Robots help us understand human nature. Hiroshi Ishiguro

Rescuing the Enlightenment from the Europeans

The Enlightenment ideals of cosmopolitanism and hospitality are nowhere to be found in today’s European border policy. The escalating migrant crisis makes this clearer than ever.

In his 1795 treatise Eternal Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that all “world citizens” should have a right to free movement, a right which he grounded in humankind’s common ownership of the earth. One can hardly imagine a right that has been so extensively violated as the right to mobility. In this sense, the migrant is the bearer of Kant’s message for the cosmopolitan right to move fearlessly and freely across borders, even as the humanitarian disaster unfolding at Europe’s doorstep signals European betrayal of Enlightenment principles.

Responsibilities Beyond our Self-Interest

Kant proposes cosmopolitism as a guiding principle to protect people from war and wishes to morally ground cosmopolitan right in the notion of universal hospitality. Promoting sociality and humanity, cosmopolitanism symbolizes a transcultural competence of negotiating cultural difference, a move beyond narrowly territorial understandings of identity and belonging. Irrespective of national, religious, ethnic, and gender differences, people appear as belonging to a single global community based on their shared pasts and entangled futures. According to Kant, a world citizen acts from the pluralistic standpoint of humanity as a collective actor, and not as an egoistic individual. Cosmopolitanism, based on the normative espousal of an expansive global consciousness, opposes narrow and limited territorial loyalties. We, as citizens of liberal democracies, are expected to take on responsibilities beyond the limits of our narrow self-interest, particularly in the face of growing global interdependence. Thus the Enlightenment notion of cosmopolitanism has as its normative ideal the pursuit of the perfect civil union of mankind.

The recent boat tragedies at the shores of Europe signal a failure of Enlightenment commitment to humanity and humanitarianism. We are once again witnessing a crisis of European claims to being upholders of global justice, human rights and democracy. The disenchantment with Europe in the aftermath of colonialism and the holocaust looms large anew. Current EU border politics amounts to letting migrants die in the name of securing European territory.

Hospitality: Conditional or Absolute?

In his deconstructive reading of Kantian cosmopolitan ethics, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida discusses how Kantian hospitality is temporary in nature and hinges on the entrant not causing any trouble. Derrida traces elements of hostility intrinsic in Kantian reflections on hospitality and speaks of the “hostipitality” (namely, hostile hospitality) inherent in Kant’s “conditional hospitality”. According to Derrida, a truly cosmopolitan ethics would entail absolute hospitality, which is unconditional and is not qualified upon the guest fulfilling certain criteria or duties to receive it.

The vulnerability of those at the mercy of the sea is testimony to the fact that the progressive goals of the Enlightenment are at risk in Europe, the purported place of its birth. To counteract the pervasive disenchantment with the lofty principles of the Enlightenment necessitates rescuing norms of cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism from the cynical approach of EU migration policy. The recent Mediterranean boat disasters are a grim reminder that not only the migrants but also Enlightenment ideals are endangered in postcolonial Europe.

Read more in this debate: Christian Harisch, Justine Kolata, Justine Kolata.

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