Cosmopolitanism

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901

History is drenched in bloodshed unleashed by human conflict. Nor is there much evidence that humanity’s violent inclinations are decreasing. World wars, human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, and genocide characterized much of the twentieth century. There is no assurance that the twenty-first century will be better, but if moral improvement...

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History is drenched in bloodshed unleashed by human conflict. Nor is there much evidence that humanity’s violent inclinations are decreasing. World wars, human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, and genocide characterized much of the twentieth century. There is no assurance that the twenty-first century will be better, but if moral improvement is to take place, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah believes that a revival of an ancient ideal, cosmopolitanism, will be essential in that process.

Appiah’s project is to identify and defend an ethical outlook that can work in what the subtitle of Cosmopolitanism calls “a world of strangers.” The twenty-first century world is both the same and different from the world of the fourth century b.c.e., when ancient philosophers coined the term “cosmopolitan,” using it to refer to a “citizen of the cosmos.” Then and in contemporary life as well, one has normally been a citizen of a particular placecity, state, or countrynot of the universe. Then and in contemporary life as well, the world has been full of strangers, people with whom one has contact but who are not members of one’s family or particular community. In the twenty-first century, however, the world’s population is approaching nine billion. In space and time, people live closer than ever, but never have there been so many potentially hostile strangers.

Amid these similarities and differences, while immense changes in the world have taken place and indeed partly because of them, a long-standing tradition has grown over the centuries: a person could and should be a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitanism is an idea with links to a variety of significant and long-standing ideals, including the view that all human beings are members of one family, the conviction that there are universal human rights and obligations, and the hope that there can be a cooperating league of nations that advances goals that are beneficial for humankind. On a personal level, cosmopolitanism embodies much needed virtues that include respect for people who are different from ourselves, resistance against discrimination and prejudice, and hospitality toward strangers.

Appealing though these ideals may be, Appiah recognizes that the history of cosmopolitanism has its problems. How, for example, does this outlook fit with the fact that human life is always lived in specific times, places, and cultures, which require loyalties that are particular and local? The cosmopolitan person, it could be argued, will be rootless, which is scarcely a desirable way to live. Such people may profess impartiality or allegiance to “humanity” but care too little for individual persons and communities. Another problem is that cosmopolitanism may not be as universal as it sounds. Values, it seems, are relative to particular times and places. No individuals or groups, not even philosophers, have a privileged access to absolute and objective truth. In fact, cosmopolitanism may be cultural or national imperialism in disguise. Furthermore, the objections continue, cosmopolitanism is simply unrealistic because differences between human groups are too strong. In the twenty-first century a clash of civilizations, reflected especially in terrorism and a war against it, has eclipsed cosmopolitan dreams. Yes, there is talk about “globalization,” but that concept is really about international economic competition that may be intensifying differences and inequalities even as it homogenizes the world’s products and dominant patterns of communication and consumption. There is talk about “multiculturalism,” but it is not clear that its often superficial acknowledgment of cultural and ethnic differences has produced the respect for others that is needed to reform the deeply entrenched social structures in which poverty and injustice dwell.

Appiah recognizes the force of these objections, but far from taking them to be fatal, he thinks that they can lead to a reaffirmation of cosmopolitanism’s importance. Rootlessness is no virtue, but that bleak condition is not what Appiah’s cosmopolitanism entails. To the contrary, his ethics in a world of strangers underscores that differences between people and particularities about them are crucial for meaningful lives. It follows that life cannot be lived well in conditions where differences and particularities are not respected. Cosmopolitanism affirms the importance of respect for differences and particularities. This respect, however, cannot be practiced by one person or group and ignored by others. The ethical logic of cosmopolitanism insists that the respect must be mutual. Failure to follow this logic consistently results in contradictions that are life threatening and all too often lethal.

Relativism, the view that there are no absolute and universal truths available because human judgment is limited and restricted to culturally and historically conditioned perspectives, exerts considerable influence in human affairs. However, relativism is less convincing and paralyzing than it is sometimes claimed to be. It does not follow that limitations on human judgment preclude recognition of ethical truths that deserve to be universal, that can be defended against the charge that they are only credible in particular times and places, and that can be sustained and even strengthened through critical assessment. As Appiah understands it, much depends on the process of recognition. That process requires active inquiry, not appeals to unquestioned authority. It depends on shared investigation, not on the privileged, exclusive status of one voice or tradition over all others.

What is needed, Appiah contends, is intelligent conversation that emphasizes open give-and-take and includes different and even differing voices. As Appiah uses the idea of conversation, he does not restrict it to literal talk. His sense of conversation refers more broadly to “engagement with the experience and the ideas of others.” Conversation does not always lead to agreement, but conversation’s importance includes the fact, says Appiah, that “it helps people get used to one another.” If the good will of those circumstances prevails, then the chance to locate common ground, which finds room for the variety that enriches human existence, will be vastly improved. One’s understanding of that common ground may need to be revised and expanded as history continues to unfold, but human self-correction can keep supporting, without dogmatism, the conviction that there are ethical truths that deserve to be universal. Appiah makes the case that the qualities of cosmopolitanism at its best will be among them.

