Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, is about finding ways for different people, and peoples, to live together in our increasingly globalized world. Born in England, raised in Ghana, and now a professor of philosophy at Princeton University in the United States, he brings a personal and practical approach to the problem.

Interactions between people of different cultures and different values are becoming more frequent, more inevitable. How do we to live together on our shared planet?

For Appiah, cosmopolitanism is a large part of the answer. He defines cosmopolitanism as universality plus difference. Everyone matters. We therefore have obligations to each other, to everyone in fact. We share, or should share, a universal concern for each other. Yet there are also legitimate differences among us. There are many sets of values worth living by. We should therefore be concerned about, and interested in, the lives of particular individuals within particular cultures.

Without clearly articulating what they are, Appiah argues there are values that are universal and those that are local. There is room for both.

Appiah’s approach is based on a conversation: particular individuals with particular differences need to keep talking with each other to build understanding and at the very least to get used to each other.


Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
By Kwame Anthony Appiah
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2006

The book starts with an examination of the question of universal truths. Is our grasp of truth like looking into a shattered mirror where we each hold fragments of a common universal truth, yet none of us has the whole? Or are there really multiple mirrors, possibly one per person, and therefore multiple truths? Appiah, while stating that there are universal values, seems to come down on the side of multiple mirrors where often the best we can do is agree to disagree.

Interestingly, he doesn’t go into the scientific view which would be that we approach truth gradually, hopefully asymptotically, even if we never reach it, although that is in fact what his conversational model seems to lead to.

Doesn’t this all just lead to moral relativism? Nobody seems to like relativism. Those who think their set of beliefs are best and ought to be universal of course reject it. Appiah rejects it too because as he says it just leads to silence, not conversation.

Appiah discusses various types of moral disagreements. At the highest level, we can disagree about moral values, such as, for example the value of a human life. However, even if we have a shared vocabulary and understanding of certain values, we often disagree on their application to specific circumstances. And then, even in cases of agreement on value language and application we can differ on the weight given to different circumstances or moral rules. He describes values as “essentially contestable.”

These differences can occur both within and between groups.

Fortunately, we don’t actually need to agree on values in order to get along. All we need to do is agree on how to act towards one another and to live in harmony with each other – a far easier task.

Appiah argues that agreement on universal moral principles is not necessary for dialog. Such agreement is anyway hard, if not impossible. The point is to engage in conversation with particular individuals of particular cultures, find some common ground, some share value and build understanding from there.

“… the points of entry to cross-cultural conversations are things that are shared by those who are in the conversation. They do not need to be universal; all they need to be is what these particular people have in common. Once we have found enough we share, there is the further possibility that we will be able to enjoy discovering things we do not yet share. That is one of the payoffs of cosmopolitan curiosity. We can learn from each other, or we can simply be intrigued by alternative ways of thinking, feeling and acting.” (p. 97)

Change comes from getting used to a new idea, even if we don’t agree with it (at first). Conversation helps us get used to new ideas and to each other.

He also says we don’t need shared identity in order to build connections between people. That is, we don’t need to share nationality or faith or other identity attributes. Connections between people are built not through shared identity, but despite difference. We are already connected to each other through our shared humanity, our shared human potential, and through imagination. In fact, traditional connections through identity attributes are no less a product of the imagination.

Appiah comes closest to articulating a set of universal moral principles in the final chapter of the book when discussing our obligations to strangers.

“People have needs – health, food, shelter, education – that must be met if they are to lead decent lives. There are certain options that they ought to have: to seek sexual satisfaction with consenting partners, to have children if they wish to, to move from place to place, to express and share ideas, to help manage their societies, to exercise their imaginations. … And there are certain obstacles to a good life that ought not to be imposed upon them: needless pain, unwarranted contempt, the mutilation of their bodies. To recognize that everyone is entitled, where possible, to have their basic needs met, to exercise certain human capabilities, and to be protected from certain harms, is not yet to say how all these things are to be assured.” (p. 163)

Accepting all this, what then are our obligations to strangers, especially distant ones?

Appiah takes a pragmatic approach, outlining some parameters without claiming a final answer:

  • Our obligations to each other are met first and foremost within the framework of nation states. It is nation states that are primarily responsible for ensuring the needs of their own people are met. And it is also through nation states that we help others when their own local states fail to meet their needs. Appiah notes the importance of good governance as a prerequisite. Famines may be triggered by natural disasters but they don’t happen in democracies, for example.
  • Our second obligation is to do our fair share; but to recognize we do not bear the burden alone. We are not obliged, for example, to bankrupt ourselves in order to help the poor.
  • Thirdly, both our obligations and our sentiments are naturally greatest towards those closest to us.
  • Lastly, Appiah suggests we take into account diverse values and priorities. Many things matter to a good life, and we don’t all agree on what these are, nor what their priorities are.

There’s something fundamentally hopeful and pragmatic in this approach. There are universal moral values, and particular local ones. We can’t hope to ever finally enumerate and prioritize moral values across cultures, Appiah says. But that shouldn’t be the goal, and maybe shouldn’t matter at all. The point is that conversation between particular people is the way to foster understanding and acceptance, even if agreement can never be completely achieved. That is the cosmopolitan project.

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1 Response to Cosmopolitanism

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Reinventing the Sacred | Unsolicited Feedback

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