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Rooted Cosmopolitans

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
w.w. norton. 256 pages. $23.95

When i was in graduate school, it was radical to be a cosmopolitan. Not only did cosmopolitans have a very capacious view of the duties we all owed to strangers in foreign lands, but they also suggested that our affinities and affections for our families, friends, and fellow countrypeople likely stood in need of substantial justification. They argued, quite reasonably, that all human beings were entitled to the same concern and respect — and that we are only being parochial when we construct theories of distributive justice that exclude classes of persons and peoples. Ultimately, many cosmopolitans had to accommodate what seems like a psychological imperative: that we have duties first and foremost to our intimates, for what use is a moral system that is wholly out of touch with the people it purports to guide? But even those who made concessions of this kind insisted that our duties to strangers were very substantial and that we have perennially failed to be “citizens of the world.”

I never could sign onto the cosmopolitan agenda in full, especially not the versions that endorsed the dissolution of all states to form one world government, but I appreciated the severity and importance of the set of views that comprised moral and political cosmopolitanism. Those old-school, hard-core cosmopolitans demanded a lot from our sympathetic imaginations in getting us to feel the pain of distant others and from our wallets in suggesting that our moral and political duties required very substantial financial commitments to alleviate that distant pain. But those demands, however extreme they seemed at the time, contributed to a thoroughgoing sentimental education that really has succeeded in part in changing the way many people — political theorists, political philosophers, and citizens of many nations — think about obligations to strangers.

So what sorts of views do hard-core cosmopolitans press? Sam Scheffler, in an essay in the journal Utilitas, describes it thus: “Cosmopolitanism about justice is opposed to . . . any view which holds, as a matter of principle, that the norms of justice apply primarily within bounded groups comprising some subset of the global population.” Cosmopolitans acknowledge that we sometimes must give the local and our loved ones an extra measure of concern because it may be the only practical way to do good in the world. But they nevertheless insist that our identities as human beings, first and foremost, place real and substantial demands upon us. We cannot think our own parents and children are better than or superior to anyone else’s parents and children, even if we can be justified in loving one set more than the next.

And this equality has real consequences: morally, emotionally, and fiscally. We must ask what justifies the expenditure of most of our resources on our own when there are others in the world who desperately need our help at least as much. As Martha Nussbaum put it when responding to critics of her argument for a thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism in the Boston Review in 1994, “May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world are starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption?”

The vast majority of hard-core cosmopolitans acknowledge that these types of queries do not provide clear answers, especially not ones that always require a relatively well-off American to forgo every luxury for charity to alleviate global poverty. But they insist that we always pester ourselves with these hard questions. To be sure, some very hard-core cosmopolitans argue for a single world-state and deny that we have a right to help our own children flourish when we could be using our time and money helping the less fortunate (for there are usually many less fortunate people in distant countries — and counties next door). But these answers to the kinds of questions old-school cosmopolitanism raises never commanded a consensus; it is the intensity of the questions themselves and the difficult challenges that the enterprise poses that gives meaning and shape to the project.


Enter professor Kwame Anthony Appiah with Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, committed to de-fanging cosmopolitanism. He sees the demands of cosmopolitanism as much more basic and much less severe. Cosmopolitans routinely get mocked for their dilettantish appreciation of the exotic, for their embrace of an ideal of the flaneur in the global village. Appiah, über-cultured traveler of many identities that he is (he’s black and gay and from Ghana and educated at Cambridge and living in America) cannot help contributing to that caricature. His book draws its citations from Africans to Englishmen, from Frenchmen to Zoroastrians, from Muslims to the Asante, from Homer to Hegel, from Confucius to contemporary Afghan films. To be sure, Appiah’s defanged catholic cultural cosmopolitanism may succeed in getting more adherents than some of the competing hard-core varietals — but at what cost?

Perhaps my focus on cosmopolitanism with fangs is misplaced. After all, Appiah makes clear that he actually wants only to defend a “partial cosmopolitanism” against “the nationalist who abandons all foreigners” and “the hard-core cosmopolitan who regards her friends and fellow citizens with icy impartiality.” Perhaps it is simply that the book is mistitled. Yet I suspect no accident here: Appiah feeds off the trope of cosmopolitanism and wishes to be located within the movement. He identifies with a “rooted” cosmopolitanism, which acknowledges that “loyalties and local allegiances . . . determine who we are” and that “[a] creed that disdains partialities of kinfolk and community may have a past, but it has no future.”

