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The Appiahn Way

How to Do the Right Thing in the 21st Century.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By JAMES SEATON
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Ethics in a World of Strangers

by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Norton, 196 pp., $23.95

Kwame Anthony Appiah's defense of "cosmopolitanism" is, to its credit, more likely to irritate militant cosmopolitans than those who have not heard that caring about one's own family or country more than for other families or countries is now morally suspect.

Understandably, the former might expect a book titled Cosmopolitanism to explain why their point of view is morally superior to patriotism or to "family values." Appiah, however, feels no need to offer any such explanations. The "partial cosmopolitanism" that he champions rejects what Appiah calls the "icy impartiality" of "the hard-core cosmopolitan," whose philosophy demands that one show no more concern for one's parents, children, or fellow citizens than for any other inhabitant of the planet. For Appiah "the position worth defending" is a cosmopolitanism that finds nothing wrong with the human propensity to be "partial to those closest to us: to our families, our friends, our nations." Appiah cites with approval Edmund Burke's observation that "to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections."

Although Appiah believes that "the richest nations" should spend far more than they currently do on behalf of the poor around the world, he insists that even citizens of wealthy countries have no reason to feel guilty for feeling that "whatever my basic obligations are to the poor far away, they cannot be enough, I believe, to trump my concerns for my family, my friends, my country." Appiah goes even further in defense of common sense and against the "hard-core" or "moral cosmopolitans." Not only is there nothing wrong with helping those close to you before helping those far away, there is nothing wrong with sometimes not helping anybody and instead reading a book or going to a concert. As Appiah puts it, "You are not killing anyone by going to the opera."

Appiah thus takes issue with his Princeton colleague Peter Singer and the thesis Appiah dubs "the Singer principle." That is: "If you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you ought to do it." Appiah quotes philosopher Peter Unger's translation of "the Singer principle" into practical terms: "It's seriously wrong not to send to the likes of UNICEF and OXFAM, about as promptly as possible, nearly all your worldly wealth." Rightly suspecting that when arguments conclude with such demands, readers are more likely to reject the arguments than obey the demands, Appiah observes that the philosophical issue here is not cosmopolitanism: "What is wrong with 'the Singer principle,'" he persuasively argues, "isn't that it says we have incredible obligations to foreigners; the problem is that it claims we have incredible obligations."

Appiah offers an alternative to "the Singer principle" reasonable enough to actually work in practice: "If you are the person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won't cost you much to do so, do it."

Raised in Africa, educated at Cambridge, and now teaching at Princeton, Appiah knows from actual experience what life is like in several different cultures. He has relatives who believe in "the theory of witchcraft," and he patiently explains why, in certain circumstances, the belief that diseases are caused by witchcraft can be just as reasonable as the theory that bacteria or viruses are to blame. ("What's wrong with the theory of witchcraft," he observes, "is not that it doesn't make sense but that it isn't true.") Likewise, despite the horror female circumcision arouses in the West, Appiah knows, or knows people who know, "young women who look forward to the rite, think that it allows them to display courage, declare it makes their sexual organs more beautiful, and insist that they enjoy sex enormously."

All the more effective, then, are Appiah's criticisms of some of the shibboleths of multiculturalism. He rejects the claims of those advocates of diversity--he calls them the "cultural patrimony crowd"--whose goal of preserving distinct cultures leads them to see every instance of interchange as an example of cultural imperialism. In the name of multicultural diversity they would attempt to seal off every putative cultural group as though it were a corporation with a brand name to protect.

As Appiah puts it, "In the name of authenticity, they would extend this peculiarly Western, and modern, conception of ownership to every corner of the earth. . . . Ashanti Inc., Maori Inc., Norway Inc.: All rights reserved."