It’s a label I believe effective altruists should adopt to better explain a core part of what effective altruism is. Historically, it comes from Greek roots meaning “world” and “city,” and is associated with Diogenes of Sinope’s (c. 404-323 BC) declaration that he was a “citizen of the world.” Without the metaphors of world-cities or citizenship, I mean by “cosmopolitanism” a moral and political stance that gives the interests of people of other nationalities a weight equal (or at least nearly equal) to those of one’s compatriots.

Support for cosmopolitanism among effective altruists is, as far as I can tell, unanimous. There is no wing of the effective altruist movement exclusively focused on fighting poverty in the US, for example. But effective altruists don’t talk about cosmopolitanism much. When they do, they call it “impartiality,” which is too vague. Judges, juries, journalists, and so on (to limit myself to the “j”s) are expected to be impartial in a sense, but only in specific domains. Cosmopolitanism’s demands are much broader.

I think effective altruists don’t talk about cosmopolitanism more because they take it for granted. Peter Singer, in his influential and now more than forty year old article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” devoted only a paragraph to the subject, saying “I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account.” But there are good reasons to doubt most people are fully on board with cosmopolitanism.

This is most obvious in politics. Can you imagine a politician advocating free trade on the grounds that, while it might hurt the politician’s own country a little, it would have enormous benefits for people living in other countries? Or making the same argument for immigration? In the United States, critics of military intervention tend to focus on the costs in terms of American lives and dollars, and the “lack of a compelling national interest.” The fact that these interventions often wreak enormous havoc on the countries we bomb and invade can seem to come in as a distant fourth in anti-war rhetoric.

I suspect this also explains much of why most people aren’t more committed to fighting global poverty. People may claim to believe, for example, that their donations will just get stolen by corrupt governments, but often this sounds like an excuse. And imagine what would happen if you went beyond praising the cost-effectiveness of anti-malarial bed nets, and told them to direct efforts away from specific local causes they support. In response, they probably wouldn’t quite tell you they care about geographic neighbors more than foreigners, but you might hear a little speech about the importance of responsibility towards your own community.

There’s a paradox here. The label “anti-foreign” has some negative connotations, but it’s not really taboo in the way racism is. This is in spite of favoritism based on place of birth being no less arbitrary than favoritism based on skin color. In America, there’s a notorious anti-immigration blogger named Steve Sailer who’s often accused of racism. I’ve looked at Sailer’s writings, and concluded that if he’s racist, he’s much less driven by racism than nativism. Sailer prefers to call it “citizenism”; Wikipedia quotes him as saying, “I believe Americans should be biased in favor of the welfare of our current fellow citizens over that of the six billion foreigners.” That may sound racist to many people, but it’s hard to explain America’s current immigration policies without assuming a lot of quiet support for Sailer’s views.

In America, the relative taboo-ness of racism and nativism may be influenced by America’s history regarding race. Still, critics of anti-immigrant parties in Europe often seem to go out of their way to criticize those parties as racist, as if it weren’t enough to criticize them for being anti-immigrant. It would be nice if people would treat nativism as bad enough in itself, whether or not it’s paired with racism.

So far, I’ve just been trying to argue that effective altruists take cosmopolitanism too much for granted, and should more see cosmopolitanism as something distinctive about themselves. I haven’t been trying to argue that effective altruists should be actively supporting immigration reform or other cosmopolitan political causes. I don’t actually know if it would be worth the effort. I think it would be hugely beneficial if major governments became more cosmopolitan, but making that happen may be a cause that’s too crowded and too intractable.

That said, I’m enthusiastic about the Open Philanthropy Project’s research on policy advocacy, because it may lead to finding cost-effective ways to influence government policy in a more cosmopolitan direction. Even if there is not much we can do now directly, explicitly advocating for cosmopolitan ideals may have important long-run benefits. Finally, it can be enlightening to analyze politics through a cosmopolitan lens. It can be depressing, because government policy is so often un-cosmopolitan, but it can also be a source of common ground between superficially different political camps.

