by Garrett Wallace Brown. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. 234pp. Hardback. £60.00/$85.00. ISBN: 9780748638819.

Reviewed by Zachary Baron Shemtob, Department of Law and Police Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Email: Baronshemtob [at]


Throughout GROUNDING COSMOPOLITANISM: FROM KANT TO THE IDEA OF A COSMPOLITAN CONSTITUTION Garrett Wallace Brown offers an accessible account of Kant’s universalist political philosophy. Perhaps most admirably, Brown demonstrates the continued relevance of Kant’s ideas to an increasingly globalized world. Unfortunately, the work is too often vague and repetitive, and frequently favors theoretical platitudes over practical applications. GROUNDING COSMOPOLITANISM ultimately offers some provocative theses, but critically fails to construct a coherent cosmopolitan constitution.

Brown’s work is broken into two distinct yet interconnected parts. He begins by outlining Kant’s theory of cosmopolitanism, and then traces the normative foundations of cosmopolitan law. In the book’s second part Brown attempts to defend these principles, focused first on Kant’s conception of “federation and state sovereignty,” second on the “role of diversity and culture within cosmopolitan law,” and finally, on a “Kantian form of global distributive justice” (which will not be addressed directly, as its ideas are spread throughout the entire work) (p.18). The book concludes with some applications of the preceding theory, and reflections on the nature of contemporary international theory in general.

The central premise is made apparent from the outset. According to Brown, in an increasingly interconnected world, a violation in one corner of the globe is effectively felt everywhere. Although this contention goes undefended, it is then extrapolated into a much larger theory of justice. As Brown contends, “if this environment of global interdependence is to peacefully evolve,” finding “recognizable moral and legal principles” is paramount (p.3). And while a variety of universalist philosophies exist, he believes Kant’s cosmopolitan schema remains the most promising in both the clarity of its argument and potential to promote a greater discourse of “public right” (p.44). According to Brown, although many scholars have commented upon Kant’s cosmopolitan project, his is the first “exhaustive attempt to tie the various complexities of Kant’s cosmopolitan vision into a comprehensive picture” (p.24).

In Brown's view, Kantian cosmopolitan theory can essentially be broken into five central tenets. First, such a system locates the “ultimate moral concern” within individual actors, whose capacity to be autonomous and free demands their treatment as ends rather than means (p.36). [*538] Second, civil law’s primary purpose is to universalize this equal freedom, allowing “the freedom of each” to “coexist with the freedom of all others” (a phrase Brown continually invokes throughout the book) (p.36). Third, freedom must be individually restricted to be universally maximized, “in all places and at all times” (p.36). Fourth, this theory of justice is “an a priori ideal,” and meant to provide the normative grounding for all external laws (p.36). And finally, while establishing a cosmopolitan ideal may be difficult, this need not make its undertaking impossible.

After briefly dismissing Kant’s more teleological notions of history (or that Nature itself is directing man to an era of perpetual peace and universal justice), much of Brown’s book is spent defending Kant’s cosmopolitan theory, first against cultural relativists and then communitarians. Cultural relativists are guilty of what Seyla Benhabib has labeled the “reductionist sociology of culture,” mistaking cultures as clearly “delineable wholes” that can be easily categorized and analyzed (p.128). As Terence Turner elaborates, such a vision risks “essentializing the idea of culture as a property of an ethnic group or race,” and in doing so overemphasizes internal homogeneity and risks fetishizing cultural communities (p.129). According to Brown, Kantian cosmopolitanism recognizes and expands upon these concerns, neither demanding that obligations be universally abandoned nor “that a universal morality exists,” but rather denying cultural communities “as bounded entities containing the pure source of human morality” (p.139). While Brown’s communitarian critique is considerably more vague, it seems to rest on a similar criticism of cultural essentialism and moral relativism. As he summarizes, Kantian cosmopolitanism must ultimately be understood as “an attempt to come to terms with the plurality of various societies in some sort of minimally recognized framework of cosmopolitan law,” celebrating diversity while also grounding it in a larger moral schema (p.141).

