Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

The Cost of Divided Loyalties: Family, Country, and the World

Chenyang Li

When I started to apply to graduate schools in the United States in the mid-1980s, I learned for the first time that there was such a thing as a “merit-based scholarship” that had no requirement on applicants’ citizenship, nor imposed bond on post-study service. It was just made available to help students to learn and improve themselves, to promote education for the betterment of the world. Not for national advancement, nor for family glories. Coming out of a strong patriotic education background in China, it took some time for me to make sense of such a practice. In retrospect, that was my first personal lesson in cosmopolitanism. Footnote 1

The root idea of cosmopolitanism is being a citizen of the world, in contrast to a citizen of a specific country or a member of a local community.Footnote 2 Following Martha Nussbaum, I will understand cosmopolitanism as holding primary allegiance to the community of human beings in the entire world (Nussbaum 1994). Similarly, I understand patriotism as holding primary allegiance to the community of human beings in one’s own country. Furthermore, we can take into consideration the view of familism, which usually means the needs of the family as a group are more important than the needs of any individual family member, but in the context of this paper I define familism as holding primary allegiance to one’s own family rather than larger human communities. Thus conceived, familism, patriotism, and cosmopolitanism form three concentric circles in a person’s life. There are of course other concentric circles in our lives, such as our local communities, but focusing on these three will be adequate for making my point. I will argue that each of these human communities constitutes an independent good for the good life. Shifting allegiances between these circles entail reallocating loyalty and dedication, and thus incurs a cost as well as produces additional goodness. A philosophy of the good life articulates its own vision of the ideal allocation of loyalty and dedication among these three spheres. While cosmopolitanism has its own value and good, it also comes with a cost, and promoters of cosmopolitanism—including Confucian cosmopolitans—often neglect and under-assess such a cost. The paper consists of three sections. In the first section of the paper, I examine two versions of cosmopolitanism, held by Martha Nussbaum and Tu Weiming respectively. In the second section, I problematize their approaches by raising the issue of cost in adopting broader stances. Finally, I will argue for a harmony approach to cosmopolitanism that takes into account the cost it incurs on people’s local or regional commitments.

Nussbaum’s Cosmopolitanism and Tu’s Ultra-Cosmopolitanism

Although the idea of cosmopolitanism has a long history, traceable at least to Stoic philosophy, a more recent wave of scholarly interest in cosmopolitanism was ignited by Martha Nussbaum’s article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” (Nussbaum, 1994). Against Richard Rorty’s op-ed piece in The New York Times (13 February 1994), which calls for patriotism in the United States, Nussbaum argued that that this emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and subversive of some of the worthy goals that patriotism sets out to serve, e.g., national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality. Nussbaum argued that such goals would be better served by the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world (ibid., 1).

It should be noted that Nussbaum does not deny that a person’s life involves a series of concentric circles. Citing the Stoic view, she writes,

"The first one is drawn around the self; the next takes in one's immediate family; then follows the extended family; then, in order, one's neighbors or local group, one's fellow city-dwellers, one's fellow countrymen -- and we can easily add to this list groupings based on ethnic, linguistic, historical, professional, gender and sexual identities. Outside all these circles is the largest one, that of humanity as a whole" (Ibid., 4).

Even with a strong bend toward cosmopolitanism, Nussbaum insists that being a cosmopolitan does not require us to give up our special affections and localized identifications. In other words, we can still retain our identities as family members, fellow villagers, and patriots. She emphasizes, however, that we should “give the circle that defines our humanity a special attention and respect” (ibid., 4). In her view, patriotism can be dangerous because it is “very close to jingoism” (ibid., 6). She argues that our first allegiance belongs to what is morally good and the morally good is what we can commend to all human beings (ibid., 2). It follows, therefore, our first allegiance belongs to cosmopolitanism.

The contemporary Confucian philosopher who is well-known for a similar view of the concentric circles in human life is Tu Weiming. Although Tu’s view is not presented in the context of debates of cosmopolitanism and patriotism, his view anthropocosmocism deals with similar issues and, in it, we find similar tensions and similar desires to bridge various levels of life that pull on us in different ways. Tu wrote,

"The true self, as an open system, is not only a center of relationships but also a dynamic process of spiritual and physical growth. Selfhood in creative transformation is the broadening and deepening "embodiment" (ti) of an ever­expanding web of human relationships, which we can conceptualize as a series of concentric circles. As the process of "embodiment" never ends, we never reach the outer rim of these concentric circles. We continually reach out to "form one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things." Nevertheless, when we reach out to form one body with the most generalized commonality, we also come home to reestablish and reconfirm the centrality of our selfhood" (Tu, 1989, 113-4).

