Today there is a passionate debate going on between two competing visions of global ethics. On one side there is the cosmopolitan vision, a universalist perspective that believes every person has equal moral value, regardless of their locality. On the other side there is communitarianism, which sees individuals, and their morals, as subjective and so confined to specific contexts. Although this discussion may seem esoteric, it is having a profound impact on how states perceive their responsibilities and ethical obligations in the global arena.
An example of this is the divided international response to the current political, social and economic crisis unfolding in Venezuela. Through an analysis of this situation it is evident that countries on each side of the issue are being influenced by the broader debate between cosmopolitan and communitarian. More importantly, it emphasizes the significance of this ethical discussion, both on academia and the lives of millions of people around the world.
As stated above, cosmopolitanism is an ethical ideology that places individuals at the centre of moral consideration. From a purist perspective it believes the world is a single ethical space defined by universal moral principles that are applicable to everyone. Therefore, each person has inalienable rights that should be extended to him or her, no matter what country they come from. This is because the origin of an individual’s moral value is derived from their inherent humanity, not the community they live in. However, cosmopolitanism is not a monolithic moral framework. Rather, it is an ideology that has multiple sources and iterations that make it incredibly diverse and varied. This is particularly important to consider when reviewing the recent adaptation of the concept in the last few years.
A common criticism of cosmopolitanism, especially among communitarians, is that it decontextualizes ethics, removing them from the distinct communities they were produced in. This universality, its opponents suggest, enables the concept to become both arrogant and despotic, making it susceptible to imperialistic exploitation. In response to this a more subjective approach is often advocated, focusing on engaging with a variety of moral perspectives, creating an ethical tapestry that is more a work in progress than a finished product.
However, this idea has many opponents. One such group is the communitarians. In contrast to cosmopolitanism, they believe ethics are socially constructed ways of thinking developed in particular environments. This means moral value is not inherently found within individuals but instead constructed in specific communities, who each have their own unique ethical framework. Therefore, morality is not universal. This makes any attempt to apply moral reasoning beyond cultural boundaries not only misguided but impossible to achieve. It is from this perspective that communitarians criticize the universalist notions of cosmopolitan thinking.
But, the criticisms go both ways. Cosmopolitans denounce communitarianism as an ethical ideology that is ill suited to address the increasingly global nature of moral problems and concerns in the modern world. Additionally, they attack communitarianism for creating the idea of ‘outsiders’, and how this exposes the concept to a more xenophobic and blinkered worldview. This is of particular concern to cosmopolitan scholars who believe conventional understandings of what constitutes a community are too narrow. In its place they call for a more diverse interpretation that includes a range of groups, rather than just the traditional nation-states.
A practical example of this ethical debate in the world today is the current political, social and economic crisis occurring in Venezuela. The political aspect of the crisis started on January 23 when Juan Guaidó, Chairman of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president of the country, challenging the leadership of the current president Nicolás Maduro.
But the catalyst for the presidential contest stretches further back, coming after years of economic mismanagement and corruption under Maduro that has resulted in widespread poverty, hunger and rampant crime. For many people living conditions have deteriorated so badly that leaving is their only option, with around four million Venezuelans migrating to neighbouring countries, such as Colombia and Brazil, so far.
The international response to the crisis has been mixed. The United States, Canada, Australia and a collection of South American nations have recognised Guaidó as the new interim president, along with a variety of European countries demanding Maduro call new elections. On the other side, Russia, China, Turkey and Cuba continue to support Maduro and have denounced the recent political movement against him as an illegitimate coup. While neither group has explicitly referenced cosmopolitanism or communitarianism, elements of both can be seen in the two competing perspectives.
Those supporting Guaidó have justified their decision by emphasizing the humanitarian crisis that millions of Venezuelan people have been suffering through under Maduro. Citing poverty, starvation and lack of access to basic necessities, countries such as the United States have asserted that Guaidó offers Venezuela a better future, one of freedom and prosperity, which the people deserve.
Such rhetoric is clearly connected to a cosmopolitan perspective on ethics. By focusing on the hardship ordinary people have faced because of Maduro, supporters of Guaidó are placing individuals at the centre of their moral reasoning, the foundation of cosmopolitan thought. Furthermore, by claiming Venezuelans deserve a better life, free from crime and hunger, they are implying that the people have a moral right to these conditions, irrespective of the society they come from. This displays an ethical universalism that is at the heart of cosmopolitanism.
This interpretation is sharply contrasted by the views of Russia and China, who adhere to a more communitarian perspective. Both countries criticize the recognition of Guaidó as outside interference in a sovereign nation’s domestic affairs. They argue such action will only exacerbate problems in Venezuela, destabilising the country even more.
Embedded in this argument is a core belief of communitarianism, that the situation in Venezuela is unique and that it can only be understood and resolved by the Venezuelan people themselves. Additionally, it suggests that it is not Russia or China’s ethical responsibility to assist the country. Rather, the only obligation they have is to the citizens of their own societies. Such a claim is evidently based on the communitarian idea of distinct moral communities that are both socially constituted and confined to their co-nationals.
Although what will happen in Venezuela is still uncertain, what is clear is that the country and its people are intertwined in a much larger ethical discussion. The divided international response to the current political, social and economic crisis emphasizes the debate between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism today. But Venezuela is not the only case. Increasingly since the end of the Cold War states have used ethical language to justify both action and inaction in the global arena. Therefore, it is important to recognize the power of this moral debate, as it is impacting not just scholars but the lives of millions of people around the world.