top of page
  • Writer's pictureWalter

Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights in Troubled Times

Reading how Seyla Benhabib approaches legal concepts such as universal citizenship, constitutional law, asylum law, as well as the concept of self-determination, is an enriching experience for a reader interested in intersection of humanities and law. Benhabib can shed some light on how liberal and democratic values conflict when it comes to immigration policies. It is bold, yet enriching, especially for those indulged strict-legal positivism.

We more and more invoke cosmopolitanism in modern political philosophy, stresses Benhabib, but we so rarely take a closer look of the concept with the analysis it demands. In Another Cosmopolitanism and Dignity in Adversity Benhabib offers an extensive analysis of tensions within the world of liberal democratic cosmopolitanism. On the one hand, she expands on the Kantian notion of hospitality and the paradoxes of the borders and national identities in contrast to “the inclusive natural of human rights;”[1] on the other hand, the responsibility of supporting the right to have rights (following Hannah Arendt) and the democratic iterations (following Jacques Derrida). With that said, and for the purpose of this paper, I will focus on three features from Benhabib’s books I find notable and wish to highlight.

The first feature highlights Benhabib’s optimistic position regarding contemporary discussions of human right’s norms while ponders how and why they continue to thrive in the third decade of the Twenty-First Century. Following her analysis, I underline her evaluation of historical events within the European Union as well as the new processes of norm creation she believes is taking place. Building on this idea, I stress key examples Benhabib offers that wish to prove that, despite historical challenges, the idea that human rights and the resulted creation of many laws, norms, as well as institutions and declarations, developed as a result of those events. It is very clear that she notes that democracies possess the sufficient and transparent public spheres to extrapolate the ethical views of citizens into the positive law of the state. A second notable feature from her books is Benhabib’s further elaboration of Hannah Arendt’s “the right to have rights,” clarifying how from human rights to democratic self-government is fundamentally supported by four crucial normative assumptions: “communicative freedom, dialogic practice to assent or dissent, dependence of mutual recognition of equality, and the exercise of the communicative right to have rights”[2] through democratic iterations.

The last feature refers to Benhabib’s proposal to move from the standpoint of “the generalized other,” as well as the binarism embedded when generalizing cultural stereotypes, by “reiterating universal views within concrete contexts.”[3]Considering the concrete, Benhabib seeks for what she calls “interactive universalism”[4] and I underline how she aims for a move from totalizing discourses, such as “our culture” versus “their culture,” that only legitimize “collectivity in whose name power is exercised.”[5]

For my conclusions, I return to the first feature of her notion of the European Union’s model where laws and court decisions have been shaped through a more universal and democratic participation and inclusion by foreigners. Though I stand by Benhabib’s premise processes of appropriation, or what she calls “democratic iterations,” I argue that her claims regarding citizenship practices becoming denationalized and post nationalized are not entirely convincing. I will dispute that we must consider that the arguments toward criteria to grant or reject citizenship, or even temporary residency to individuals and/or families, still “remain as prerogative of the sovereign states”[6] (i.e., legitimate reasons of internal safety). My position is aided by Benhabib’s stance against “methodological holism,”[7] which addresses worldviews on people rather than as individuals. In other words, I argue that there is an a priori stage to be considered: each of the member states of the European alliance comprise a big politico-economic-cultural spectrum that demands asymmetrical needs from their communities, which can result in self removal from international treaties.