Many criticisms of the standard left-right political axis are well-known. Libertarians like to describe themselves as socially liberal and economically conservative (strangely, few people do the opposite). Another proposed taxonomy uses three axes: individualist vs. authoritarian, winners vs. losers, and progress vs. decay. But I think cosmopolitanism vs. nationalistic, nativistic, and parochial outlooks is often more a more important axis.

For instance, I find an enormous amount to like in libertarian writer Bryan Caplan. Our disagreements on taxes or consequentialism vs. deontology feel like minor issues compared to his excellent writings on immigration and war. That’s because we’re both cosmopolitans. On the other hand, there are parochial libertarians who are much more focused on opposing federal regulations and taxes but don’t much mind if the local police bully perceived “outsiders.” I don’t find much common ground with them. But nor do I find much in common with parochial liberals focused on things like the welfare of local middle-class union members.

I want to say something about religious conservatives here, since they are such an important force in the US (though I know this is not true in all countries). Religion often seems to end up aligned with nationalism, perhaps because religious and national boundaries often coincide. But there’s no reason this must be so. Modern religions aspire to cross national boundaries. Many Christian thinkers play up Christianity’s cosmopolitan streak—to hear them tell it, Christianity invented cosmopolitanism. This isn’t true; as already noted cosmopolitanism can be traced back to ancient Greece. By the time Christianity came on the scene, cosmopolitanism had gone mainstream in the Roman world via Stoicism. Nevertheless, Christianity’s cosmopolitanism is real: think of the parable of the good Samaritan, or Paul’s “neither Jew nor Gentile” line in Galatians.

There are a handful of policy issues where the implications of cosmopolitanism seem relatively clear: governments should give the interests of foreigners more weight in decisions that affect them, including immigration, trade, foreign aid, and global environmental issues (including global warming). But rather than say much about those issues, I want to finish this post by talking about a slightly more complicated issue, foreign military intervention.

The US has been justifying military actions in altruistic terms since at least the Spanish-American War, which was sold partly as defending Cubans from their Spanish oppressor. Other countries have engaged in similar rhetoric. What are we to make of it? Should it be dismissed as obvious propaganda? Or proponents of altruistic intervention deserve to be taken seriously for having the right ideals?

Philosopher Richard Chappell proposes a useful test here, which he calls the cosmopolitan civilian test for proportionality in war. It asks, “Would these civilian casualties be considered ‘proportionate’ if the civilians in question were of a different nationality?” Framed in those terms, I think it is obvious that the answer is all too often “no.” As Caplan puts it, “If a policeman fought crime the way that ‘civilized’ armies wage war, we'd put him in jail.”

But there may be exceptions, so I think it is important to emphasize the standard, rather than specific applications. Presumably proponents of altruistic intervention would claim the actions they advocate pass the cosmopolitan civilian test. After all, it’s not as if interventionists are going to say they place great value on foreigners’ liberty, but not so much on their lives. Asking proponents of particular interventions to explain how an intervention passes the cosmopolitan civilian test may be a good way to distinguish genuine (if misguided) altruists from people whose real motives are less noble.

Again, none of this is to say that trying to enact a cosmopolitan policy agenda should necessarily be a top priority for effective altruists. But I think the effective altruist movement would benefit from being more self-conscious about its cosmopolitanism.

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Good point. I have wondered before whether something like anti-cosmopolitanism sometimes accounts for disagreement that is attributed to anti-effectiveness or anti-altruism. Cosmopolitanism seems like a much more plausible thing for a human to dislike than effectiveness, especially given the popularity of effectiveness in other areas of life.

I think you're quite right to identify this as an important distinguishing feature of effective altruism.

I wonder about terminology. The feature that we care about motivates people to care about everyone in the world, but also to care about non-humans and future generations. We could try to claim the term "cosmopolitan" to mean that, but it's more of a departure from traditional usage. On the other hand I don't immediately see great alternatives (I agree that "impartiality" doesn't convey the right impression). Can anyone do better?

