Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179

In The Ethics of Identity, philosopher and African Studies scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah analyzes the differences between individuality and identity. The latter is a broad term that encompasses various social constructs and biological traits, such as race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexuality.

Using an interdisciplinary approach—which includes citing various...

(The entire section contains 978 words.)

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In The Ethics of Identity, philosopher and African Studies scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah analyzes the differences between individuality and identity. The latter is a broad term that encompasses various social constructs and biological traits, such as race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexuality.

Using an interdisciplinary approach—which includes citing various ideas from around the world, and throughout history—Appiah attempts to answer how individuality (our personality, individual habits, and perspectives on the world) is influenced by identity. Appiah posits that identity could either limit one's individuality or give it additional dimensions.

For instance, being nationalistic will limit one's perspective on other cultures and breed xenophobia. On the other hand, loving one's nationality could give one a sense of community and unity with one's compatriots.

Appiah's thesis is based on a liberal theory of humanism, in which grand ideas such as morality and human rights are examined in a macro view and are critiqued. Appiah questions whether one's cultural or social identity should be expanded to make for a more holistic way of viewing ourselves and the identities of others.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

In his wide-ranging book The Ethics of Identity, Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the enormous scope of human “identities,” including beliefs, self-concepts, patterns of behavior, and labels. For Appiah, identities are multiple, overlapping, and context-sensitive; some are fundamentally important and enduring, while others are trivial and transient. Each normal individual possesses a unique sense of personal identity, and almost everyone also shares a variety of collective identities with other persons. The range of identities is almost infinite, as they can be based on nationality, race, religion, gender, profession, political ideology, or family, as well as many other associations and activities.

Observing that one’s choices among alternative identities largely determine one’s individuality, Appiah refers approvingly to John Stuart Mill’s ideas about individuality, which Mill sees as an “enterprise for self-discovery,” and becoming the “captain of one’s own soul.” He argues that the development of individuality is a significant element of well-being and is an “intrinsic good” so long as it is part of a good life that gives others their dues. There is, however, an inevitable tension between treasuring this individuality and taking collective identities seriously, for individuality necessarily involves characteristics that make one distinct and unlike others.

For the most part, Appiah argues, collective identities serve as “instruments of self-creation,” provide purpose and meaning to people’s lives, and “create forms of solidarity.” In addition, participation in identities is a good thing, “because we enjoy it and, other things being equal, it is a good thing for people to have and to do what they enjoy having and doing.” Nevertheless, when looking at the great diversity of collective identities in the world, Appiah recognizes that there are numerous ways in which collective identities can go wrong; for example, they can be tyrannical and provide motivation for oppression and social conflict.

When discussing the intriguing question of why a person develops a particular kind of individuality, Appiah makes a distinction between two psychological points of view. The first, which he calls the “authenticity picture,” holds that a person discovers his or her true self, which was just waiting to be found. The other perspective, the “existentialist picture,” asserts that a person exists first and then has the ability to choose the kind of individuality that he or she wants to achieve. Appiah declares that neither of these perspectives is entirely correct. The authenticity picture mistakenly suggests that a person’s nature is entirely fixed at birth. In contrast, the existentialist picture ignores the extent to which environment and genetic inheritance have profound impacts on the development of individuality.

The identities of a person are unquestionably rooted in both informal socialization and formal education. In discussing the latter, Appiah quotes James Mill: “the end of education is to render the individual as much as possible an instrument of happiness, first to himself, and next to other beings.” Appiah recognizes the state’s interest in the role of public education for promoting those civic values that are conducive to the development of competent citizens. Because he is somewhat pessimistic about the capacity of humanistic knowledge to perfect the moral faculties of young persons, he suggests that humanistic knowledge is best pursued for its own sake. He notes, for instance, that Radovan Karadzic, who shelled Bosnian Serbs in the pursuit of ethnic purity, was an eminent scholar of the works of William Shakespeare.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Difference. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Short book that discusses most of the themes in The Ethics of Identity, but is more concise and accessible.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Response to Jorge Gracia, Michele Moody-Adams, and Martha Nussbaum.” Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (Summer, 2006): 314-322. In answering three critics of The Ethics of Identity, Appiah clarifies and summarizes several key theories put forward in the book.

Feldman, Noah. “Cosmopolitan Law?” Yale Law Journal 116 (March, 2007): 1022-1077. Critical analysis of Appiah’s writings about personal identity, ethics, and cosmopolitanism.

Gracia, Jorge. “Individuality, Life Plans, and Identity: Foundational Concepts in Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity.” Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (Summer, 2006): 283-291. Praises the book as a major accomplishment but criticizes Appiah’s refusal to write more about metaphysical issues.

Leib, Ethan. “Rooted Cosmopolitans.” Policy Review 137 (June/July, 2006): 89-96. Discusses Appiah’s views about the tensions and complexities of both being a “citizen of the world” and having local allegiances and particularities.

McLean, David. Review of The Ethics of Identity, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Philosophia Africana 9 (August, 2006): 133-139. One of the best of numerous reviews of the book, with an emphasis on Appiah’s views on cosmopolitanism.

Moody-Adams, Michele. “Reflections on Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity.” Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (Summer, 2006): 292-300. Asserts that Appiah does not sufficiently appreciate the values of collective identities and criticizes his avoidance of metaphysics.

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