The Ethics of Identity

The Ethics of Identity

The Ethics of Identity

The Ethics of Identity

Synopsis

Race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality: in the past couple of decades, a great deal of attention has been paid to such collective identities. They clamor for recognition and respect, sometimes at the expense of other things we value. But to what extent do "identities" constrain our freedom, our ability to make an individual life, and to what extent do they enable our individuality? In this beautifully written work, renowned philosopher and African Studies scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah draws on thinkers through the ages and across the globe to explore such questions. The Ethics of Identitytakes seriously both the claims of individuality--the task of making a life---and the claims of identity, these large and often abstract social categories through which we define ourselves. What sort of life one should lead is a subject that has preoccupied moral and political thinkers from Aristotle to Mill. Here, Appiah develops an account of ethics, in just this venerable sense--but an account that connects moral obligations with collective allegiances, our individuality with our identities. As he observes, the questionwhowe are has always been linked to the questionwhatwe are. Adopting a broadly interdisciplinary perspective, Appiah takes aim at the clichés and received ideas amid which talk of identity so often founders. Is "culture" a good? For that matter, does the concept of culture really explain anything? Is diversity of value in itself? Are moral obligations the only kind there are? Has the rhetoric of "human rights" been overstretched? In the end, Appiah's arguments make it harder to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest; between locals and cosmopolitans; between Us and Them. The result is a new vision of liberal humanism--one that can accommodate the vagaries and variety that make us human.

Excerpt

In contemporary philosophical discussion in the English-speaking world, there is a broad consensus on the outlines and the history of a liberal political tradition. It is conventional, for example, to suppose that this tradition owes much to Locke’s conception of religious toleration and to his theory of property; that the language of human equality and human rights, which was developed in the French and American Revolutions, is central to the heritage; that it is natural for a liberal to speak of human dignity and to suppose that it is (ceteris, as usual, paribus) equally a possession of each human being. It is also regularly assumed that the tradition is ethically individualist—in the sense that it assumes that, in the end, everything that matters morally, matters because of its impact on individuals—so that if nations, or religious communities, or families matter, they matter because they make a difference to the people who compose them. We may have learned to think of these core elements of the liberal tradition as contested: so that, to put it crudely, liberals are not people who agree about the meaning of dignity, liberty, equality, individuality, toleration, and the rest, but are, rather, people who argue about their significance for political life. We may have learned, that is, that the liberal tradition—like all intellectual traditions—is not so much a body of doctrine as a set of debates. Still, it is widely agreed that there is such a tradition.

It is an interesting question whether we can, in fact, identify a tradition of thought that includes these elements; and it is, of course, a question that would require serious historical inquiry. My own suspicion is that if you began such an inquiry, the intellectual antecedents of Mill or Hobhouse or Berlin or Rawls would turn out to be more . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.