Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Reviewed by
Nikil Saval

Foreign policy not so long ago seemed to move in maddeningly elitist ways far outside the public sphere of ordinary citizens, but it’s now almost downright de rigueur for many Americans, stung by ‘blowback’ effects, to be interested in its arcane details. As  a result of technological innovations ranging from a 24-hour news cycle to international conferences broadcast on live-blogs, access to the international sphere has begun to feel ever more unmediated and raw. Foreign policy appears to be more transparent (even if illusorily so). Meanwhile, “globalization” has become a mind-numbingly catch-all designation, encompassing both G-8 conferences and that weird “something-isn’t-right” feeling you get when you buy Chilean salmon at Wal-Mart for $4.84 a pound and suddenly realize that it’s terribly, even impossibly cheap (here borrowing an observation from Charles Fishman’s The Wal-Mart Effect).

If you’re troubled by the blatant bullying of the Bush administration, you may also recognize a nagging inner feeling of helplessness regarding everything that’s going badly in the world, as well as an acute sense of diminished possibilities for getting any meaningful and decent alternative program into action. For internationally-minded Americans, no institutional vehicle for sensible cooperative internationalism is immediately apparent. There’s a blunt way of putting this: “No international community exists. The term is a euphemism for American hegemony,” as Perry Anderson, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, stated in the London Review of Books.

It is this gap between a multilateral global order replete with bona fide robust political dialogue and its actual emaciated quality which stirred Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Appiah is bored by talk of global politics and globalization, so he digs into the ethical issues underlying, and raised by, what he portrays as rival discourses. His is an elegantly written and thoughtful reflection on what it means to be “at home in the world,” but in its personal meanderings it fails to respond with the urgency that the pressing problems he identifies clearly demand. The book is never less than interesting, but, at the end, one wonders if it is really worth the trip.

This disappointment is largely a result of his self-imposed limits. Appiah draws many strands in Cosmopolitanism from the deeper thinking evident in his The Ethics of Identity (Princeton UP, 2005), a very good book, and one so earnestly helpful and agreeable that one almost hates to quibble. Appiah showed how, once you have rooted through and refurbished all the heavy, dusty, odd-looking furniture in liberalism’s creaky attic—individuality, culture, autonomy, and, above all, identity—you’d plainly discern that liberalism’s commitments really reside with a “rooted,” or partial, cosmopolitanism. Here is an ethical position that he believes pulls off the neat trick of respecting both the identity we provincial human beings construct out of given materials but likewise views materials and practices of other people elsewhere as equally worthy of respect - if not always necessarily desirable.

“Cosmopolitanism” emerged in the Hellenistic age, among the Stoics and Cynics. Two strands “intertwine in the notion. 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 kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. So we should learn from others. The model for this ethical education is “conversation,” one that takes place across “boundaries,” that is, conversation across identities. As he argued in The Ethics of Identity, “we make our lives as men and as women, as gay and as straight people, as Ghanaians and as Americans, as blacks and as whites.” What his notion of cosmopolitanism-as-conversation represents is a transcendental philosophy pervading all identities. It is a mode of interaction that encompasses both our obligation to those beyond, as well as our obligations to those nearest, us—thus, the partial, or rooted, nature of the cosmopolitanism. This intermediate position mediates between a universalizing internationalism, which would dissipate rooted commitments, and “identity politics,” which asserts the rights of a particular group over other broader obligations.

Appiah’s role models include himself. Born and raised in Ghana, Appiah was educated at Cambridge University and now is a professor of Philosophy at Princeton. His parents were interracial. His father was Joseph Appiah, a leading figure in the movement for Ghanaian independence; his English mother, the late Peggy Appiah (to whom Cosmopolitanism is dedicated) was a charity worker and collector of Ghanaian folklore. Many of Appiah’s examples of a cosmopolitan existence derive from this unusual upbringing. One chapter, “Imaginary Strangers,” is devoted to recounting a “diverse” reception he and his mother arranged for the king of Asante in Ghana.

