An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2008

Cosmopolitanism, justice & institutions

Samuel Scheffler

Samuel Scheffler, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2004, is University Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. He is the author of “The Rejection of Consequentialism” (1982), “Human Morality” (1992), and “Boundaries and Allegiances” (2001).

‘Cosmopolitanism’ is not–or not yet –the name of a determinate political philosophy. Although many contemporary theorists have put forward views that they describe as cosmopolitan, there is little agreement among them about the central elements of a cosmopolitan position. Almost nobody advocates the development of the kind of global state that would give the idea of ‘world citizenship’ literal application. Instead, disparate views have been advanced under the heading of cosmopolitanism, and these views share little more than an organizing conviction that any adequate political outlook for our time must in some way comprehend the world as a whole.

To some people cosmopolitanism is primarily a view about sovereignty. To others it is primarily a view about culture and identity. To many philosophers, however, it is primarily a view about justice, and in recent years there has been an increasing flow of books and articles devoted to the subject of ‘global justice.’

In part, the focus on justice reflects the continuing influence of John Rawls, who insisted that “[j]ustice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”1  In so doing, Rawls elevated the concept of justice above other important political ideas such as liberty, law, equality, power, rights, obligation, security, democracy, and the state, and gave it a privileged place on the agenda of contemporary political philosophy. It is testimony to Rawls’s influence that justice–especially ‘distributive,’ or economic, justice– has remained a central preoccupation of political philosophers ever since.

Yet there is disagreement about the bearing of Rawls’s own work on cosmopolitanism considered as a view about justice.

In the cosmopolitan literature, Rawls figures both as hero and as villain. As hero–for saying that a just society cannot permit the distribution of income and wealth to be influenced by morally arbitrary factors such as people’s native abilities or the social circumstances into which they are born. Cosmopolitans see this as paving the way for a recognition that national boundaries are equally arbitrary from the standpoint of justice. As a matter of justice, the accident of where one is born should have no effect on one’s economic prospects.

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  • 1John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 3.
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