In Tu’s picture of the concentric circles of Confucian self-cultivation and growth, a person expands one’s existence from a single individual and overcomes one’s ego to seek larger existence, from self to family, to community, to state, and to the world as a whole (ibid., 115). The moves from community to country and again from country to the world are parallel to patriotism and cosmopolitanism. Tu, however, goes one step further, as this concentric movement eventually reaches a level where one would “form one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.” Note that this process is described by Tu as pure progress in self-cultivation, with the last stage as the highest goal. Through each step, one does not diminish but grows into a richer existence. In Tu’s words, “each concentric circle signifies a moment in which a structural limitation is transformed into an instrument of self­transcendence” (ibid., 114). By overcoming the structural limitation of the private ego, the true self transcends egocentrism and enters fruitful communion with members of the family. Extending beyond the family, the true self becomes a productive member of the community, then to the county/state, and to the world. Tu wrote,

"Just as the self must overcome egoism to become authentically human, the family must overcome nepotism to become authentically human. By analogy, the community must overcome parochialism, the state must overcome ethnocentrism, and the world must overcome anthropocentrism to become authentically human. In light of Confucian inclusive humanism, the transformed self personally and communally transcends egoism, nepotism, parochialism, ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism to “form one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things”" (ibid., 115-6).

Tu called such a philosophy “anthropocosmism,” which can be seen as a form of ultra-cosmopolitanism as it extends beyond cosmopolitanism. It transcends egocentrism to the family, transcends familial nepotism to community, transcends parochialism to country, transcends ethnocentrism to the world, and finally transcends anthropocentrism to anthropocosmism. For Tu, only by extending our existence through this series of concentric circles can we finally attain the moral personhood. In Tu’s perspective, even Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism is to be overcome in order to finally reach unity with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.

Obviously, Nussbaum and Tu are coming from very different perspectives. Whereas Nussbaum’s inspirations come from Stoics and Kant, Tu’s is primarily grounded on neo-Confucianism. Nevertheless, Nussbaum and Tu share an important commonality. Both of them hold that, of the concentric circles, the external one(s) is of higher value; both advocate moving from the inner to the outer circle(s). In doing so, however, they both fail to give adequate recognition of the intrinsic value of the inner circle(s) and hence fall into a form of biased idealism, as I will argue next.

Cost of Extending to the Outer Circle

I argue that life in the inner layers of the concentrated circles has its own good. Familism is a good on its own, so is patriotism. In families, we are born, get nurtured, and grow. In families, we exercise love and human relationality. Thus, the family has or should have a special place in our hearts. Similar things can be said of one’s country. Our countries give us security and peace. They provide an environment for us to have a normal life, with our families. Usually, they are also the main sources of our cultural heritage and identity.Footnote 3 For these reasons and more, families and countries are sources of important value to the good life. Nussbaum maintains that only the cosmopolitan stance gives our first allegiance to what is morally good and what is morally good is to be commended as such to all human beings (Nussbaum 1994, 2). Her understanding of what is morally good seems too narrow. Family life is a moral good, so is patriotic life. These types of good exist independently of cosmopolitan good. Obviously, an illiterate peasant in a mountain village in ancient China, who knew of nothing of his state or the world, would nevertheless enjoy the moral good of his family life. In the hypothetical story of Shun secretly carrying his criminal father to escape punishment in Mencius 7A35, we can criticize Shun for failing his duty as the emperor or that his action goes against justice, but we cannot deny that living with his father “happily” in itself is a good of its own. As a matter of fact, we can be troubled by Shun’s pursuit for a happy life with his criminal father precisely because we—most of us anyway—recognize also the good of allegiance to our country. Considered independently, a happy life with one’s father, criminal or not, has its own good.

As far as family life and patriotic life are also morally good, they both compete with as well complement the moral good of cosmopolitan life. They compete in the sense that shifting weight from one to another often incurs a cost, even though sometimes such a cost is justified.Footnote 4 When thinkers like Nussbaum and Tu encourage us to move from the inner circles of life to the outer, to cosmopolitanism or even further, they usually emphasize the positive aspects of such moves, without discussing the cost of such choices. I suggest that the cost involved in this kind of move can be substantial and it should be taken seriously. We should take into consideration the cost, or potential cost, when making such choices.

