Thursday 7 August 2008

The universal next door

Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah (WW Norton and Co)

Usually when enjoying a quiet coffee I like to read what might be termed ‘the works of man’: great works of literature, from Plato onwards, that express ideas of liberty, beauty, and the infinite. Yet to get to the coffee shop I have to negotiate the altogether more humdrum ‘works of men’: grating works of architecture that represent confined and rather ugly reality. In other words, to reach my cappuccino and Kant, I have first to push gingerly through the chavs at the shopping centre. But how can I reconcile my reluctance to interact with certain types of people with my admiration for man in the general sense? Does a love of man in the universal sense entail friendliness (however grudging) to each man individually?

This is the question addressed by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his very readable little book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. When geopolitical and cultural divisions seem to play an increasing role in our lives, he wonders, what hope is there for a political philosophy that aims to unite? Can we build personal links that can live up to the universal ideas we all admire? For this ‘outstanding contribution to the understanding of foreign policy/international relations’, so the blurb tells us, Appiah was awarded the 2007 Arthur Ross Book Award. The fact the book has been awarded a cash prize for its contribution to international relations suggests Appiah’s is yet another philosophy instructing us how to live. These ‘how to’ books are fast filling up the shelves, following on from the successes of Alain de Botton, who clearly has all the answers. Cosmopolitanism, however, is a more modest effort, despite being about the grander project of how the world can get along without descending into conflict.

The modesty of the effort reveals itself not in Appiah’s style, which is pleasing and intelligent, but in his acknowledgement that his book offers no solutions; the cosmopolitanism of the title refers only to the process by which the solutions might be discovered. Not to be confused with globalisation or multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism is the philosophy of the well-travelled and well-read individual who eventually comes to understand the foreign cultures he experiences, without actually embracing them. We’re all cosmopolitans to an extent. We largely get on with our neighbours and colleagues, despite not fully sharing their values, and if we could only extend this philosophy to cover the rest of the world then peace and prosperity would be assured. Appiah does not say how; he only asserts that for it to happen at all we must first strike up a conversation with a stranger.

But why is a new unifying philosophy needed at all? Time was, a man could declare that ‘All men are my brothers’ and lead a revolution in the spirit of fraternity. Are these universal values no longer useful in the struggle against fragmentation? Not for Appiah. To him, universalism – seeing all men the same – is just as dangerous as seeing all men as strangers. Quite early in the book, he reminds us rather cynically that one of the founders of universalist ideals, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘handed each of the five children he fathered to an orphanage’ (pg xiv). He then underlines this with a quote from one of the founders of conservative, anti-universalist thought, Edmund Burke, that Rousseau was ‘a lover of his kind, but a hater of his kindred’.

Later on, Appiah seems almost to quote another anti-universalist thinker. In his pursuit of the idea that inter-personal links can only be made from the bottom up, as it were, he states ‘Engagement with strangers is always going to be engagement with particular strangers’ (pg 98). This bears striking resemblance to Joseph de Maistre’s famously abusive remarks about the universal values of the French Revolution:

In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.                               
(Considerations on France, 1797)

In his pursuit of the ideal international conversation, Appiah seems to be aligning himself with some pretty parochial thinkers.

To his credit, however, Appiah appears uneasy with the individualistic approach to philosophy. His early chapter on positivism – the philosophy of the individual – usefully highlights its shortcomings. As a theory of knowledge, positivism separates the worlds of fact and value, and then dismisses values on the basis that they are non-verifiable: no conceivable individual experience could demonstrate the truth of a value or belief. Modern-day positivists such as Richard Dawkins dismiss religion and the belief in God, for instance, on the basis that no one would be able to point Him out in a crowd. But as Appiah rightly points out, if we are not allowed to believe in non-verifiable phenomena, then ‘What are we to say about beliefs about universals (all human beings), about possibilities and impossibilities (unmarried bachelors), and about abstract objects (the number two)?’ (pg 23). Positivism therefore has serious consequences for people wanting to discuss differing or even opposed values, for without a basis for establishing beliefs as true we descend into relativism, and relativism ‘isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent’ (pg 31).

So how does Appiah claw his way up from relativism and find a basis for shared values? Rather perversely, he claws his way up by digging further down. Still eschewing the call of universal values he proposes instead that we immerse ourselves in the specific detail of one another. He reminds us of Terence’s dictum ‘I am human: nothing human is alien to me’ and illuminates the context in which this was originally said. The character Chremes in Terence’s comedy was no universalist, merely a busybody farmer sticking his nose into his neighbour’s business. ’Homo sum…isn’t meant to be an ordinance from on high; it’s just the case for gossip’ (pg 112). Through such harmless gossip we come, Appiah hopes, to see things from another’s point of view.

