Nonfiction editor, Whitney Johnson, spoke with Kwame Anthony Appiah in March 2010 about cosmopolitanism, individualism, and our moral obligations to ourselves, our communities, and the world at-large.
Whitney Johnson: We can start with you giving me your idea of what cosmopolitanism means. This year, cosmopolitanism is Mandala Journal's theme, and a lot of your work is centered on it. So what is your formal definition of cosmopolitanism?
Kwame Anthony Appiah: Well, cosmopolitanism is the conjunction of two ideas. One, which it shares with a lot of people, which is some form of commitment to the universality of concern for all human beings. That's one part of it. But what is distinctive about cosmopolitan universalism is that it combines that sense that everybody matters, every human being is important, with the idea that people are entitled to live lives according to different ideals, different conceptions of what they're up to, what they think is worthwhile.
So unlike many universalists, cosmopolitans aren't in the business of trying to persuade everybody to be like themselves. We like the fact that the world is full of different kinds of people. And it's that mixture of global concern with respect for difference that I think characterizes at the least the kind of cosmopolitanism that I'm trying to defend.
Johnson: You characterize it as global concern plus difference. Another way you've described it is being a "citizen of the world." It seems to me in the last twenty years or so, we have kind of been forced into this conception of global citizenship. An example would be how our economic decisions affect persons in other parts of the world. In what ways does cosmopolitanism help us make sense of this new connectedness?
Appiah: The word cosmopolitanism comes from the Greek expression cosmopolites, which just means something like "citizen of the world." So all historic cosmopolitans have been trying to make sense of the idea that we could be, all of us, could be citizens of one world. That's of course, a challenge, because the world is not a single society. It's a collection of distinct political units and a citizen, in the original sense, is someone who shares a space with somebody or a polis, as the Greeks would say, a city-state. And so, you have to treat the idea of global citizenship as a metaphor unless you are going to try and argue that the world should be a single state.
Now, as far as the current situation is concerned, I think it is very important that human beings have sort of been engaged and connected across cultures throughout history. And what's distinctive about the present isn't the fact that there is a kind of global economic interdependence, because that has been true at least for the 19th century when it was already the case that if you lived in England, for example, your economic fate depended on trade with the whole world. What happened in other parts of the world was profoundly affected by the British economy just as what happened in the British economy was profoundly affected by what happened in the United States or in China. Nor is it the case that we are ecologically dependent because we've always been ecologically dependent, we just didn't know.
Things people did in one place have always affected people in other places. Every year there is a cycle of influenza, usually the virus evolves somewhere in China, that's why we call it the Asian flu. It evolves in a place where human beings and pigs and ducks are living in close proximity. And that is the ideal circumstance, it turns out, for the fast evolution of influenza viruses. And those viruses pretty soon arrive in the United States. Every year the Center for Disease Control collects viruses in East Asia in order to predict what's going to happen here a few months later, in order to get vaccines.
So we have always been connected by disease, by climate and we've been connected for a really long time by trade. I think what's really new is that we are now connected across the whole globe by communication connections. In principle, I can talk to anyone in the world now, because with cell phones and land lines, suddenly everyone in the world is close, every voice can be heard anywhere. And also because of the vast explosion of satellite-based television and video, we can see what's going on anywhere instantaneously.
There are very few places in the world, North Korea being one of them, where it's very hard to see what's going on. In most places, if you want to see what is going on there, you see by looking on the television or the web. So that new interconnectedness, I think, is the thing that makes cosmopolitanism absolutely the right philosophy for the present because we need a way of thinking about people that we are connected with through communication that allows us to respect them and to be concerned for their welfare but doesn’t lead us to try to force them, in illegitimate ways, to be like us. And again it's the combination of universality plus difference that marks off cosmopolitanism from some of the other universal views.
