Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
Kwame Anthony Appiah
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Kwame Anthony Appiah challenges us to adopt the moral manifesto of “cosmopolitanism,” a loyalty to all of humanity, and begs the question of what we owe to strangers simply by virtue of our shared humanity. He joins an important conversation in global ethics on partiality and obligations, among fellow philosophers such Alasdair Macintyre, Peter Unger, Thomas Hurka, Richard Miller, and Peter Singer. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is laced with Appiah’s personal anecdotes as a product of a multicultural family, in addition to an array of references to important historical figures, classic literary works, and other philosophical theories. In an era of rapidly expanding globalization and transnational influence that threaten stability and neatly categorized identities, Appiah expands the discourse on nationalism and partiality to think of the universe as a state, and its citizens as a global tribe. For Appiah, cosmopolitanism “starts with what is human in humanity” (134).
While the cosmopolitan approach to morality and coexistence does not demand icy impartiality or an abandonment of our local allegiances, it encourages cross-cultural understanding and recognition of our interconnectedness. Appiah does not portray the cosmopolitan as blind to differences, but rather sees cosmopolitanism as an awareness of our differences that cultivates tolerance and learning. While we may not share the same values, we are universal in that we are all humans and share a moral nature. Even if we were to share the same moral vocabulary, or “language of values,” it is not to say that we would come to the same conclusions. For example, in evaluating particular cases we may disagree about the application of “open-textured” values such as courage, bravery, cruelty, or politeness. Depending on the use of evaluative language that we have been exposed to, such as what counts as “cruel,” this open-texture of language leaves plenty of room for debate.
Moreover, different groups will have different social consensus, and will interpret what they see in the world depending on what they believe. Appiah cites the Duhem thesis, which holds that people can make different conclusions from the same set of evidence. Each individual perception of reality depends on the concepts bestowed upon the individual by his or her culture. Appiah recognizes this ethnocentric bias and writes that “there is no way to play this game of making judgments across cultures except with loaded dice” (22). Despite this, Appiah argues that one does not have to agree with or adopt the ways of another society in order to engage with them. Differences in moral truths provide an opportunity for learning and dialogue. Conversation with others whose experiences and ideas may differ does not need to lead to consensus, but rather helps people become accustomed to one another. In cosmopolitanism, we can make sense of one another by exploring our shared human nature, even if it only begins between two individuals.
While it seems more manageable to localize the conversation and point to individual cross-cultural interactions, it will not persuade critics who emphasize the irrationality of loyalty to all humans across diverse geographical, cultural, and political boundaries. Early in the book, Appiah advocates for a more moderate or “partial” cosmopolitanism in response to criticism of extreme cosmopolitanism’s cold impartiality. He attributes skepticism of cosmopolitanism to our tendency to designate partiality to those with whom we share an identity, and the difficulty in accepting an abstract concept such as our humanity as a shared identity. His nondescript proposed solution is to move cosmopolitanism from the abstract to the concrete. Instead of looking for universal traits or values that all humans share, Appiah states that cosmopolitanism can be as simple as finding what is held in common between two singular individuals. He believes that this encourages a “cosmopolitan curiosity” in which we can learn from one another or “can simply be intrigued by alternative ways of thinking, feeling and acting” (97).
Due to the aforementioned criticism, Appiah continually seeks to clarify what cosmopolitan is and what it is not. He specifically identifies 20th century logical positivism, or simply “positivism,” as a principle obstacle for cosmopolitanism. He describes the positivist stance as “I want you to be my brother but on my terms,” wherein to value something is to want everyone to want it. When we desire for others to share the same perspective and values, we are not seeking to reflect reality but rather to change it to our liking. Appiah finds fault with this imperialistic lean and positivism’s overemphasis on facts, which implies a “right vs. wrong” mentality. This opens the door for the denigration of others’ beliefs, especially when positivists deny that “true beliefs” can exist without facts based on concrete evidence from our five senses. This directly challenges Appiah’s conception of cosmopolitanism, which does not assert a hierarchy of truth or a single mode of living, but rather advocates for universal concern and respect for legitimate difference.
Interestingly, Appiah employs a similar logic to denounce the “Golden Rule,” which is generally accepted as a universal ethical code that is present among many, if not all, of the world’s major religions. It is not that cosmopolitans do not believe in universal truth, but rather they acknowledge the difficulty in finding it. He rightly questions whether what he would consider right for himself could be the right decision for someone else who possesses different values and beliefs. Even so, Appiah concedes that the Golden Rule is similar to cosmopolitanism in its encouragement to learn about others. Cosmopolitans seek connection “not through identity but despite difference" (135). In other words, human variety is natural because we associate and live in partnership with other people in different ways. Cosmopolitanism is committed to respecting this pluralism, which is reminiscent of many modern day approaches to peace education and interfaith dialogue.
Appiah does not suggest that we have to feel for some abstract “other” exactly what we would feel towards our kith and kin. In other words, he does not expect us to disregard those who we care about the most in order to favor others, but rather argues for an expansion of our circle of compassion. To explore this further, he details cosmopolitanism’s basic conception of human rights by offering four constraints: 1) the nation state is the primary mechanism for ensuring that basic needs of its citizens are met, 2) in our obligations to others we are each required to do our fair share but to not burden ourselves by picking up the slack of others, 3) our basic obligations must be consistent with our partiality to those closest to us (such as friends, family, and compatriots), and 4) in evaluating our obligations to others we must take into consideration the diversity of values. For such an inspiring and even radical meditation on global ethics, these conclusions seem bland, common-sense, and simply representative of the existing paradigm.
Yet to continue, when further addressing the question of what obligations we owe to strangers, Appiah does not pretend to offer an answer on how to diminish badness in our world through a single, exceptionless principle that we could all adopt. He does offer a version of what he calls the “Singer principle” – in reference to utilitarian moral philosopher and fellow Princeton professor, Peter Singer - regarding our obligations to others. This new moral principle he proposes is known as the “emergency principle,” and states that “if you are the best person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it” (161). I find it unnecessary for Appiah to establish this when he clearly advocates for a plurality of values through the book, instead of an ever-elusive global ethic or moral principle. He at least recognizes that it is not a sound argument, and anticipates other philosophers finding fault with it. In this sense, Appiah admittedly does an excellent job of deconstructing the criticisms levied against cosmopolitanism.
While Appiah’s cultural lens and narrative style of writing is engaging and makes many broad interdisciplinary connections, some of his interjections are confusingly placed and disrupt a coherent flow. The last three chapters are specifically jumbled with a number of broadly related concepts that, while interesting, make it seem that Appiah was anxious to cram in some last minute details without fully developing their connection to one another. It proved challenged to try to logically summarize them. For example, he enters into a discussion on intellectual property rights and cultural patrimony, which holds that cultural artifacts such as art, as a product of a culture, belong to those who identify with the artifacts as descendants or by occupying the same territory. Appiah argues that art can belong to no one because it is of value to everyone, and governments should preserve the value for all of humanity. From here he moves on to discuss counter-cosmopolitans and religious fundamentalism, then tolerance, followed by obligations to strangers, and finally finishes with criticism of top-down approaches to international aid. While many practical idealists will find Appiah’s main theory compelling and well-organized in the first half of the book, the conclusion is decidedly lackluster and downright disappointing. Despite this, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is prize reflection for anyone interested in global citizenship.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah in Examined Life. 2010. Web. 25 Nov 2013. a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjMnyP142b8%3E">http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjMnyP142b8>;.