The Ethics of Identity Essay - Critical Essays

Kwame Anthony Appiah


Appiah defends a perspective of “liberal cosmopolitanism” based on the premise of universal human dignity—the idea that “each human being has responsibilities to every other.” He insists that this perspective is entirely compatible with particularistic identities and endorses the value of commitments to local allegiances and communities—even moderate forms of nationalism. Rejecting those forms of cosmopolitanism that enjoin “uniformitarianism,” he fondly remembers that his father, a patriot of Ghana, taught him that he was a citizen of the world, but his father “went on to tell us that we should work for the good of the places where—whether for the moment or for a lifetime—we had pitched our tent.” In contrast to those cosmopolitans who view nationalistic and tribal loyalties as inevitably associated with hatred and conflict, he asserts that “living in political communities narrower than the species is better for us than would be our engulfment in a single world-state.”

While recognizing the values of localism and moderate nationalism, however, Appiah is highly critical of extreme ethnocentrism, whether it be Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, or another such variety. Emphasizing that humans can learn from the open-minded examination of alternative achievements, he quotes his favorite philosopher, John Stuart Mill: “there is no nation that does not need to borrow from others, not merely particular arts or practices, but essential points of character in which its own type is inferior.” He observes that Mill’s statement is similar to a proverb from his home country of Ghana: “In a single ο [polis, or political order] there is no wisdom” (Kuro koro mu mni nyansa). Appiah assumes that humans share a common biological nature (with a range of individual variations), an idea related to his criticism of moral relativism. Some moral principles, moreover, such as toleration, individual liberty, and benevolence, are of universal validity and application.


(The entire section is 828 words.)