In the literature of cosmopolitanism, authors often use words like “allegiance,” “loyalty,” and “love” to describe the need to adjust one’s attachment from one scope (e.g., country) to another (e.g., the human world). When a person transforms from being a patriot to a cosmopolitan, as advocated by Nussbaum, he switches his allegiance, loyalty, and even love, from his country to the entire humanity. Similarly, we can say that, in the case of Tu Weiming, the self grows by expanding one’s allegiance, loyalty, and love (ren 仁), to family, community, country, the world, and eventually the entire universe. One crucial feature of such attachment as allegiance, loyalty, and love is that they are not fixed but also not unlimited (“NFNU” for short). On the one hand, one’s allegiance and loyalty to, love for a country can grow or fade, one can expand allegiance, loyalty, and love to one country to more countries and even to the entire humanity. However, such moves are not unlimited. One cannot maintain allegiance and loyalty to everything, even including the whole universe, as one may sense in the picture of the unity between heaven and humanity (tianren heyi天人合一) by Tu Weiming. For allegiance and loyalty to everything amounts to allegiance and loyalty to nothing. Nor can one spread love to everyone and everything in the world without lessening the intensity of love to a particular person or social group in one’s inner circles of existence.

Allegiance, loyalty, and love are not unlimited also because they have to be realized through action. One cannot claim allegiance, loyalty, and love without acting on them, even though there is an unmistakably psychological aspect in them. One cannot claim allegiance, legitimately, to one’s country without taking into consideration the country when deciding on doing things that may affect the country. One cannot claim to love her family, meaningfully, without doing loving things for her family. In acting, a person’s capacity is not unlimited. With limited capacity to do things, one’s allegiance, loyalty, and love must be demonstrated in one’s action as a priority in utilizing one’s capacity for action. A person may have multiple priorities. Her own wellbeing, her family, her community, her country, her species, and other living and nonliving things in the world. How to distribute her energy, effort, and time is an inescapable practical question and it indicates her priorities at the moment or in life. Prioritizing one of these competing options means to deprioritize others, directly or indirectly. Taking the feature of NFNU into consideration as we deliberate on issues of cosmopolitanism, we must weigh the cost of split allegiances, loyalties, and loves; we must take seriously the cost of extending the self to a broader scope.

Cosmopolitans can attempt to minimize the cost for being cosmopolitan. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, does not claim that one cannot do good to one’s country, but she insists that there must be a universalistic reason for doing so. She said,

"None of the major thinkers in the cosmopolitan tradition denied that we can and should give special attention to our own families and to our own ties of religious and national belonging…but the primary reason a cosmopolitan should have for preferential attention paid to one’s own compatriots or one’s own children – is not that the local is better per se, but rather that this is the only sensible way to do good’" (Nussbaum, et al., 1996: 135–136).

Presumably, for Nussbaum, good reasons for doing good to one’s compatriots or own children should be universal reasons. For example, we help compatriots because it serves humanity in general and, additionally, doing good locally makes our actions more effective and efficient. For Nussbaum, the fact that these are my children or that these are my countrymen or country women do not constitute an independent good reason for doing good locally. Nussbaum emphasizes the advantage or benefits of going cosmopolitan, but she fails to take into consideration the cost of doing so. If my above analysis of the inevitable tension between different priorities holds, the cost can be substantial to many people, as giving one’s primary allegiance to humanity implies placing one’s country as secondary or even less.

Tu Weiming frames his program of personal development from inner to outer circles in terms of moral growth. One transcends oneself as an egoist individual to be a member of the family and a relational being in the innermost concentric circle of human existence. Continuous growth leads one to one’s community, country, the world, and eventually to becoming one with the universe. In each of these steps, one becomes more and more authentically human by overcoming prior limitations. So far all sounds good, except that no mention is made with regard to cost. Tu’s formulation makes it sound as if all is gain without loss. But in real life it is not so. For an adult person to establish a family, she not only gains an important dimension of the good life, but also takes new responsibilities, which involve inevitably self-sacrifice. Whereas a move from family to community transcends nepotism, it also takes one’s attention away from family, at least partially. In the story of the Confucian sage-king Yu, he was so dedicated to his role of fighting the flood that during a thirteen-year period, he passed his family home three times without even making a stop. In doing so, Yu may have been a great patriot but hardly a good family man. One becomes less parochial to love the country; one also uproots oneself partially from hometown or village. And let us face it, becoming a cosmopolitan makes one less a patriot. Being a Mother Teresa makes it impossible to be a good mom or a good patriot. Finally, “forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things” takes us further away from all prior phases of life.

