Book Review: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

In chess, as in life, we have shared rules and values.

By Babak Moussavi

How do we judge the actions of people from different cultures? How can we consider values that inform choices to be right or wrong? Are there any grounds for consensus between the Western consumer and the African tribesman? These are the sorts of questions that Kwame Anthony Appiah attempts to answer in his book, Cosmopolitanism.

Dr Appiah, a Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, is a philosopher concerned with perhaps the most practical question for society: how we can live together harmoniously. His book begins by considering the problems posed by different groups of people sharing a single planet. It is not clear that there is one rulebook for judging actions, given that different cultures appear to uphold different, and sometime conflicting, values. How can one say then that a value is ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘correct’, if these values pertain to no facts about the world, but are the results of centuries of habit? Indeed, it is this inability to find an obvious rulebook of universal values that has led some anthropologists to subscribe to the view of relativism. (I use the word ‘some’ because there is a fierce divide within that school over whether this view should be adhered to.)

Dr Appiah dislikes this tendency. For him, it is not merely a lazy option; relativism, he says, does not allow us to see the world as shared, but as viewed from different, isolated pockets of cultures that have their own conceptions of the Good. As Sam Bright pointed out in a post in January, the Good can be construed in many ways if that value merely reflects my thoughts on it. Through such relativism, I can say little more than “this particular action is right, from where I am standing”. If we do not view the world as shared, however, then it seems there are no grounds to learn from each other, and, worst of all, no reasons to tolerate differences. It is either my world, or your world, but not our world. Indeed, relativism, Dr Appiah says, does not offer us grounds for tolerance, but “a reason to fall silent.”

If relativism is the wrong ethical code to appreciate difference, how can we understand differences of values? What Dr Appiah advocates is simple: the power of conversation. Conversation, and more broadly, language, is a tool of exchanging and evaluating stories and opinions, which allows us to align our responses to the world. Conversation does not necessarily lead to consensus (an obvious point for anyone who has been engaged in a fierce debate), but it is a way of allowing people to get used to one another. Contrasted with the silence offered by relativism, conversation seems to be the more effective method for breeding tolerance. Dr Appiah even suggests that, despite our different cultures, conversation will show that we have more commonalities, and therefore points-of-entry, into conversation than we might think. After all, human beings all over the world eat, drink, work, have fun, reproduce, sleep and die. As a practical suggestion for realising the extent of our shared commonalities, Dr Appiah allegedly tells students to watch one subtitled movie per month, to see and understand how people from different cultures depict various themes of life. The point is not merely that we are all different and that we should respect that; but that we can learn from others, and that other people matter. If history has taught us anything, it is that interaction has been a beneficial thing.

Having said this, the desire to eliminate differences is not a prima facie sign of cosmopolitanism. After all, fundamentalists who seek to make everyone conform to their religion (to the point of murdering those who resist) do wish to eliminate difference, but are certainly not cosmopolitans. The cosmopolitan ideal is far from this: it is to temper the respect for difference, with a respect for human beings. Its prescriptive element therefore does not just preach tolerance, but also generates obligations towards strangers.

It is here that cosmopolitanism has its most profound implications for the real world. We have moral obligations to others on the other side of the world, because they are humans. We must do our best to help them achieve a decent life. But we must do this with clearheaded reason, not through an outpouring of emotion of the sort that often follows disasters. Giving all our money away, as the utilitarian public intellectual, Peter Singer (who is also a Professor at Princeton), has suggested, may lead to some short-term relief in impoverished or disaster-stricken places, but may not be the most efficient way of achieving our obligations. Perhaps working hard and giving away a portion of our income each month to help fund a specific long-term development project is a more effective option. Doing this may have slower results, but is kinder to strangers in the long-term. This concern for efficient outcomes shows that Dr Appiah has the ability to think like an economist, rather than simply being a wishful idealist.

Dr Appiah’s book is categorised as Philosophy, but it is packed with empirical examples as well as anecdotes and personal experiences: he was born in Ghana but has lived in the UK and USA, giving him a wealth of stories of ‘difference’ to share. At a time when globalisation is making the world seem smaller by diminishing the impact of physical space and time, cultures are rubbing against each other with increasing friction, culminating in the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments in western European states, amongst others. We must resist this reaction. Respect for human beings is crucial to social justice. Time to start watching those foreign-language films.

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