W.W. Norton, 2006, 196 pp., $15.95
Once Cosmopolitan was just a women’s magazine. Saddled with an unwieldy handle rarely used in common speech, editors and readers agreed to shorten it to Cosmo. While the magazine made a stir by promoting stylish sluttiness, no one thought of this as an “ism.” Today, by contrast, cosmopolitanism stands at the forefront of “isms”, at least on many a college campus. The Cosmo girl has yielded to the (much less lithe) Cosmo professor. There’s nothing more fashionable in our leading philosophy departments today.
So what, then, is cosmopolitanism? It is the idea that moral responsibility has no lesser locus than the world as a whole. What passes for the cutting edge of moral philosophy today glances primarily at international or transnational affairs, rather than (as formerly) at domestic ones. True, the cosmopolitan may also hold a distinctive position on domestic matters, but only because he views them within this broader and obviously superior perspective. The morally decisive viewpoint is the global one.
For Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, cosmopolitanism is more than just a word. The son of an Asante chieftain and a British mother, he is equally at home in Ghana, Britain and the corridors of America’s liberal academic elite. While your typical American academic views Republicans as examples of unaccountable diversity, Appiah was raised among kinsmen almost all of whom believe in witchcraft, and some of whom are kings still exacting tribute. So his book defends not just a school of thought but a way of life that he has lived to the full.
As a book that thus mixes the theoretical and the personal, Cosmopolitanism is suffused with Appiah’s easy urbanity. Reading it is anything but a chore. As the late Richard Rorty remarked in a November 2005 New Leader review, “[Appiah] has developed a distinctive, and very engaging, style that is conversational rather than didactic.” A wealth of anecdotes supports the wealth of arguments; especially entrancing are those of life among the Asante.
Appiah begins by describing in a few deft pages the long evolution of the human race from the self-sufficiency and the isolation of hunter-gatherer societies to its present state of interconnectedness. “Only in the past couple of centuries, as every human community has gradually been drawn into a single web of trade and a global network of information, have we come to a point where each of us can realistically imagine contacting any other of our six billion conspecifics.” Yet with universal interconnectedness comes mutual vulnerability. Each of us is in a position to harm every other, whether by the dissemination of toxins, pollutants or just “bad ideas.” At the same time, each is in a position to help any other by the transmission of something good:
Kwame Anthony Appiah [credit: Rick Friedman/Corbis]
a radio, an antibiotic, a good idea. Each person you know about or can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality. . . . The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe that we have become.
What’s needed, then, is re-education for moral comity on a global scale. This is not a new idea, of course. It goes back at least as far as Montesquieu, Lessing, Adam Smith and Kant. Mozart even set it to music in The Magic Flute. In his magnificent Würzburg frescoes, Tiepolo (1696–1770), that most humane and cosmopolitan of Venetian painters, displayed it to the eye—and incidentally supplied Appiah with his luminous jacket illustration. Indeed, the 18th century, while ignorant of the Worldwide Web, was conscious of the global reach of commerce. It remains the great epoch of moral cosmopolitanism, that idyllic time before nationalism and class struggle intervened to blight such bright hopes.
Appiah is proud to associate himself with this tradition. He thinks, however, that as the world is now much more closely interconnected, so cosmopolitanism must go further than ever before. There is another difference, which is that these older thinkers, being great philosophers, set out both to ground and specify our global duties to others. Appiah contents himself with asserting (not proving) the existence of such duties, and he remains somewhat vague as to their content.
A little further on, however, Appiah offers a version of cosmopolitanism as a challenge rather than an obvious obligation. This challenge concerns the complexity of the required re-education. Here, the book begins to hit its stride:
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 kin, or even the most formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. . . . There will be times when these two ideals—universal concern and respect for legitimate difference—clash. There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.
The concern we owe all human beings, which is the basis of our universal duties toward them, would be a bloodless and arrogant abstraction unless it also implied respect for them in their concreteness. There are, therefore, two sides to morality of equal force. Each implies the other and simultaneously contends against it. To be good citizens, whether at home or abroad, we must resolve this dilemma inherent in cosmopolitanism itself.
