Book Review of Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is an intriguing book whose drive is to invite readers to take a step back from “the noise” of the world and view it in a light that encompasses the similarities and differences of the people that live in it. Through this view, we come to understand that with the bit of help from the globalization phenomenon, the world is made up of communities within communities, within communities, within a community. Appiah states that, cosmopolitanism “begins with the simple idea that in the human community, as in national communities, we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association” (Appiah 2006, xix). In the introduction he cites the history of cosmopolitanism, dating all the way back to the “Stoics, beginning in the third century BC…” (Appiah 2006, xiv), moving into the late 1700s with the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Immanuel Kant’s work proposing a “league of nations”” (Appiah 2006, ibid) and advancing to the 21st century, where it has exploded with the assistance of globalization.

Appiah identifies two aspects of cosmopolitanism that aid in better defining the term: “One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship” (Appiah 2006, xv), and “the other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (Appiah 2006, xv). Here Appiah reinforces the idea of community and solidarity despite social, financial, but more so, cultural differences. He argues that each individual has a duty to one another but also specifies that each individual has an obligation to themselves. Taking into account the second aspect, he urges the respect of the value of people’s cultures. By doing so, greater respect and appreciation is shown to all and the expect result is peace. He does note that this is just one side of the coin and that there have been cases where conflict has occurred over social, economic, and cultural differences; and while the cosmopolitan ideal does “preach” acceptance of different backgrounds, it also sets up the opportunity for groups to rank their cultural values over that of others.

Appiah jumps into his chapters with a series of questions: “How real are values? What do we talk about when we talk about difference? Is any form of relativism right? When do morals and manners clash? Can culture be “owned”? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?” (Appiah 2006, xxi). He uses conversation as a vehicle to addressing these questions as it is a sustainable and efficient way of determining values, obligations, and differences among people; and “depending on the circumstances, conversations across boundaries can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable” (Appiah 2006, xxi).

Appiah responds to the questions of “How real are values?” and “Is any form of relativism right?” in chapter 2 – The Escape from Positivism. He gives examples of professional relativism where ethnographers and anthropologists who travel to foreign places to immerse themselves into a new culture and once doing so, return with an appreciation of the similarities and differences his/her culture shares with the people of which they have traveled to. In his examples, he does a good job of pointing out the issue of relativism where it concerns cultural differences. Female circumcision or female genital cutting is one issue different societies have different opinions on. Appiah points out that from the perspective of one society, female circumcision is seen as harmful to girls and women and also an abuse of their bodily rights, “a disgusting mutilation that deprives women of the full pleasures of sexual experience” (Appiah 2006, 15). On the other hand, women in another society will view the act as a means to expressing themselves, enhancing pleasure, and a rite of passage. Why shouldn’t it be this way if Western society readily accepts the act of tattooing, piercings, and other body changes, says Appiah? This brings about his question of which form if any of relativism is right; And he makes a great point that it isn’t about right or wrong, that some cultural aspects cannot be defined as such, but that cosmopolitans accept, as should the rest of the world, the value of our differences and should work towards ensuring the respect of these differences as long as their process does not cause harm to individuals.

Appiah’s argument about values serving as vehicles to our desires is somewhat sound. If one desires everyone to be kind and just, these are values (of kindness and just) that the person will uphold as important to them and others. The question of “How real are values?” comes into play when looking at values across different societies. There are the obvious empirical and universal values that all societies have in common such as the value of life, family, happiness, etc. but then you have values that are not as universal. Values such as beauty, womanhood, and parenthood that are viewed upon differently by groups are based on the desires that have been historically accepted. Hence the varying definition of what beauty looks like, or what womanhood entails, or the image of what parenthood should look like and which genders together form parenthood. Conversation helps to disperse these values, to understand them, adjust them, and to a certain point, own them for ourselves in order to direct the responses we may have. As the boundaries of the world fold, values along with everything else are flying across, some peaceful, others with the hard impact of aggression. Values are real in the sense that they communicate our level of humanity in a community that is increasingly experience diversity within its diversity. It isn’t as real because Appiah argues they are based on our desires, our wants for ourselves and the world we live in. Some desires remain the same but many others change, and it is that change that leads the evolution of values in the global community. Isn’t it better to question whether the values are authentic, “worthy” to be accepted by the global community, instead of if they are real? Either way, Appiah is right in stating that conversation is a useful tool to explore these questions and differences and that if conflict occurs as a result of these clash of values, one should accept it as a means to understanding the global community we live in.

