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November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism’s Uneasy Relationship with Pluralism

David Wong

Cosmopolitanism as an ethical view is most commonly understood as the assertion of our equal membership as citizens of the world who possess a dignity beyond price (Nussbaum 2019: 2). Martha Nussbaum and Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006) have attempted to temper its universalism with measure of pluralism.

Appiah holds that we ought to celebrate the variety of values embodied in different ways of life. At the same time, he holds that there is a “moral minimum” that we ought all to share as citizens of the world: basic human rights, including “protection from needless pain, unwarranted contempt, and the mutilation of their bodies,” satisfaction of “needs for health, food, shelter, education,” and “certain options” everyone ought to have: “to seek sexual satisfaction with consenting partners; to have children if they wish to; to move from place to place; to express and share ideas; to help manage their societies; to exercise their imaginations” (2010: 162-163). Appiah acknowledges that shared understanding on a general level will not prevent cultures from disagreeing over how to apply those concepts to particular cases (Appiah 2010: 59). He further acknowledges that people may share values but disagree as to how to weigh them relative to other values that can come into conflict with them (Appiah 2010: 63). But then one must wonder how much work the “moral minimum,” will do on the practical level.

Nussbaum holds that a cosmopolitan ideal of human dignity, equality, rights, and human capabilities is compatible with a plurality of “reasonable” comprehensive doctrines (2019:14, 214-216, 247). She believes the ideal is compatible with making room for religions that don’t make rationality central to the determination of their commitments, which opens the door wide to the problems raised for Appiah: how to adjudicate between acceptable and unacceptable interpretations and prioritizations of values. She also holds that there are legitimate conflicts between national sovereignty (justified by the autonomy of peoples) and individual human dignity (justified by the autonomy of individual persons), and that such conflicts can yield many issues of “indeterminate” resolution.

Where should we go from here? One possibility is developing a hardline cosmopolitanism that is a more restrictive universalism that can adjudicate moral disagreements over value interpretation and prioritization. This seems to me to commit us to hidden Platonic forms. Let me stake out some of my own position (based on Wong 2006, 2011, 2018, and work I am still in the process of developing; for some earlier thinking on cosmopolitanism, see Wong and Hourdequin 2019). It seems to me that we must grapple with these disagreements on a more specific level, as particular disagreements to be treated within their contexts. To conceive of how this is possible, strands from the early Chinese tradition can be helpful.

In a famous passage, Confucius says, “Exemplary persons seek harmony not sameness” (Analects 13.23; trans. Ames and Rosemont, 2010, p. 169; for a comprehensive treatment of harmony in the Chinese tradition, see Li 2014). I shall here have to simply sketch the relevant conception of harmony programmatically for my purposes here (see Wong 2020). Harmony, not surprisingly, involves what I called “shared understanding,” which includes agreement on values, even if on the broad and abstract level (e.g., dignity, equality) that can lead to disagreement when we get more specific. Thus shared understanding can co-exist with disagreement. We can pursue the reasons why the different sides disagree and thus arrive at greater shared understanding. But sooner or later, we need to resort to what I call the value of accommodation, the striving for constructive relationship in the face of continuing disagreement (Wong 2006, 2020). Accommodation, as a second-order value that applies in case of first-order moral disagreement, is a necessary element of all adequate moralities because of the ubiquity of moral disagreement. If moral disagreement always became the occasion for the cessation of constructive relationship, we would be unable to carry out the cooperation that is the heart of human life.

A fuller specification of accommodation includes an epistemic openness and preparedness to expand one's conception of the good and the right upon further understanding and appreciation of other ways of life; a willingness to act on one's own moral positions in ways that minimize or reduce potential damage to one's broader relationship to others who have opposed positions; and a willingness to at least sometimes compromise on what one might have achieved in realizing one’s moral position for the sake of sustaining a broader relationship with disagreeing others. Which of these aspects of accommodation are relevant feasible depends on what the problem is and its context.

The other element of Confucian ethics relevant to an alternative cosmopolitanism is the concept of rightness or yi 義, which should be glossed as appropriateness to the circumstance. The Confucian ethic is deeply contextual in its approach. In complex situations the idea is to go beyond the standard norms and to exercise discretion, quan 權: explore ways to reconcile values in apparent conflict and if possible find a way that can satisfy in some degree the values in question. Successful thinking along these lines involves knowledge of the world, imagination, and creativity. The same characteristics apply to success in finding acceptable ways to mutually accommodate disagreeing parties. Finding a way is clearly context-dependent. Philosophy could do better at cultivating these resources. If we combine the Confucian concepts of harmony, of yi and of quan, we get the effort to resolve disagreements through a continuous effort to reach a balance of shared understanding, disagreement, and accommodation to that disagreement. Any resolutions we hit upon do not necessarily carry over for similar problems described at an abstract level, because such resolutions will be geared to the particularity of the problem we are addressing.

Daoism, and in particular the philosophy of the Zhuangzi, contributes other relevant elements of an alternative cosmopolitan approach. I earlier characterized one dimension of the value of accommodation as epistemic openness. Seeing into alternatives to one’s entrenched beliefs and practices is what the Zhuangzi is about. The second chapter of the Zhuangzi (“Equalizing Assessments of Things” Qi Wu Lun) presents a picture of the world as emerging from a single source: a Great Clump that blows its breath through the myriad hollows of the earth to give life to the myriad creatures. The Great Clump’s blowing and the unique expressions it gives through each of the hollows constitute the “piping” of Heaven and earth. The symphony of piping constitutes a vast alternation of endless and varied life expressions. Humanity has its piping too, born of the need to classify and order: we distinguish between “this” and “that” and between “right” and “wrong.” We “select” (qu 取) from the alternations to conceptualize our worlds and locate ourselves in them, giving ourselves starring roles.