All these, together, do not amount to saying that one should not execute these extensions of the concentric circles in life. It does suggest, however, that the theory is not complete without taking into consideration the cost in each step of the way. It may also suggest that it can be reasonable for some people not to go all out toward the phase of the unity with Heaven and humanity because it may be too costly for taking them too far away from their family, community, and country. It is on such ground that one can justify more or less family-centered classic Confucianism against anthropocosmist neo-Confucianism. Tu Weiming’s sketch of the Confucian vision of life is more taken from Song-Ming neo-Confucianism rather than pre-Qin classic Confucianism. The ideal life for classic Confucian thinkers is more localized, more centered on family life. In some sense, this shift from life mostly in the inner concentric circles to more and more outer concentric circles is in the same direction as Nussbaum’s shift from patriotism to cosmopolitanism.

Harmonizing Different Pursuits

As an alternative to Nussbaum’s approach, Kwame Anthony Appiah proposed “cosmopolitan patriotism.” Appiah differs from Nussbaum on two counts. First, for Appiah, a cosmopolitan does not have to renounce patriotism, as Nussbaum’s position seems to suggest. Cosmopolitans can still be connected to their respective cultures and countries. In his words,

"The cosmopolitan patriot can entertain the possibility of a world in which everyone is a rooted cosmopolitan, attached to a home of one’s own, with its own cultural particularities, but taking pleasure from the presence of other, different places that are home to other, different people" (Appiah 1997, 618).

Appiah’s cosmopolitan patriots would accept their civic responsibility to nurture the culture and the politics of their homes. Yet, they would not confine their efforts for a good society within the bounds of their own country or prioritize their own country as John Rawls is often interpreted to do. Unlike Nussbaum, Appiah does not take people’s national identities as “a morally irrelevant characteristic.” For him, people’s local identities are significant because humans live best on a smaller scale. Meaningful lives take place in the many communities in which we live: We the state, the county, the town, the street, the business, the craft, the profession, the family. (Appiah, 624) Before reaching the level of a common humanity, all these circles are appropriate spheres for our moral concern. Appiah maintains, the freedom to create oneself requires a variety of local identities, including professional and other social identities. These affiliations can greatly enrich people’s existence as cosmopolitans. In the picture of a world of cosmopolitan patriots, as presented by Appiah, cultures are nurtured, localities are maintained, and national politics are sustained. Moreover, a cosmopolitan patriot can be a liberal, too. A cosmopolitan, as a liberal, would not say “My country, right or wrong.” Both hold that there is a higher moral authority, or moral principle, than one's own particular political community. However, people who love moral principles can also love country, family, friends. Moral patriots also hold their state and their community to certain standards. Their moral aspirations can be liberal.

The second difference between Nussbaum and Appiah lies in their different takes on the connotations of cosmopolitanism. Whereas Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism seems to emphasize common values of humanity, Appiah stresses the richness of cultural diversity. As the above quote announces, the cosmopolitan patriot is a rooted cosmopolitan, who is attached to a home of his own, with its own cultural particularities. For him, being a cosmopolitan does not make one take humanity as all homogenous. He wrote,

"You can be cosmopolitan celebrating the variety of human cultures; rooted loyal to one local society (or a few) that you count as home; liberal convinced of the value of the individual; and patriotic celebrating the institutions of the state (or states) within which you live" (Appiah, 633).

Being a patriot does not prevent one from embracing common human values. And being a cosmopolitan patriot does not make one reject the value and dignity of autonomous individuals. In Appiah, readers can sense a strong aspiration for being cosmopolitan-patriot-liberals, even though they can live alongside homogeneous cosmopolitans, hardline patriots, and conservatives, as long as they all share a common political culture.

My stance is closer to Appiah than to Nussbaum or Tu. Appiah is similar to Nussbaum and Tu in one important aspect, however. That is, Appiah also regards adding or extending layers of concentric circles as solely a plus, without considering its cost. I suggest that each of the layers of the concentric circles in one’s life is an independent good and has its own value. And there is competition in the pursuit of these values, and hence pursuing them inevitably involves costs. E. M. Forster famously said that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” We can make sense of, even admire, such sentiment because friendship is a good on its own.Footnote 5 The same can be said of family, country, and humanity. When a country’s political leaders shut down the borders to keep out a flood of refugees, they can be criticized for failing to promote humanity, but we cannot deny that, at least sometimes, they do this to protect their own country, which is again also an independent good. Pursuing such a good has its own value.