Johnson: For those who are not familiar, you write about this extensively in two texts, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Ethics of Identity. And to kind of follow you in saying that communication is that new thing that is connecting us, you talk a lot about how dialogue and conversation itself can kind of help us transcend our differences. And you're pretty optimistic about this; so why do you think dialogue can help us cultivate what you call "skills of coexistence?"
Appiah: Well I think that the ideal of conversation is the idea of exchanging ideas with people, which is a when you are not trying to persuade them of anything, not trying to get them on your side or trying to get them to do anything. Conversation is a good metaphor for exchanges between people. Where they are just trying to understand each other, to understand each other's position, knowing that at the end of the conversation, while they may have changed each other, there is no reason to suppose that they will have come to an agreement about anything in particular.
The thing is, people who are interacting in that way, in that conversational way requiring agreement, are in a good position and first of all, are in a better position to get along than people who are not in conversation. And second, conversation of that sort allows you to just get used to other people, get used to being with them. And one of the great challenges to dealing with people who are different from us, is that they just seem strange and that we're not used to them. And conversation is sort of a metaphor for getting to know what other people are like, not because you want to sell them something, not because you want them to believe something and not because you want them to do something, but just for the sake of it.
But look: some conversations turn into arguments. So, not every conversation brings people closer together, I don't think that. But I do think that people who are in conversation together are in a much better position to deal with disagreements than those who only come to talk with one another when they have something to argue about, when they have disagreement.
Johnson: I agree with the idea that conversation can help us come to understand each other more, and I think you make a good point about hearing what others have to say without trying to persuade them. By doing this, you say to others, "you have something that I want to hear." So that's very useful. But to switch gears a little bit, you yourself have had some interesting experiences that have helped shape your conception of cosmopolitanism. So, can you explain in what ways your experiences have come to make you see that cosmopolitanism is the appropriate philosophy to help us engage in conversation?
Appiah: Well, I was lucky enough to be born into a family that was well-rooted in two different places. My mother was from England and my father was from a city in Ghana and my parents were both quite cosmopolitan. One measure of their cosmopolitanism is the fact that they married each other despite them coming from very different places. And the place where I grew up, Kumasi, was very cosmopolitan; it is the capital of an old empire, and people have been coming and going there for hundreds of years, from all over the place. It's a place that has a kind of cultural confidence which means that it is open to other places, not scared of other places, and it's interested in other places.
So all of those things plus the fact that my family didn't just have the English part and the Ghanaian part, which were mostly Protestant, but I also have Muslim cousins in Ghana and I have Jewish cousins in England. So we're sort of like a religiously diverse family and as I've grown up, more and more of my sisters and cousins have connected out, so I have a Norwegian brother-in-law, a Nigerian brother-in-law, I have a Thai cousin by marriage. So I came from a family, which is itself curious about other places, and to the extent of actually living in places other than the places we grew up and marrying people from places that we didn't come from.
I think of it as a privilege to have come from such a background. But then from such a background, it's inevitable that you feel that you can be close to people who are different from you in some of the ways that other people think of as sources of delusion. As I said, I have Muslim cousins and as you know, there's a whisk in the world perhaps between the Christian and the Post-Christian world and the Muslim world, but I have Christian cousins and they are invaluable in my life and they're lovely people and I can't think of them as anything other than loveable and interesting. And so, I think it's sort of easier, with my background in both England and Ghana, to see what is attractive about cosmopolitanism, to see what's attractive about living in a way that means that you're committed the concern for everybody, but also accepting and indeed enjoying that everyone isn't the same.
Johnson: You say that with your background, you essentially have the ability to see the attractiveness of cosmopolitanism, but I can think of a circumstance in which someone who does not have a background that is as diverse as yours, sees what you call a collective identity, be it race, sexual orientation, religion etc., as having what is commonly known as the "trump card," in which a single identity overrides them all. What would you see in terms of persons reconciling multiple identities and how does cosmopolitanism fit into that framework?
