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."

One of the most attractive aspects of Appiah's cosmopolitanism is its recognition that culture at its best reveals a shared humanity transcending national and ethnic boundaries. Appiah declares, "My people--human beings--made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination."

Who would want to argue with such sentiments? The chapter on "The Counter-Cosmopolitans" identifies only two groups on the other side: "global Muslim fundamentalists" and "Christian fundamentalists in the United States." Appiah's comparisons between the two mark one of the few times in the book where he allows multiculturalist pieties to trump common sense. The two are similar, he asserts, "in many ways." Both reject "traditional religious authorities" and interpret their holy books for themselves even though both share "an ignorance of the original languages of the Scriptures they interpret." Both groups "think that there is one right way for all human beings to live."

Surely, however, the admonition that one should "render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things which are God's" seems to leave more room for the "variety of political arrangements" Appiah's cosmopolitanism prizes than does the Muslim concept of sharia. Though he ignores this difference in theological principle, Appiah does acknowledge that there is at least one important difference in practice: "So far as I know, no large organized Christian terror network is planning attacks on Muslim countries or institutions."

On the other hand, Appiah does point out that there are "Christian terrorists" like Eric Rudolph. Emphasizing that he is not "equating" Rudolph's crimes--leaving bombs at a lesbian bar, an abortion clinic, and in a park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics--with the "multinational murder spree" of Osama bin Laden, Appiah nevertheless asserts that "it is easier for us to remember that Osama bin Laden is not the typical Muslim when we recall that Eric Rudolph is not the typical Christian."

Appiah does not mention that Rudolph's terrorism was condemned by all major Christian organizations, though he discovers support for Rudolph "in places like Murphy, North Carolina." He is, however, honest enough to note that "the popularity Osama enjoys . . . makes him a far from marginal figure" (unlike Rudolph) whose "multinational murder spree" cannot be equated to Rudolph's crimes. Once these admissions are made, however, the point of Appiah's comparison--that the "typical Muslim" is no more friendly to terrorism than the "typical Christian"--seems to be lost.

Despite occasional special pleading, Appiah's general position is so reasonable that one wonders why it requires a special label. Although there may be few "hard-core cosmopolitans," aren't most of us already the "partial cosmopolitans" Appiah wants us to be? The original cosmopolitans, after all, were rather "hard-core" themselves; they demonstrated what Appiah calls "the general Cynic skepticism toward custom and tradition" by copulating in public like dogs ("cynic" is ancient Greek for "doglike").

On Appiah's own showing, the moral difference between his own "partial cosmopolitanism" and conventional views is not a matter of principle but only of degree; as he puts it, "The real challenge to cosmopolitanism isn't the belief that other people don't matter at all; it's the belief that they don't matter very much." Beyond making clear the foolishness of "incredible obligations," Appiah does not explain how to identify the line between "not very much" and "enough." Likewise, the political implications of his cosmopolitanism are vague. His cosmopolitanism "prizes a variety of political arrangements, provided, of course, each state grants every individual what he or she deserves."

Of course! Political arrangements are only illegitimate if they somehow fail to "grant every individual what he or she deserves," a goal Plato thought could be achieved only in his ideal republic, and even there only with great difficulty. Despite Appiah's appreciation of variety, his proviso would seem to offer a rationale for intervention broader than anything Woodrow Wilson, let alone George W. Bush, ever envisioned. These lapses, however, are occasional and limited; what distinguishes Cosmopolitanism is its sustained commitment to clear thinking and common sense. This achievement should not be underrated at a time when, almost always in the academy, and all too often in public speech, the slogans of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" trump common sense. If Kwame Anthony Appiah fails in the lesser goal of defining "cosmopolitanism" as a distinctive creed, that may be a condition of his success in his larger purpose of outlining an "ethics in a world of strangers" that seems both reasonable and possible.

James D. Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.

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