on August 22, 2010
We can move to a better neighborhood or to a different country. But all humanity is our neighbor, like them or not.
Mr. Appiah, the renowned Princeton philosophy professor, challenges us with the paradox of a common humanity, among which, different ethnic and religious groups often do not share customs, or even the same values. The Cosmopolitan thesis is that, despite being strangers in many ways, our common humanity provides a basis for mutual respect and compassion.
What anchors the paradox at one end is that, for most of human history, we knew only our own kind, with limited need to understand, let alone to accept, the customs of people in other groups. Over the last few centuries, increased trade and communication, as well as industrial pollution and international terrorism, has changed framework. Since our actions can affect "lives everywhere," ethical living implies responsibilities beyond our immediate environment and social group. Humanity has become, in a sense, one "tribe."
Mr. Appiah reminds us that the view of being a citizen of the world reflects intellectual traditions at least as old as classical times; that Marcus Aurelius, whose works were attractive to many Christian intellectuals, himself sought to suppress Christianity; that, then again, Christianity, whose allegiances have often fueled persecution, originally spread from Paul's assertion of "neither Jew nor Greek . . . . for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Yet, Mr. Appiah also reminds us, respect for those different includes respect for their freedom to be separate, as in the case of the Amish in the United States.
If you find yourself often straddling the same paradox and long to find a partner in the journey, you will find one in Mr. Appiah's short (196 pp.), varied, and challenging book. He provides examples of agreeing, yet agreeing to disagree. The non-Muslim for example, would agree on the devout's right to make a hajj to Mecca, but may not agree that a Deity has commanded it, or that avoiding pork is appropriate. The paradox is exemplified in explanations of the natural world. Even an agreement on facts leaves ambiguity in theories; e.g., whether it is germs or (many tiny) spirits that cause disease. Mr. Appiah makes a case that there are even fewer compelling arguments based on fact in the determination of values. The journey continues to the Ghana of the author's father, where we find out about "taboos" dealing with bush meat and menstruating women. A distinction made here is that, while taboos separate peoples, or classes within peoples (rulers, nobles, and slaves), morals differ in that they guide us in the treatment of others, so a taboo is a distinction with less of a difference. Even so, taboos are common to all cultures; westerners eat pigs but not cats.
A cosmopolitan understands and can live with difference, even when the differences are mutually understood. A "universalist," on the other hand, expects agreement through understanding. Mr. Appiah has us step back from taboos, to the more engaging questions of values. Still, while most people in a society value fair punishment, not all agree that punishment is worth the risk of punishing the innocent; while men in different societies relate their honor to the chastity of related women, not all of these men would agree that honor compels killing a woman who is raped. We find that reasoned argument does not compel either of these positions to those taking them. There seems to be a sort of getting "used to," that even a great mathematician (von Neumann) would endorse as reason's companion.
Mr. Appiah's treads lightly across serious subjects, and perhaps that is a cosmopolitan virtue. He contends that strangers are beyond communication mainly when they are imaginary; that is, when they are people we have not met one-to-one. Also, that, among diversity, there are inevitable commonalities: "I have failed to get people interested in Zeno's paradox in three continents." That, when caring about others requires an "out-group," one's caring is perhaps mere self-comfort.
Mr. Appiah explores the concept of cultural preservation. He proposes a difference between preserving culture and preserving cultures. He challenges the idea of "authenticity," as limited by the facts of history, such as the role of trade in the development of kente cloth and bagpipes. The need to "preserve" is argued as an ignorance of how free non-Westerners are to interpret American TV and consumer products. At worst, an attitude of cultural preservation condescends. We learn that the ancients saw the value of "contamination": stoic teachers traveling between city states, an African-born playwright, Publius Terentius Afer, using Greek ideas in Roman drama. We are offered, quoting this playright, a golden rule: "I am human: nothing is alien to me."
We are given a glimpse of the founder of the scouting movement, collecting (or looting?), as a prelude to a discussion of cultural objects. Mr. Appiah takes us to the question of whether a Norse goblet is more valuable in a Spanish museum or in a Norwegian family's living room. Cosmopolitanism proposes that the connection through ethnic identity across centuries is no less real than the connection through a common humanity.
Mr. Appiah includes some discussion of counter-cosmopolitans, for example, Islamic fundamentalists, to help us understand by way of contrast. The universal aspect in this case, and in others, is one that looks beyond borders or ethnicity, and excludes those who disbelieve. This discussion evokes the cosmopolitan understanding that different people will have different values, and that this is quite acceptable (with some exception for values not worth having). The cosmopolitan knows that one can learn from those with whom one disagrees. The counter-cosmopolitan sees nothing to be gained by reaching out from the faithful.
Finally, we are given the author's reflection on questions of sacrifice for the benefit of others. So, how much would we sacrifice to save the life of a child in a foreign country with nutrition and medicine? One hundred dollars? If that much, why not more - say, another hundred dollars. Or is there a point when it's more important to go the opera? And - is it really possible to save another's life for more than a few days, given the harsh realities of their life situation. Is it as easy as deciding to ruin a suit in order to save a child from drowning, and why? What is the principle behind the answers to these questions, if there is one.
The journey continues: Mr. Appiah provides an informative and provocative guide to how to treat strangers, meant of course, in the large. I do not guarantee the reader will find comfortable answers, only insights and surprising information, and that your answers, which are how you actually live, will now have questions to challenge them.