When I was writing this post, I meant to define cosmopolitanism as something that does not take a position either way on nonhumans or future generations. Two reasons for this:

  1. My goal was to increase self-awareness about concern for people in other countries being a distinctive feature of effective altruism. Whereas people who are especially concerned about animals or future generations tend to already be pretty self-aware that not everyone shares their position.
  2. As Robert Wiblin noted in his summit talk, the effective altruism community does have a few people who dissent from the majority view on animals and the far future. Whereas I literally don't know of anyone who disagrees about cosmopolitanism regarding humans.

That's fair. Though in that case I'd have liked to have seen some explicit contrast with these other questions (if only to say that you didn't mean that, so that readers didn't immediately start thinking on those lines).

Agreed. If you used cosmopolitanism to mean a citizen of the cosmos, then you would be getting closer to that original definition. I note the following comment on definitions on Wikipedia:

'Definitions of cosmopolitanism usually begin with the Greek etymology of "citizen of the world". However, as Appiah points out, "world" in the original sense meant "cosmos" or "universe", not earth or globe as current use assumes.'

We could break down 'impartiality' into multiple doctrines, e.g.:

  • cosmopolitanism - we should improve the welfare of sentient beings, regardless of where or when they exist.
  • egalitarianism - we should improve the welfare of sentient beings, regardless of what kind of being they are (e.g., regardless of sex, species, and cultural background)

We could also break it down further -- e.g., say that all EAs accept spatial cosmopolitanism, but some reject temporal cosmopolitanism.

"When they do, they call it “impartiality,” which is too vague. Judges, juries, journalists, and so on (to limit myself to the “j”s) are expected to be impartial in a sense, but only in specific domains."

Philosophers would say 'impartial benevolence', which is more clear about the domain of impartiality. I think we have found the 'benevolence' part to be unnecessary to add given that the topic is altruism, which is roughly equivalent to benevolence (i.e. helping others). I think 'impartiality' works OK, so long as it is understood as one of the properties that define what is different about our type of altruism.

One attractive feature about cosmopolitanism in contrast with impartial benevolence is that impartial benevolence is often associated with denying that loved ones and family members are worthy targets of special concern, whereas I don't think cosmopolitanism has such associations. Another is that I think a larger fraction of educated people already have some knowledge about cosmopolitanism.

Nice post! I've always heard cosmopolitanism contrasted with "communitarianism", which I think is a more charitable name for the opposing position, and makes it clearer why so many people think that way. Less good for persuasive purposes though, I guess.

Completely agree that 1) Cosmopolitanism describes an important feature of Effective Altruism well, and 2) Non-cosmopolitanism is pervasive throughout our political & social discourse (another example is reporting on natural disasters or plane crashes, where the number of US/Australian/whatever citizens involved is usually emphasised).

So far, I’ve just been trying to argue that effective altruists take cosmopolitanism too much for granted, and should more see cosmopolitanism as something distinctive about themselves.

True. I recall somewhat recently being surprised to find that a somewhat influential friend of mine believed strongly in a purely local approach. To paraphrase him at a recent event: "We're helping people right now, right here - not halfway around the world." The audience responded with massive waves of applause.

I worry a bit that "cosmopolitan" is a term that has "elitist" connotations.


"I worry a bit that "cosmopolitan" is a term that has "elitist" connotations."

Why do you think that? (curious)

I feel the elitist connotations, for a data point.


In the social justice community, we'd phrase this as "fighting the -isms." Typically, it's fighting against the well-known phenomena of racism, sexism, classism, etc., but we can also include:

  • locationism (bias on the basis of location, usually against the developing world or just individuals outside our home country)
  • speciesism (bias on the basis of species, usually against nonhumans)
  • generationism (bias on the basis of time period, usually against future individuals)

Identifying ourselves in this category increases our credibility with other altruistic causes and is a good way of explaining ourselves to individuals outside our community.

"All people have equal value; not all charities."

In the social justice community...

Identifying ourselves in this category increases our credibility with other altruistic causes and is a good way of explaining ourselves to individuals outside our community.

It might be a good way of explaining ourselves to social justice warriors. But a rather poor way of explaining ourselves to those who are triggered by social justice. Given that I expect that conservatives are under-represented among EAs, I think we should probably avoid going out of our way to alienate them any further.

