Book Review: Why Should We Help People in Need Beyond Our Borders?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the rise of globalization and an evolving human rights regime inspired a proliferation of work dedicated to cosmopolitan theory. Attention to the concept of cosmopolitanism never completely waned, but the muscular foreign policy of the Bush years and the re-emergence of assertive nation states such as China led to a sense that the cosmopolitan moment had passed.

In 2011, however, with a rising interest in the international “responsibility to protect”—most recently cited in the case of Libya—and continuing debates over the global threat of climate change, cosmopolitan concerns are back in the ascendant. In this context, Richard Vernon’s Cosmopolitan Regard is poised to make an important contribution to debates over the moral foundations to cosmopolitanism.

[This book review of Richard Vernon’s Cosmopolitan Regard: Political Membership and Global Justice will appear later this year in Perspectives on Politics.]

The international community assumes a responsibility to assist the victims of disaster or violent conflict when their own states cannot or will not do so themselves. This commitment is based upon international law and current understandings of international peace and security. But one might ask, why should citizens—in the United States, Japan, South Africa, or elsewhere—feel a moral obligation to assist victims in a far-off land in the first place? Why should we sacrifice to provide support for such endeavors? This book tries to answer that question, to provide a “ground-level principle” to guide debates about these matters (p. 181).

Vernon’s argument develops out of a reformulated social contract view of civil society. He argues that “national societies [are] justified, not as sources of moral experience, nor as embodiments of intrinsic associative value and meaning, but as a way of protecting human persons from dangers to which they are commonly vulnerable” (p. 196). To exit the dangers of the state of nature people enter into civil society to protect themselves, giving up some element of natural freedom in the process. This is familiar ground, but what is novel here is that Vernon uses the social contract starting point to argue for the necessity of political obligations beyond the nation state.

Vernon argues that cosmopolitan duties are political obligations that “are as binding as our obligations to other citizens, for they are sustained by the same considerations of political morality” (p. 208). We form separate societies as a way to best address the challenges of common dangers, but we can only justify our own exclusive political arrangements “if other societies can, likewise, seek their own best solutions to the balance of risks and benefits in political association, and give special weight to their own shared and exclusive interests in doing so” (p. 194). That is, if we assume the equal moral worth of all human beings, the exclusiveness of our own social contract is only justifiable if others have the right and capacity to form similar contracts. And Vernon argues this not only implies a duty to avoid impeding others from forming effective political units, it also implies a duty to provide them with support when needed.

Vernon addresses the consequences of this view with regard to three practical issues: humanitarian intervention, international criminal law, and something he calls the “global harm principle,” which relates to economic policy.

On humanitarian intervention, Vernon argues, our “responsibility to protect” people-in-need beyond our borders comes from our right to exclude them from the benefits of living within our own society. According to Vernon, “citizens of successful societies can justify their own enjoyment of benefits only if they are willing to go to the aid of the victims of failed or abusive states” (p. 138). A similar logic commands Vernon’s argument about why people should support the creation of international legal structures to hold individuals responsible for committing atrocities (p. 143).

While Vernon’s discussion of humanitarian intervention and international criminal law entails positive arguments for action and support, his discussion of global economic policy entails a negative “duty not to impede” (p. 167). If in part we base the legitimacy of our own economic flourishing on the opportunity of others to do the same, then at the very least we should not impede others in pursuing self-benefiting economic policies. Global justice demands a type of economic Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

Much of the discussion in the chapter on the “global harm principle” revolves around how to define “harm” in this context. For example, one might ask: where in the economic sphere does healthy competition cross the line to harmful action? The discussion is detailed and relies on an analysis of a variety of alternative approaches, but it results in a somewhat equivocal conclusion. We learn towards the end of the chapter that “[t]he object has only been to explore where we end up if, impressed by the harm principle’s minimalist appeal, we attempt to globalize it” (p. 189). This is rather unsatisfying; one is left wishing for a stronger statement of commitment from the author, which brings me to my principal critique of the work as a whole. Ultimately, the argument is in many places quite minimalistic and seemingly safe. For example, on humanitarian intervention Vernon concludes, “[t]he point of this discussion has only been to show that the appropriate allocation for interventionary assistance must be on the list of priorities that citizens dispute” (p. 139).

Vernon ambitiously sets out to reconcile the moral foundations of particular political membership with a cosmopolitan commitment to global justice; and within the frame of social contract theory he makes a compelling case. But the book is largely silent or frustratingly minimalist in relation to some of the toughest questions facing the world—and cosmopolitan theory—today. Part of this relates to the traditional social contract starting point. It still assumes a single, discrete, nation-bounded citizenry, rather than a multinational citizenry with multiple loyalties, or a transnational environment characterized by global processes, where inside and outside are no longer as clear as they once were. This is the world as defined by globalization.

Vernon alternatively paints a picture of a “world of parallel social projects” with clear, static boundaries (p. 114). Does this frame help us answer the tough questions faced by transnational societies? For example, on global justice, Vernon writes, “given the organization of the world into distinct political memberships, people suffer market effects as members of one society or another” (p. 176). This is true, in part, but “cosmopolitan regard” becomes most important for those people without effective political membership: the stateless, the internally displaced, the illegal immigrant fleeing desperate poverty, etc. Does the exclusive focus on bounded state societies help us address their plight?

To be fair, the book does not claim to have all the answers, as no book should. Cosmopolitan Regard is a treatise on political obligation that endeavors to show how it should be understood to extend beyond the borders of the nation state. And within the frame of ethical theory it does an effective job of making its case. It is a rich, well-structured book, and I have only scratched the surface here. Vernon’s method is to consider each possible approach in turn. He provides detailed analyses and critiques of a broad range of theorists, and he judiciously considers the possible responses to each of his arguments. This will no doubt make the book useful to teachers and students of cosmopolitan ethics for many years to come.

Related Links:
IPI Roundtable Discussion: Immanuel Kant, Human Rights, and Cosmopolitan Citizenship