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Kantians and Cosmopolitanism: O'Neill and Cosmopolitan Universalism

  • Peter Sutch (a1)


The history of what we now term international relations theory is as rich and as complex as any area in the history of political thought. Yet in the last few decades one particular type of political philosophy has come to be almost unambiguously associated with liberal international relations theory. The dominance of Kantian cosmopolitanism in contemporary liberal international relations theory is quite remarkable. Its position is challenged, within liberalism, only by the utilitarian cosmopolitanism of thinkers such as Peter Singer and, from outside the liberal tradition, by communitarians such as Michael Walzer or Alasdair MacIntyre. At least, this is how the debate is portrayed in the current literature. In this article I want to suggest that the biggest challenge to Kantian cosmopolitanism comes from within the neo-Kantian tradition.



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1 For an overview of this complexity see Boucher, D., Political Theories of International Relations: From Thucydides to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

2 O'Neill, O., Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996): hereafter TJV.

3 See, for example, Jones, C., Global Justice: Defending Cosmopolitanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 228–9; Pogge, T., ‘Cosmopolitanism and sovereignty’, Ethics, 103 (1992), pp. 4950, Beitz, C., ‘Cosmopolitan liberalism and the states system’, in Brown, C. (ed.), Political Restructuring in Europe: Ethical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 124–6.

4 For an examination of the relation between Kant's cosmopolitanism and the cosmopolitanism of his contemporaries see Kleingeld, P., ‘Six varieties of cosmopolitanism in late eighteenth century Germany’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 60/3 (July 1999), 505–24.

5 For an overview of these traditions see (for example) Brown, C., International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches (Brighton: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1992) or Hutchings, K., International Political Theory (London: Sage, 1999).

6 The Moral Law: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. Paton, H. J. (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 95.

7 Kant, I., To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, tr. Humphrey, T. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), pp. 112–18.

8 Brown, C., ‘International theory and international society: the viability of the middle way’, Review of International Studies, 21 (1995), 189. Also Brown, , International Relations Theory, p. 37.

9 Rawls, J., Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 100.O'Neill, , TJV, p. 48.

10 Rawls, J., ‘The law of peoples’, in Shute, S. and Hurley, S. (eds), On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

11 Rawls, , Political Liberalism, p. 99, and lecture 3 passim.

12 Ibid., p. 99.

13 Ibid., p. 90.

14 Ibid., p. 98.

15 Rawls, , ‘Law of peoples’, p. 86.

16 Ibid., §12.2.

17 Cf. Rawls, , Political Liberalism, p. 108.

18 Rawls, , ‘Law of peoples’, pp. 46, 50. See also Political Liberalism, lecture 7.

19 Rawls, , The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 86.

20 O'Neill, , TJV, p. 48.

21 Ibid., p. 46.

22 O'Neill, O., Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. x.O'Neill, , TJV, pp. 3, 6.

23 TJV, p. 51.

24 Ibid., p. 47.

25 Ibid., p. 51.

26 Cf. O'Neill, O., ‘Abstraction, idealization and ideology in ethics’, in Evans, J. (ed.), Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Problems, Supplement to Philosophy, 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

27 TJV, p. 57.

28 Ibid., p. 74.

29 Ibid., pp. 89–90.

30 Ibid., p. 97.

31 Ibid., p. 101.

32 Ibid., p. 112.

33 Ibid., p. 113. Cf. the political consequences of these assumptions in O'Neill, , ‘Justice and boundaries’, in Brown, C. (ed.), Political Restructuring in Europe: Ethical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 1994).

34 Ibid., p. 85.

35 Mackie, J. L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977).

36 Ibid., p. 78.

37 Ibid., pp. 97–8.

38 While the phrase ‘plainly false’ is a little strong, the substitution of the phrase ‘highly contestable’ would serve my purposes here.

39 It is interesting to note here that both Rawls and Pogge accept that the third stage of universalization models the preferred liberal view.

40 O'Neill, O., Faces of Hunger: An Essay on Poverty, justice and Development (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986), p. 144: hereafter FH.

41 TJV, p. 156. See also ‘Ethical reasoning’, p. 714, and FH, p. 144.

42 Rawls, , ‘Law of Peoples’, p. 81.

43 Mackie, , Ethics, p. 239.

44 TJV, p. 172.

45 Ibid., p. 157.

46 See particularly Walzer, M., Thick and Thin: Moral Arguments at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).

47 My thoughts on Walzer's work are laid out in Sutch, P., ‘Constructing international community’, in Evans, M. (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Liberalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000) and Sutch, P., Ethics, Justice and International Relations (London: Routledge, 2000), ch. 7.

48 TJV. p. 110 n. 29.

49 Ibid., ch. 4.4, passim.

50 Ibid., p. 113.

51 Ibid., pp. 157, 172–3.

52 Ibid., p. 174. O'Neill goes on to talk about acting on non-universalizable principles but there is a prior communitarian meaning in this phrase that O'Neill does briefly acknowledge.

53 Ibid., p. 7.

54 See particularly C. Beitz, ‘Cosmopolitan liberalism and the states system’, in Brown (ed.), Political Restructuring and Pogge, T., ‘Cosmopolitanism and sovereignty’, Ethics, 103 (Oct. 1992), 4875.

Kantians and Cosmopolitanism: O'Neill and Cosmopolitan Universalism

  • Peter Sutch (a1)


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