BTW, the term "social justice warrior" is generally considered derogatory.


Hm, as someone who grew up in a rural, conservative town, I've never heard of social justice lingo like racism or sexism alienating people in a relevant way. I think the issues come in with more extreme ideas like radical feminism or exclusively race-based affirmative action. I think people generally have a sturdy psychological barrier between the mainstream social justice material and the more extreme, possibly triggering material.

Given that I expect that conservatives are under-represented among EAs, I think we should probably avoid going out of our way to alienate them any further.

I'd like to see more discussion about who our target audience is as EAs. I'd guess it's more of the social justice/altruism crowd rather than conservatives, even if conservatives are currently under-represented. I often think it's the intelligentsia of some sort, which is relatively liberal. Although if we're reaching out towards 'old money' for philanthropy purposes, this might be different.


I'm going to be honest, the target audience is privileged liberals for the most part, i.e. people with unexceptional centre to centre-left politics, with an enormous (relative to history and the world) amount of wealth, education and so forth, with a certain moralism about them. That composition is not flattering, being mostly white graduates or academics from the USA/UK, but is necessarily so for a world-view turning on giving away ones money and/or doing high-level research into how to give away ones money.

But introducing new and unusual-sounding terms like locationism and speciesism is presumably more likely to be associated with the extreme ideas than the mainstream.




I find the this kind of rationalization - subordinating ones ethics to what can effectively motivate people to altruism - both profoundly conservative and, to some extent, undignified and inhuman, i.e. the utility slave coming full circle to enslave their own dictate of utility maximisation.

I really like this idea. It does seem like this kind of inclusivity of who we should care about is a core tenet of effective altruism, and I like that cosmopolitanism is an already accepted term. Coining new terms sometimes seems to be an attempt to skew a debate in your favour by shifting the turf.

On the other hand, I worry that the use might end up being unintentionally misleading. We might be technically right in our use of the word, but I’d have thought that a lot of people would find the use confusing. It feels to me like a word most often used in reference to better integration of different cultures within large cities. If someone said they were a cosmopolitan, to me that conjures up an image of someone concerned predominantly with integration of people into their own country, rather than with helping those on the other side of the world. (Though I might well just not be representative!). I’d have thought one of the problems going on here is that effective altruism is linked to moral cosmopolitanism, but the word is usually used to mean political cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitanism is a critical EA value, maybe the critical value, but it would be nice if EAs understood better the arguments against at least certain flavors of it.

Could you be less cryptic?

Great post, Topher.

Q: You define "cosmopolitanism" as assigning similar weightings to people outside and inside your country. But a few times you also seem to thinking of political interventions like immigration reform as your prototype for 'cosmopolitan' initiatives.

  • "So far, I’ve just been trying to argue that effective altruists take cosmopolitanism too much for granted, and should more see cosmopolitanism as something distinctive about themselves. I haven’t been trying to argue that effective altruists should be actively supporting immigration reform or other cosmopolitan political causes."

  • "Again, none of this is to say that trying to enact a cosmopolitan policy agenda should necessarily be a top priority for effective altruists."

I'm not seeing the connection. Is there a particular connotation you're assuming, beyond the definition you gave? Why is immigration reform any more "cosmopolitan" than, e.g., animal rights activism, x-risk mitigation, or deworming in Africa? When the topic is "cosmopolitanism", why do political interventions pop into the discussion more readily than all those EA activities? Is it possible to be a cosmopolitan while rejecting immigration reform -- provided you do so with the goal of benefiting all people?

Also, is cosmopolitanism only about nations? Can I be a cosmopolitan while, say, asserting that people who live in my home town in Maryland are a thousand times more important than people who live in Illinois, provided that I don't give Illinois significantly more weight than New Guinea?

I think the answer to your first question is mostly contained in my response to Owen. I agree that in theory cosmopolitans might disagree on immigration reform, but I chose not to talk much about it because I thought talking about cosmopolitanism and military intervention was more interesting.

