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Coming Out as a Moral Cosmopolitan 

What It Means to Be a Human Being in the New Millennium
by Jason D. Hill

This is a somewhat old-fashoned call to those who I suspect might be living as closeted moral cosmopolitans. It is addressed to the best within you and the ethos that lies buried beneath the racialized, ethnicized, and nationalized self that your culture has given to you. It is an appeal to the best within you that precariously exists as a possibility but has yet to be realized. It is the continued process of moral becoming in you that I seek to address.

Many of us have been living as closeted cosmopolitans. That is, we have been living under the aegis of racism, racialism, nationalism, and excessive and bloated patriotism. Rigid tribal arrangements that even in their informal stances still dominate our conscious lives have acted as formal mores that regulate our civic alliances. Many of us, sometimes for inexplicable reasons, have felt a deep dissatisfaction in our souls and have sensed the existence of a deeper and more fulfilling way of being and living in the world. We have sensed that the excesses associated with the bloated tribalisms that have regulated our ethical lives have missed the mark entirely and have failed to satisfy our craving for an ideal that we sense we can achieve but for which we lack the requisite social moral goods.

Many of us have longed to live postethnic, postracial, and postnational lives, but fear of losing the security that accompanies group solidarity (delayed weaning) prevents the willed weaning that is a prerequisite for that type of “lifestyle.” Whether we know it or not, our lives have been mandated according to a cosmophobic ethos; that is, an ethos that organizes much of civic and social life around racial, ethnic, and national tribal lines. We have lived morally dichotomized lives. We have sensed an inner reality to which the outer and formally legislated world is unsympathetic.

To come out as a moral cosmopolitan is first of all to declare the mental pathologies on which racial and ethnic tribalism is founded. It is to declare such pathologies as nonconducive to moral health. Coming out, therefore, is not just a way of morally building a self that is radically different from the environmental self crafted by one's local and parochial milieu; it is also a declaration that the presuppositions, values, and qualifying methodologies of one's environment are spurious and deeply morally flawed. The attendant self then, the cosmophobic self that has been created, is genuinely not one's own. To come out as a moral cosmopolitan means that one has no truck with this milieu. One may need to continue living in it and grafting one's immediate life plans onto its surface structure but one in no way treats its value premises, presuppositions, and so-called objective view of people and the world as valid and beyond modification.

To come out as a moral cosmopolitan, then, means that one ceases to be complicitous in the perpetuation of such pathologies. To come out in this context is to see that moral rehabilitation requires a total moral and conceptual break with the world of one's past. It is to face a paradox and yet remain undaunted by it. The paradox lies in the fact that to reject the familiar and embrace the distant and the unknown is an act of faith that nevertheless requires that one act with a kind of certainty. There is no moral universe at large that would be hospitable to such an ethos. Yet one must dare to consciously craft a new type of self and reject the old culturally determined self. To change the self is also to change the world. Despite the fact that there might be no political, legislative, and procedural mechanism to sanction such a change, one self that dares to effect such a change leaves the world, in the deepest existential sense, radically altered. It is not the same. A solitary effrontery does leave the world changed.

In this call, an aristocracy of the soul is being summoned. To come out is to point the way to a possibility that is unfathomable to perhaps the majority of persons. Dedication to that which is right is infectious. Many are struggling to repress or forestall their heroism. They do this not from a sense of cynicism or moral agnosticism but because they fear that there is no world hospitable to their deepest moral sensibilities. The aristocrat, in the noblest sense of the term, is one whose regal bearing and nobility of character have never depended on the recognition and sanction of those less than he, nor has he required that his values and integrity conform to current trends. The soul aristocracy of you, the moral cosmopolitan, resides in the fact that the moral vision that guides your life paves the way for the moral rehabilitation of others and of your society and culture at large. Rather than waiting for others to create a world that you yearn for, a world that must be in place for your so-called true self to emerge, you imbue the world with the noblest of values wrought from the depths of a dissatisfied spirit whose hunger only you can sate. Moral creativity satisfies this hunger, and in the process it provides the world with a new model, a new paradigm of existing and of dealing with your fellow human beings. In your efforts, you are in effect forging the honorable traditions of tomorrow. On examining your struggles and the values spawned by your moral consciousness, old men and women reflecting on their lives in the middle of the first century of the new millennium will say that at last our moral abilities and dispositions have caught up with our scientific and technological achievements. No longer will this dichotomy exist within the human soul: the chasm between the stupendous accomplishments of humankind's intellect and the stodgy, slothful, and primitive advance of its moral conscience. The dilemma has always lain in the fact that humankind for so long has been able to manipulate the universe, to ward off the threats of nature, to battle plagues, and to protect itself from invaders.