In Another Cosmopolitanism, Benhabib focuses on one particular variant of cosmopolitanism, one that is embedded within the polity, or a political version of cosmopolitan politics where “the ethical can and ought to inform the juridico-political.”[8] Briefly, to search for mediations between what is considered ethical and the moral, and the moral and the political. In Dignity in Adversity, Benhabib stresses the need to remove the idea of affirming cosmopolitanism as a global oneness and/or unity when, “considered as a positive ideal generates antinomies that undermine its internal coherence;”[9] she aims to focus on the unity and diversity of human rights and on the conflicts between democracy and cosmopolitanism. Benhabib attempts to articulate what cosmopolitanism means for her by underlining misleading arguments from both, nationalist critics of the right and knockers of the left, as well as deconstructionist skeptics. In other words, to unveil the cynicism from either sides that pushes and reduces cosmopolitanism into the arena of deep tensions. Against critics who question the range of human rights, their origin, and ultimately their purpose, Benhabib counterproposal is engaging while emphatic with much hope in the exceptional promise of human right to deliver justice and dignity; she believes that human rights are at the core to a “cosmopolitanism within. Illusions.” [10]

As underlined above, the first of three features from Another Cosmopolitanism and Dignity in Adversity I aim to address is Benhabib’s position concerning contemporary discussions of human rights, assumed as an authoritarian discursive stance that is purely legal. This is precisely the challenge of our times, the “construction of the jurisprudential theory able to reconcile the universality of human rights with the partiality of positive law.”[11] The evaluation of keen European historical-politico events Benhabib underlines serves as examples where the development and universalization of human rights, as well as the new processes of norm, stemmed as a result of those experiences. Challenges, stresses Benhabib, are expected when new ways of meanings appear i.e., the Declaration of Human Rights and new ontological definitions such as “genocide” or the “Crimes Against Humanity” post the Great War and World War II. The world “move into a new normative universe, new moral fact [and] as humankind learned from the memories of genocide, extending from the African slave trade to the Holocaust of the European Jews.”[12] Benhabib attempts to answer why and howcosmopolitan norms and human rights continue to thrive today by evoking the historical socio-political events and movements that developed into today’s legitimization of minority groups such as women, slaves, religious groups, refugees, and “non-white races historically excluded from membership in the sovereign body and from the project of citizenship.”[13]

What is clear is that Benhabib would rather to face the challenges of such controversies than not having discussions at all. She underlines that the antagonisms the world faces in order to achieve cosmopolitan justice come as a result of what she defines as “the discursive scope.”[14] The peculiarity of cosmopolitan justice is that legislation, norms, rules, conventions, are not immune to any juridical challenges that may occur in the future. So, we reconcile cosmopolitanism:

"... we must respect, encourage, and initiate multiple processes of democratic iteration. Not all such processes are instances of jurisgenerative politics. Jurisgenerative politics, at their best, are cases of legal and political contestation in which the meaning of rights and other fundamental principles are reposited, resignified and reappropriated y new and excluded groups, or by the citizenry in the face of new and unprecedented hermeneutic challenges and meaning constellations."[15]

To reiterate, and this is central in Benhabib’s proposal, the processes of mediation ought to be accomplished through the integration of universal cosmopolitan norms into democratic practice. In this, cosmopolitan norms become a part of the local, democratic practice. The process of iteration that Benhabib describes follows Jacques Derrida’s logic of iterationwhere he finds that “meaning through signification carries with it the possibility of mis-communication in which the intended meaning behind the text becomes undecidable and inevitably polysemic in its transference.”[16] The process of iteration, advises Benhabib, can explain and serve as a guidance for our relationship to i.e., immigrants and their dilemma with residence. More so, her thought here is certainly guided, to certain extend, by Kant’s remarks regarding a “right to universal hospitality”[17] In sum, each repetition of the values of the universal becomes a reply to the universal norms themselves. Benhabib sees the importance of this process that might be understood as a form of negotiation and engaging in the process of democratic iteration dialectic sets between right and identities in democracies where differences are negotiated and can be mediated. The universal norms are constantly challenged and given form by the specific challenges of the local political community, whose self-understanding in the end is adjusted through the application of universal concepts in its political discussions.