Alan Ryan opined in The New York Review of Books that “nobody is better placed than Anthony Appiah to make the case for rooted cosmopolitanism.” But Appiah’s invocation of himself is inherently problematic. He jokes that what most people imagine when they hear “cosmopolitan” is “a Comme des Garcons-clad sophisticate with a platinum frequent-flyer card regarding, with kindly condescension, a ruddy-faced farmer in workman’s overalls.” What Appiah tries to derail is the charge that cosmopolitanism is elitist. But his class advantages are not irrelevant. The sense that his supporters have of Appiah being the cosmopolitan par excellence   highlights what he discounts: that cosmopolitanism itself constitutes an “identity.” In a real sense, Appiah has not chosen to be a cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism has instead been thrust upon him, and he was “well-placed” to comment on it. Henry James, another man whose upbringing made him a ‘man of the world,’ wrote “being a cosmopolite is an accident, but one must make the best of it…there comes a time when one set of customs, wherever it may be found, grows to seem to you about as provincial as another; and then I suppose it may be said of you that you have become a cosmopolite.” (Still, he never stopped writing about America.) For James, cosmopolitanism was less a matter of an ethical attitude than a matter of pure Providence. Just so, Appiah was disposed (to some extent) to espouse his rooted cosmopolitanism. Nice work if you can get it.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with being cosmopolitanism, even with advantages. I like Appiah’s optimistic vision of the world. His model of “conversation” is agreeable, though largely because it’s so vague. Still, one would surely hope that cosmopolitanism is possible for more than a tiny minority. Appiah is unable to address this little detail. He refers to “times when…universal concern and respect for legitimate difference…clash,” and notes this is “the sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution, but of the challenge.” The “challenge” becomes clear in his chapter, “the Counter-Cosmopolitans,” where he repudiates the all-devouring ideological goals of al Qaeda and Christian fundamentalists, as well as in his last chapter, “Kindness to Strangers,” a description of the problems facing charitable giving from individuals and nations to those less well-off.

In both the aforementioned chapters problems arise that demand a more savvy political analysis than Appiah can offer. Instead, he dishes out bromides that only the more comfortable among us can buy. For example, he explains that he disagrees with philosopher Peter Singer who devised a utilitarian calculus on how much the better off should give to the poor. He admits he does “not know exactly what the basic obligations are of each American or each human being.” He does know that we can do more, but also that “if all Americans or Europeans stopped buying consumer goods, the result would almost certainly be a collapse of the global economy.” Well, sure: but who is he arguing with here? This should be the beginning of an argument, not its end. As for humanitarian interventions he hedges unattractively: “Perhaps we should stop genocide, intervene when there is a mass starvation or a great natural disaster. But must we do more than this?” Appiah doesn’t even pretend to know. So why read him? 

Cosmopolitanism isn’t enough. Take a stroll down to the Current Events book aisle this season and you’ll find American academies and policy magazines yielding a bumper crop of foreign policy notions. Why, there’s Francis Fukuyama hawking his sobered-up “realistic Wilsonianism.” And there’s the New America Foundation’s Robert Wright peddling his dry “progressive realism;” How about Paul Berman and his rueful ‘post-68-styled liberal interventionism. Or how about Peter Beinart’s “chronic careerism”?. Nearly all these writers espouse the “partial cosmopolitanism” Appiah advocates, except that they do so squarely inside the field of politics. They are all at odds with the imperious notion (not exclusively neo-con in origin or influence) that the entire international system must operate at the whim of American interests. All these writers—at least rhetorically—are passionate about human rights, raising standards of living in “Third World” nations, and respecting the practices and values of other cultures. So what?

A strong, progressive, and political cosmopolitanism eludes Appiah precisely because he wants too much to be agreeable.  The same problem afflicts the liberal political writers too. But they at least acknowledge what delicate Henry James brutally recognized in his novels, that cosmopolitanism is largely for the privileged. Appiah’s cosmopolitanism centers on the individual; so ultimately his book fails to grapple with the daunting political project that an ethics informed by a cosmopolitan outlook would demand.. The rights of America to stand-in for the international community must be, in a manner of speaking, redistributed. Cosmopolitanism demands that the right to be cosmopolitan extend to everyone in the world, so Americans themselves (and Appiah too) become, in effect, less cosmopolitan.