So what does Appiah’s theory of cosmopolitanism amount to? There are two strands: first, “obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by ties of kith and kind”; second, “the recognition that human beings are different and that we can learn from each other’s differences.”

It may reasonably be asked whether one needs a book to defend these basic and mostly uncontroversial propositions. We do, Appiah thinks, because “anti-cosmopolitans” and “counter-cosmopolitans” would argue otherwise. Who falls into this camp? In a particularly cheap move, Appiah has Hitler, Stalin, Al Qaeda, and those who attack the Olympics stand in for the enemies of cosmopolitanism.

Still, he takes the second strand of cosmopolitanism first — and commits the majority of the book to developing the thesis. In arguing for the second strand, Appiah proffers what might be called a conversational ideal: that the best way to take human differences and to learn from those differences seriously is talking. An ideal that has even penetrated to the basic commitments of liberalism and democracy (in the movement of “deliberative democracy”), conversation is one way of habituating people to appreciate differences in others and foster a culture of respect. Appiah, of course, realizes that conversations can be frustrating as often as they can be enlightening (and recent experiments have shown that conversations can polarize those with differing views rather than forge consensuses) but he sees them as a path to cosmopolitanism. Appiah’s cosmopolitans may maintain strong beliefs and have firm conceptions of right and wrong, but “cosmopolitans suppose that all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation. But they don’t suppose that we could all come to agreement.”

Appiah argues that conversations are central to the project of cosmopolitanism because they themselves help reveal a common evaluative cross-cultural language, even if particular value judgments will differ. Just as the Americans or the British differ widely on major questions of value yet remain tied together as a community of fate, cosmopolitans see the same potential result for the peoples of the world, who are also part of a joint community of fate in this age of globalization. Conversations, Appiah says, help us get used to one another, which is central to getting us to respect one another.

So how does this differ from a claim that we should all be as intellectually curious as cultural anthropologists? Here Appiah draws on the first strand of his cosmopolitanism, which demands that we have obligations to others, a claim familiar to those I’ve called members of the hard core. The cultural anthropologists “spend a great deal of time urging us not to intervene in the lives of other societies; if they think we have a responsibility, it is to leave well enough alone.”

Yet, one of first-strand cosmopolitanism’s real challenges in trying to convince others that it is a viable political and moral orientation is that it rings psychologically hollow: We just can’t care about all human beings. Nonhuman animals cannot serve as an “out-group” sufficient to capture an “in-group” about whom we can realistically apply an ethic of care, concern, duty, and obligation.

Some cosmopolitans just bite the bullet and acknowledge that cosmopolitanism’s demands are broad and substantial — and too much for most people to bear. Still, that doesn’t make such demands illegitimate; it just means that the theory serves as a regulative ideal, even if it can’t usefully be seen as a moral guide for every small-scale ethical decision facing individuals. Others who are uncomfortable with a moral doctrine that creates unrealistic expectations may simply acknowledge the severity of cosmopolitanism’s demands on our sympathetic imaginations and create a category of “diminished responsibility” for those who focus their generosity and largesse on some smaller circle of obligation.


Appiah’s response to this central challenge — which he, along with every living cosmopolitan theorist, acknowledges (cosmopolitanism’s opponents always marshal the critique as if cosmopolitans don’t apprehend the issue) — is somewhat opaque. In the first instance, he is willing to grant the point that “[h]umanity isn’t, in the relevant sense, an identity at all.” Nevertheless, we needn’t worry because our duties to strangers run not to some generalized “Other” but to particular strangers. We will always, Appiah thinks, have something in common with these real strangers, who will not be too abstract to care about.

Now we arrive at the really hard question about the first strand of cosmopolitanism. In its most general pronouncement, it isn’t especially controversial. What has made old-school cosmopolitanism controversial is not that we have obligations to strangers in distant lands but the degree of responsibility the movement routinely claims we have to others.

One thing Appiah does not think we owe strangers is the preservation of their “authentic” cultures. Although cosmopolitans like diversity, they like the cultures that make up global civilization only because they are substantially meaningful to actual people. Accordingly, forcing young people to remain locked in or otherwise subsidizing dying cultures is inappropriate, especially if such preservation serves to trap people in “a kind of difference they long to escape.” In any case, as Appiah rightly emphasizes, given the fluidity and malleability of all cultures, it is very difficult to know what shall count as “authenticity” in the realm of cultures: As Salman Rushdie maintains in The Satanic Verses, mass migration and adaptation, mélange, introduce newness into the world, and cultures cannot easily stay pure and survive. Indeed, Appiah likes cultural contamination.