For your second question, yeah, I would want to apply cosmopolitanism to cities, too. Though drill down to very small groups, and I'm less eager to take a hard stance. Bryan Caplan thinks we have special obligations to family members, but that has

Maybe I should wrap some of these comments up into a clarifying addendum.

Re the first question, I think I was missing a connotation you associate between the word 'cosmopolitanism' and political / nation-oriented interventions. Perhaps you were guarding against the interpretation that being a 'citizen of the world' (as opposed to a citizen of one's homeland) requires one to endorse open borders or world governments.

Re the second question, perhaps we should say that cosmopolitanism is about being indifferent to where strangers and acquaintances live or have lived (including where they were born), but it's not about being indifferent to whether someone's a stranger vs. a close friend.

So if you live in a town of 200 and are close friends with all those people, cosmopolitanism says it's fine to strongly privilege your town over other towns, by analogy with its being fine to privilege your family/friends over others' families/friends. But if you live in a city of 200,000 and don't know the vast majority of residents, cosmopolitanism forbids privileging arbitrary residents of your city over arbitrary residents of other cities.


I'm not sure it makes sense to invoke 'cosmopolitanism' in the singular, when it admits great internal diversity. Insofar as I can tell however, cosmpolitanism in the global justice literature is overwhelmingly predicated on either luck egalitarianism (that persons should not receive benefit or burden for things they cannot reasonably be held accountable for) and/or utilitarianism, neither of which allow any necessary moral distinction between friend and stranger.

I agree that there's a "let's think globally" type attitude among effective altruists but I'm concerned about what would actually happen if we all decided to branch out into foreign countries. Learning other cultures and systems and situations is very complicated and if one doesn't have a good understanding of those systems, one's attempts to help can have unintended consequences. From GiveWell's page on "Whites in Shining Armor" [1]

"The problem is that as outsiders, we often have very poor understanding of the true dynamics behind overseas problems – and by attempting to solve problems that we understand poorly, we can make things worse."

For example, if you're setting up an ebola clinic in Liberia, you need to be aware that the local Liberians are willing to raid your ebola clinic and steal the bedding (These Liberians just didn't believe in ebola!). [2] When beds that ebola patients were just laying in are removed from a clinic, this takes the ebola germs out of the confines of the clinic, too. The dangerous unintended consequence here is probably obvious: there's an opportunity for the disease to get out of control.

I think that having global ambitions is wonderful and well-meaning but that we need to be careful to avoid the insidious cognitive bias called Dunning-Kruger effect. Having Dunning-Kruger effect means that you're unaware of not knowing the things you don't know, so things will tend to be more complicated than you realize. Doing work in multiple countries sounds like a wonderful ideal, but I'm concerned that the complexity involved could make this an exercize in biting off more than we can chew.



Great article. I'm also in favour of advocating cosmopolitanism. I think governments especially should be critiqued in those terms. A good Stanford lecture series on international relations is here, which makes it clear how uncosmopolitan most governments currently are:

I mean by “cosmopolitanism” a moral and political stance that gives the interests of people of other nationalities a weight equal (or at least nearly equal) to those of one’s compatriots.

An argument for cosmopolitanism as you define i that might be acceptable to many people would be the argument from historical arbitrariness. Someone born in Louisiana is an US citizen only because the soldiers from the north proved sufficiently good at murdering people during the civil war. Why should that fact determine the moral weights she assigns people?

This argument doesn't work against more sophisticated forms of anti-cosmopolitanism, however.

I guess one argument for localism that EAs might be sympathetic to would be as a solution to infinitarian paralysis. If we live in big universe (Tegmark Level 1 or above) there are likely to be infinitely many agents. As such, the total amount of welfare in the universe is also infinite, so no finite action we take can increase it or decrease it. However, if we discounted welfare exponentially by distance, our sums will converge and we can do ethics as we intuitively want to, assuming individual welfare is bounded above (though weaker assumptions will also yield the result).


"This argument doesn't work against more sophisticated forms of anti-cosmopolitanism, however."

