One of the most contentious debates in political philosophy today focuses on two camps of international political theory. One of these clusters of political theories is cosmopolitanism, defended by advocates such as Pogge and Benhabib. In opposition, advocates such as Rawls and Avila support a Society of Peoples approach. Each of these two positions claims the best and most feasible conception of a global political structure, and they do this for differing reasons.
In this essay, I will briefly review the clash between cosmopolitan political philosophy and the ideas of Rawls’ Law of Peoples. In addition, I will draw attention to important subject matter that is absent from this debate, namely a discussion of public reason. I will advocate that once both sides can address the arguments of Kant’s conception of public reason and Rawls’ conception of public reason, the debate between cosmopolitanism and the Law of Peoples may be closer to a reconciliation.
Cosmopolitan arguments generally begin with a review of universalism, and conclude that morals and political ideals should apply globally. According to this strategy, principles of distributive justice should extend beyond particular national borders, and each nation should consider how wealth becomes distributed to all individuals and societies. Some cosmopolitans hold that this universalism requires each nation to become subordinate to a superior governing body. Other cosmopolitans, such as Pogge, advocate against a structured hierarchy in favor of a distributed and decentralized horizontal decision-making structure, similar to how the U.S. Federal government functions as three branches. Still others see cosmopolitanism as requiring only a revision of individual conceptions of a global distributive principle. However, without a controlling international body, it is difficult to see how a global distributive principle can be enforced without an overarching political authority.
Adherents of a Society of Peoples are not confident that a global government can achieve stability, and if it can, it can at best only accomplish it as a temporary balance of forces. Instead of generating a system where each nation becomes subordinate, advocates of a Society of Peoples argue that achieving a flourishing global society is the responsibility of decent and liberal peoples. The Society of Peoples casts this responsibility as the Law of Peoples, and this law instantiates a criteria of toleration. Toleration, says Rawls and Avila, is the mechanism where liberal and decent peoples justifiably affect political situations outside their borders.
Cosmopolitans usually attack a Society of Peoples approach by focusing on the ideas of a decent people and a liberal people. Peoples and states are not synonymous, but to cosmopolitans the distinctions between the two concepts are vague. This apparent vagueness gives cosmopolitans ground to declare cosmopolitanism superior.
In response, the defenders of the Law of Peoples say that the distinction between a people and a state is definitively clear. Peoples define groupings of people, a character that binds them, and identifies them apart from the institutions that define the governments of which they are a part. Peoples do not have the same abilities as states, but this distinction does not prevent peoples from utilizing their governmental institutions from accomplishing state-specific actions. Rawls posits two categories of peoples: decent peoples and peoples that are not decent. Inside the decent peoples category, Rawls defines that there are liberal peoples and mere decent peoples. One major distinctive difference between liberal peoples and decent peoples is the use of public reason. On one hand, liberal peoples have a democratic constitutional structure. In addition, the individuals within a liberal society offer each other fair terms of cooperation, and this behavior satisfies Rawls’ criterion of reciprocity. On the other hand, merely decent peoples do not necessarily employ democratic and constitutional institutions. Instead, decent peoples utilize various governmental structures that achieve a tolerable distribution of rights to its citizens, and a distribution of wealth that does not threaten anyone’s well-being. Merely decent peoples, because of their specific governments, are incompatible with the use of public reason. The absence of public reason entails that the individuals within a merely decent peoples do not offer each other fair terms of cooperation and do not satisfy Rawls’ criterion of reciprocity.
Cosmopolitans have almost nothing to say about public reason, except to say that a cosmopolitan society would have to employ public reason in order to succeed. In fact, discussing the truth of moral universalism at a global scale arguably violates the principle of public reason, since such a discussion draws from its advocates’ comprehensive doctrines. A discussion of the merits and viability of global universalism as the best method of eradicating human rights violations worldwide could avoid appealing to comprehensive doctrines. However, cosmopolitans seem to argue for moral universalism rather than mere political universalism.
Although Rawls explicitly rejects a cosmopolitan framework and cosmopolitans object to the idea of a Society of Peoples, I believe that a focus on public reason as an issue will be productive because it may offer ways for Rawlsians and cosmopolitans to agree. These new areas of agreement will allow a political philosopher to advocate cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples simultaneously.