Yet it is fair to ask him how the ideal of contamination dovetails with his conversational ideal: Although contamination might lead to conversation, it could also produce a global, diluted monoculture that will render the very conversations at the core of the second strand of cosmopolitanism somewhat boring. He knows this and realizes that his strands stand in some tension. I suppose we don’t realistically risk finding ourselves in a truly homogenized culture anytime soon, and if we were to get to that point, perhaps we wouldn’t need conversation anyway. By then, the real challenge of cosmopolitanism — its psychological hollowness — would similarly be rendered moot because we would all share sufficient values in common that it wouldn’t be hard to see any of the world’s problems as our own.


So that is what cosmopolitans needn’t do. What, then, are the affirmative obligations associated with Appiah’s cosmopolitanism? Appiah nicely argues that cosmopolitanism cannot remain satisfied by mere conversation because “[t]oleration requires a concept of the intolerable.” He says that cosmopolitans must intervene when some of their core commitments are violated, citing genocide as the uncontroversial case. To be sure, interventionism to avoid genocide isn’t wholly uncontroversial — but it nicely captures a cosmopolitan policy that is not easily justified if one needs only to care for her own. Strangers be damned, genocide or no genocide.

But there is more — and here is where most of the action is. We have financial obligations to strangers as well. The old-school cosmopolitans have a very hard line on the matter of the degree of foreign aid we as individuals (and we as rich nations) owe to the poor people and peoples of the world. They argue that our obligations are virtually limitless. Appiah ascribes this view to his Princeton colleague Peter Singer and New York University’s Peter Unger. They have each developed arguments for why we ought to devote most of our excess income (beyond what is strictly necessary for living a decent, healthy life) to helping the least fortunate around the world. Appiah calls them “Shallow Pond” theorists because each takes a basic analogy as his point of departure: No one really thinks it is acceptable not to save a drowning child in a shallow pond merely because doing so will result in muddy clothes and a bit of moderate discomfort. Some then use this analogy to suggest that we have virtually unlimited moral and financial obligations to strangers, who are drowning in ponds and whom most of us can save even without getting our clothes dirty.

Of course, Appiah correctly points out that this principle of the Shallow Pond could apply just as severely even if you had reasons to think only one subgroup of people count. Even if you thought you owed no duties to distant strangers, you might still be bound to divest yourself of all your unnecessary possessions to help the needy citizens in your town or city. So Shallow Pond theorists needn’t be cosmopolitans, and their arguments may be just as powerful against liberal nationalists. Still, the hard-core cosmopolitans extend the relevant community of concern globally, for all human beings are equal in worth and deserve a basic opportunity for a life that is worth living. To draw upon the title of Peter Unger’s famous book, living high and letting die is bad. Perhaps we needn’t give the poor the actual clothes off of our backs, but our obligations are tremendous. And we routinely shirk them, the old-school cosmopolitans insist.

Appiah the clever philosopher comes to tell us that the strong version of our aid obligations to the foreign poor cannot be maintained. Here are his core arguments: First, he invokes the classic counter-cosmopolitan argument that our obligations must be consistent with partiality to our families, friends, and fellow citizens. He simply writes, “[w]hatever 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.” Second, he claims that we can’t really believe we need to bring ourselves to the brink of bankruptcy or mutilation to avert the effects of diarrhea in the Third World; we need only to do our share (though he admits that he is a bit weak on what our individual shares are). Third, he argues that “if so many people in the world are not doing their share . . . I cannot be required to derail my life to take up the slack.” Finally, he declares that the nation-state must remain the provider of basic entitlements to the peoples of the world — and once we grant the need for the nation-state, we must accept that “we have special responsibility for the life and justice of our own.”

