The Many in the One

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FEBRUARY 27, 2006

The Many in the One

is the author, most recently, of Concealment and Exposure and Other
Essays (Oxford University Press).

The Ethics of Identity

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

(Princeton University Press, 376 pp.,$29.95)

Cosmopolitanism:

Ethics in a World of Strangers

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

(W.W. Norton, 201 pp.,

$24.95)

In his two new books Kwame Anthony Appiah undertakes to combine a
form of liberalism that aspires to universal validity with a full
recognition and substantial acceptance of the important cultural
and ethical diversity that characterizes our world. The Ethics of
Identity is a philosopher's contribution to ethical theory;
Cosmopolitanism is a more popular work of social and political
reflection; but both are of wide interest--invitingly written and
enlivened by personal history.

Some of the issues Appiah addresses are familiar from contemporary
public debates about multiculturalism, the relation of the state to
religious pluralism, the effects of economic globalization, and the
international reach of universal standards of human rights. Most of
us have our own reactions to the prohibition of the Islamic head
scarf in French lycees and Turkish universities, the restrictions
on English signage in Quebec, the battles over gay marriage, the
teaching of intelligent design in American public schools, the
practice of female circumcision in Africa, the return of the Elgin
Marbles to Greece, or the claim that liberal rights should be
regarded merely as an ethnic custom of the West. Appiah is
wonderfully perceptive and levelheaded about this tangle of
issues.

His central claim is developed from the pluralistic liberalism of
John Stuart Mill. Even though individual lives are what really
matter, those lives and their value depend on identities of many
different kinds shaped by the thick web of diverse cultures,
religions, associations, and practices that make real, existing
human beings. A theory of human good cannot be based on an abstract
universal concept of the human--either biological or metaphysical--
because humanity alone is not a sufficient identity for any of us.
We are all much more concrete and specific and embedded than that.

Appiah has more identities than most of us. Born to a Ghanaian
father and an English mother, nephew of the king of Asante and
grandson of a British chancellor of the exchequer, brought up in
Africa and educated in England, he now teaches at Princeton and is
a leading figure in the philosophy and African American studies
academic establishments. His parents were Methodists, but some of
his relatives are Muslim and many of them believe in witchcraft. And
he is gay. Appiah may insist that such complexity is not rare, but
it has given him a greater sense of freedom than I suspect is felt
by people whose identities are simpler. This puts him in a
particularly strong position to explain why individualistic
liberalism is not inevitably at war with parochial identities, even
though some identities can be oppressive or even crippling. Appiah
is as cosmopolitan as it is possible to be, but he has maintained
his local roots in full consciousness, and espouses a form of
liberal multiculturalism that he calls "rooted cosmopolitanism."

The view is developed at three levels: the individual, the societal,
and the global or universal. Like Mill, Appiah believes that the
individual level provides the foundation. Some of what is good and
bad for human beings is determined by our animal biology alone, but
the essentially human goods depend on identities that are
determined by each individual's membership in smaller groups or
systems of human relations. Think how important a person's family,
profession, native language, or religion is in determining what it
means for his life to go well.

These sources of value can also be sources of trouble, of course.
Appiah applies a distinction made by Ronald Dworkin between
circumstances that are parameters for determining what would
constitute a successful life and circumstances that are
limits--"obstacles that get in the way of our making the ideal life
that the parameters help define." It illuminates the problematic
ethics of identity when we notice that some of the most politically
salient identities function both as parameters and as limits, and
that there are struggles at both the individual and the societal
level over how to categorize them.

At one time, the dominant liberal response to social contempt or
demeaning stereotypes attached to blacks, gays, or women was to try
to erase the ethical significance of such identities altogether--an
attitude expressed in the embarrassing modifier "...who happens to
be black." But this has been displaced in our time by the effort to
turn them from limits into parameters:

An African American after the Black Power movement takes the old
script of self-hatred, the script in which he or she is a nigger,
and works, in community with others, to construct a series of
positive black life-scripts. In these life-scripts, being a Negro
is recoded as being black: and for some this may entrain, among
other things, refusing to assimilate to white norms of speech and
behavior.... It will not even be enough to be treated with equal
dignity despite being black: for that would suggest that being
black counts to some degree against one's dignity. And so one will
end up asking to be respected as a black.

