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The Ethics of Identity [Paperback]

Kwame Anthony Appiah
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 22, 2007 0691130280 978-0691130286

Race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality: in the past couple of decades, a great deal of attention has been paid to such collective identities. They clamor for recognition and respect, sometimes at the expense of other things we value. But to what extent do "identities" constrain our freedom, our ability to make an individual life, and to what extent do they enable our individuality? In this beautifully written work, renowned philosopher and African Studies scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah draws on thinkers through the ages and across the globe to explore such questions.

The Ethics of Identity takes seriously both the claims of individuality--the task of making a life---and the claims of identity, these large and often abstract social categories through which we define ourselves.

What sort of life one should lead is a subject that has preoccupied moral and political thinkers from Aristotle to Mill. Here, Appiah develops an account of ethics, in just this venerable sense--but an account that connects moral obligations with collective allegiances, our individuality with our identities. As he observes, the question who we are has always been linked to the question what we are.

Adopting a broadly interdisciplinary perspective, Appiah takes aim at the clichés and received ideas amid which talk of identity so often founders. Is "culture" a good? For that matter, does the concept of culture really explain anything? Is diversity of value in itself? Are moral obligations the only kind there are? Has the rhetoric of "human rights" been overstretched? In the end, Appiah's arguments make it harder to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest; between locals and cosmopolitans; between Us and Them. The result is a new vision of liberal humanism--one that can accommodate the vagaries and variety that make us human.

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Editorial Reviews


A New York Times Editors' Choice

One of's Best Nonfiction Books for 2005

Winner of the 2005 Award for Excellence in Professional/Scholarly Publishing in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

Honorable Mention for the 2005 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights

"The Ethics of Identity is wonderfully straightforward. It does just what it proposes to do. It explores the demands of 'individuality,' and rejects extreme understandings of what autonomy requires. It considers the relation of personal and group identity to morals and ethics. . . . It moves on to the links between identity and culture. . . . Appiah has some very wise and original things to say about the inevitability of a liberal state affecting the inner life of its citizens. He ends with a defense of rooted cosmopolitanism. Not only is the argument direct; it is untechnical, transparent, and unaggressive. . . . Appiah concentrates on a double question: how we acquire an individual identity by acquiring a social identity, and how we find--and make--an identity that is not a straitjacket. In pursuing this question, Appiah begins to explore one of the most fascinating and difficult questions in moral philosophy, the relationship between general principles and particular attachments. . . . [He] shows just how to write about the intimate, formative relations that are central to a life, most strikingly in his epilogue, but as you realize when you reach that ending, he has been doing it, as well as a great deal else, throughout The Ethics of Identity."--Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books

"Suave and discerning. . . . Appiah seeks to reorient political philosophy by returning to the example set by John Stuart Mill. . . . For all of Appiah's philosophic precision, his writing often resembles not Mill's but that of Oscar Wilde--to my mind, the finest prose stylist of the 19th century. . . . [T]he superb rhetorical performance of this book offers the most persuasive evidence for his case. . . . To read The Ethics of Identity is to enter into the world it describes; it is also to imagine what it might be like to live in so urbane and expansive a place."--Jonathan Freedman, New York Times Book Review

"Kwame Anthony Appiah undertakes to combine a form of liberalism that aspires to universal validity with a full recognition and substantial acceptance of the important cultural and ethical diversity that characterizes our world."--Thomas Nagel, New Republic

"[An] impressive book. . . . [A] thorough exploration of moral concepts such as authenticity, tolerance, individuality, and dignity, and how they are all connected to the task of making a life. . . . It is hard to know what to admire most about this book: the urbane elegance of Appiah's prose, the reach of his knowledge, or the sheer philosophical sharpness of his analysis."--Carl Elliott, The American Prospect

"This book, with its fluid, inviting phrasing, is exceptionally well written. . . . It is effective, insightful, and thought-provoking. . . . Appiah clears the way for a justification of a narrative, pragmatic, particular relations-based cosmopolitanism, which is universal without the necessity of theoretical agreement."--Choice

"This new book aims to lay the groundwork for a new version of liberal theory adequate to the challenges of our time. . . . I find Appiah's overall conception of liberalism very congenial. . . . If Appiah succeeds in attenuating the force of such claims by undermining the theoretical conceptualizations and arguments supporting them, and integrating the valid claims of identity into liberal theory, he will have contributed very significantly to the reconstruction of liberalism."--Leonard J. Waks, Education and Culture

"The conclusion Appiah eloquently affirms is spot on: the key to living a moral life is clearly not to seek to forego identity. On the contrary, it is to put identity in the service of becoming ethical human beings."--Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Tikkun