The ideas that I will advocate here are not new. Components of the Law of Peoples that are sympathetic to cosmopolitanism are Rawls’ own footnotes in The Law of Peoples. In addition, I derive a critical analysis of Rawls’ idea of public reason from Onora O’Neill (1997). A review of these ideas should make cosmopolitanism and a Law of Peoples more compatible.
While Rawls does not think that a world government is viable, he is sympathetic to the idea that separate liberal societies should be able to merge, or combine. In a footnote, Rawls has this to say about the merging of peoples:
53. What does the Law of Peoples say about the following situation? Suppose that two or more of the liberal democratic societies of Europe, say Belgium and the Netherlands, or these two together with France and Germany, decide they want to join and form a single society, or a single federal union. Assuming they are all liberal societies, any such union must be agreed to by an election in which in each society the decision whether to unite is thoroughly discussed. Moreover, since these societies are liberal, they adopt a liberal political conception of justice, which has the three characteristic kinds of principles, as well as satisfying the criterion of reciprocity, as all liberal conceptions of justice must do (S1.2). Beyond this condition, the electorate of these societies must vote on which political conception they believe to be the most reasonable, although all such conceptions are at least reasonable. A voter in such an election might vote for the difference principle (the most egalitarian liberal conception), should he or she think it is the most reasonable. Yet so long as the criterion of reciprocity is satisfied, other variants of the three characteristic principles are consistent with political liberalism. To avoid confusion, I add that what I later call the “duty of assistance” applies only to the duty that liberal and decent peoples have to assist burdened societies (S15). As I explain there, such societies are neither liberal nor decent. (Rawls, 1999, p. 43)
This footnote defines very specific conditions for any merger to take place. First, the most obvious condition, according to Rawls, implies that only liberal societies can combine. The main reason for this is clear: liberal societies adhere to public reason and satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. In addition, a liberal society has an authentic mechanism where the electorate will vote on issues and the important details of those issues are salient. The presence of mature voting institutions is questionable at best in societies that are not decent. Finally, the criterion of reciprocity is missing in merely decent societies. In the absence of legitimate voting structures and a space for a people to employ public reason, it does not seem likely that a decision for two peoples to merge will be informed. Therefore, according to Rawls, liberal peoples should only combine with liberal peoples.
On the bright side, it is quite surprising that Rawls considers the possibility for two societies to join and become one society. Such a possibility is an interesting scenario for cosmopolitans, since a Law of Peoples does not tolerate peoples that are not decent. If a Law of Peoples ends this intolerance by transforming all peoples into decent peoples, then any two liberal societies would be able to have merger elections. The only challenges to this sequence of events are (1) a failure of a Society of Peoples in general, or (2) a failure of a specific vote among liberal peoples to combine.
A cosmopolitan will notice that this philosophy offers the possibility of a true cosmopolitan order. Assume for the moment that a Society of Peoples is successful and that all world societies somehow become decent peoples. Assume that we can finesse the issue of decent peoples becoming liberal peoples. Also, assume that all of these liberal societies give a successful up vote on combining. The cosmopolitan has theoretically achieved the ideal of cosmopolitanism.
However, such assumptions are a dream and ignore reality. If we consider what is possible in the real world, we rapidly realize that neither cosmopolitanism nor a Society of Peoples will ever totally succeed. In addition, even granting the possibility of a world where every society is liberal, the possibility of all these different liberal peoples combining to form one liberal people is slim to none, due to the limits of an overlapping consensus. Still more, there is something to be said about the diversity of decent peoples that are not necessarily liberal, since Rawls points out that decent peoples are entitled to equal treatment in a Society of Peoples. Therefore, as political philosophers, we should give up the idea that a true one-world institution is possible. Instead, the idea of cosmopolitanism should identify closer with the form of Rawls’ idealism. We should delineate between ideal theory and what is realistically possible. A question we should ask is this: is it realistic to envision a world where all peoples are either decent or liberal?
One way to make cosmopolitanism more appealing is by modifying Rawls’ analysis of combining societies. In particular, the Rawlsian and the cosmopolitan should object to Rawls’ insistence that only liberal peoples can converge. If decent peoples deserve toleration from a Society of Peoples, then they are well-ordered enough to conduct their own elections with enough credibility to conduct a merger election. In addition, the Rawlsian and the cosmopolitan should evaluate Rawls’ idea of public reason as inadequate for the task of communication between peoples.
