Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

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...

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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.

Appiah distinguishes between two kinds of identities, those based on “ethics” and those based on “morality.” In defining the two terms, he follows Ronald Dworkin’s distinction, using the “ethics” to include “convictions about which kinds of lives are good or bad for a person to lead,” while reserving “morality” to refer to “principles about how a person should treat other people.” Although Appiah finds the distinction helpful, critics will note that behavior toward others is always a major criterion in deciding whether a life is good or bad. More important, Appiah describes a “well-lived life” as “something more than a life in which our preferences are well satisfied,” insisting that moral duties normally take priority over ethical considerations. At the same time, however, many ethical identities (unrelated to morality) are also of fundamental significance to individuals and societies.

Although he “largely tries to abstain from metaphysical commitments,” Appiah admits that this is not entirely possible. On the issue of free will, for instance, he endorses Immanuel Kant’s position: “We have to act as if freedom is possible even though we can’t provide any theoretical justification for it.” The choices of human beings are responses to reason, not just the consequences of a web of cause and effect. Based on this premise, Appiah can write that “the final responsibility for each life is always the responsibility of the person whose life it is.” At the same time, nevertheless, much of a person’s individuality is a consequence of socialization within the context of the cultural ideas in which a person is raised. The notion of identity “posits both a self with the freedom to create itself and a self created in relation to collective identities.” While humans possess a margin of free will, they live their lives within “webs of interlocution.” Appiah concludes: “We do make choices, but we don’t individually determine the options among which we choose.”

As a result of some of his previous writings, Appiah gained a reputation (sometimes unfairly) as one of the most prominent critics of Afrocentrism. In The Ethics of Identity, nevertheless, he praises the political and cultural achievements made by autonomous Africans while living under difficult and oppressive circumstances. When discussing diversity, he observes that Africa has much more cultural variety than does North America, particularly in regard to languages. He also makes some interesting comments about the historical identities of African Americans. He observes, for example, that during the era of Jim Crow many African Americans desired recognition of what they had in common with white people. He therefore finds it ironic that many African Americans have been attracted to Afrocentrism since the Civil Rights movement, at a time when cultural differences and discrimination have been diminishing.

Although The Ethics of Identity is provocative and stimulating, its arguments are sometimes rather abstract and without clear conclusions, which is a not uncommon feature of philosophical writing. Appiah does not claim that he has solved all the philosophical problems relevant to the ethical analysis of human identities. Indeed, he declares that he perceives his book to be “a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper.”

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