The second notable feature from Another Cosmopolitanism and Dignity in Adversity is Benhabib’s elaboration of Hannah Arendt’s “the right to have rights” where she interprets how the human right to democratic self-government is fundamentally supported by four crucial normative assumptions: “communicative freedom, dialogic practice to assent or dissent, dependence of mutual recognition of equality, and the exercise of the communicative right to have rights”[18]through democratic iterations. The space between human rights and democratic self-government is narrow because the understanding of human rights requires democratic self-government just as without the right to self-government human rights cannot be justified their claims. As a result, emphasizes Benhabib, “democratic iterations can take place in the strong public bodies of legislative, the judiciary and the executive, as well as in the informal and ‘weak’ publics of civil society associations and the media.”[19] Under notes and references, Benhabib wishes to clarify the relationship between practical discourses of justification and democratic iterations; it is worth underlining that, “democratic iterations are processes of legitimation and not of justification.”[20] As democratic iterations are processes of linguistic, legal, cultural, religious, and political repetitions in transformation, such interactions show themselves to be not only subjects to the laws but also their author. In short, people “are not merely viewed as subject to the law, but also as authors of the law”[21] and the contextualization as well as interpretation of the rights result from public-democratic opinion. The complex processes of public argumentation and exchange of opinion through which universalist rights claims are contested and contextualized, “invoked and revoked throughout legal and political institutions, as well as in the associations of civil society.”[22] She sees the challenges as part of the process of moving toward achieving the goals of cosmopolitanism norms of justice and this can be achieved through the process of democratic iteration:

"I offer democratic iterations as a model to think about the interaction between constitutional provisions and the democratic politics. It may be possible to extend democratic iterations as a model for the pouvoir constituant, the founding act as well. I am assuming that democratic iterations are about ordinary as opposed to constitutional politics."[23]

Benhabib claims that ordinary politics can embody forms of popular constitutionalism and can lead to constitutional transformation through growth. In case you wonder where these democratic iterations should take place, Benhabib suggests within the overlapping communities of conversation, between members of what can be called “the demotic community”[24] as well as international and transnational human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, global activist groups, and the like.

Benhabib sees human rights, such as freedom of expression and association, not only as political rights of citizens whose contents very across groups but also as conditions for the recognition of individuals as beings living within a political order legitimized and preserved by their communicative freedom. Benhabib adopts the phrase “the right to have rights” from Arendt, who stresses that “the condition of [i.e.] statelessness people is a loss of rights altogether.”[25] To that extend, Arendt quotes Kant who “dared to go against the grain of the question human rights” [26] and his blunt statement: this “human right that must be held sacred, regardless of how much sacrifice is required,”[27] referring to “all politics to kneel before the right”[28] Though Arendt celebrates Kant’s brave statement, she also finds it absurd since “existence clearly precede everything else-every virtue and every principle;”[29] the latter is what we see Benhabib follows and her own conception of cosmopolitanism develops from the dialogue with both, Arendt and Kant, by way of concepts developed by Derrida. I strongly stand by Benhabib on that change and inclusion occur through a process of constant engagement and transformation, which is very evident by way of the examples she provides and analyzes; the discussion of the Head Scarf Affair, one of the strongest examples, will be addressed on my next paper.

The third and last feature I aim to highlight underlines Benhabib’s proposal to move from the standpoint of the generalization of the other that has embedded cultural generalizations. I find this issue primordial to any proposals Benhabib offers in order to achieve results within the democratic iterations; by “reiterating universal views within concrete contexts”[30] by seeking what she calls “interactive universalism”[31] that moves away totalizing discourses such as “our culture” versus “their culture,” that only legitimize the hegemonic position of those that exercise power over minorities. Furthermore, distinctions between the cultural and the religious, as well as “the identification of customs as being one or the other that occur against the background of the history of colonialism and the West’s encounter with the rest”[32] all happening when, due to mass immigration nowadays, is leading to the reframing of the distinction between the cultural, the religious, and the political. In short, under the current conditions of immigration and globalization, the cultural and religious experience a “destabilization of identities and traditions”[33] toward a reinvention. I strongly agree with Benhabib in regard to cultural assumptions as cultural cosmopolitans emphasize that all cultures learn and/or borrow from one another constantly. In short, there is no such a thing as “pure culture or religion.” Benhabib is very emphatic when comes to underline this note, also addressed at large in The Claims of Culture, as “we should be open to the dizzying multiplicity, variety, and incongruity of the world’s cultures.”[34] The globalized and ever-growing mass immigration world is pushing aside the, to use Benhabib’s word, Westphalian view of cultures as coherent and centered wholes, each with a unique perspective on the world. The cultural cosmopolitan argues that this is wrong empirically and normatively. Benhabib exhorts that we should acknowledge and embrace a “decentered, multiply situated, and hybrid conception of culture as well as identity.”[35]

