Book Review: Cosmopolitanism, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Book Review: Cosmopolitanism, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

By Neil Lock

September 2017

Although it was first published in 2006, I only recently became aware of this book. One advantage of being so late to the party is that I had plenty of reviews to look at, and so could judge what others think of the book before trying it. And the judgements were varied and interesting. Many of them, indeed, told me as much about the reviewers as they did about the book itself. Those on the political left tended to be dismissive of both its substance and its style. Of the rest, some seemed bemused by it, but many were enthusiastic. So, as the subject is in an area of great interest to me, I decided to read the book and add my twopennyworth.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is certainly well qualified as a cosmopolitan. Born in London of aristocratic Ghanaian and politically connected English parents, he was brought up in Ghana and schooled in England, then studied philosophy at Clare College, Cambridge. As he is a year younger than I am, his time there probably overlapped my own at Trinity College a couple of hundred yards away. Since then, he has spent most of his working life in US universities, and is currently a professor at New York University. And he is sufficiently well accepted in establishment circles that in 2016 he was invited to give the BBC’s Reith Lectures.

The book is not long. It has less than 200 pages of text, excluding references and index. For the most part, I found Appiah’s writing style excellent; straightforward and clear, and even the longest sentences read easily. He is no Germanic bafflegabber or bullshitting postmodernist! The one exception was the chapter on moral positivism, which did leave me a bit cold.

A cosmopolitan, Appiah tells us, is one who thinks of himself or herself as a citizen of the world, rather than of a particular city or country. He traces the idea back to the ancient Greek Cynics and Stoics, and mentions its influence on the Enlightenment. Indeed, in Tom Paine’s “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good” from that time, I find a fine statement of cosmopolitan sentiment. And Appiah says that cosmopolitanism begins from: “habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association.”

I confess I find this idea of cosmopolitanism rather attractive. Partly because over the decades my work has taken me, for periods of months or more, to places like the Netherlands, the USA, Indonesia, Italy and Australia; and I enjoyed most of them. And partly because the idea holds out hope of a way forward from the current, failed political system of nation states and super-states.

In the Introduction to the book, the basic ideas of cosmopolitanism come thick and fast. That we have obligations to others, which go beyond our kin or our fellow-countrymen. That people are different, and the differences are worth exploring. That there’s no necessary conflict between local tastes or customs and a universal morality. That “we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life.” That we shouldn’t expect everyone to become a cosmopolitan; there will always be hold-outs. That “there are some values that are, and should be, universal, just as there are lots of values that are, and must be, local.”

The first two chapters of the main part of the book, in comparison, I found disappointing. On the first chapter, indeed, I made only one note. That was an apparent small error: “recognition of our responsibility for every human being.” At which I thought, surely he means to every human being? Responsibility for the conduct of everyone on the planet would be a heavy cross to bear.

The second chapter, the one which aims to knock down moral relativism and positivism, I found the hardest going by far. I had hoped for strong, clear arguments in support of the existence of both universal and local moral values. After all, this corresponds very closely to my own ethical view. I found myself disappointed.

On to the third chapter, on facts. Now, I’m a believer in the objectivity of truth. For me, a particular truth or fact may be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, or disputable, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered. The scientific method is the best way we’ve found so far of finding out truths about our physical surroundings. And it’s helpful in seeking truths in other areas such as economics – though it can’t always do these things on its own. If that makes me a positivist in Appiah’s terms, so be it.

I do, in fact, agree with Appiah that believers in witchcraft don’t deserve to be singled out for criticism as irrational; though they may deserve sanctions for what they do to those they believe to be witches! But this, for me, is merely because religion is by its nature not amenable to reason. Religion, I find, is a thought process that exists right down at the level of metaphysics or basic world-view, thus below the level of the rational mind. Therefore in religion, tolerance is the only sane attitude.

But when I come to Duhem and Hanson, and opposing views on scientific thinking, Appiah doesn’t manage to persuade me out of my putative positivism. For me, there are many reasons why scientists may disagree on facts. They may include ambition, confirmation bias or politics. And when, at the end of the chapter, Appiah says that nothing guarantees that we can reach agreement on facts, I respond: That’s because facts and perceptions of facts are different things.

The chapter on moral disagreement is where the book starts to get really interesting. I liked the discussion of “thin” and “thick” moral concepts. And the example of the matrilineal society, achieving the same moral value (good parenting) by a different means from the Western nuclear family, is a very good one. The discussion of taboo is also good.

On the Golden Rule, I have a difference with Appiah. He correctly calls out the standard negative form of the rule for failing to take into account that the values or tastes of the person, to whom you’re deciding whether you may do something, may be different from yours. It may be OK, for example, to whip a masochist, but not to whip a normal person. But he doesn’t mention the far more serious flaw in the positive form of the rule – at least, in the Christian version which he quotes. This is that, taken literally, this form of the rule requires you to act well towards others, even when they act badly towards you. An extreme interpretation would, for example, forbid you from using violence to defend yourself against an attacker.

The next chapter, “The Primacy of Practice,” puts forward the idea that we can often agree on what is to be regarded as right and wrong, even if we don’t agree on the reasons why. This is good, because it greatly increases the chances of agreeing on which moral rules should be core (Kant’s universal maxims, as discussed in the previous chapter). But there will always be moral issues on which differences cause deep divisions – abortion and gay marriage are cases in point.