In his book, Appiah reflects on what it means to have a difference in opinion. From a Cosmopolitan point of view, he expects there to be disagreements across cultures but also within them. According to him, disagreements occur as a result of the weight put on value terms and vocabulary, and how cultures interpret them. Appiah gives the example of family responsibility and upbringing, citing the matrilineal structure of family in the Akan culture. The complexity of the Akan family structure is coupled with familiar values that keep in context the importance and role of individuals in family matters. While it is acceptable for an Uncle to serve the father role for his sister’s children and his sister and children to live with him instead of her husband, today’s Western society (and now somewhat globally) would disagree with this family structure. The father and mother should live together with their children and that’s the end of it. Appiah affirms rightly so that, there are different ways of raising a family. Disagreement over the structure of the family should only become an issue if “society [does not have] a way of assigning responsibilities for the nurture of children that works and makes senses…” (Appiah 2006, 49).

Appiah also uses the idea of taboo to emphasize the disagreement of values different cultures have. Whether it’s the taboo of eating bush meat in the Akan clan, eating pork as a member of the Muslim faith, act of incest, or the duration before a body is buried, Appiah states that these taboos will face disagreement among different cultures. Perhaps there will be consensus over the act of incest, but essentially the point he strives to drive at is that, the weight of certain values depend on where we’re coming from. So when two people are having a disagreement over a particular issue, they are not disagreeing over each other’s belief of the idea, because they both believe in what they’re talking about, but instead are arguing over, the weight or significance of the value they place on those ideals. As a Cosmopolitan would say, it’s okay to agree to disagree; because no one person grew up the same or retains identical values. I agree with his cosmopolitan view, that embracing these differences enriches the acceptance and value of humanity and solidify the small bridging connections that link cultures to one another.

Appiah’s most powerful argument comes in his discussion about the treatment of culture as an object; whether it can be owned and the implications it has for the many communities in our world. He provides some background on his argument by referring to the history of legal and illegal transportation of cultural artifacts from countries like Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria. These artifacts, one way or another, end up in Western museums in Italy, London, and New York without considering the implication or impact of how the removal of these objects affects the people of those cultures. Do these museums rightfully own the objects or do they belong to the originating nations? One would assume the right answer is that it belongs to the country of which the artifact was taken from but Appiah will disagree. Instead, utilizing his cosmopolitan view, he argues that these cultural artifacts belong to all human beings and that since the world has become more open, the issue of ownership should no longer be restricted to just the country of origin.

While I respect and understand Appiah’s point of view that indeed, cultural artifacts should be shared with the world for greater value and such, the first point to make is that, the world has built a structure in which material value supersedes everything else. By placing material value on cultural artifacts, one is taking away in a sense, the cultural and spiritual value that was placed as part of a culture’s belief. When ancient cultures constructed and revered these cultural objects, they were not worshiping or appreciating them because of their materialistic value, but in most cases it was because of their aesthetics and the role it played or symbolized in the society’s traditions. The removal of such objects from the country of origins and even the sale of tickets to view these objects, does not only a great harm to the respect and sanctity of these cultures, but also reinforces Appiah’s question to the fact that culture can and are being owned.

A somewhat sharp contrast is provided to Appiah’s introduction and beginning chapters in the last chapter of his book, where he reflects on “What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?” While in the beginning Appiah spoke about the obligations cosmopolitans believe humanity has towards one another, he emphasizes the fact that cosmopolitanism does not require that individuals carry out these obligations. He seems to suggest that individuals need only be aware of the obligations they hold towards one another based on the similarities and differences of their cultures. I agree that there are some duties one can accomplish easily and others that require more energy and time. To accept all obligations required of us based on the cosmopolitan view would doom humanity to a life of servitude and to a certain level a decrease in quality of life. Appiah gives the examples of OXFAM and UNICEF (Appiah 2006, 156-163) where it is suggested by philosophers like Peter Singer that individuals should consider giving all their monetary and property wealth away to ensure that people suffering worse than ourselves may benefit.

While this is great, like Appiah, I have to disagree with this notion because it conflicts with one of the obligations universally accepted by most cultures; that is to have a good quality of life. The tension of this point comes in when determining what constitutes a “good quality of life”. For different cultures it means different things but when we know that a particular group or region of the world does not have the basic needs fulfilled, I would argue that it is our obligation, our duty, to do something about it, whether it is through advocacy, raising awareness, donations, etc.

Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism does a great job of integrating the similar and different aspects of cultures around the world, and as someone who identifies with that international lifestyle, I can see where the importance of recognizing different values is essential to building connections that would not have been there if the world was not as globalized as it is today. Some aspects of his views, such as the ownership of cultural artifacts, I have to disagree with because as the world expands, so does the number of identities people claim to. This diversity of identities that individuals consider as their own, can only be enhanced if they have tangible tools or objects to link them to those identities. Overall, the main point that Appiah is trying to make in regards to Cosmopolitanism is that conversation is key to bridging the gaps that separate us into different cultures. We might disagree in these conversations, we might value certain beliefs over others, but as long as we respect and understand the opinions of others, the world is better off.  

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Tags: Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, Ethics, Global, International

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