, enthusiastically collecting the proffered candies. Naturally there were some deviations from the North American rites. Many kids shouted out in English, "Happy Halloween!" when visiting homes, while others dutifully recited "turikku oo tureeto." Adults congregated in front my improvised stand where I handed out cups of red wine to all (the transmission of tradition does not preclude spicing things up a bit). Fun was had by all, and it seems likely that the hybrid and transplanted tradition will prosper in our neighborhood as long as we cultivate it.

While my example of cultural sharing between a foreign family and a Japanese neighborhood may seem banal in comparison to the cultural obstacles many migrants and receiving communities face, my experiences as a migrant naturally inform my positions in the immigration debates. In this discussion on the ethics of migration, we are thinking about ways in which migration can be a feature of a "good life" for both guests and hosts, so it is important to start with a positive example. There is, in our experience, a well of good will and curiosity towards foreigners in my Tokyo neighborhood, and, for our part, a willingness to make ourselves part of a local Japanese community. Hosts and guests embrace hybrid traditions, and as this case shows, these roles of host and guest are not mutually exclusive, but perhaps best seen as alternating and reciprocal.

The Ethics of Migration

Migration is an ethically portentous act both for migrants and for receiving communities. It is important to consider that people increasingly find themselves alternating between these roles of guest and host over a lifetime, perhaps increasing the possibilities of reflexivity and reciprocity in conceiving the politics of migration. As members of communities we must deliberate over responses to newcomers. As newcomers we must evaluate our actions and attitudes toward the communities that welcome us. Especially for residents of constantly growing global cities, frequent and circular migration is commonplace, suggesting a need for a new ethics of cosmopolitanism for global city life. How can this ethics be grounded in a way that is practical, as well as grounded in the experiences of guests and hosts, recognizing that the same person might have experience in both roles, even simultaneously?

The most common framework for conceptualizing the ethical dimensions of migration is utilitarianism. Often implicitly, we quantify the costs and benefits of migration, usually expressed in economic terms, for both the migrants and the receiving societies, perhaps giving these very unequal weights. For example, it has been argued that Japan needs inward labor migration in order to improve the fiscal foundations of the welfare state, while giving migrants needed jobs. The problem with the utilitarian mode of argument is that it fails to provide any framework for conceiving guest-host interactions beyond a narrow band of mutual interests, making it difficult to conceive of a purely utilitarian approach to the complex political and cultural dilemmas that arise in immigration debates. For example, how do we judge issues of language use and standards of dress from a utilitarian perspective? How can we see the sometimes painful experiences of cultural encounters as a feature of a "good life?"

A very different ethics of migration proceeds from a Kantian notion of cosmopolitan humanism, in which everyone could be ascribed a right to move as a "citizen of the Earth," or a global cosmopolis. Kant limits hospitality to foreigners to the right "not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another." Yet following Kant's more fundamental principle of a "common possession of the surface of the earth," we could extend this to include a right of settlement, which seems more consistent with Kant's own notion of "world citizenship." While this view is attractive from the perspective of a universalistic humanism, it seems divorced from the local politics of communities and incapable of addressing the individual encounters with difference or otherness that make migration problematic at the social-psychological level.

The approach I would like to consider to the ethics of migration is based on virtue ethics, and more specifically a blend of Aristotelian and Confucian ethics. A conversation about cosmopolitanism cries out for a cross-cultural dialogue between ethical traditions, which is what I attempt here. While Confucianism and traditional Greek humanism differ in their approach to political life, both Aristotle and Mencius ground ethics in a philosophy of self-actualization and concerted perfectionism. In both traditions, politics becomes an extension of ethics, also grounded in concerted efforts at improvement and the goal of achieving the collective good life. Virtue ethics, more than Kantian ethics, seems capable of representing the real-world collision and mingling of multiple ethical traditions, such as Western and Confucian notions of virtue, in the messy localities of the global city.

Cosmopolitanism as a Virtue

As a virtue, cosmopolitanism can be grounded in two common features of the classical Greek and Chinese philosophical traditions, and one further idea common to many religious traditions. The most important shared feature of both classical Greek and Chinese ethical traditions is a general attitude of moral perfectionism. Rather than assuming that individuals are capable of simply "being good," the emphasis in virtue ethics is on a continuous "becoming good" particularly through discipline and study. As a peculiarly modern virtue, cosmopolitanism is premised upon the specific insight that people from distant places have things especially valuable to teach us.

Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz, describes cosmopolitanism as "an orientation, a willingness to engage with the Other ... an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness toward divergent cultural experiences." Rather than seeking or claiming a static and final notion of right and wrong, or of normal and deviant, the cosmopolitan mindset entails a continual openness to a new and potentially "better" point of view. Anthony Appiah's concept of "rooted cosmopolitanism" suggests that cosmopolitans need not give up their own native culture, nor reach a consensus on all issues. As Appiah's work suggests, embracing cultural contamination is not a matter of exotic consumption nor increased comfort, but it is ultimately a form of social- and self-improvement.

A shared feature of these two classical traditions is recognition of the dialogic quality of ethical practice. It is significant that much of the central corpus of Greek and Chinese philosophy takes the form of dialogues between teachers and students, teachers and rulers, and other philosophers. Cosmopolitanism, as I use the term here, places central importance on a dialogic and rhetorical attitude to self-development, with the emphasis here on learning across cultures. Cosmopolitanism is an ethical investment in intercultural competence. Again, Hannerz characterizes cosmopolitanism as a "curious, apparently paradoxical interplay between mastery and surrender" to new and unfamiliar cultures that also provides distance and thus autonomy from a previous home culture.