"Kwame Anthony Appiah, a man of multiple cultures and languages who is able to question culture itself, leaves us better able to contemplate how to lead life well and to relate ethically to others in the process."--E. James Lieberman, PsycCritiques

"Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Ethics of Identity is a wonderful book. It is as rigorous as one expects the best philosophy to be, yet it is whitty, humane, and engaging in ways that academic philosophy is only rarely. It is the best account of the ethics of liberal society that we possess."--Daniel Weinstock, Ethics

"Appiah, . . . an elegant writer, observes that we are not simply members of groups or products of culture. Individuality and autonomy, he argues, are fundamental to personhood in all social and cultural contexts."--David Moshman, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology

"[This is] a book that does [a] thorough and original a job of exposing the deep paradoxes within identity and confronting the serious ethical dilemmas to which they give rise."--John E. Joseph, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

From the Inside Flap

"Appiah has written a remarkably impressive book, one that makes a number of important advances on the existing literature and stands as an important contribution to political and moral philosophy and moral psychology. It will be very widely read."--Jacob Levy, University of Chicago

"The Ethics of Identity is a major overhaul of the vocabulary of contemporary political and critical thought--the vocabulary of identity, diversity, authenticity, cosmopolitanism, and culture. The load of hidden assumptions carried by these words had become overwhelming, and someone needed to take them to the shop and give them a thorough philosophical servicing. But Anthony Appiah has done more than that. He has returned those terms to us clarified, refreshed, and ready for use in a more sophisticated and flexible philosophy of Liberalism--and, along the way, he has provided us with a new reading of liberalism's old hero, John Stuart Mill. Appiah's writing is unparalleled in its elegance, its lucidity, and its humanity. Accept no substitutes."--Louis Menand, Harvard University

"In the debates over diversity, rights, group identities or group conflict, The Ethics of Identity, is the land of lucidity. Appiah's elegant book resists the easy alternatives of universal liberalism and multiculturalism and instead defends--and illustrates on every page--a rooted cosmopolitanism. The sparkling prose, vivid examples, and probing questions navigate the choppy waters of personal and political constructions of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexuality. This fine and wise book invites readers to remain willing to distinguish tolerance and respect--and by engaging with both the lives people make for themselves and the communities and narratives that render them meaningful."--Martha Minow, Harvard Law School and author of Identity, Politics, and the Law

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (January 22, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691130280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691130286
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #244,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the president of the PEN American Center, is the author of The Ethics of Identity, Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, The Honor Code and the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism. Raised in Ghana and educated in England, he has taught philosophy on three continents and is currently a professor at Princeton University. He maintains a website at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Medusa Syndrome June 14, 2005
There have been various attempts, in the past couple of decades, to carve out a case for group rights; the argument has been that old-school liberalism, with its emphasis on the individualism, is inadequate, because it can't accommodate "difference." Appiah's book politely and subtly demolishes this line of argument. For one thing, he calls into question the assumption that diversity (as opposed to the freedoms that make it possible) is a value in itself. He challenges what he calls the "preservationist ethic," which would preserve dying ways of life in formaldehyde. He reminds us that Locke and the other founding theorists of liberal individualism were writing after a long period of religious factionalism and bloodshed spawned by a fixation with differences; that there is something to be said for the affirmation of Sameness, of a shared humanity. And he further reminds us that not all identity groups are deserving of respect: in the case of what he terms "abhorrent identities," we should be quite content for those identities (e.g., a Nazi identity or, in a case he discusses, the Christian Identity Movement) to disappear. In a critique of what has been called the politics of recognition, Appiah raises concerns about what he terms "the Medusa Syndrome" - in which official recognition (of a tribe, an ethnic community) ends up turning the object of its concern into a fixed and freeze-dried state. This book is a major contribution to political theory, but it would be hard to parse its arguments in partisan-political terms. As Appiah says in the book's preface, he writes "neither as identity's friend nor as its foe. Read more ›
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In Defense of Sane Liberalism October 31, 2005
Kwame Anthony Appiah has always sought to take seriously both the individual and the context in which she is embedded. In this book, Appiah takes a hard look at the ways we shape ourselves as distinct individuals, and he continues to defend the right of the individual to forge a plan of life over and against her community's tug of conformity - but, he insists, not with indifference to the community's influences and interests. For we are always embedded in sets of social relations. However, those relations do not preclude the freedom to become who we are. They shape us; they do not determine us. And, for Appiah, even when we take-up the obligation before us to shape ourselves, to shape our own identities and plans of life, we must take heed not to so over-determine them as to preclude meaningful and fluid engagements with others whose identities are very different. Appiah calls for each of us to have a healthy identity, but to attenuate it enough to permit the Other to engage with us fully, as a fellow human being. This he calls "identity lite" - for better or worse.