This is where the democratic dialogue, that include controversies arising due to cultural and religious assumptions, becomes crucial in order “to enhance and rearticulate rights in the public spheres of liberal democracies.”[36] The oversimplification and clashes of interpretation, even breaks in traditions, occur when the worldviews are minimized into an overly homogeneous depiction of entire communities into one particular moral, religious, or cultural outlook. Benhabib illustrates the case of Turkey, post-Ottoman history, which is her own country of origin:

"... take a country like Turkey [where] 99 percent of its population is Muslim. If we wished to represent this country in terms of the religious beliefs of its citizens, we would be completely mistaken. Much like the rest of the world, since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ottoman Turkey has encountered modernity, and struggled with the compatibility of Islam and modernity, in a process that has left neither the Turkish understanding of modernity nor that Islam unchanged."[37]

For Benhabib, the assumption that, in reasoning about global human rights, the relevant subjects to be considered are complete worldviews simply reduces peoples and their histories to a holistic counterfactual, which then results in singling out the complexities of history of discourses among peoples. In the end, she stresses, the so-called liberal tolerance displays “liberal ignorance;”[38] it ignores that there have been complex cultural conversations throughout human history. It is worth noting that the secular Enlightenment liberal ideas have themselves plenty to do as part of this cultural discourse since the dawn of Western modernity.

After underlining the three features I find significant in Another Cosmopolitanism and Dignity in Adversity such as the contemporary discussions of human right’s norms and their continue development since the mid twentieth century; the exercise of the communicative right to have rights through democratic iterations; and the discourses that carry cultural generalizations, I wish to conclude by revisiting one particular discussion from Benhabib on human rights: the example of Europe. Seyla Benhabib often brings Europe into her discourse-theoretic account of human rights as an example where laws and court decisions have been shaped through a more universal and democratic participation and inclusion by foreigners. While she clarifies how human rights principles are consistent with paradoxes of democratic legitimacy and democratic closure, including restricting boundaries) with it comes to migration and membership, I find her claims regarding citizenship practices becoming denationalized and post nationalized not very convincing. First, though I stand by Benhabib’s premise processes of appropriation, or what she calls “democratic iterations,” we cannot ignore that the arguments toward criteria to grant or reject citizenship, or even temporary/permanent residency to individuals or families is still “remains as prerogative of the sovereign states.”[39] The most important privilege, which is held by a state as a monopoly, is internal safety. Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms “challenge the prerogative of the state to be the highest authority dispensing justice over all that is living and dead within certain territorial boundaries,”[40] but no institution supersedes the national sovereignty to confer or guarantee membership status prior nationality. Furthermore, even in the European Union Citizenship claim is secondary to one’s country of origin, which is member of the alliance. With that said, I do agree to what she claims in her thesis when she stresses that:

"Cosmopolitan norms lead to the emergence of generalizable human interests and the articulation of public standards of norm justification, global capitalism is leading to the privatization and segmentation of interest communities and the weakening of standards of public justification through the rise of private logics of norm generation..."[41]