Appiah tells the same story about gay identity after Stonewall, but
he then adds:

Demanding respect for people as blacks and as gays can go along with
notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American
or a person with same-sex desires.... It is at this point that
someone who takes autonomy seriously may worry whether we have
replaced one kind of tyranny with another.

A further problem with black solidarity in particular is that it
relies on a dubious criterion of identity. Many Americans believe
that a person with one African American parent and one caucasian
parent is an African American. If this principle is re-applied
consistently, it results in the "one-drop rule," according to which
any African ancestry makes one black. But Appiah cites statistical
studies showing that millions of Americans who look white and are
regarded by themselves and others as white have ancestors who were
African slaves--and that these Americans may even outnumber those
who regard themselves as black. If that is so, then the ordinary
conception of black identity is incoherent.

This argument may impose too much logic on a vague concept, but it
makes an important point. In trying to turn the tables on racism,
the civil rights movement and black solidarity have not challenged
the conceptual racism associated with the one-drop rule, and may
thereby be missing an opportunity to undermine the grip of the
categories themselves:

Current U.S. practices presuppose, by and large, that there is a
fact of the matter about everyone as to whether or not she is
African American. One is required to fill in forms for all sorts of
purposes that fix one's race, and other people--arresting police
officers, for example--may be required to do so as well.... Were
the government to modify these practices, it would remove at least
one tiny strut that gives support to the idea that social
conceptions of race are consistent with reality.

Appiah's position is not that individual autonomy requires freeing
ourselves of thick identities, but that we have to consider their
constraining as well as their enabling effects, and even their
rationality, in deciding how to be who we are.

Appiah poses the societal question this way: "What claims, if any,
can identity groups as such justly make upon the state?" His
answer, basically, is "none." Groups have no inherent moral
standing; their importance depends on their importance to the lives
of individuals. Appiah resists Charles Taylor's claim that the
value of a culture is not derivative from its value to individuals,
but the reverse.

Whatever may be the political implications, I think that he is here
taking ethical individualism too far, and that Taylor is on to
something important. When a language and its literature, or a
musical or artistic form, or even a cuisine or a game, dies out, so
that no one is able any longer to appreciate or to practice it,
something valuable has gone out of existence. This cannot be
explained by the harm to existing individuals, all of whom will have
other things to do and other ways to flourish. Even though the lost
element of culture could have continued only in the lives of
individuals, its absence is not a loss to them if they do not miss
it. It is the recognition that its disappearance would be a loss
nonetheless, though a loss to no one, that motivates some of the
strongest desires for cultural preservation, however quixotic. (I
sympathize completely with the lament of a classicist I know that
students at Oxford are no longer required to write Greek and Latin
verse.)

Appiah shares with Mill an insistence on the value of social
diversity to permit the flourishing of different individuals, and a
distaste for uniformity. But like Mill, he thinks this means that
some forms of diversity should not be tolerated: "It may be that
many of us value diversity not because it is a primordial good but
because we take it to be a correlative of liberty, of
nondomination. But if autonomy is the sponsoring concern, the
diversity principle--the value of diversity simpliciter--cannot
command our loyalty." So he is not sympathetic to the kind of
anthropological relativism that supports the protection of
traditional group practices even if they impose serious
disadvantages or inequalities on some members of the group (often
its female members, as with arranged early marriage). And he denies
that the mere legal possibility of exit from such a group is
sufficient to immunize it from societal oversight to protect the
individual rights of its members. The right of exit is not enough
to cancel the constraining power of strong communal identities.
What the state should do, however, depends on how fundamental the
competing claims are: Appiah would not require the Catholic Church
to admit women to the priesthood.

Appiah is also unsympathetic to preservationism: the obligation of a
society to help identity groups, cultural or linguistic, to ensure
their survival into succeeding generations--which goes beyond its
obligation to see that present members of those groups do not
suffer discrimination or persecution. Individual autonomy trumps
group preservation, just as it does in the case of arranged
marriages:

The ethical principles of equal dignity that underlie liberal
thinking seem to militate against allowing the parents their way
because we care about the autonomy of these young women. If this is
true in the individual case, it seems to me equally true where a
whole generation of one group wishes to impose a form of life on
the next generation--and a fortiori true if they seek to impose it
somehow on still later generations.