In my view, family life is an independent good, which does not depend on the value of community, country, and more, even though it can be enriched by improvements of the larger environment of the family. We can say the same about one’s country. Patriotic life is a good in itself. It is worth pursuing independently of other goods. Love of humanity is also a good in itself, independent of other pursuits in one’s life. When the pursuits of these goods cannot be realized at the same time, one needs to strike a balance that one thinks appropriate. And different people will configure these pursuits in different ways. In the end, I think each of us has to find ways to harmonize or balance these various pursuits in our own ways that we think most worthwhile. Confucians, as prescribed by classic thinkers, take family life as the foundation of a meaningful life. Such a Confucian can actively contribute to communal life, she can be a passionate patriot, she can love humanity as a whole and be a cosmopolitan, and she can also be an anthropocosmist, feeling a deep connection with the universe. However, at the end of the day, her life is most deeply rooted in her family life.

Returning to the “cosmopolitan” approach to scholarships in the United States mentioned at the beginning of this paper, scholarships in Singapore often prioritize Singaporeans and, for international students, are mostly associated with a contract to work in Singapore afterwards. Hence, philosophically, scholarships are justified on patriotic rather than cosmopolitan principles. Even though with a cosmopolitan approach to scholarships in the United States, many (or even most) scholarship awardees choose to work and make contributions to the United States. In effect, these unconditional scholarships also benefit the country. So, one could argue that, perhaps in an indirect way, patriotism is not entirely absent after all.

1. The closest model I had learned previously was Henry Norman Bethune (1890-1939), a Canadian doctor who came to China to support CCP’s Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, he was portrayed as an Internationalist 国际主义者rather than a cosmopolitan, as a Canadian coming to the aid of China. Nowhere was mentioned that he also aimed to help the Japanese people against their militaristic government.

2. Samuel Scheffler has formulated two conceptions of cosmopolitanism. The first is a doctrine about justice. This conception of cosmopolitanism holds that all humans are equal and should be treated equally, regardless of their actual citizenships. This idea of justice is opposed to applying norms of justice within bounded groups who are subsets of the global population, be it a federation, a nation, or a local community. The second conception of cosmopolitanism about culture and the self. It is opposed to the idea, among others, that people’s identity largely depends on their membership in a determinate cultural group. (Scheffler 1999) These conceptions are not entirely distinct, however, as Scheffler has noted. But they help us think more clearly about what aspect of cosmopolitanism we concentrate on. This paper is mostly on cosmopolitanism of the second sort, about cultural identity and the self, even though it inevitably extends across to issues of justice.

3. Here we are speaking of normal situations, of course. In abnormal circumstances, states and families can be detrimental to one’s life too. Cosmopolitanism, then, can present the same problem. What if other people turn against us even though we love them? General claims can be meaningful even though they are open to exceptions. The fact that life loses value to a terminally ill and severely suffering person does not invalidate the general claim that human life is of significant value.

4. For discussion of competing values and the need to configure these values for a vision of the good life, see Li (2008).

5. For an argument of friendship as an independent good, see Cocking and Kennett (2000).


Appiah, Kwame Anthony 1997. “Cosmopolitan Patriots,” Critical Inquiry (23. 3): 617-639.

Cocking, Dean and Jeanette Kennett 2000. “Friendship and Moral Danger.” The Journal of Philosophy (97. 5): 278-296.

Kleingeld, Pauline; Brown, Eric. 2002. “Cosmopolitanism.” In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 ed.).

Li, Chenyang 2008. “Cultural Configurations of Values,” World Affairs: Journal of International Issues, Vol 12.2: 28-49.

Nussbaum, Martha C., 1994. Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism, The Boston Review (October 01, 1994).

Nussbaum, Martha C., et al., 1996, For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, Joshua Cohen (ed.), Boston: Beacon Press.

Scheffler, Samuel, 1999, “Conceptions of Cosmopolitanism,” Utilitas, 11: 255–276.

Smith, Huston 2009. The World’s Religions, San Francisco: HarperOne.

Tu Weiming 1998. “Family, Nation, and the World: The Global Ethic as a Modern Confucian Quest,” Social Semiotics, 8:2-3, 295, DOI: 10.1080/10350339809360413 .

--------------- 1989. Centrality and Commonality, Albany: State University of New York.

Chenyang Li is a professor in the School of Humanities and served as the founding coordinator and then director of the philosophy program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Other Responses