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Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time) Paperback – February 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In a world more interconnected than ever, the responsibilities and obligations we share remain matters of volatile debate. Weighing in on a discourse that includes both visions of "clashing civilizations" and often equally misguided cultural relativism, Ghana-born Princeton philosopher Appiah (In My Father's House) reclaims a tradition of creative exchange and imaginative engagement across lines of difference. This cosmopolitan ethic, which he traces from the Greek Cynics and through to the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must inevitably balance universals with respect for particulars. This balance comes through "conversation," a term Appiah uses literally and metaphorically to signal the depth of encounters across national, religious and other forms of identity. At the same time, Appiah stresses conversation needn't involve consensus, since living together mostly entails just getting used to one another. Amid the good and bad of globalization, the author parses some basic cultural-philosophical beliefs—drawing frequent examples from his own far-flung multicultural family as well as from impersonal relationships of exchange and power—to focus due attention on widespread and unexamined assumptions about identity, difference and morality. A stimulating read, leavened by cheerful, fluid prose, the book will challenge fashionable theories of irreconcilable divides with a practical and pragmatic worldview that revels in difference and the adventure of a shared humanity. This is an excellent start to Norton's new Issues of Our Time series. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From The New Yorker
Appiah, a Princeton philosophy professor, articulates a precise yet flexible ethical manifesto for a world characterized by heretofore unthinkable interconnection but riven by escalating fractiousness. Drawing on his Ghanaian roots and on examples from philosophy and literature, he attempts to steer a course between the extremes of liberal universalism, with its tendency to impose our values on others, and cultural relativism, with its implicit conviction that gulfs in understanding cannot be bridged. Cosmopolitanism, in Appiah's formulation, balances our "obligations to others" with the "value not just of human life but of particular human lives"what he calls "universality plus difference." Appiah remains skeptical of simple maxims for ethical behaviorlike the Golden Rule, whose failings as a moral precept he swiftly demonstratesand argues that cosmopolitanism is the name not "of the solution but of the challenge."
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Another problem is Appiah's seeming unawareness that "culture" can be a literal prison for a sensitive person raised within it. In defense of what used to be called "female genital mutilation" he here (p-73) tells African women that the operation can be regarded as "an expression of your cultural identity." Try telling that to Hirsi Ali, whose efforts to free herself, at considerable personal risk, of the bonds of a very similar cultural background after having received such a "cultural identity" mark has attracted worldwide attention. Also unmentioned by him is any recognition that over the span of human history it has often been precisely those who found the courage to think and act in opposition to their cultural heritage who became some of humanity's greatest benefactors. When confronted by epilepsy Jesus saw only a boy possessed by demons, but 400 years earlier while discussing that same disease Hippocrates mocked his cultural compatriots and their demon-haunted world by claiming that epilepsy was nothing more than the result of natural causes, and he thereby laid the foundations for the long journey that culminated in the benefits of modern medicine. Appiah's primary motivation seems to be a desire to step on no one's toes, but his efforts are unconvincing, and he might well have considered these comments of Edward Grant, a major figure in understanding the history of science. While speaking of the cultural backwardness of medieval Europe when faced by the superior cultures of the Middle East, Grant wrote:
"Latin scholars in the 12th century recognized that not all cultures are equal. They were painfully aware that with respect to science and natural philosophy, their civilization was manifestly inferior to that of Islam. They faced an obvious choice: learn from their superiors or remain inferior forever. They chose to learn. Had they assumed that all cultures were equal . . . they would have had no reason to seek out Arab learning and the glorious scientific legacy that followed would not have occurred."
Well said, even though Appiah provides little evidence of grasping the significance of such a perspective.
Do we need a theory of cosmopolitanism? It is a pity the author did not address this question, before rushing into its development. For indeed, the fundamental question is: do we need one? Of course, there will be no dearth of those who'll argue that without "absolutes" (theirs, of course) humanity is doomed. Now more than ever: as numbers increase, we risk getting on each other's nerves - the clash of civilizations, you know.
The genius of Darwin was to dispense with the idea that "intelligent design" was at all necessary for the evolution of living nature. The bets are that he was right. The next step would be to dispense with the idea that an "intelligent ethical design" is necessary at all. Professor APPIAH, whose life and experience straddles continents, would have been well placed to dare utter the unmentionable - that we do not need a "universal ethics" - we manage to get along with simple, local rules, thank you very much - or plain common sense.