For Benhabib, this results in the deterioration of the capacity of states to protect and provide for their citizens. In addition, the emergence of global law and the rise of fast-track legislation are trends that undermining the state sovereignty while, stresses Benhabib, transnational migrations are “both enabled by and contribute to the spread of cosmopolitan norms.”[42]

My position is aided by Benhabib’s stance against “methodological holism,”[43] which addresses worldviews on people rather than as individuals. In other words, I argue that there is an a priori stage to be considered: each member of the European block includes a big politico-religious-cultural spectrum represented in the multiplicity of their communities, which can result in (i.e.) self-removal from those international treaties. More so, the holistic view of Europe seems to contradict what is addressed for small communities. In other words, legislation may not apply to all the state members as we wish. Additionally, and for the past 10 years since Benhabib’s book release, we have been witnessing political changes within Europe that are shaking up what the block has accomplished as a remarkable cosmopolitan place willing to accept newcomers (a.k.a. immigrants), Brexit and the rise of right-wing factions into power are some of them. This is, and to agree with Benhabib, the result of conflicts from states that seem to be onboard when it comes to respect for human rights by their prerogatives contradict them.

Even if one is inclined to agree with Benhabib on that the European Union’s example is a noteworthy cosmopolitan site, in the end I wonder about the prospect of replicating its achievements somewhere else. While she is on “the right track” to identify the institutions of Europe as interesting from the standpoint of cosmopolitanism, I would argue that shoe overstates their importance as a paradigm case for the “potential” future of cosmopolitan politics. Benhabib gives the impression that liberal rights are corresponding with democratic citizens, which is an acceptable conclusion, but it may require more argument; one of them is to recognize the wide-ranging political diversity within Europe to be reduced as an example. Her suggestions represent a very attractive vision of how a political cosmopolitanism might be developed, but I do not see it as the only model as such.

[1] “... as nature saw to it, that men [humankind] could like everywhere in the world...” Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, 1795 (London: S. Sonenshein, 1903), 35. [2] Seyla Benhabib, Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011), 88-89. [3] ———, Another Cosmopolitanism, edited by Robert Post (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 68-69. [4] Benhabib, Dignity in Adversity, 73. [5] Dignity in Adversity, 76. [6] Ibid., 94-99. [7] Ibid., 83. [8] Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, 158. [9] Dignity in Adversity, 2. [10] Another Cosmopolitanism, 1. [11] Ibid., 3. [12] Ibid., 73-74. [13] Ibid., 34. [14] Ibid., 71. [15] Ibid., 70. [16] Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc., trans. by S. Weber and J. Mehlman (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988) 156-157. [17] Another Cosmopolitanism, 22-24. [18] Dignity in Adversity, 88-89. [19] Ibid., 112. [20] Ibid., 246. [21] Ibid., 128. [22] Ibid., 129. [23] Seyla Benhabib, “The Legitimacy of Human Rights,” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 94–104. [24] Individuals who are formal citizens and residents of a jurisdictional system. [25] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 280. [26] ———, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 224. [27] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, 1795 (London: S. Sonenshein, 1903), 58-59. [28] Ibid. [29] Arendt, Between Past and Future, 225. [30]Another Cosmopolitanism, 68-69. [31] Dignity in Adversity, 73. [32] Ibid., 168. [33] ———, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 5. [34] “The Legitimacy of Human Rights,” 97. [35] Ibid. [36] Another Cosmopolitanism, 47. [37] Dignity in Adversity, 84. [38] “The Legitimacy of Human Rights,” 102. [39] Dignity in Adversity, 94-99. [40] Ibid., 98. [41] Ibid., 99. [42] Ibid. [43] Ibid., 83.


Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking Press, 1968.

——— . The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Benhabib, Seyla. Another Cosmopolitanism, edited by Robert Post. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

——— . Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011

——— . “The Legitimacy of Human Rights.” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 94–104.

——— . The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

——— . The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc., trans. by S. Weber and J. Mehlman. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, 1795. London: S. Sonenshein, 1903.

bottom of page