I'm sorry but luck egalitarianism, the conception of moral responsibility implicit in your first paragraph, cannot be refuted; it's partly an uncontroversial empirical claim on the causal determinants of social agents, but largely a claim on intuition. Unless I'm missing something, I don't see how it could 'fail to work' in itself, absent you simply disagreeing with it at first principle (which is fine, obviously).

Great post in general. I think there is even more to it than this. In general, most social movements either benefit their members, or at least bring the promise of reciprocal benefits. None of the causes Effective Altruists tend to care about (third world poverty, animals, future people) do.

I wrote a short blog post about this.

Nice post! I just added a link to your blog at

Thanks very much!

Thanks for writing this! I think it could be a useful way of referring to a baseline philosophical position among EAs regarding impartiality toward currently living humans. Beyond that consensus, it seems reasonable to suppose that there will be room in the movement for people who judge impact from a variety of philosophical perspectives. It would be interesting if charity evaluators took that diversity into consideration when evaluating effectiveness. The most obvious split might be over beliefs about the subjective experiences of non-human animals, which is why it makes sense for a group (i.e., Animal Charity Evaluators) to focus on impact on animals if it's being neglected elsewhere.

Different flavors of utilitarianism could also make a substantial difference. "Total" versus "prior-existence" views could affect whether one assigns overwhelming value to ensuring that very many very happy people will come to exist in the future. The degree to which one is hedonistic or negative-leaning could affect whether a charity that alleviates a given number of cases of non-fatal causes of suffering (e.g., SCI) might be favored over one that saves a given number of lives (e.g., AMF).

I agree that cosmopolitanism in altruism would lead to prioritizing the global poor, but I would like to point out that one can rationally choose to donate to the global poor while believing that Americans should be given substantially more weight than those living in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, while it may be good that effective altruists are cosmopolitans, we should attempt to convince those who reject cosmopolitanism that their existing values also lead to donating to the global poor. I'm just afraid that sending the message that you have to reject granting more weight to those close to you, reject granting more weight to those who are the same species as you, or reject granting more weight to those who live in the present in order to be an effective altruist will push away people with different beliefs who would otherwise donate to highly effective charities.


One popular route to cosmopolitanism is thinking that racism and nationalism are based on similarly silly divides, either based on skin colour, or historical boundaries, which should be removed.

There are a handful of policy issues where the implications of cosmopolitanism seem relatively clear: governments should give the interests of foreigners more weight in decisions that affect them

I think this is a slightly less clear-cut example than one might think. Traditionally most political philosophers who sought to justify the coercive power of the state have felt that the best or only way to do so was based on the special relationship between citizens and each other, and between citizens and a state. For example, the Fair Play argument given in various forms by Rawls (1971), Arneson (1982), Dagger (1997) and Klosko (2005), is based on the immorality of 'free riding', which isn't really applicable to foreign aid. Dworkin (1986) and Horton (2006)'s argument from associative duties is similar in this regard. And clearly any conception based on consent will be local. I realise there are plenty of examples of philosophers who disagree with this and side with you, but my impression of the literature is that the localist side is dominant - and certainly not negligible. Perhaps as individuals our positive duties are cosmopolitan, but states are rightfully partial.


Just a few remarks. Firstly, Rawls (1971) exercised several (grossly) simplifying assumptions pursuant to a domestic conception of justice, necessarily including the omission of questions of international distribution and migratory rights. This is exactly what gave rise to his students thinking A Theory of Justice could be unproblematically extended to the global sphere, only to be disappointed when Rawls views formalised twenty-years later in The Law of Peoples. Secondly, in my exposure, the emergence of global justice as a dominant issue in Anglophone political philosophy since the 1990s is, like the rest of the field, constituted almost entirely by various stripes of liberal egalitarianism. Most of whom admit no intrinsic right of national cultures to closed memberships of bounded territories. They are nearly all luck egalitarians to start with. Thirdly and most importantly, the persuasion of philosophical literature, which yields just about zero policy effect, has no relation whatsoever to whether 'cosmopolitanism...[entails that] governments should give the interests of foreigners more weight in decisions that affect them'. In the terminology of the philosophical literature, and the definition given by the original poster, cosmopolitanism and ethical impartialism are one and the same.

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