Appiah: Right. Well, I think that one of the ways in which cosmopolitanism kind of reaches identities is because it forces you to think of the ways in which you yourself are multiple. Everybody in the modern West has a gender, race, sexual orientation, and class, more or less whether they like it or not. Sometimes, in an interaction, you are joined together by class, but divided by race, or joined by gender, but divided by sexual orientation and so on. And in those moments, the fact that you have many identities provides you with a variety of things to look for in order to make a link. It's very unusual that you would interact with a person with whom you have no interesting links of identity. It is also pleasurable, precisely because they don't share an identity with you.
But I think this sort of "trump card" issue of identity, is a reflection of the fact that it's hard if you live in a place where one of your identities is highly salient because it's under pressure all the time, which is true about racial identity if you're Black in the United States and true about sexual orientation for many people not just in the United States, but all around the world. So it's really easy to think of that as what you really are, and yes, that is what you are, but it is not what you wholly are. All of us, whichever identity it is that you want to claim is central to you, have contexts in which that identity is not so salient. For a racial minority, when you are alone together, when you are in a racially homogeneous group of people, then your interactions with other people can presuppose some shared identity, but then other things have to come into play. You can't spend you whole life thinking that you're Black in a group of Black people, you have to think about other things as well. And the same is true for gay people. When gay people gather together, you can't think of yourself as simply gay, because that is the background. You have to notice the other things over there.
So I think nobody has just one identity. Even the people who claim that one of their identities is absolutely paramount have contexts where it isn’t the most important thing about them. Your race isn't the most important thing about you when you're with your family, so you have to acknowledge that. I think that if you are willing to attend to the diversity of identities you have, beyond the obvious ones, you have more to work with when you are interacting with other people. And one of the good things about the diversity of identities is that when you are interacting with people who seem strange, there is often something you can draw on, which is sometimes a surprising thing, which brings you together.
I remember when I was a kid, my dad who was a lawyer, went to Brazil and he had a great time with these people who had in common that they were lawyers. But they were lawyers from many different countries, their legal systems were different. Some of them were from military dictatorships, some of them were from democracies and so on, but all of them were lawyers. And all of them were concerned with the idea of the rule of law. And that rather abstract-sounding concern and that rather professional identity allowed them to have a good time in Rio. (laughter) So in that context, the big identities, the race, the gender, the sexual orientation, the class, were not particularly salient and their professional identity was. And they had a good time. My father came back and said he had a good time.
However, and in fact for most modern people, your professional identity, the identity that you have at work, is also very important and salient to you. So I think that the idea of just one thing that matters about you is not attractive. It's what people sometimes do to you, when they see only one of your dimensions, and it's bad for you when you do it to yourself, when you reduce yourself to one dimension. And so I'm very much in favor of people recognizing the fact that they are themselves diverse. And just as cosmopolitans take pleasure in the diversity of human beings, I think that we should all take pleasure in our own internal complexity.
Johnson: Yes. In The Ethics of Identity, you talk about that. And you discuss extensively the work of John Stuart Mill and his formulation of "individuality." How does this inform your conception of cosmopolitanism?
Appiah: Well, my thoughts about individuality, as far as the cosmopolitanism conversation goes, are that you should be committed to those two basic ideas that everybody matters but everybody does not have to be the same. The specific form of individuality that I am extending in The Ethics of Identity, which as you say, comes from John Stuart Mill, is one of the strands that I would like to see injected into the cosmopolitan conversation, but because I am a believer in conversation, I am not in the business of persuading everyone in the world that they should be a liberal individualist too. I'm just saying that, from where I'm coming from, I think it is an attractive ethic to be concerned with individuality.
The basic thought of individuality, as an idea, is that each person has this gift of a life and your task is to make something of it, and individuality says that making something of your life is something that you have primary responsibility for, that your life is not to be made by other people. Husbands are not to make the lives of wives, powerful people are not to make the lives of the poor or less powerful, church authorities are not to make the lives of the congregation members, and so on. Each of us is responsible for our own lives and we have to make something of it.
