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Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah




 Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers


by Kwame Anthony Appiah

       256 pages

       W. W. Norton: 2006


Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurence S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. He is Ghanaian-raised and the son of a Ghanaian father and an English mother. He is the author of numerous books covering philosophy and African heritage as well as several mystery novels. He is also the winner of numerous awards for his writing and lectures.


Cosmopolitanism won the 2007 Arthur Ross Award of the Council on Foreign Relations and its title represents both an idea and the germ of a movement.


A precise definition of cosmopolitanism is difficult to derive from Appiah’s book, which is presumably why it took an entire book to define it. He probably best captures what he means by the word in the following passage from the introduction:


So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.


The challenge of cosmopolitanism is to be global while valuing both diversity and its local, intimate expressions, to which each of us is tied and which give particular meaning to our experiences.


Appiah comes at the concept from many angles. While affirming that it is difficult to value what we do not know, except on an abstract level, he challenges the assumption that daily commerce and understanding of those who are different from us automatically leads to allocation of value. He provides the example of Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th century English world traveler, linguist and poet, who spent time within many of the world’s cultures, sometimes disguised as one of their members as when he visited Mecca posing as an Indian pilgrim or Somalia in the guise of an Arab merchant. Despite his intimate familiarity with other races and ethnicities, Sir Richard’s own racism appeared to have remained intact.


Appiah makes the point that humans often agree on general principles of behavior, even when the underlying reasons for behaving similarly are not present. Avoidance of incest is an example, in which various societies may all agree on the behavior, while giving different reasons (genetic, biblical, etc.) for the prohibition. The point is that it is not necessary to agree on underlying values in order to have agreement to get along. The author makes this same point in a number of ways, not the least of which are myriad examples of how difficult it is to determine what it means to say that two societies actually do agree on a value when the meanings of the concepts involved are so different from one culture to another.


Taking modest, imprecise agreement as a starting point, cosmopolitanism asks for a conversation to occur. Conversations involve sharing, tolerance, an attempt toward understanding and a willingness to accept values of others that may not be our own. Cosmopolitanism does not mean the imposition of a uniform, global set of values, at least not at any meaningful level of detail across all societies. Appiah makes the point, over and over, that what are seen by one culture as abominable practices (e.g. female circumcision, homosexuality, eating one’s dead or burning one’s dead) are seen as desirable practices by another culture, often as expressions of similar broad, underlying values (e.g. cleanliness, beauty, privacy, love, reverence for the deceased).


Strident nationalism and ethnocentrism are antithetical to cosmopolitanism and Appiah partly attacks these positions by challenging the concept of culture and nations on the basis of their temporary nature. Cultures and nations do not remain static, nor do they even remain over the lifespan of human civilization. The world is marching toward increasing globalization of some sort and his book is an effort to shape both the march and our response to it.


Perhaps the most intriguing section of the book is the final one where Appiah challenges the notion that to care about the world in a way that is truly moral, one must be prepared to give up everything one possesses and share it with those who have less. As I read his argument against this position, the modern versions of which he attributes to the philosophers, Peter Singer and Peter Unger, I had a momentary fear that, in accepting Appiah’s argument thus far, I had been taken in by a clever apologist for self-interest, perhaps of the Ayn Rand persuasion. After all, he takes Peter Unger’s statement, “To behave in a way that’s not seriously wrong, a well-off person, like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups like OXFAM and UNICEF, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future,” and he disagrees with it. Now as a typical bleeding-heart liberal, I immediately agreed with Unger, despite having no intention to follow his advice except in terms of generating a moderate amount of guilt on my part that I was not of sufficient character to follow the philosophy to which I subscribed (not for the first time, either).


A lengthy discussion of both the meaning and practicality of Unger’s admonition broadened my thinking enough that I realized that, if I seriously wanted to help those less well-off than me, while I could take to heart Unger’s message that acquisitiveness, greed, and self-interest were not the way to do it, giving up everything comfortable in my own life was not necessarily the best way either. In fact, the solution of eradicating the world of poverty is one that can be reached, but only through well-thought out methods, most of which do not require extraordinary sacrifice on my or anyone else’s part. The answer lies in a concerted effort of people throughout the world who see themselves having at least the common interest of not having significant portions of humanity miserable for reasons that small sacrifices and lots of mutual effort could overcome. That common interest and the movement toward it through conversations between people from all different societies and cultures is what cosmopolitanism is about.


Casey Dorman






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    Nice Webpage, Maintain the great work. Many thanks.
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    Lost Coast Review - Book Reviews - Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah
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    Lost Coast Review - Book Reviews - Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah
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    Lost Coast Review - Book Reviews - Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

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