Must Libertarians Be Cosmopolitan?

In the language of political philosophy  “moral cosmopolitanism” is the view that the interests of all persons, wherever located, are entitled to equal weight, and thus we have no justification for favoring the economic or other interests of our fellow citizens:  There are versions of this doctrine, “moderate cosmopolitanism,” that allow for some local favoritism.  It is easy to see how this perspective can be derived from utilitarianism, which requires the agent to impartially weigh the happiness of all persons.

However, even many libertarians and classical liberals, who reject utilitarianism, also embrace this doctrine.   As far as I can determine, this view is generally based on the appealing notion of universal human rights, which implies that all persons are entitled to equal respect and dignity. Therefore, there is no defensible basis for favoring some persons as objects of charity over others. Not only charity, of course, but also our consumer purchase decisions, trade policy, immigration laws, etc.

One cannot deny that this view has a certain intuitive appeal, but upon close inspection I do not believe it is as compelling. The reason is that, depending upon the factual background, our relationship with members of our community and our country is qualitatively different than with foreigners, and this circumstance may make it permissible to favor them with regard to our politics, dollars and beneficence.

I will illustrate by way of an example. Suppose that I have a neighbor, Joe, with whom I have a mutually beneficial relationship. That is to say, when I go on vacation, he looks in on my house, and when he is away I do the same for him; he and I both maintain and care for our respective properties in a conscientious way; he doesn’t throw wild parties during the work week that run through the night, and neither do I;  if I have a particular tool that he needs, I am happy to loan it to him, and he returns the favor, and so on.  We need not suppose that Joe and I see eye-to-eye in matters of politics, religion, culture, or anything else.

Now, imagine that Joe falls on hard times. He is not facing starvation, homelessness,  or a fatal disease, but is in distress and a $100 gift would allow him to live better for at least a while. Further suppose that this same $100 would save the lives of several strangers in Africa, and that $100 is all I have to give at this moment. Is it wrong for me to give the $100 to Joe?

I don’t think so.  Even putting aside the fact that Joe is a real person, known to me, and the starving in Africa are more of an abstraction, I am entitled to favor him because his actions have benefitted me in a way that complete strangers have not. Now it is true that Joe does no more for me than I do for him, but nevertheless I could have had a rotten neighbor, which would have made me substantially worse off .

It is not wrong to favor of the interests of those who have done you a good turn, even if others would benefit more from your benevolence. This is the same reason that it is morally permissible for me to contribute generously to my alma matter in gratitude for the full scholarship it gave me, even if donating to other causes would do more good.

I believe this same moral logic applies to the question of favoring the interests of locals relative to the global population. Assuming that you perceive that the members/citizens of your particular community, town, state or nation embody and reflect values (economic, political, social, etc.) that benefit you in some meaningful way, it is not wrong for you to discriminate in their favor when it comes to charity, consumer purchases, and legislation. Since we are dealing here with matters of moral choice rather than strict duty, it is certainly also permissible to contribute to the alleviation of misery in the third world, rather than more local causes.   

Nothing said above justifies infringing the rights of foreigners, which are  entitled to the same weight as those of our neighbors or countrymen.  The doctrine of equal dignity and respect for all persons forbids this, and no reasonable libertarian would think otherwise. My comments above apply only to cases where we enjoy moral discretion, i.e. where we can act without violating anyone else’s rights.   


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