To make something of it requires you to do certain things, one is to respect the demands of morality, but another is to find projects to which you want to commit yourself, things you want to be doing like making a family, or making a garden or building your community. These are all things you can build into making a life and they are all things that matter in people’s lives because they have chosen to pursue them. Some people don't want to make a family, so that is not important to their individuality. Some people don't understand the point of gardening, or cooking or whatever, so it doesn't matter to them. But for those of us for whom gardening matters to what we're doing, learning to cook is part of what we're doing and making a family part of what we're doing, those things matter in our lives. And the thought of Mill's story is once you've done your duty to other people, your job is to figure out beyond that, what you're doing. And what matters in your life beyond the demands of morality is largely to be decided by your choices.
And that's how I see individuality, and obviously you can see that this idea of individuality fits well with cosmopolitanism, because cosmopolitanism says that everybody in every community is entitled to live according to the standards that make sense to them. And individuality basically says that about individuals; it says, that what matters in a human life is making a life that is a good life and what makes a life good depends upon the standards, the ideas, the vocation that that particular person has chosen for themselves...chosen is not the right word...has come to recognize for themselves.
One of the reasons we speak of vocations is because sometimes you don’t really feel that you choose it, you feel that it chose you. Poets often say that, they say, "I didn't choose to be a poet, I just knew that I had to be a poet." But still, when something calls you like that, you still have to answer the call, you have to agree to be called and if you do, then it matters if you succeed in that project and if that isn't something you've chosen, then it doesn't matter whether you do that thing. So what matters in human life, after the demands of morality, in large measure is to be fixed by the them.
Johnson: When first approached, cosmopolitanism seems like this larger than life, global "thing," how do you think those who may not have the most diverse experiences take the important elements of this global doctrine and make it local?
Appiah: I think that the moral individualist thought, that everybody has a life to live and that each person is in charge of her own life, that thought which fits well within the cosmopolitan picture, is one that you can take into every encounter. It's one that makes perfect sense when you are dealing with the people next door to you as well as when you're thinking about the people far away. And as far as the people far away are concerned, I think that the basic universalist thought, that everybody matters, means that we do have some obligation to make sure that we do our fair share to create a world in which everybody has the possibility to make these lives, a life of significance, a life of dignity.
Much of what's required to do that in the modern world is a matter of encouraging your own government to pursue a foreign policy and a trade policy that is just and that contributes to securing a decent life for everybody on the planet. So provided you have your representative working on that, you don't have to work on it too. I think you can sort of live a life at home, provided your government is doing what it should. And that's consistent with your global obligations provided the task of securing a world in which everybody has a chance at a decent life is being carried on in your name by your government.
If your government isn't doing that, I think you have an obligation to try to make sure it does. And you can always act more directly. There are many forms of participation in global life, through nongovernmental organizations, and you can actually go and work in other countries as a volunteer. Or you can support other people who are working as a volunteer. All of these are things you can do to help to discharge your obligation, to make sure that everybody in the world has a shot at a decent life.
But you see, one of the forms of diversity that cosmopolitans are going to recognize is that people vary in the extent of their desire to engage with people from other places. Cosmopolitans are tolerant of diversity; we're even tolerant of noncosmopolitans, provided the non-cosmopolitans are pulling their fair share of the moral obligations of the world, as long as they are doing what morality requires. We don't require of them that they also share our excitement with difference; we require them only to do what morality requires. And morality doesn't require you to engage with difference. It only requires you to accept it.
Johnson: Well, that's all I have for you, Professor Appiah. Thank you very much.
Appiah: Thank you.
Whitney Johnson is a philosophy major at the University of Georgia. She plans to attend graduate school in hopes of becoming an academic and researcher. In her spare time she enjoys political engagement, listening to music and reading philosophy.