Appiah’s efforts to derail the hard-line cosmopolitans read like alibis piled atop excuses. He attempts to draw upon our prejudices and, indeed, embraces the very rhetoric of the anti-cosmopolitans. (I mean the relevant ones who are nationalists and communitarians, not the Stalinists.) Rather than a mere tempering of the obligations of cosmopolitans, Appiah comes awfully close to backpedaling so substantially as to gut the whole point of the enterprise. If we have no reason not to put family, friends, and fellow citizens first, we aren’t cosmopolitans in any real way because we don’t have limitless resources. Given the condition of scarcity, the cosmopolitan must believe that obligations to the foreign poor trump obligations to our fellow citizens, especially when our fellow citizens are, as a class, much better off than foreigners elsewhere living in destitute poverty. Appiah seems content to argue for an obligation to intervene in countries committing genocide and a very modest financial obligation to poor countries around the globe. That is a pallid version of cosmopolitanism that barely deserves the name. And if we can excuse ourselves because others are shirking their responsibilities, we are barely principled.

Not to be outdone by the seeming outrageousness of the unlimited obligations some hard-core cosmopolitans insist upon, however, Appiah actually “defend[s] going to the opera when children are dying, children who could be saved with the prices of admission.” His argument isn’t, however, as controversial as it seems: He is merely trying to suggest that many aspects of life are valuable beyond just saving lives and averting diarrhea and its effects. So a reasonable cosmopolitanism must acknowledge that our financial obligations to the poor can sometimes give way to the pursuit of things that make the world beautiful. Fair point. In this gambit, Appiah succeeds in taking the sting out of the Shallow Pond theorists’ views. We can live high and let die after all. Relax.

There are other good points to make against the Shallow Pond theorists, which Appiah does effectively. If Bill Gates had followed Singer’s and Unger’s advice when he was in his 20s, for example, “he wouldn’t have been in a position to give billions to good causes today.” (We can all save up now — provided we intend to give it away later.) And Appiah is also right to highlight the empirical problems with the Shallow Pond theorists’ arguments: Even if they are right that we need to do as much as we can to minimize suffering in the Third World, we must design real policies that have a long-term chance at success. Simply throwing money at certain problems that are deeply structural and political is far from efficient. Fair enough. Give away your money intelligently — after the opera.


So where does this leave Appiah’s cosmopolitan? What are these partial, “rooted” cosmopolitans supposed to do other than talk with others? No clear answer is offered here. The first strand of cosmopolitanism — that we owe obligations to strangers — hangs on by a shoestring at the end of the book. We know little other than that there aren’t great demands on us individually. Appiah concludes with an exhortation to develop policies and strategies that may effectively alleviate some of the afflictions of the distant poor. Yet he’s barely borne the burden of arguing that we have any such obligations; the “empirical” deficiencies that deflate the Shallow Pond arguments similarly challenge his own vision: We can always imagine more efficient ways to solve the problems of poverty. In his zeal to dampen the consequences of those arguments, he has undermined most of the claim that we have real and substantial financial obligations to strangers.

Ultimately, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is one that should attract many adherents. It is pitched at an audience beyond the academy (for Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Issues of Our Time” series for Norton) and is written in an engaging and, at times, beautiful voice. Its vision is intellectually appealing precisely because it moderates almost all that was once challenging about theories of cosmopolitanism. But, all the same, I fear we must conclude that this cosmopolitanism is as flaccid as it is unlikely to inspire many to abandon parochialism. Appiah’s “rooted” cosmopolitanism finds a way to accommodate prejudice without really challenging us to uproot ourselves and forge a new world community with an enlarged sphere of concern.

As a legal and political theorist, I cannot help but admit that old-school hard-core cosmopolitanism with fangs is a tough sell; it demands so much of us that it must remain counterintuitive. But the romantic in me feels that it is a philosophy to which one can aspire. Far from demanding “icy impartiality,” as Appiah suggests, or being a flat and boring philosophy lacking in love, as others have suggested, hard-core cosmopolitanism exhorts us to love more people and to bring more people into our intimate sphere of concern. Aristotle may have been right that we really can’t love too many people in a lifetime; for this reason, the eros of cosmopolitanism may be folly, as may be the unceasing demands it places upon us and the challenging questions with which it pesters us. But it is, nevertheless, a theory that can really change the world if it gets internalized by large numbers of people. This, I fear, cannot be said of “rooted” cosmopolitanism, which lets us all off too easily. Global justice may be a romantic’s dream, but only the more hard-core cosmopolitans really furnish us with such an aspiration. The “rooted” cosmopolitans threaten the dream of global justice because they let us feel justified in our prejudice for the familiar and let us stop asking ourselves whether we can reasonably enjoy our luxuries when so many others live in inhuman destitution.