Cultivating intercultural competence, as an ideal, and a conscious distancing from strictly local cultural affiliations may be necessary for achieving emotional balance and social belonging in global cities, both for newcomers and for long-term residents. Intercultural competence entails a kind of dialogic ethical competence, or the ability to deal with ethical frameworks different from one's own. On one hand, I would like to emphasize also that such intercultural competencies are not restricted to educated elites, but are perhaps even more necessary for migrant service workers who must quickly adjust to new surroundings and new cultures. But it is equally clear that cosmopolitanism as a virtue requires investments, ranging from language learning to sociability, that are not equally easy or feasible for all.

Finally, cosmopolitanism includes an ideal of hospitality that is common across civilizations, particularly in Islam. Derrida emphasizes an ideal of unconditional hospitality as the basis of all ethics. As Derrida suggests, unconditional hospitality fundamentally confounds the distinction between guest and host, since we no longer can be certain who in fact has the final say in an encounter. While the practical difficulties of unconditional hospitality seem considerable, even a more pragmatically oriented virtue ethics must recognize that an attitude of accepting difference contains within it an initial acceptance of the idea that different ways of life are inherently worth learning about. While the practical confrontation with difference may be one of negotiation rather than unconditional surrender, we must always begin with an attitude of acceptance.

Cosmopolitanism as Creative Self-transformation

The ethos of cosmopolitanism for global city life is thus different from the ideal of multiculturalism. Though the ethical cosmopolitan recognizes that there are inevitably a multitude of cultures, she does not consider cultural hybridity as a threat nor does she value cultural purity as an end in itself. As political practice, this concept of cosmopolitanism may have more in common with the Confucian doctrine of ronghe, or blending of cultures, than a strict multiculturalism that advocates the protection of group boundaries. To be clear, such a cosmopolitan virtue ethics has its limitations. In the tradition of dialogic philosophy, there can be no respect for an absolute stranger who is not willing to engage in conversation, and there is no meaningful conversation without at least a distant potential for a meeting of minds, or a change of perspective. Cosmopolitanism thus becomes increasingly implausible when faced with fundamentalist or inflexible cultural standpoints.

As a virtue, cosmopolitanism is not a general affiliation with a universal humanity, but an ethically motivated engagement with different people, with an aim to both self-improvement and collective betterment. Cosmopolitanism entails a commitment to cultural complexity. Cultural complexity takes the form of a generalized metropolitan mindset and complicating of the life world that sociologists, such as Georg Simmel, Robert Park, and Richard Sennett, have long associated with the lifeways of large and disorderly modern cities. In his book The Uses of Disorder Sennett argues that life in heterogeneous and disorderly neighborhoods is conducive to the development of a full and vigorous personality.

I would suggest that ethical cosmopolitanism is essential to the "good life" in the modern global city that migrants and hosts both aim to achieve. At the individual level, this may involve the development of what J. Rogers Hollingsworth describes as "cognitive complexity," or the capacity to see the world in multiple and novel ways, which he discovers to be a correlate of extraordinary high levels of intellectual creativity, including scientific discovery. Without migration, such cultural complexity will not evolve. Cities are created through migration; global cities through international migration. As a political corollary, without high levels of migration, and the necessary ethical commitments to cosmopolitanism, nation-states will fail to develop the individual and collective virtues suitable to "living well" in a global society.

The Limitations of Cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism as a virtue has important limits that may give pause to many. First, it is potentially elitist. Like Aristotle's descriptions of intellectual virtues, cosmopolitanism privileges those with the means and capacities to educate themselves about other cultures. I would argue this is not as limiting as it seems, and that most residents in large cities have both means and incentive to develop a cosmopolitan orientation. Second, at a political level, cosmopolitanism may be asymmetrical. Like the Confucian notion of ronghe, it privileges "central" cultures [PDF] over those in the periphery. Encounters in the global city are not equal. Migrants must generally make more efforts to embrace the culture of the host society, than vice versa.

Moreover, migrants coming from more central cultures, such as American or Chinese, may be able to demand more attention than those from more peripheral cultures. But, in my view, as long as this encounter is a true dialogue and not a one-way conversation, cosmopolitanism represents a viable ethical orientation towards city life. Finally, like Confucian ethics generally, my notion of cosmopolitanism privileges proximate relations over distant relations. It is perhaps a specific case of the Confucian concept of friendship, the only egalitarian relationship in the canonical list of ethical relationships. Cosmopolitan develops best out of face-to-face communication in a community. As described here, cosmopolitanism does not serve well to develop empathy and commitments across great distances and with true strangers, but rather with people close by. But as Harvard scholar Tu Wei-ming writes, Mencius's concept of continuous self-development leads to a consciousness of an "ever-expanding circle of human relatedness" that is potentially universal in scope.

To go back to my Halloween vignette, reaching out to one's neighbors across the cultural and social divides of the global city is possible, though it requires some perseverance. And as any good Confucian would readily point out, ready-made rituals, such as Halloween, certainly help. Such practical cosmopolitanism seems to be a viable way to make life better both for hosts and newcomers, partly through the trick of involving both in reciprocal host-guest relations. Hospitality must be reciprocal. Cosmopolitanism, as a virtue, therefore is not an achievement purely of the mind, but of creatively adapting social rituals. Despite its limitations, cosmopolitanism may be the best path for residents of the global city to achieve what Aristotle described as not simply living, but living well.

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