In order to see why Rawls’ idea of public reason may be inadequate for international justice contexts, we should examine how he derived his idea of public reason for use in a Society of Peoples. As Rawls constructed the theory of the Law of Peoples, he utilized a political conception of a person, along with a veil of ignorance to construct a Society of Peoples where peoples would reason in the same way that individuals within a liberal society reason with each other. Rawls called this structure of communication public reason, and he said that those who properly utilize public reason offer fair terms of cooperation and only put forth arguments that they believe produce the possibility of agreement. Put another way, those utilizing public reason satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. However, as O’Neill notes, the criterion of reciprocity properly functions internally within a single liberal society—it does not necessarily function between members of a Society of Peoples.
According to O’Neill, Rawls’ idea of public reason is actually a relaxed version of Kant’s idea of public reason. Rawls was able to implement a more relaxed idea of public reason because his original purpose was to achieve fair terms of cooperation within a liberal domestic society. Inside a liberal society, each individual (hopefully) already has a motivation to offer fair terms of cooperation. Therefore, Rawls’ idea of reasonableness is “a matter of willingness to accept terms ‘which all can accept’ (PL, 50) or ‘to govern their conduct by a principle from which they and others can reason in common’ (PL, 49 n)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 416). In contrast, Kant’s idea of reasonableness is a matter of willingness to accept terms which all will accept. O’Neill names Kant’s public reason as a ‘modal’ version of public reason, and names Rawls’ public reason as a ‘motivational’ version of public reason.
In a nutshell, Kant’s ‘modal’ version of public reason “does not assume that those who reason must share a political identity, yet arguably also manages to do without metaphysical foundations” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 423). The ‘motivational’ version of public reason that Rawls adopts has little to do with “individual capacities and everything to the political contexts in which they function,” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421). This means that
What is to count as reasoned in the search for political principles and standards is the thinking of citizens with a common political identity, who seek additional areas of agreement in building the basic principles and institutions of their shared political life. (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421)
The limitation of Rawls’ version of public reason, then, is that the reasons presented is “insiders’ reasoning, so may not convince foreigners or outsiders—or citizens who stand back from the way things are, and ask whether they should be that way” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 422).
It may be appropriate for Rawls to advocate a motivational concept of public reasoning for the domestic case, since in that context citizens already have a common political identity. However, the motivational concept of public reasoning may be inappropriate for use between peoples in a Society of Peoples, since liberal peoples will not be the only participants in a well-ordered Society of Peoples. Inevitably, a Society of Peoples must tolerate and communicate with decent peoples, and the international context necessitates that a liberal peoples not make any political assumptions about decent peoples. Therefore, in the international context, liberal peoples should utilize a modal version of public reason, not merely motivational public reason.
This still leaves open the question of whether merely decent peoples are able to combine. Rawls’ footnote suggests not, but the real question is whether he would say that a liberal peoples could be justified in not tolerating merely decent peoples that decided to merge. I think that we should entertain this possibility, since it is dubious that there are liberal peoples that could merge, let alone two adjacent liberal peoples that successfully vote to merge. Because the standard of a liberal peoples is so high, we should be tolerant of transnational decisions between decent peoples to merge (or for that matter, between decent peoples and liberal peoples).
In addition, Avila suggests that we should be prepared to see decent and liberal peoples move in the opposite direction. In particular, just as Rawls sees the possibility for peoples to come together and form one nation, Avila notices that it is possible that a decent or liberal peoples may need to split and separate. A society may develop or encounter new aspects of culture that affects its overlapping consensus in such a way that it becomes difficult or impossible for the society to maintain stability for the right reasons or stability period. In these cases, the prospect of separation and combination for societies is a real possibility that has applications that extend beyond the interests of cosmopolitanism.
In terms of political theory, both cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples approach may require slight revisions. When considering the affect of modal public reason on a group of nations, cosmopolitans may not have to clash with a Society of Peoples as a rival theory. Instead, cosmopolitans should view a Society of Peoples as sympathetic to cosmopolitan objectives. However, cosmopolitans should realize that a Society of Peoples does not tolerate moral reasoning, but only the practical benefits of homogenous political groups. If the world works better by combining peoples and forming larger social bodies, then a Society of Peoples can assist in that endeavor. However, cosmopolitans should realize that a Law of Peoples is political, not metaphysical. This means that within a Society of Peoples, the question of a cosmopolitan framework is not whether such a conception is right, it is whether is it possible. A Society of Peoples answers this question best because it decides the limits of possibility by allowing real peoples to explore those limits themselves.