And once we attend to these vistas of descent, it may strike us that
culture talk is not so very far from the race talk that it would
supplant in liberal discourse.

He concludes that for linguistic minorities, such as the Quebecois,
it is political inclusion rather than community preservation that
the state should aim at, and let the chips fall where they may.

Appiah is very good on the confusing issue of the "neutrality" of
the state in a pluralistic liberal society. Since this is an
evaluative concept, it cannot mean general value neutrality, but
must mean neutrality among a certain subset of values and practices
based on a non-neutral evaluative premise. Appiah believes that a
requirement of equal respect for individuals underlies such
neutrality as liberalism requires--among religions, conceptions of
the good life, sexual mores, and so forth. But respect for
individuals and their autonomy will rule out respect for identities
that undermine it, and the liberal state, while it will not engage
in the formation of souls to a single standard, will try to impose
through education and public forms of equality the conditions for
pluralistic self-realization.

Equal respect is required of the state, but not of individuals,
whose personal associations and communal identities essentially
involve exclusive attachments without which life would be
impoverished and abstract: "A radical egalitarian might give his
money to the poor, but he can't give his friends to the
friendless." Or, "to put the matter paradoxically: impartiality is
a strictly position-dependent obligation. What is a virtue in a
referee is not a virtue in a prize-fighter's wife."

The final level of Appiah's analysis is the world as a whole. He is
not a moral relativist; he believes in universal human rights.
There is objective truth, not only in science but in
morality--though this does not guarantee that we will all come to
agree on it. But he does not think this points to a utopian crusade
to bring the world under the authority of a single standard, as
other visions of objective universal truth--Christian, Muslim,
Marxist--have too often hoped. He believes that the pluralistic
liberalism that permits co- existence within liberal states can
find its counterpart for the world. This is partly because what is
universal hardly exhausts the truth:

Identity is at the heart of human life: liberalism ... takes this
picture seriously, and tries to construct a state and society that
take account of the ethics of identity without losing sight of the
values of personal autonomy. But the cosmopolitan impulse is
central to this view, too, because it sees a world of cultural and
social variety as a precondition for the self-creation that is at
the heart of a meaningful human life.

What is universal, though immensely important, merely provides a
protective framework for the flourishing of individuality. And we
can come to agree on certain basic protections in practice without
starting from a common theoretical foundation. (Here Appiah invokes
Cass R. Sunstein's constitutional theory of "incompletely theorized
agreements.") The key to co-existence and mutual benefit from the
variety of forms of life is familiarity, and not just reason. We
have to get used to one another, and then over time our habits will
evolve. Sheer exposure can accomplish a great deal. This, Appiah
points out, is how attitudes toward homosexuality have been
transformed in our own society. And it may eventually have its
effect on the "woman question" that he thinks plays a large part in
fueling Islamic hostility to the West.

It is a humane and optimistic vision, eloquently expressed.
Disarmingly, Appiah describes his view at one point as "wishy-washy
cosmopolitanism," and if these books have a fault, it is that of
under-rating the depth of the conflicts that make the spread of
liberalism so difficult. Appiah's golden rule of cosmopolitanism is
a famous quotation from the comic playwright Terence, a former
North African slave who lived and wrote in Rome: "I am human:
nothing human is alien to me." Though he acknowledges that
pessimists "can cite a dismal litany to the contrary," Appiah
believes that the accumulation of changes in individual
consciousness brought on by communication and mobility is already
propelling us along this upward path. He rejects by implication the
"clash of civilizations" as the global drama to which we are all
condemned. I hope the future will prove him right, though the
experience of our time makes me wonder. Episodes such as the recent
widespread and violent reaction to a few cartoon depictions of
Mohammed prompt the grim reflection that it took centuries of
bloodshed for the West to move from the wars of religion to its
present roughly liberal consensus. We may have to wait a long time.

By Thomas Nagel

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