“Imaginary Strangers” answers a variety of questions about and objections to the cosmopolitan idea. I’ll comment on only one. Some make out that people can only care about those with whom they share some kind of identity, for example national or religious. And that such an identity always requires an out-group as well as an in-group. But for cosmopolitans, for whom the in-group is “humanity,” there can be no out-group. Appiah answers this objection by stressing the importance of shared identities between individuals, rather than dividing everyone into groups; and I agree with his point. But in my view, there’s another and much stronger answer. There is in fact an out-group; the enemies of humanity. Back in the chapter against positivism, Appiah identifies one proterotype of this group as “the Tormentor,” someone that thinks it is good to be cruel. But for me, the out-group is wider than this. It consists of those that fail, seriously or persistently, to live up to basic standards of humanity – the core moral rules that distinguish human behaviour from sub-human. (Elsewhere, I’ve called them “disconvivials.”) In terms of specific individuals, it has included Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and many others I won’t name.

On “Cosmopolitan Contamination,” I’ll again offer only one comment. That is to quote Appiah on preserving diverse cultures: “There is no place for the enforcement of diversity by trapping people within a kind of difference they long to escape.” To that I say, Amen.

In “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?” Appiah addresses the taking of cultural relics from one culture by another, and the calls for restitution that we hear so often. And, it seems to me, his position on this matter – not even to try to demand everything back, for marketing reasons – is very reasonable.

In “The Counter-Cosmopolitans” he discusses a group of religious, and particularly Muslim, enemies of cosmopolitanism – “neofundamentalists,” he calls them. And he warns against the wrong kind of universalism or uniformity. “Universalism without toleration,” he says, “turns easily to murder.” But he also makes it clear that there are limits to cosmopolitan tolerance. “Everybody matters; that is our central idea. And it sharply limits the scope of our tolerance.”

In the final chapter, “Kindness to Strangers,” Appiah demolishes the ideas of philosophers who think that everyone should give away most of their money and property to “good causes” like Oxfam and UNICEF. And in passing, he dismisses the idea of world government: “It could easily accumulate uncontrollable power, which it might use to do great harm; it would often be unresponsive to local needs; and it would almost certainly reduce the variety of institutional experimentation from which all of us can learn.”

I generally agree with the views expressed in this chapter, though on a couple of things I would go further. Firstly, for me the obligations of human beings to others divide into two types, negative and positive. We should fulfil the negative obligations, such as not supporting warlike aggressions against innocent people, to everyone without exception. But for the positive obligations, given that we have limited resources, it is up to us how and whom we decide to help. Giving to UNICEF rather than going to the opera, an example Appiah uses, might actually be a very bad thing if the result is that the opera company has to close for lack of business. Secondly, while I entirely agree with Appiah’s stance against world government, I think that his arguments can just as well be applied to many national governments; and to the EU, too.

To sum up. There are some very fine ideas and expositions in this book, despite a few chapters that are relatively dull. There’s much food for thought, too. One impression I had, though, is that Appiah does sometimes seem to pull his punches. It’s only in the last chapter that he stops jabbing and really unleashes the left (or right) hook. But that’s probably because he values his status among the establishment, and doesn’t want to make too many enemies!

The book is available on Amazon now for a little less than its cover price of £10.99. It’s worth the read, if only for a different perspective from those we usually encounter in Western liberal philosophical and political writing. And it may turn out, once I’ve digested the ideas a bit further, to have been worth more than that. For now, I’ll give it four stars out of five.


  1. Where we differ fundamentally is that:

    (i). I do not believe that a society can be sustained for very long based purely on universal values; and,
    (ii). even if it could be, I would not consider that desirable, as I think it is evolutionarily advantageous for humanity to develop along multiple paths.

    The reason for (i) is that interests govern things, not ideas. My reason for (ii) is that I prefer the kind of global diversity which I see as true cosmopolitanism. For that reason, while I have not read the book under review, I suspect there is some common ground between myself and the author. It appears from what you write above that the author is, at least in part, critiquing the postmodern abuse of the cosmopolitan world and its hopes. The dream was that we could have citizens of the world who would be at ease everywhere, but only because they came from somewhere.

    This dream was corrupted by people who wanted us all to come from nowhere, which as I see it is not cosmopolitan because it does not acknowledge one of the essential predicates: the existence of genuine diversity, instead demanding equality and homogeneity.

    In a true cosmopolitan world, cultures would evolve while retaining their essential integrity, there would be a firm but gentle acknowledge of definite cultural distinctions which would be apparent as we travel from one place to the next or meet the traveller on his journey, and in some places there would be a blurring of cultural distinctions at the edges.

    • Tom,

      I don’t think there is any fundamental divide between our views here. I don’t believe I’ve ever proposed that any society should be based on universal values only.

      My view (which I tried to articulate in my “Conviviality” paper a year or so ago, but I don’t think I managed to get it over that well, and at any rate it’s still in flux) is that interactions between people who don’t share membership of a particular society should be governed by universal values alone. But on top of that, societies should be able to have their own rules. They should be able to add to, and under some circumstances to waive some of, the universal values in dealings between their own members.

      I think that understanding should bring our views a lot closer together.

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