As for the objection that cosmopolitanism is not a realistic option, Appiah’s analysis goes in two fundamental directions. First, his analysis asks whether there is a more realistic alternative. If human beings “stay the course” they seem to be on, the likelihood is that there will be more hostility and conflict, more suffering and injustice, less hospitality for strangers, and less hope for everyone. In such a world, there might be a chance that people would muddle through and not do their worst to one another, but that bet does not appear to be the wisest one to make. Given the circumstances in which human life is taking place in the twenty-first century, Appiah suggests, it is better to strive for a cosmopolitan ethic than to hold back on the problematic grounds that “it won’t work.”

Second, Appiah strengthens the appeal of his cosmopolitanism by detailing further what its ethics provides and requires. For instance, cosmopolitanism offers joy. It does so by stressing how much there is to learn from other cultures. One can think of how receptiveness to art, literature, food, and music from diverse cultures can enrich personal and communal experience. One does not have to like or accept everything, but openness to variety and to diversity can improve life’s quality. Joy of this kind, however, does not have much chance to flourish and last if difference remains a reason for suspicion and conflict. The insight that emerges is an example of one of those truths that deserve to be acknowledged as universal, namely, that differences should be cultivated so that they can be enjoyed and indeed that the differences that deserve to be cultivated the most are those that have the ability to enhance life to the fullest. An important implication of this outlook is that it will be important to pay close attention to the qualities of particularity as individuals and members of communities. In order to enjoy the best that human life in all of its diversity has to offer, individuals have an obligation not only to respect differences but also to be sure to bring to the human table the best in terms of talents, efforts, products, and decisions. At its best, cosmopolitanism is a win-win philosophy, one that replaces zero-sum games with ways that can be better for all.

No philosophy can be convincing if it seems too good to be true. Fortunately, Appiah’s outlook does not fall prey to that trap. He acknowledges that differences cannot all be occasions for joy. Often differences put people at odds, and cosmopolitanism will be blind and naive if it fails to take that fact seriously. Perhaps one way out of this dilemma would be to acknowledge that differences are real even to the point of being nonnegotiable and then to follow the adage that one should simply “agree to disagree.” That form of cosmopolitanism may work up to a point, but it has its limitations, especially when the stakes are matters of life and death. If a regime is engaged in ethnic cleansing or genocide, for example, a cosmopolitanism based on the idea that one should “agree to disagree” would be morally bankrupt because it would lend support to those who are utterly disrespectful of others.

Appiah’s philosophy maximizes appeals for understanding differences and for his conviction that changes in fundamental outlooks come less from winning arguments and more from practical experience. Appiah prizes the latter, which involves give-and-take with others that can dislodge old habits and open one to new ways of thinking. Importantly, this emphasis on inquiry and openness to difference does not put his cosmopolitanism in the agree-to-disagree camp. His version of cosmopolitanism entails that some thingsgenocide, for instanceare unacceptable. They must be prevented, stopped, and corrected. Appiah’s cosmopolitans affirm the truth that “every human being has obligations to every other. Everybody matters: that is our central idea. And it sharply limits the scope of our tolerance.” When there are people who think that “some people don’t matter at all,” writes Appiah, “there is only one thing to do: try to change their minds, and, if you fail, make sure that they can’t put their ideas into action.”

What if those anticosmopolitan ideas are put into action, as they surely have been in the ethnic cleansings and genocides that have taken place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Appiah’s book ends by addressing at least some parts of that question in its final chapter, which is called “Kindness to Strangers.” The problem for cosmopolitans, Appiah acknowledges, is how much kindness is owed to strangers and how does a cosmopolitan weigh and prioritize among all the obligations, some of them competing, that he or she may rightly feel. If a reader is looking for a recipe, a principle, a one-size-fits-all resolution to these dilemmas of cosmopolitanism, Appiah’s book will close in a frustrating and disappointing way. Nevertheless, Appiah’s ending is wise. He concludes that true cosmopolitans are the ones who will not stop thinking about these issues, who will use their intelligence to figure out how to do better in meeting the multifaceted responsibility to show hospitality to strangers and then find the courage to act accordingly.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

Commonweal 133, no. 8 (April 21, 2006): 22-24.

Foreign Affairs 85, no. 3 (May/June, 2006): 151-152.

Library Journal 130, no. 19 (November 15, 2005): 71-72.

Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2006, p. R3.

The Nation 282, no. 4 (January 30, 2006): 25-28.

National Review 58, no. 4 (March 13, 2006): 42-43.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 11 (June 22, 2006): 46-49.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 46 (November 21, 2005): 42-43.

Weekly Standard 12, no. 4 (October 9, 2006): 38-39.

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