So far, so good, but showing us how to resolve this is neither Appiah’s only concern nor his primary one. For this is a dilemma only for those who are already cosmopolitans, and Appiah’s first order of business is to persuade us that this is what we all should be. This explains why the book relies so heavily on anecdote. Appiah would teach us respect for the diversity of human ways of life, on the one hand, and for what is common to human beings on the other. He is forever showing that there is difference amid seeming sameness and sameness amid seeming difference. Human life as he presents it is an endless interplay of the similar and the distinct, and the core of successful cosmopolitanism is precisely attention to this interplay.
For this reason Appiah opposes the post-modernist cult of “difference.” He is as harsh on those who are obsessed with preserving every last difference as he is on those who would insist on establishing sameness. On the one hand, he ridicules the notion that the globe is in imminent danger of harboring no restaurants but McDonald’s and no beverages but Coca-Cola. On the other, he thinks it is perfectly possible to drink Coke and remain an Asante—especially since he vigorously rejects essentialist notions of what it means to be an Asante, or to be anything else, for that matter. It is here that he introduces his powerful and provocative defense of cultural “contamination”, a term he owes to Salman Rushdie. Particularity would be meaningless, he argues, if people—and peoples—could not choose to alter it. Their persistence in their own ways would be empty if they were unfree to adopt (and adapt to) the ways of others. And the notion that “contamination” necessarily represents regress rather than progress is belied in Appiah’s view by such children of “contamination” as Rushdie and Appiah himself.
Similarly, Appiah rejects those cosmopolitans (and our campuses brim with them) who deny that we owe any duties to those dear to us—whether as kinsmen, friends, coreligionists or fellow citizens—which we don’t owe to everyone. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, he regards this as inconsistent with the respect due to particularity itself: What is most particular about human beings is their loyalties. This rehabilitation of patriotism and thereby politics is Appiah’s most valuable improvement on cosmopolitanism as commonly preached.
Appiah’s practical discussions follow from a theoretical one that represents the core of the book as an essay in philosophy. This core consists of a meditation on the structure of human disagreement. Appiah is concerned that we not mistake all value disagreements as intransigent, all disagreements for value disagreements, or all differences for incompatibilities. He offers a sophisticated typology of difference intended to highlight the manifold possibilities for peaceful coexistence. The practical implication of his treatment is this: As there are multiple ways in which humans may disagree, so must there be multiple ways of achieving a modus vivendi among them. No one model for resolving difference should therefore be presumed authoritative. The attitude most fruitful for achieving concord will blend pragmatism and resourcefulness.
In all this there is much good sense. Still, this inevitable interplay of sameness and difference, and therefore the inevitable persistence of the latter, cuts both ways. Appiah’s global goal cannot be agreement, for that is incompatible with the irreducibility of at least some difference, to say nothing of his celebration of it. But his goal can be understanding. Ultimately, his position must be that, given our common human nature, our neighbor is always enough like ourselves so that we can at least understand his disagreements with us if we try. Even where that disagreement expresses itself in the form of violent hatred, as, Appiah admits, is so widespread in the Muslim world today, it need not be unintelligible to us. Peoples must be expected to cleave to their different ways, however repugnant we may find them. How would we like it, Appiah asks, if some Great Satan of a society flaunted its pervasive sexual immorality in our faces even as it threatened our long-entrenched oppression of women? (This is of course but a part of the story: Muslims have other grounds for resentment than that.)
However all-embracing it may be in theory, cosmopolitanism evidently has its limits in practice. Cosmopolitans make understanding, not war. Unfortunately, they can’t guarantee a similar inclination among non-cosmopolitans. In any case, even understanding need not conduce to peace. The fundamental issues between radical Islam and the West do not depend on either’s misunderstanding of the other. Nor need one side or the other necessarily become any less intransigent for being understood. Appiah’s penultimate chapter, on “The Counter-Cosmopolitans” (Islamists foremost among them) grudgingly admits as much.
