In their chart-topping 1985 hit “We Built This City,” Starship imagines the human community as a town founded on a principle of harmonious love. “We built this city!” the band sings. “We built this city—on rock ’n’ roll!” This life-giving citadel replaces a sin-filled world, where “knee deep in hoopla, sinking in your fight/ we got too many runaways eating up the night.” Fortunately, the song prophesies, we all have rock ’n’ roll inside us.
In her brilliant new book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Martha Nussbaum argues for an even more thrilling vision: the whole biosphere conceived and treated as a “cosmic city,” in which humans carefully do their part to ensure that the capabilities of all creatures can be activated as much as possible. In this aspirational community, each individual is afforded the resources she or he needs for flourishing by the commons. The individual is owed this grant, in Nussbaum’s view, not because of her ability for moral reasoning, as in Stoic ethics, but because of her sentience—the very fact of her ability to flourish.
In abandoning the Stoic privileging of the moral intellect for a concept of rights flowing from sentience, Nussbaum is able to make the case her own conscience dictates: an argument for full inclusion in the community of rights for nonhuman animals and mentally disabled humans. The rights of the mentally disabled and of animals are neglected by the Stoic moral view, Nussbaum submits, because animals and many mentally disabled humans cannot engage in formal moral reasoning. “The gates of the cosmic city,” Nussbaum writes, “must be open to all.”
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