Should we strive to be Appiah’s ‘cosmopolitans’? – A review of ‘Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers’

This book encourages us to all to become ‘cosmopolitans’: if it had a slogan, Appiah offers ‘universality plus difference’. By this, he means two things: that we have obligations to others beyond those who are ‘related by the ties of kin and kind’, and that we take seriously not just the value of human life, but of ‘particular human lives’ and the ‘practices and beliefs that lend them significance’.  Appiah emphasises that cosmopolitans should live in the awareness that people are different, but this difference is something that enhances wider human existence. He recognises that there are times when these two ideals clash – when we might feel a lack of obligation due to difference, but this, Appiah sees as part of the task of the cosmopolitan: ‘there’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.’

A bit, perhaps like the Heineken advert suggests (see below for an advert which fits remarkably well to Appiah’s project – ignoring some of the other issues with this advert), when people engage in conversation, the understanding of their life as a significant human that is generated enables us to rub shoulders with others more easily: as Appiah states: ‘Conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it’s enough that it helps people to get used to one another.’

This aspect of his work, I think, is difficult to dispute. Appiah encourages us to see the great value of conversation; conversation, that does not necessarily lead us towards sharing the same opinions and values, but appreciating the point from which the other person has been led towards a particular viewpoint: ‘understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn’t require that we come to agreement.’

‘The problem of cross-cultural communication can seem immensely difficult in theory, when we are trying to imagine making sense of a stranger in the abstract. But the great lesson of anthropology is that when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end.’

I was interested in Appiah’s suggestion that we need to recognise the shared nature of values amidst disputes, and not solely focus on our differences (which links to Martin’s work on international educational partnerships where he suggests that we should look for commonality first, before difference, in order to form meaningful relationships). He gives the example of the abortion debate in America, and the apparent division between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ camps, suggesting that in our analyses of the two sides it is important to recognise that both sides do value the sanctity of life, and the value of human autonomy, but just place different measurements on the respective value of each, and disagree on what is constituted by each – with those in the ‘pro-choice’ camp often disagreeing that a 12 week foetus would constitute a ‘life’.  Indeed, as an RS/Philosophy teacher, I agree that we all too often look for what separates people and places, and fail to analyse where their values may converge – this may indeed be helpful to having a more meaningful discussion where values and reasons are analysed in greater depth.

‘It is, in part, because we have shared horizons of meaning, because there are debates between people who share so many other values an so much else in the way of belief and of habit, that they are as sharp and painful as they are.’

This book is also worth reading for Appiah’s analysis of positivism, and the fairly readable close analysis of how our moral values emerge – focusing on the role of practice and habit, over reasoned argument. He is right, I think, to suggest that most moral opinions have not been altered over time by the influence of perfectly reasoned arguments, presented in a persuasive form, but rather on the basis by which various individuals have been able to make strong appeal to the emotions, or the simple value of time passing and practice changing as an agent of change in itself. He references John Henry Newman as proclaiming that even ‘in mathematics you don’t understand thing, you just get used to them, and links to Wittgenstein’s famous quotation in Philosophical Investigations that ‘If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.’ Fundamentally, in language, and in life, I agree that it is largely through practice and habit that moral meaning is formed, and it is through sharing in these habits, perhaps through conversation, that we can best come to a closer understanding of each other.

Appiah argues strongly against those who suggest that globalisation is leading to villages becoming increasingly similar. He argues that villages are able to keep their identity through using even the most famous global commodities in very different ways – ‘no one could say that the world’s villages are – or are about to become, anything like the same.’ He forcefully argues that cultural identities should not be seen as static historical entities that need to be preserved like paintings or points; rather, ‘Cultures are made of continuities and change, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes.’ And if there is a concern about a village losing their identity or changing too much, he places the autonomy for this change firmly with the villagers themselves: ‘Shouldn’t the choice be theirs?’

The book culminates with a response to Singer’s ‘effective altruism’ (discussed in previous blog posts and book reviews), and Appiah expressed many of the views, and asked many of the questions, that I posed myself in an earlier post. Considering Singer’s famous ‘shallow pond’ analogy, Appiah also questions the simplistic analysis of death as ‘the only thing that matters’ and challenges the focus on saving lives rather than on considering the conditions that might lead to ‘decent lives’. He also highlights that saving a life in a particular time, doesn’t necessarily mean that that individual will live a long and meaningful life. He boldly asks us to consider whether we agree with the logical conclusions of Singer’s articles that we should never support an opera or an artist, if there was a life in the world that we could save, ultimately questioning via counterfactual hypothesis: ‘would you really want to live in a world in which the only thing anyone had ever cared about was saving lives?’ He also highlights the flaw in the central idea of ‘effective altruism’ – that we should all donate large segments of our income now – for if the likes of Bill Gates had followed Singer’s advice, he wouldn’t have been in a position to donate the huge quantities of wealth that he now can to global charities.

Fundamentally, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism asks us to reflect upon global poverty and individual suffering with ‘intelligence and curiosity’ as well as concern and engagement. Appiah certainly recognises the complexity of the ‘aid debate’, not just for economic prosperity, and number of lives saves, but for the nature of wider human existence that, like a cracked mirror with different shards holding different viewpoints and values, collectively combine to make.

I’d definitely encourage you to give it a read for some well-thought through insights on the nature of human disagreement and the origins of human value. Left, perhaps, is a further consideration of how we might, in a more practical sense, strive to be Appiah’s ‘cosmopolitans’, and in particular, how conversation might aid us when moral values are so distinct that we struggle to feel strong obligations towards those individuals, or see how a conversation may even take place.

Cat Davison January 2018