Searching for Bedrock

Cosmopolitanism Ethics in a World of Strangers Kwame Anthony Appiah Norton, $23.95, 196 pp. _____________________________ Philosophy, John Dewey said, is not knowledge but wisdom, by which he meant the use of the best available knowledge to advance “a sense for the better kind of life to be led.” Hence, philosophy was best conceived as a kind of cultural criticism, offering “ground maps” for moral life. At its best, philosophy would cut across ethical divides and become “a messenger, a liaison officer, making reciprocally intelligible voices speaking provincial tongues, and thereby enlarging as well as rectifying the meanings with which they are charged.” Dewey’s conception of the philosopher’s role was idiosyncratic in his own day, and is even more so today. Kwame Anthony Appiah is among those contemporary professional philosophers who still share it, and he has made a particular effort with his considerable dialectical skills to untangle for a wide audience the conundrums of cultural difference and identity. His latest book is a brief and bracing argument for “cosmopolitanism” as the guide to a better kind of life in a highly interdependent world of unavoidable cultural confrontation, not least because it promises to bridge the gaps between those speaking provincial ethical tongues. Cosmopolitanism, which Appiah traces to the Cynics of the fourth century BC, began as a reaction against parochialism and local loyalties. The Cynics aspired to be “citizens of the cosmos.” At the same time, cosmopolitans then and since have recognized that the cosmos is composed of diverse communities that go about their lives in sometimes radically different fashion, and is likely to remain so. The cosmos does not come with its own ready-made moral code, though there are transcultural, even universal, values that allow us to enter into an understanding of, conversation with, concern for, and obligation to those whose culture may be very different from our own. Cosmopolitanism attempts to hold two ideals-“universal concern and respect for legitimate difference”-in balance, all the time recognizing that they may very well clash. Cosmopolitans are not without their own partial loyalties; they are alert to the dangers of an abstract love and respect for humanity absent love and respect for any particular people. But they are curious about the way distant others do things and are sometimes drawn to them. They incline to hybridity. Appiah is himself a cosmopolitan. He could hardly be otherwise. Born in Ghana to an Asante father and an English mother, he grew up in Kumbasi, a richly multicultural city, was educated in England, and has long taught philosophy at Princeton. Descended from royalty, he is a member of one of Ghana’s leading families. His father played an important role in his nation’s struggle for independence, though he was also “a member of one of the London Inns of Court; an elder in the Methodist Church of Ghana; a man whose favorite bedside reading, apart from the Bible, was Cicero.” Appiah sprinkles his book with delightful and telling Ghanaian anecdotes, including an account of syncretic religious beliefs that leaves room for Christ, the spirits of ancestors, and witches. Appiah’s cosmopolitan curiosity extends to his reading, and in making the case for his ethos, he draws on everything from Victorian novels to Islamic qasida to studies of the television habits of Zulu adolescents. The two principal targets of Appiah’s philosophical argument are positivism and fundamentalism, which he holds responsible for the shoals of moral relativism and moral absolutism through which cosmopolitanism attempts to navigate. Positivists deny that morality is subject to reason, and fundamentalists deny that morality is subject to reasonable disagreement. Neither is conducive to tolerance. Moral absolutists, believing themselves to have a grasp on a system of universal ethical truths, see no reason to tolerate opposing beliefs since they are necessarily false. Moral relativists, believing that there is no such thing as ethical truth, can provide no good reason for supposing tolerance to be a value worth defending as more than a matter of taste. Neither is very faithful to the phenomenology of the moral life, in which moral judgments seem to be reasonable but often inconclusive, more than mere preferences but a good deal less than certainties. Neither positivism nor fundamentalism finds much favor among philosophers these days, but Appiah rightly believes their cultural power is considerable. The former is the mark of academics, undergraduates, and barflies of a scientistic or postmodernist turn of mind and a disposition for hard-boiled realism; the latter can be found in the caves and watering holes of both Afghanistan and Washington, D.C., where untroubled assertions of absolute moral certainty serve to rally the troops. Appiah devotes more attention to positivism, which may be a good thing because, although there are far fewer positivists than fundamentalists in the world today, they are likely to make up a disproportionate percentage of his readers. He makes a lucid case for ethical pluralism that is not relativism and a fallibilism that is not skepticism (in this, he seems to me to be advancing a view I would call “pragmatism,” but I’m uncertain he would welcome that label). Appiah shows that the distinctions between facts and values and between scientific and moral reasoning turn out not to be as sharp as the positivists would have us believe. Facts are not quite as solid as they think, nor values as vaporous. Both scientific and moral reasoning are a matter of deploying good reasons in a social context; neither is a matter of simply mirroring an external world. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that disagreement, sometimes apparently intractable disagreement, is more common among moral reasoners than among their scientific counterparts. The reason for this, as Appiah says, is not that human beings do not universally share a host of values with which to begin a reasoned conversation, but that these shared values (“good parenting”) are generally pretty “thin.” They do not give us much purchase on particular cases, which tend to center on the manner in which one culture or another has “thickened” these values in particular, often highly localized, ways. Most of the moral life is lived not in light of thin concepts (“good” or “right”) but of thick ones (“cruel” or “courageous”). And thick moral language is “open-textured” and “essentially contestable,” which means that even if two people (even two people in the same culture) share a moral vocabulary they may well apply it differently in a particular case. We may agree that courage is a virtue and cruelty a vice, but disagree about whether or not a particular act qualifies as one or the other. Moreover, even if we share the same thick moral concepts we may well find ourselves in a situation in which we weigh two values we share quite differently. As Appiah says, “Cosmopolitans suppose that all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation. But they don’t suppose, like some universalists, that we could all come to agreement if only we had the same vocabulary.” Probably the greatest challenge confronting cosmopolitans is that of attaining a properly fallibilist view of the culture from which they enter a cross-cultural conversation. This is particularly difficult these days for humane liberals, who are wont to take their own thick beliefs about human rights and democracy to be matters of obvious universal concern rather than legitimate difference, and to take their concern not to the United Nations for a debate but to the Pentagon for an air strike. When we go on the road, as Michael Walzer has said, we need to thin down our moral baggage considerably (which is not to say that we need pack only the equivalent of a toothbrush). Perhaps because he is more attentive to positivism than to fundamentalism (including liberal fundamentalism), Appiah’s book occasionally has a rather complacent air about it, as if the eventual hegemony of cosmopolitanism was just a matter of time and market share. Sometimes, he suggests, the smart cosmopolitan does not press a moral argument but merely awaits the modus vivendi that will follow once people simply get used to one another’s strange ways. Opposition to gay rights, he avers, will disappear with time and the eclipse of a generation wedded to an outmoded taboo akin to the ban in Leviticus on sex with menstruating women or the Asante prohibition of male circumcision. Here I think he underestimates the staying power of his opponents. Cultural imperialism is an overblown concern, Appiah argues, because the international market in cultural commodities is freely competitive, and you cannot force people to sustain one way of life when they clearly prefer to purchase another. Here, it seems to me, he confuses inequitable market relationships with equitable cultural conversations and conflates the desired with the desirable, which is, well, positivist (that is to say, market fundamentalist). Still, on the whole, Cosmopolitanism is a welcome, illuminating work of wisdom. As those college faculties who require that their entering class read a common book meet this spring to make their selection, it should be on their short list.

Published in the 2006-04-21 issue: 

Robert Westbrook teaches modern American history at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth.

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