At the end of the day a large question lingers. Does Appiah succeed in reconciling our presumed general duty of concern for all fellow human beings with that of respect for particularity? Indeed, does this problem even admit of a solution? We may feel like the tightrope walker whose perennial task is to balance—and who in the nature of the case can receive no guidance beyond that. Only in his final chapter, “Kindness to Strangers”, does Appiah get down to saying more about what our cosmopolitan obligations to strangers are. In so doing he takes up the topic of our obligations as inhabitants of rich nations to those of poorer ones.
Here, too, is much fine argumentation. In particular, Appiah provides a convincing send-up of the celebrated claim of Peter Singer and Peter Unger that, just as we would be morally obliged to inconvenience ourselves to save a child drowning before us in a shallow pond, so are we obligated to give to Oxfam, again and again until it hurts, to save children dying out of eyeshot in Africa. In an analysis as witty as it is persuasive, Appiah shows that the principle from which this conclusion is supposed to follow—that “if you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you ought to do it”—is so plastic in application that it may not even mandate saving the drowning child, let alone so many unseen African ones. Why not? Because there could easily be evils even greater than these that could only be prevented at the cost of not preventing these. Both the clarity and the authority of the example of the drowning child thus prove illusory. Undercut by the very principle that supposedly supports it, it provides no useful practical guidance.
Drawing artfully on the subtleties expounded in preceding chapters, Appiah seeks to do justice to the nuances of this question of transnational obligation. His presentation is far superior to the monochromatic ones of his adversaries. It recognizes the priority of national to individual responsibility, the general undesirability of world government, and our right to be partial to those closest to us—and to ourselves: “Whatever my basic obligations are to the poor far away, they cannot be enough, I believe, to trump my concerns for my family, my friends, my country; nor can an argument that every life matters require me to be indifferent to the fact that one of those lives is mine.” No reasonable cosmopolitanism, in other words, requires us to forget that we are at the center of our own lives. Appiah further stresses the plurality of human goods: No, we’re not obligated to sell off our opera tickets to finance relief for starving children, or to support totalitarian regimes because they reduce infant mortality. It isn’t only mere life that counts.
When he turns to empirical questions of aid and its effectiveness, Appiah strives for similar nuance. While politics does not loom large in the book as a whole, he recognizes the primacy of the political in determining economic outcomes in poorer nations. He therefore proposes distributing foreign aid so as to reward efficient governance. Here he follows Amartya Sen, Jeffrey Sachs and what has become the conventional wisdom in the Bush Administration and even at the World Bank.
In the end, though, Appiah’s treatment of Third World aid disappoints. When all is said and done, Appiah takes the side of the angels, his countryman Kofi Annan and Bono. Like them he favors a massive increase in the percentage of Western resources channeled into foreign aid: “[Singer and Unger] are wrong about what we owe. They are surely right to insist that we owe more.” Much more.
Yet we owe more only if Appiah’s own theory of global moral obligation can be grounded, and he has made no attempt to do so. And even then we would owe foreign aid only on the presumption that it does good, a presumption even he admits is a weak one. Appiah doesn’t address the arguments of the late Peter Bauer and others for the counterproductivity of foreign aid as such, arguments to which the new stress on “governance” represents a partial concession. Nor does he address the arguments of the Cato Institute’s Ian Vásquez that even the new governance model is itself severely flawed. While his case against Singer and Unger is devastating (he himself calls it “shocking”), he contrives a landing so soft that even they won’t likely quarrel with it.
This outcome is all the more disappointing because it crowns Appiah’s only attempt to specify our obligations as cosmopolitans. I commented earlier on Appiah’s enticing urbanity. The question is whether by cosmopolitanism he means much more than urbanity. In his hands, cosmopolitanism in its philosophical sense merges imperceptibly with its popular one of sophistication or savoir faire. His virtue as a thinker is that of the man of the world: He resists all forms of dogmatism and offers endless subtleties and qualifications of his argument. The danger is that the argument will peter out, bogged down in all these qualifications. Grateful that he has exploded so many dubious premises, we remain uncertain as to which, if any, the good ones are.