The greatest battle, however, the battle that is waged within the soul of each person and that has been responsible for the majority of atrocities that continue to plague us today, remains unwon. The battle I am referring to, of course, is the battle against tribalism. Let those who doubt the truth of this read the history of the world very judiciously. Tribal conflicts have been, and still are, the source of most of the world's carnage. To come out as a moral cosmopolitan is in effect to say, “No more. The time has come. Civilization requires that we annihilate entirely the problematic features of our natures that prevent our moral progress as a species.” Those who do not believe that moral progress is a possibility do not matter in this issue. Their very survival and their capacity to provide a future for their children depend on this notion. Civilization requires this capacity on our part. Morality provides us with the means for doing so. History (along with current reality) demonstrates that we have yet to find an effective way of dealing with our tribal impulses. It is quite obvious that all of the moral configurations that we have devised and inherited have proved unsuccessful in vanquishing tribalism. It is obvious that our moral configurations have not been demanding enough of us. They have given us the capacity to have our cake and eat it too. That honorable and heroic Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes: “Human nature has a way of making very specious arguments to suit its own cowardice and lack of generosity.”

To come out as a radical cosmopolitan is to align oneself once and for all with the will that follows the moral intellect that knows the good. It means refusing to have your conception of the good tarnished by the false beliefs of tribal morality: the belief that our chances for a good life (which includes a morally and spiritually healthy life) ought to be determined by morally irrelevant features such as one's racial, ethnic, and national designations. But because a morally constructed self is also a self that has been radically realigned—one that is positioned differently in the world and is a self with new interests, new values, and new moral and political dispositions—it could find its past associations an affront to what one either has now become or is in the process of becoming.

To come out as a moral cosmopolitan might mean breaking with those with whom you were close while you lived either as a rabid tribalist or as a closeted moral cosmopolitan. Deciding which of your past associations to break and which to keep is up to you. The determining factors are personal and individual. Some breaks will have to be made since there are alignments with your past that make it all but impossible to be a moral cosmopolitan. But the extent to which you might be able to still align yourself with those merely problematic features of your past that make the transition difficult but not impossible is left to your discretion. Moral evolution is above all a voluntary undertaking. The edification of your consciousness has to be your decision, one in whose execution you are a direct and constant participant.

To come out is to halt the habituated practice of capitulating to the arbitrary, glib, and specious ends of the labelers and categorizers—vanguards of our sociocultural and sociopolitical culture. Your interior life ought not be regulated anymore by such practices. To come out is to cease pretending that your moral inferiors who have the political and cultural means of constructing your identities hold a moral good over your head; a good you cannot fully comprehend, a good that fails to satisfy your highest moral callings but that you will one day, if you just try hard enough, come to grasp and accept. It will never happen. The edification of your interior moral consciousness has been hijacked by tribalism. The eyes of the tribalist remain too focused on the ground, like the foraging animal that, guided by scent and keen eyesight, never lifts its eyes to the sky for the possibility of glimpsing in the heavens another sense, another model of radically existing in the world. It cannot and will never happen. The tribalist is to behave so. But your constitution is an upright one. It is a constitution that permits you all sorts of creative ontological leverages from which to devise limitless possibilities outside the world of your immediate senses. You have not exhausted the ranges of moral progress. Recommence the journey of our moral evolution and realize that we have only barely begun. History has not come to an end.

Remember, a single solitary effrontery does leave the world changed.

Excerpted from Becoming a Cosmopolitan: What It Means to Be a Human Being in the New Millennium by Jason D. Hill. Reprinted with permission from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Jason Hill, PhD, is an assistant professor of philosophy at de Paul University and was a 1999-2000 Society for the Humanities Fellow at Cornell University. He is currently writing a book on the subjects of cosmopolitan justice, sexuality, human rights, and education.


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This article is from...


October–December 2004