The Ethics of Identity should be one of the final words in the old liberal/communitarian debate - a debate that has been, largely, between straw men. Its call for a "rooted cosmopolitanism" speaks directly to the deficiencies in both utopian versions of cosmopolitanism and dystopian versions of Volkish communitarianism.

Appiah's call for the liberal state to engage in soul-making is likely to be one of the controversial proposals in the book (in fact, I already know it is in certain academic circles). For Appiah argues that a state, any state, has an interest in the cultivation of such virtues in its citizens as are harmonious with the values and moral commitments upon which it rests.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The blade of analysis June 13, 2005
"The Ethics of Identity" is an ambitious attempt to make liberal political theory safe for the discourse of identity, and vice-versa. As a graduate student in political science, I was impressed by the way it grappled with current political philosophy while cutting a path very much its own. Appiah's voice is so inviting and level sounding that one is not always aware how deep the blade has been drawn. On the other hand, those hoping for a real engagement with the work of Continent thinkers like Levinas will be disappointed. Despite a qualified endorsement of cosmopolitanism, the book is definitely oriented toward the Anglo-American philosophic tradition. At the same time, the book's rigor and originality will make it worth reading by those interested in the future of political philosophy.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult but worthwhile May 9, 2007
This is a densely written book with references and vocabulary that may elude the layman. The first 2 chapters are particularly difficult. Nonetheless, the issues are fascinating and the arguments are honest and disciplined. And strangely, there are some quite funny observations as well. If you are interested in an in depth look at the philosophical underpinnings of identity politics and of the eternal conflict between the individual and society, this book is for you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "hug-a-Dyspeptic-today" December 18, 2009
Reading this book is like taking a walk with a familiar-looking stranger through a misty landscape. It's a meandering walk when you sometimes lose sight of each other only to meet again at the next bend.
Appiah was born in Ghana where his father was a well-known member of the opposition. Steeped in the heritage of the Enlightenment Kwame Anthony Appiah is a defender of liberal values which, contrary to popular wisdom, he doesn't regard as something typically "Eurocentric". He is a true cosmopolitan but at the same time critical of many multicultural views, including Kymlicka's efforts to bridge the gap between individual rights and group autonomy. In his eyes, the notion of "cultural identity" warrants an especially critical scrutiny.
Some of his discussions take you places where a limited knowledge of classical as well as contemporary philosophy leaves you wanting. One critic jokingly described Appiah as splitting hairs where others aren't aware any hair could grow. At times it is a demanding read but ultimately, not least due to his fluent and relaxed style, a very rewarding one as well. Like writers as Stephen Jay Gould, who would make it a habit of bringing you the latest news on baseball, Appiah is not all highbrow. His satire of an imagined "hug-a-Dyspeptic-today initiative" is positively hilarious (p. 140). He uses this device to drive home the point that it's not all that obvious what actually constitutes a cultural group; and to question that if such a group exists, it therefore automatically deserves recognition and respect.
Ethics of Identity is not for the faint of heart. Chock-full of ideas and references to anybody, or so it seems, who has anything to say on the subject, plus a dense section of notes, it's a weighty contribution to the thorny discussion on cultural pluralism versus individual autonomy.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Exhaustive review, but ignores deviant identity
Kwame Appiah seems to be struggling with the same problems of black identity that I struggled with in my 1987 book, "Gay Identity: The Self Under Ban. Read more
Published 3 months ago by William H. DuBay
5.0 out of 5 stars Appiah makes philosophy
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a name not well known in a subject equally lacking in general popularity, however Appiah's books are surprisingly readable, offering challenging concepts in... Read more
Published 8 months ago by RKonklinjr
4.0 out of 5 stars It's what you'd expect
As for the content, it's quite philosophical, and very challenging in the first chapter. If you stick with it through the first 13ish pages you'll find that it gets much more... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Logan Swan
2.0 out of 5 stars Too elitist
This text is intended for teachers, NOT students. Appiah uses too many obscure words and expressions. Perhaps he is only trying to impress his elitist colleagues at Harvard. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Michael Williams
5.0 out of 5 stars A eloquent, persuasive defense of ethical individualism
Even if a philosopher is preaching to the choir, one can still admire the artistry involved and even learn a few new tunes. Read more
Published on April 19, 2007 by Robert Moore
5.0 out of 5 stars The Opinion Of One Spotted-American
As a small-l liberal, I have lots to think about when it comes to issues of identity, individualism, group rights, etc. Read more
Published on June 24, 2005 by Bruce Crocker
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