Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

By Smyth, Willie | Western Folklore, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers


Smyth, Willie, Western Folklore


Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Pp. xxii + 196, preface, introduction, acknowledgments, notes, index. $24.95 cloth, $15.95 paper)

Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism is meant as a guide for identifying and confronting complex ethical issues in a multi-perspectival world. Its author, an Oxford-educated philosopher of Ghanaian-British parentage, bridges worlds. The term cosmopolitanism - the author prefers it over globalizations narrow association with economics and multiculturalismi observed tendency to prescribe - encompasses two core values: "the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin, or even formal ties of a shared citizenship," and the idea "that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance" (xv). Terms such as tolerance, kindness, and pluralism are central to cosmopolitan thinking. Appiah presents a wide range of issues that can serve as frames through which to examine how we as individuals and professionals make ethical decisions - essential for the humanities scholar, student, and public-sector folklorist: How real are values? What do we talk about when we talk about differences? Is any form of relativism right? When do morals and manners clash? Can culture be owned? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?

And all this is good... and yet, and yet. Too often, the resolutions Appiah proposes for these key issues are so one-sided and misleading, so bolstered by irrelevant, erroneous, and outdated sources, that they are of little help in sorting through the paradoxical interfaces of pluralism and autonomy, diversity and democracy, and globalization and protection of what is valuable in the local. In his central chapter, "Cosmopolitan Contamination," Appiah proposes a change of priorities - away from purity, peoples, authenticity, tribalism, and cultural protection, and toward individuals, mixture, modernity, rights, and what he calls contamination (his term for healthy hybridization) . His philosophical underpinning ("The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals - not nations, tribes or 'peoples' - as die proper object of moral concern" [Appiah 2006] ) is a hallmark of rightist thought and practice. The left emphasizes social, political, and environmental factors that can constrain the ability of individuals to choose freely. Both perspectives are needed, but only one is developed in this book.

Many folklorists are familiar with issues of cultural change and preservation as discussed at UNESCO and WIPO. Appiah reveals no understanding of the complexities of diese dynamics. He wrongly assumes many anthropologists to be cultural relativists who tolerate such practices as female genital mutilation (15) and that UNESCO's Declaration of Cultural Diversity celebrates a pluralism that could embrace the likes of the KKK conveniently ignoring Article IV: "No one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human right. …

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