We think we are right: our world is the world. The Zhuangzi’s critique of this epistemological egoism resonates with contemporary theories of conceptual relativism advocated by Nelson Goodman (1978) and Iris Einheuser (2011). On this view, facts such as what things are in the world and the properties they possess are not there independently of how we conceptualize them. We carve out facts from the stream of goings-on in our environment. An independent world is responsible for this stream, and we systematize and structure it, using only a very small portion of what we could glean from that stream to make sense of and navigate through that world. That we must filter out most of what we receive through our senses is necessitated by the limitations of our cognitive equipment. The world independent of us does constrain the range of viable conceptualizations. A metaphor for this process of selection that creates things and facts about them is naming a particular constellation such as the Big Dipper through discerning a certain pattern of stars in the sky. The process of selection cannot produce just any range of facts, just as one cannot make any pattern given the location of stars in the sky. The constraints come from the interaction between input from the world and features of our sensory and cognitive apparatus. The constraints do not determine a single correct systematization.

The partiality of our conceptualizations and our tendency to subordinate others to our own view of things is conveyed through a story about a seabird that the Marquis of Lu took a fancy to. He treated the bird to a banquet, playing it the best court music and laying out the best chops. The bird died in three days. The Marquis tried to nourish the bird with what nourished him (Zhuangzi, Zhi Le, sec.5). Our need to see ourselves as right, not just right for ourselves but right for others, is the lens through which we view the world.

In the “Autumn Floods” chapter, it is pointed out that some rulers yielded their thrones to others outside the family and other rulers passed them on to their sons. The ones who acted on these policies at the wrong time got called usurpers, and the ones who did it at the right times were called righteous. The implication is that no uniform rule, yielding or passing on, can be relied upon: “[D]o not restrict your will, but expansively limp and stagger along with the Dao. . . “[D]o not unify your conduct, but be uneven and varied along with the Dao” (translation adapted from Ziporyn 2009: 72) (Chinese Text Project Zhuāngzǐ, Qiū Shuǐ: 6). Reliance on our selections from the alternation, when they have overrun the occasions on which they are apt, does not enable us to travel the uneven and varied Dao.

We are bidden to set aside the preconceptions that form the boundaries of our conceptualized worlds, to tamp down the way our egos are involved in maintaining those worlds, and to look at the present moment. When the decision we must make is how to act toward others, we must try to connect with their minds and even more basically, what moves them beneath all conscious deliberation (their qi 氣 or vital energies). To do this, we must open ourselves and our own vital energies to them. The story in the Zhuangzi that best conveys these ideas features Confucius and his star student Yan Hui. The student wants to go advise a reckless young ruler careless of the lives of his people. Confucius rejects all of Yan Hui’s preconceived plans and preconceptions of how the ruler will respond to him. Confucius tells him that he must prepare himself for the encounter by “fasting” (zhai 齋) his mind. Likely referring to meditation, Confucius goes on to tell him that he must listen with his vital energies more than his mind. The vital energies are an emptiness, a waiting on things (see Ziporyn 2009: 27 for a translation of the text found in Chinese Text Project Zhuangzi, Rén jian shi: 2).

To sum up, we get from Confucianism the concepts of rightness as appropriateness to the present circumstances and of harmony that involves accommodating to disagreement and well as shared understanding. There are ways to act on these values that are compatible with the Zhuangzi’s advocacy of cognitive flexibility and desire to set aside the strictures of worlds that have been constructed around the needs of the self, whether this self is personal or embodies cultural ideals. Confucian and Daoist insights can be brought together in a new sort of cosmopolitanism. Rather than trying to formulate a definitive set of normative principles for cosmopolitanism, we should prepare ourselves to harmonize with others who carry their distinctive worlds within them.

This new sort of cosmopolitanism requires an epistemology that is ethical in its import. A crucial way of showing respect for others is to try to understand them and the worlds they carry within them. This epistemology includes virtues: humility, openness, and the courage to question one’s own assumptions. It is a social epistemology in the sense that it recognizes that inquiry is social and collaborative, but also challenging: of what is taken for granted, not only by others, but by oneself.


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Analects 論語 Lunyu. 2006-2021. Chinese Text Project.

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---2011. “Relativist Explanations of Interpersonal and Group Disagreement.” In A Companion to Relativism, ed. Steven D. Hales, pp. 411–29. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.

--- 2018. “Relativism and Pluralism in Moral Epistemology.” The Routledge Handbook of Moral Epistemology, pp. 316–28.

---2020. “Soup, Harmony, and Disagreement.” The Journal of the American Philosophical Association 6.2: 139-55.

Wong, David B.; and Hourdequin, Marion. 2019. “Hiding the World in the World: A Case for Cosmopolitanism Based in the Zhuangzi,” in Philosophies of Place: An Intercultural Conversation, ed. Peter Herschock and Roger Ames, pp. 15-33. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Zhuangzi 莊子. 2006-2021. Chinese Text Project Zhuāngzǐ. @

Ziporyn, Brook, translator. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

David Wong is the Susan Fox Beischer and George D. Beischer Professor of Philosophy at Duke University.

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