Form and Content

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,...

(The entire section is 564 words.)


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.