Published Humanitas, Volume XXIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2010

Seyla Benahabib’s The Rights of Others seeks to chart a new “cosmopolitan theory of justice” for migrants, immigrants, and refugees by building on the ideas of Kantian cosmopolitan federalism and Habermasian discourse ethics. Her theory of cosmopolitan rights leads, however, to a number of analytically and normatively problematic claims. These include her suggestion that the political values of liberal democracies have a universal validity that transcends Western culture, and her embrace of “free markets” as a corollary to the idea of cosmopolitan rights. In the article that follows I will critically examine these parts of Benahbib’s theory. My close reading of The Rights of Others will then lead to a discussion of the ideas of Wendell Berry, who is perhaps the most important contemporary spokesperson for a position best described as ecological or environmental agrarianism. Although Berry has not written directly about questions of international migration and refugee rights, his analysis of the forces at work in the destruction of rural farm communities in the United States offers valuable insights into the forces driving global mass migrations. Berry also offers a compelling alternative normative vision to Benhabib’s of the rights of others based on principles of stewardship, ecological sustainability, local self-sufficiency, and neighborliness. It is upon these essentially small-scale agrarian values and practices—not the abstractions of cosmopolitanism or “global thinking”—he argues, that the literal survival of the world depends.

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