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...
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