Philosopher specialising in Business Ethics - ESSCA

The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), which was held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai, had a cosmopolitan dimension because it brought together people from many different countries who, given the subject matter, are expected to behave as “citizens of the world.” While the word “cosmopolitanism” may have had a pejorative connotation, it is now used in political philosophy to designate a “global civil society” – and in business ethics, to which we often refer in this Blog, to extol the virtues of a world view to which business leaders in particular should adhere. Although Immanuel Kant’s essay To Perpetual Peace is often quoted, the link he establishes between cosmopolitanism and the spherical nature of planet Earth is little exploited. It is worth exploring briefly.

Illustration par Margaux Anquetil

When Pope Francis, in a short message published on the occasion of the inauguration of a Faith Pavilion in Dubai as part of COP28, said that “at the present time the world needs alliances that are not against someone, but in favour of everyone,” it reflected the spirit of cosmopolitanism (1).

Monique Canto-Sperber offers the following definition of cosmopolitanism in contemporary philosophy:

“The moral pretension of contemporary cosmopolitanism is linked to the goal of building an international order that is not constructed from states but that is immediately predicated on a world scale. […] Cosmopolitanism does not seek to gradually internationalize institutions that were originally state-controlled, nor does it seek to progressively extend to all states agreements concluded between certain individual states. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism defines from the outset objectives for all the citizens of the entire earth. Cosmopolitanism is an undertaking that stems from men and their activities and eventually reaches the scale of world realities.” (2)

Such an ambition was bound to have an echo within business ethics. The concept of cosmopolitanism is invoked there in various contexts, for example in the assessment by citizens of the environmental and human rights responsibilities of companies operating in distant countries (3). But it is perhaps in an older article, by Thomas Maak and Nicola Pless, that it was most developed (4).

These authors refer to the etymological meaning of the word “cosmopolite” – the Greek word kosmopolitēs (cosmopolite), composed of kosmos (world) and politēs (citizen), means “citizen of the world” – by applying it to business leaders. In their view, only a leader with a cosmopolitan mindset is in a position to understand the contemporary world’s problems and strive to solve them, in order to make our world a “decent,” “just” and “inclusive” one:

“Cosmopolitan business leaders are aware of the pressing problems in the world, care for the needs of others, and in particular for the distant needy, aspire to make this world a better place and act in word and deed as global and responsible citizens. In short, they demonstrate both cosmopolitan mindset and attitude.”

For a business leader to think and act as a “citizen of the world,” he or she should not only adhere to the values and standards “that ought to govern relations among actors in a global civil society,” but also possess three fundamental personal qualities (5): a global sense of justice, a genuine concern for others and the implementation of the duty of assistance towards others. These qualities lie at the heart of the eight principles which, according to Maak and Pless, underpin “cosmopolitan leadership” (6). Such principles “reflect specific norms and values about how we ought to live together on this planet, what we owe each other as human beings […], and what people in privileged positions shall contribute to make the cosmopolitan universe as inclusive, just and life-conducive as possible.”

By using the word “planet,” Maak and Pless are alluding, no doubt unintentionally, to Kant’s arguments on the need for a “cosmopolitical right,” i.e. a single right, applying to all states, which should govern relations between foreign citizens or between citizens and foreign countries (7). Kant does not use the word “planet” (at least not for an explicitly political reason), but he does bring the spherical shape of the Earth into his argument. This is the case in this passage, where cosmopolitical right (hereafter “world Law” or jus cosmopoliticum) is conceptually linked to it:

(a) « From the fact that nature has enclosed all nations within a limited boundary (because of the spherical shape of the earth on which they live, as a globus terraqueus), it follows that any piece of land that is possessed by an inhabitant of the earth and on which he lives is only a part of a determinate whole, and, as such, everyone can be conceived as originally having a right to it. Accordingly, all nations originally hold a community of the land, although it is not a juridical community of possession (communio), and therefore of use, or community of ownership of the same. The kind of community that they hold is that of possible physical interaction (commercium), that is, a community that involves a universal relationship of each to all the others such that they can offer to trade with one another; consequently, they have a right to attempt to trade with a foreigner without his being justified in regarding anyone who attempts it as an enemy. These rights and duties, insofar as they involve a possible unification of all nations for the purpose of establishing certain universal laws regarding their intercourse with one another, may be called world Law (jus cosmopoliticum) [das weltbürgerliche Recht].” (8)

One of the practical dimensions of Kantian cosmopolitical law concerns the “right to visit” of a person arriving in a foreign country. In the excerpt below, Kant distinguishes this from the “right to be a permanent visitor,” which presupposes a permanent stay by the foreigner. The spherical shape of the Earth is also invoked:

(b) “The right to visit, to associate, belongs to all men by virtue of their common ownership of the earth’s surface; for since the earth is a globe, they cannot scatter themselves infinitely, but must, finally, tolerate living in close proximity, because originally no one had a greater right to any region of the earth than anyone else.” (9)

And a little further on:

(c) “Because a (narrower or wider) community widely prevails among the Earth’s peoples, a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere.”

The fact that the Earth is round is not, as stated by Maak and Pless, simply a synonym for “world.” It has an argumentative and conceptual value that deserves a few comments.

1. An immediate question, raised by the philosopher Seyla Benhabib, concerns the link between the fact that the Earth is round and cosmopolitical right (see excerpts (a) and (b) above). The danger here is that of the “naturalistic fallacy,” whereby a moral duty (or right) is wrongly deduced from a fact. Just as we cannot deduce from the economic fact that, on average, men’s salaries are higher than women’s that this should be the case, so we cannot deduce from the fact that, because of the spherical shape of the Earth, I come into contact, “somewhere and at some point, […] with other human beings and cannot flee them forever, […] that upon such contact I must treat them with the respect and dignity to be accorded every human being” (10). I should certainly treat them “with the respect and dignity to be accorded every human being,” but not, in Kant’s words, because the Earth is round and its inhabitants must “tolerate living in close proximity.”

