The Ethics of Identity

by Kwame Anthony Appiah

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In The Ethics of Identity, author Kwame Anthony Appiah tackles the widely held notion of individuality. From a global perspective, he considers how we as individuals make meaning of life. Ultimately, Appiah connects how our sense of identity is deeply related to what we do. Below are several important quotes from the text:

There is no shortage of liberation movements that call for the erasure, or, anyway transformation, of the very identities they serve.

Here Appiah is arguing that contemporary culture reinforces a politics of identity by using countercultures themselves to define identity. He uses the gay rights movement in India as an example of a liberation movement that ends up trapping queer individuals in their identities rather than liberating them.

It hasn't escaped notice that "culture" has been getting a hefty workout in recent years. The notion seems to be that everything from anorexia to zydeco is illuminated by being displayed as the product of some group's culture. It has reached the point that when you hear the word "culture" you reach for the dictionary.

Throughout the book, Appiah argues that culture has come to lose its meaning. It is so overused in writing and rhetoric that it is everything and nothing all at once. He calls for a more precise understanding.

American diversity is indeed easily granted, and so is the need of a response to that diversity.

Appiah argues that diversity for the sake of diversity is as American as apple pie. He writes that individuals are not understood as whole humans in American society but rather targeted by a few key labeled identities.

All of us could, no doubt, have made better lives than we have: but that is no reason for others to force those better lives upon us. Thoughtful friends, benevolent savages, anxious relatives will rightly offer us both assistance and advice as to how to proceed. But it will be advice, not coercion, that they justly offer.

Appiah also argues against colonial identity encroaching. He believes that individuals must make their own choices as to their futures and identities.

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