Yet what such a framework should entail goes critically unexplored. While Brown outlines Kant’s own preliminary articles of a cosmopolitan constitution (pp.73-75), he fails to elucidate or comment upon these at any significant length. Further, Brown presents a culturally relativist straw man against his Kantian universalist. Few political theorists would likely dispute the claim that pluralism should be treated as a positive, though not all-encompassing good. Skeptics of cosmopolitanism need not be cultural relativists (or even outright communitarians), however, as Alasdair Macintyre and Thomas Nagel have made abundantly clear. Further, by denying the existence of a universal morality, Brown seems to contradict the very Kantian project he hopes to promulgate. The Categorical Imperative provides a broad system of universal ethics, expounded extensively throughout THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS (1996/1797). Kant’s rigid system of criminal justice (with its passionate defense of capital punishment), for example, is part and parcel of the philosopher’s general ethos, though predicated on reason rather than natural law.

Brown is on considerably stronger ground when debating whether Kant desired a coercive world state or merely [*539] a loose federation of like-minded republics. The author shows convincing textual support for both positions, and ultimately advocates a sort of middle way. According to Brown, Kant recognized the dangerous potential of both a single world government and independent nations unbound by any larger principle(s), and thus sought “a lawful federation of states” committed to universal law, “public right to external freedom,” and global coexistence (p.90).

While Brown provides impressive textual support for this position, however, it also speaks to his work’s greatest weakness: GROUNDING COSMOPOLITANISM is full of lofty yet nebulous claims, which often amount to little more than truisms. Brown’s description of Kant’s republic federation illustrates this tendency. He claims the federation should “extend the reach of cosmopolitan norms to non-members and encourage conformity,” but “must reject states who continue to violate cosmopolitan right and who directly threaten the universal principles established by the pacific alliance” (p.113). Organizations should obviously exclude those who refuse to play by their rules (indeed, this is what grounds an organization’s existence in the first place), but how to do so while also encouraging global harmony goes critically unexplored. Brown’s principles do nothing to settle dueling principles of Right, other than invoking claims to the normative superiority of republican governments (which, as the author acknowledges, themselves often violate Kantian schemes of justice).

Brown’s sweeping fissure between theory and practice becomes most apparent in the book’s concluding chapter, where he attempts to present some actual implications of Kant’s cosmopolitan theory. First, the author invokes matters of trade, declaring that “federated states must negotiate in good faith and in such a way that resulting conditions are seen as mutually beneficial” (p.191). Very few (if any) nations would explicitly mock this claim (unless grounded on principles of previous victimization and/or payback), and Brown therefore offers little of tangible substance. Brown's second contention is even less controversial, calling for the “hospitable treatment of all human beings regardless of state, ethnic, or communal origin," (p.192) a principle long enshrined though continually ignored by many members of the United Nations. Brown’s further contention that republics should neither assist nor conduct business with despots also seems naive. Sanctions often do precious little to change autocrats’ behavior, and (as was seen in the case of Iraq) can perversely result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The author's final two applications, “an ultimate system of global distribution” (p.197) and his tepid support for “universal human rights under a unified system of cosmopolitan law” (p.202) again seem morally appealing but practically hollow pronouncements.

Interestingly, Brown seems to anticipate this critique, declaring that “some will argue” “this project is nothing more than a theoretical exercise and that it has abstracted too far from real world circumstances that limit the prospect of a cosmopolitan condition” (p.212). To answer this criticism Brown quotes directly from Kant, remarking on the importance of separating normative from descriptive claims, or “to put trust in the [*540] theory of what the relationships between men and states ought to be according to the principle of right” (p.212). More importantly, however, the author contends that “just because a theory has a degree of difficulty does not also mean that it is not something we should strive to do” (italics his) (p.212). While separating theory from practice benefits neither, Brown seems to miss a much larger point here. It is not that Brown’s claims are merely unrealistic, but so vague as to have no applicable purpose.

Indeed, the fact that actors as diverse as Ban-Ki Moon and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can (and do) invoke similar notions of global justice is testament to both the strength and failure of Brown’s Kantian project. While such universal principles are powerful enough to have garnered widespread recognition, they are also broad enough to serve as empty rhetoric. As Brown recognizes at GROUNDING COSMOPOLITANISM’S close, “what is perhaps the most striking feature of these global issues is the fact that many of the problems could be eliminated if a political will to do so existed” (p.210). How to mobilize and enforce this will, to turn beautiful abstractions into concrete reform, now that is the real issue.

Kant, Immanuel. 1996/1797. THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, Second Edition.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Zachary Baron Shemtob.