2. Jacques Derrida sees, in the passages (b) and (c) of the Perpetual Peace quoted above, a distinction between the “common ownership of the earth’s surface” and the possession of what is above the surface (11). The surface of the Earth is to be understood “as such, as a surface-area,” i.e. in a natural sense, whereas what is above the surface has a different, cultural meaning, which implies a different system of ownership:

“If Kant takes great care to specify that this good or common place covers ‘the surface of the Earth’, it is doubtless so as not to exclude any point of the world or of a spherical and finite globe (globalisation), from which an infinite dispersion remains impossible; but it is above all to expel from it what is erected, constructed, or what sets itself up above the soil: habitat, culture, institution, State, etc. All this, even the soil upon which it lies, is no longer soil pure and simple, and, even if founded on the Earth, must not be unconditionally accessible to all comers.”

3. Passage (a) of the Doctrine of Law mentions the idea that, the Earth being round, each of its inhabitants can only possess “only a part of a determinate whole,” with the consequence that “all nations originally hold a community of the land.” For Kant, this means that the inhabitants of the Earth can and should use this “community of the land” to enter into relations and, more importantly, to maintain permanent relations, including (but not limited to) their commercial relations – they have the opportunity to enter into “a universal relationship of each to all the others such that they can offer to trade with one another; consequently, they have a right to attempt to trade with a foreigner without his being justified in regarding anyone who attempts it as an enemy” (excerpt (a) above).

4. According to the philosopher Katrin Flikschuh, the image of the spherical shape of the Earth – which is “easily overlooked,” although a “striking and recurring image in the Doctrine of Law” – should not only be taken in a literal sense: it also has a metaphysical meaning, beyond apparent reality, which involves the concepts of causality, freedom and responsibility. Let’s look at this last concept for a moment.

Picking up on Kant’s statement in excerpt (c) above, Flikschuh argues that “in uniting all the places on its surface, the earth’s spherical shape ensures that the effects of the choices and actions of one person are felt by all others, no matter where on earth nature has placed them.” And, she adds, “just as it is possible to read over Kant’s image of the earth’s spherical surface as a true but banal statement of fact, so it is possible to interpret in purely literal terms the reference to agent responsibility contained in that image.”

The “non-literal” question posed by the spherical shape of the Earth here concerns the extent of responsibility of the human beings who live on it. Flikschuh acknowledges that it is not possible to interpret the idea that “a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere” as the idea that each person is fully responsible for his or her actions. This is because “if my choices and actions really do affect the possible choices and actions of everyone else on the globe, this implies that I can be held responsible for all the consequences of my actions – intended as well as unintended, foreseeable as well as unforeseeable.” It goes without saying that such a conception of responsibility, which presupposes that we are also responsible for what we have no control over, stems from a far too “literal” interpretation of the consequences that Kant draws from the spherical shape of the Earth.

Flikschuh takes care to explain Kant’s conception and to emphasise the practical interest of this image, particularly in understanding questions of global justice. Whatever one thinks of her analyses, they give it a philosophical credence that a too hasty reading of the passages of Kant, where it is mentioned, could ignore. Freedom of research precludes any criticism of researchers specialising in business ethics for not having appealed, as part of their “cosmopolitan theories,” to the practical consequences of the spherical shape of the Earth and, in particular, to the arguments of Kant or Flikschuh. Nevertheless, from a general point of view, we can emphasise the ability of an obvious fact, expressed in the form of a banal image, to spark the imagination, to mobilise concepts with both theoretical and practical effects, and, ultimately, to enrich scientific research.



(1) Video Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Faith Pavilion in Dubai, 3 December 2023.

(2) M. Canto-Sperber, “The Normative Foundations of Cosmopolitanism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 106, 2006, pp. 267-283.

(3) A. Vestergaard & J. Uldam, “Legitimacy and cosmopolitanism: Online public debates on (corporate) responsibility,” Journal of Business Ethics, 176, 2022, pp. 227-240.

(4) T. Maak & N. M. Pless, “Business leaders as citizens of the world. Advancing humanism on a global scale,” Journal of Business Ethics, 88, 2009, pp. 537-550.

(5) Maak and Pless do not use this vocabulary, nor that of “virtue” or “disposition.”

(6) “The recognition of each person’s equal worth and dignity [should] not only [be] assured, but also actively promoted;” “As leading actors in a globalized world they do not need to have higher moral standards than others, but given the scope of their responsibilities and the fact that the price of their ethical failure is greater, they ought to act consciously, carefully, and responsibly;” etc.

(7) They say that Kant’s thought is “a key reference for modern cosmopolitanism.”

(8) I. Kant, The metaphysical elements of justice: Part I of The metaphysics of morals, 1797, translated by J. Ladd, The Library of Liberal Arts & The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.

(9) I. Kant, “To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” translated by T. Humphrey, Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.

(10) S. Benhabib, The rights of others: Aliens, residents and citizens, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

(11) J. Derrida, Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort !, Editions Galilée, 1997, translated by M. Dooley & M. Hughes, On Cosmopolitanism, in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Routledge, 2001.

(12) K. Flikschuh, Kant and modern philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2000.



To cite this article: Alain Anquetil, “COP28, cosmopolitanism and the spherical shape of the Earth,” The Philosophy and Business Ethics Blog, 14 December 2023.


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