Challenge 15: Let’s get ethical; embracing the cosmos leads to better decision-making

We are the world: under a cosmopolitan ethos, citizens from all corners of the globe are united by a universal, common language. hojusaram

In part 15 of our multi-disciplinary Millennium Project series, Edward Spence argues that the modern world is crying out for a return to classical cosmopolitanism.


Global challenge 15: How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?

When anyone asked him where he came from, he said, “I am a citizen of the world”.

Diogenes Laertius, Life of Diogenes the Cynic

My Greek friend Luke has been telling me about his current passion - playing backgammon on the internet. His latest contest was with a Turk from Istanbul. Two individuals, who have never met before and have traditionally been divided by hostile boundaries of ethnicity, religion and politics for over five centuries, came together for a game of backgammon and a chinwag in a way unimaginable before the internet.

Can the internet provide a global medium for the development and promotion of cosmopolitan ethics that can transcend ethnic, religious, cultural and social conflicts? Can the cultivation of cosmopolitan ethics provide the platform not only for a better understanding between individuals involved in such conflicts, but for these differences to be transcended?

Cosmopolitanism is a central belief of Stoic philosophy. It is the belief that human beings, as rational creatures, are inter-connected as part of the One Rational Cosmos. As fellow-members of the Cosmos, all human beings share a common kinship and equal moral status. They are all cosmopolitans, citizens of the world.

Although antithetical to cosmopolitanism, colonialism (both ancient and modern) has advanced the cause of cosmopolitanism by providing one of its essential practical features - namely, that of a universal common language – for if universal reason is to spread and become the foundation of human relationships, it must be able to be expressed in a universal language, common to all people. The new globalisation of economic rationalism and free trade is determined not by gunboat diplomacy, but multinational corporate policy. Its opponents suggest that this is another form of world colonisation exercised though the money-market for the benefit of the rich and powerful. If true, the new globalisation can be perceived as another form of world colonisation, albeit an economic one.

Slavery, as practised under the old colonialist regimes, has been replaced with sweatshops in third-world countries, where consumer goods are manufactured for the affluent citizens of the corporate world. In his book, The Global Soul, Pico Iyer refers to this new type of globalisation as ‘cocacolanisation’ - a globalisation in which companies become more important than countries and people.

As it treats people primarily as consumers, economic globalisation has no interest in promoting cosmopolitanism in accordance with the Stoic ideas of eudaimonia (happiness and well-being), autarkeia (inner-freedom and self-reliance) and a simple lifestyle based on the pursuit of virtue. It views people not as ends to be allowed to develop their full human potential for their self-fulfilment and moral benefit, but rather as economic units of consumption that provide the means for generating profits for large multinational corporations. However, as in the case of colonial globalisation, economic globalisation is providing, even if unintentionally, the means for advancing the practical possibility of cosmopolitanism. It provides and supports a vast information network accessible by billions of people around the globe, which can be used to lay down the foundations of cosmopolitanism.

When used for ethical ends, the ubiquity of social media is contributing to the realisation of cyber-cosmopolitanism. Closely associated with the cosmic perspective of stoic philosophy is the communal perspective. For the Stoics, unlike Aristotle before them, the polis is the cosmopolis - not the city-state, nor any single country - but the whole world.

The cosmic and the social dimension of the internet provide a perfectly suitable medium for the dissemination of cosmopolitanism. Although concepts of a cosmic dimension and community engagement underlie both cosmopolitanism and the internet, the latter does not yet embody the other essential Stoic features relevant to cosmopolitanism. Significantly, what is missing is the practice of wisdom; understood not as a form of information, but as a way of being in the world requiring one to live a good life both individually and communally in accordance with virtue.

More than information, wisdom requires moral transformation. More than knowledge, wisdom requires practical ethics - both essential for developing trust amongst people. Perhaps this would occur not through revolution, but through an evolution of a global spirit. Using the internet to propagate the precepts and practices of cosmopolitanism we may be able to create the first world cosmopolis. The realisation of global ethics can only occur through the adoption of cosmopolitan ethics and that is our biggest challenge: how to become true cosmpolitans in thought and in practice. Cyber-citizens may have already made a start by creating the cosmic cyber-world. Let’s hope cosmopolitan ethics follows next.

Comments welcome below.