Still the question remains, is this enough to overcome fragmentation? Ordinarily I would say nosy neighbours are not going to save the world, but Appiah is prepared to give this interference free rein and allow it to work its wonders worldwide. So, again to his credit, he is quite prepared to allow and even support ‘cultural imperialism’, wherein Coca-Cola and episodes of Days Of Our Lives are exported to the Third World, much to the annoyance of western liberals who see in this the degradation of authentic local customs. Appiah notes that local culture is more resilient that liberals believe, and that everyone interprets Days Of Our Lives in their own way. So, far from the local culture becoming Americanized, the American soap becomes localized. And as for Coca-Cola, ‘what can you tell about someone’s soul from the fact that she drinks Coca-Cola?’(pg 102). Surely a viewpoint as refreshing as the drink!

Elgin Marbles: whose culture is it, anyway?

Throughout Cosmopolitanism Appiah takes the counter view to the one we usually expect from cultural commentators. ‘Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?’ he asks in Chapter 8, while examining the claim that the Elgin Marbles belong to Greece. Why should these works of art be put on display in Greece, when they were made not in Greece but in Athens, a city-state of just a few thousand people? These inherited works of art are, he argues, the property of all mankind, and can quite justifiably be displayed anywhere in the world. Resisting the claims of spurious ‘peoples’, Appiah claims ‘My people – human beings – made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel’ (pg 135). The connections that we make with other people through these works of art might be ‘made in the imagination; but to say this isn’t to pronounce…them unreal. They are among the realest connections that we have’.

Appiah is almost there. From neighbourly gossip he has extended his reach across the world through great works of art and construction. Perhaps one or two steps more and he could establish a cosmopolitan web in which, if we cannot declare every man our brother, we can at least declare them our neighbour’s neighbour. But in what should these last steps consist? - Appiah’s argument takes a serious turn for the worse: he takes a final sideswipe at universalism (in the guise of religious fundamentalists who believeall men are equal under God, and are prepared to impose this equality using terrorist methods), and then turns to the practical side of his philosophy, asking, what should a cosmopolitan do to make the world a better place?

It’s fair to say Appiah struggles here. He instinctively wants to help those less fortunate than himself, but for him, charitable acts, though easy to undertake, are difficult to justify. If our kindred do mean more to us than our kind, why should we, for instance, give money to starving Africans we have never met? Taking this to its logical conclusion, Appiah expresses unease with the idea of a world where only acts of charity are committed: ‘Would you really want to live in a world in which the only thing anyone had ever cared about was saving lives?’ (pg 166).

Instead of giving money to charity, Appiah would prefer instead we try to understand – in the spirit of curious cosmopolitanism – why others are worse off. But his own understanding of the world’s problems seems no different to that of the typical liberal. He ends his book with the rather piddling suggestion that extreme poverty could be alleviated at a cost of 45 cents a day for each citizen of the European Union, the United States, Canada and Japan. It might be a cosmopolitan gesture, but this call for a new tax from what the blurb describes as ‘one of the world’s leading philosophers’ leaves the reader cold.

But this cosmopolitan approach to solving the world’s problems was always going to end up as your common or garden liberalism with a philosophical veneer. If we look upon our starving brother from the point of view of the outsider who wants to understand then we have already failed him by accepting the social divisions which make us an outsider. Genuine help does not lie that way. When help is genuine we know that in helping others we are in actuality helping ourselves, and the movement we make is as natural to us as scratching an itch. A humanitarian philosophy really ought to begin from this inner link between giver and receiver, but unfortunately for Appiah the link can only be established locally, or, if further afield, only through works of art. This is what comes of trying to establish universal links by first renouncing universal values.

Throughout Cosmopolitanism Appiah is unable to escape the ‘particular stranger’, who undoubtedly feels more real to him than universal man. What he does not realise, though, is the universal is never simply an observable feature of the world; it’s not a common characteristic that can be verified biologically or even culturally. The universal is not a feature to be uncovered but a goal to be established. The declaration ‘All men are my brothers’ is, in this sense, a non-verifiable call to break down the barriers which separate particular strangers from one another. And by setting what might be a worthwhile goal ahead of us, a universal declaration has the potential to provide the morality that in the end is lacking in cosmopolitanism.

Appiah’s book is useful in reminding us the local has a tendency to persist, even in the face of universal declarations. But rather than abandon universal values as hopeless or dangerous, we need to begin constructing the values that might lead strangers to drop their particularities and embrace each other as brothers. For this to happen, I suspect we will need a little bit more than a cosmopolitan conversation.


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