Take one of the mainstays of armchair arguments about humanity. Selfish humanity is the prisoner of prisoner's dilemma. Unless common and compulsory rules are designed and enforced we'll be faced with the tragedy of the commons. Based on such a glorious insight a famous demographer argued in 1968 for a global and compulsory, enforceable agreement on population control. Had he done a reality check instead, he would have noticed that educated women in the West were taking the matter into their hands. No agreement was necessary - millions of diverse minds in infinitely diverse circumstances somehow zeroed in on a convergent solution. And indeed, this is what is happening now worldwide today - except where intelligent moral design or conflict is interfering with it.
It all goes back to the "absolutist" view that humans are essentially identical dummies, clad in fancy but contingent garb. Men are selfish - period. Men are totally corrupted by sin - pass the port, will you? The world outside, thank you, is everything but essentialist. Diversity is the name of the game, so general rules are difficult to derive, even more difficult to enforce. On the other hand if you let diversity play out long enough, accommodation will ensue. There is no high road, signposts and all, just infinite path-dependent outcomes like those that led her mother to declare Kumasi her "home", and his father to be a British barrister.
Based on such grains of reality, had he asked cultural anthropologists like Leach or Geertz, they would have explained that plasticity and pragmatism within traditional societies - rather than contamination from without - is what makes their classification so difficult. Do I hear some distant whimsical giggles coming from Western Samoa?
Studying humanity as it adapts (or maldapts) would be, in my view far more fruitful than putting it on the Procustes bed of theory and a priori thinking. Of course, it all comes with a price: we cannot make predictions. We are not *assured" the outcome beforehand, even though, as anyone who dabbles in history knows, this is pure delusion.
Speculating whether surreptitiously killing a mandarin in China to enrich oneself is morally justified or not (pg. 155) is just idle thought. The author lifts this question from Balzac - but misses the obvious cue in the text: the person to whom the question is directed answers with a joke. A frivolous question only deserves a frivolous answer.
Having chosen to engage in theory, this text is a tortuous intellectual canter at the edge of reality, skillfully avoiding any reality check of most concepts and abstractions that are introduced. So large looms the preoccupation with the "ought to" that any enquiry into "what is" or "what do we actually do" is ignored. At the end the ride looks no more than the rocking gently on a wooden horse in the merry-go-round: pleasant, but in the end circular.
The author ought to have stuck to consequentialism. Experience uncovers consequences. Experience is transformative - so all ex ante armchair speculation is vacuous. Our use of "values" shows that each one of us is seldom consequent about values - even less so about their ranking. Circumstances sway us, and then we construct rationalizations after the fact. If we can draw a conclusion from our experience is that humanity is "crooked timber" - to use Kant's famous words. Which should come to no surprise, the whole of nature has the same feel about bit.
Yet, looking back at the history of our last 10'000 years we can detect some form of progress - the accumulation of experience seems to have taught us some lessons. Famines, disease and poverty are receding, slavery is on the wane, and the role of women is better accepted. We have waged wars, persecuted, and even created holocausts along the way. But at the end of the day we seem to be adjusting to a cosmopolitan way of life - even without a cosmopolitan ethic to guide us into it. Such an ethic might just be the result, rather than the precondition, of complexification.
Of course, "past performance is no guarantee of future results" - and one may still be tempted to impose "redeeming" values from on high to ensure the outcome. There are certainly those who are agitating in this direction, or imagining "clashes of civilization" unless we do so. Looking back it seems that trying to enforce conformity on our profoundly diverse species has been cause for many (I'd venture most) wars. Experience would tend to make me skeptical of any "intelligent design of morality". This is not a recipe for "laisser aller" - it is a plea for aconcentrated study of what works in accommodation, hoping that among the many recipes few can become more widespread.
Nothing is certain, and indeed, intelligent moral design (be it religious or secular in origin) may be the way to go. My skeptical mind would rather entrust the future to the study of diversity of approaches and the accumulation of experience - hoping for a cosmopolitan society at the end of the run.
Experience is the best Ockham's razor at hand. Pity the author has failed to wield it decisively, adding irrelevancies like witchcraft and taboos instead. Though our mind invents such constructs every day, the slow working of experience wears them away continuously.