Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.2 (Summer 2009): Book Reviews: "Embedded Cosmopolitanism: Duties to Strangers and Enemies in a World of ‘Dislocated Communities’" by Toni Erskine [Full Text]

Jun 24, 2009

Embedded Cosmopolitanism: Duties to Strangers and Enemies in a World of 'Dislocated Communities', Toni Erskine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 277 pp., $90 cloth.

Richard Vernon (Reviewer)

Cosmopolitan theories are identified with an idea of moral impartiality. Communitarian theories, on the other hand, stress the locally embedded basis of morality. In this wide-ranging and exceptionally fair-minded book, Toni Erskine explores the possibility of a cosmopolitan position that takes account of the ''embeddedness'' of moral experience. This is an ambitious project, for on Erskine's own account a view can count as cosmopolitan only if it admits other humans to equal moral concern, while it is of course a feature of communitarian views that they assign special concern to fellow-members. Can the circle be squared? It can be—if only, as Erskine notes, in a conditional way (p. 244)—if we take the communitarian thesis to be a view about the origins of moral ideas, rather than a view that restricts their application to the national scale.

Given the implausibility of supposing that one has only global duties, and the unpleasantness of supposing that one has only local ones, both sides in the cosmopolitan/ communitarian debate naturally seek to capture the middle ground for themselves. Many cosmopolitans have tried to find a place for local or partial attachments within their approach. Erskine's project, however, is to explore, sympathetically but critically, what can be achieved by taking a communitarian starting point and trying to accommodate some cosmopolitan ambitions. She is not concerned with justifying taking a communitarian starting point rather than a cosmopolitan one (p. 40n).

The book's central chapters examine some influential views on both sides of the debate. Among the authors discussed are John Rawls (early and late), Robert Goodin, Martha Nussbaum, Onora O'Neill, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, Brian Barry, and Mervyn Frost. (Richard Rorty gets only footnotes.) Their claims are stated clearly, and are subjected to telling criticisms. Among the theorists of embedded morality, MacIntyre's idea of ''patriotism'' is found seriously wanting: by equating ''moral community'' with the state, it seems to justify the impartialists' worst fears about moral exclusiveness, and MacIntyre's more inclusive moves seem at odds with the theory itself. Walzer's approach gives much more attention to the claims of outsiders, and Erskine's account is sensitive to its complexities; but in the end she concludes that Walzer's view from ''within the cave'' precludes the view from outside with which he attempts to combine it. Frost's neo-Hegelian view locates individuals as recognized members of a particular ethical community, and then links them to the global community as members of internationally recognized states—but does so, Erskine argues, at the cost of idealizing the world.

Fortunately, Erskine's thesis is able to draw on other resources, from outside international normative theory. First, it turns to Carol Gilligan's ''different voice feminism'' for a strong statement of our embedded moral nature. Gilligan's view, however, threatens to exclude from concern all those for whom we do not ''care,'' and thus seems inappropriate to the global context. In a decisive move Erskine then turns to the idea of plural and noncoinciding attachments as advanced by Marilyn Friedman. Moral particularism of the ''care'' variety does indeed tie us to particular communities. But as Friedman argues, the communities that count need not be, and likely are not, the exclusive communities ''of place,''which tie us to conationals, but may be the multiple communities ''of choice,'' which tie us to overlapping groups of others within and beyond the nation. It is this plurality of communities, rather than the stretching or extrapolation of international normative theory, that can lead us to embedded cosmopolitanism. We can belong to communities that span national borders such that outsiders are not wholly outside.

How successful is this move? Erskine makes a bold decision to test her approach against the hardest possible case, that of war. The extent to which communities span national borders is, of course, an empirical matter (hence the ''conditional'' nature of the case, noted above). In wartime, moreover, communities that span the borders between hostile states become hard to sustain, often more than military necessity requires. Here Erskine's book becomes an argument for what we should do to avoid such curtailment of associative connection.

There will, of course, be some readers who prefer the alternative middle ground approach—the view that starts from the fact of shared humanity and tries to accommodate particular attachments within that. And there are further considerations that could be thrown on the scales of the impartialist side. First, on Erskine's account, when combatants are inhibited from killing other combatants by vivid perception of the other, that is not to be explained (as impartialists propose) by their recognition of the other's humanity but, rather, by the recognition that s/he is ''like me'' (p. 209). One may wonder, however, how robust that distinction is, and whether being ''like me'' is always a matter of ''embeddedness.''

Second, if it is the case that cosmopolitan practices can sometimes precede and constitute identity (p. 225), does that not qualify the view that identity is more basic than the practice? Third, in the conditions of modern warfare the relation between killer and victim is often so distanced by technology that there is no experienced relation between the two. Under these circumstances, is it not especially important to promote an idea of shared human identity that is not mediated by any personal connection? The debate will continue, and will be the better for Erskine's fine contribution.

-RICHARD VERNON The reviewer is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Western Ontario, and author of the forthcoming book, Cosmopolitan Regard: Political Membership and Global Justice.

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