I recently finished reading a fascinating (although at times frustrating) book called Cosmopolitanism : Ethics in a World of Strangers. Written by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Ghanian educated in England now teaching philosophy at Princeton, it was an exploration of our moral obligations in a global society. As the author defines it, this idea of being a cosmopolitan implies (1) that “we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or … shared citizenship,” and (2) that we value human life so much that we take “an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different… and there is much to learn from our differences” (xv).
I liked his distinction that this cosmopolitan sense of obligation to all tends toward a pluralistic respect of the other and not obligatory uniformity. Too often the foes of tolerance accuse us of simply desiring everyone to be the same. But it is in fact the counter-cosmopolitans who push for that uniformity. As Appiah writes, “Join us, the counter-cosmopolitans say, and we will all be sisters and brothers. But each of them plans to trample on our differences – to trample us to death, if necessary – if we will not join them” (145). When the needs and differences of the other don’t matter, or, at least, don’t matter as much as whatever particular in-group you are a part of, that sense of respectful obligation has little meaning. If your in-group is your nation, and you believe that your nation is superior to all others, then it is easy to demand that all others become like you… or else. Osama bin Laden, for example, doesn’t respect that others might not want to follow the path of glorious Allah, his vision of a perfect world is universalism through uniformity.
Cosmopolitans though prefer universalism through respectful pluralism. Instead of insisting the other become us, we allow them to be themselves. As Appiah puts it, “the cosmopolitan may be happy to abide by the Golden Rule about doing onto others … But cosmopolitans care if those others don’t want to be done unto as I would be done onto” (145). This, of course, becomes complicated when our obligations to others (to protect them from harm) conflict with that sense of respect. It is in Appiah dealing with that issue that I start to have issues with his approach to ethics. He describes numerous ways to disagree and determine morality amidst disagreement, but in the end doesn’t give a clear answer on those issue. His conclusion is that we have moral obligations to others, we may not know the extent of those exactly, but we obviously aren’t doing anywhere enough already. Needless to say, after reading a whole book exploring our ethical obligation to strangers in a globalized world, the “just do more” conclusion was a tad lacking.
What frustrated me the most with this conclusion and entire approach was the lack of a third way approach. In describing cosmopolitans, the author seems caught with just the extremes of pluralism and fundamentalism. He repeatedly resorted to saying things like, “we just know its wrong” when faced with examples of evil. While I can respect common sense morality, it bothered me that his modernistic worldview wouldn’t allow him to accept religion aside from control or a deeper value than respect. This is where I believe the postmodern focus on justice and love makes a significant difference.
While upholding the need for respect of the other, for postmoderns that respect is guided by a deeper sense of justice or love of the other. Love can temper the religious impulse to turn others into copies of oneself and love can care for a person outside of the constraints of intellectual respect. Such things can’t be codified (although many try), but always exist in the particulars. What is just and loving will always be relative to the people involved and therefore resists hijacking by systems that control. While it may not be significant to some, there is a difference between the moral rationales of “I just know its wrong” and “because it is loving.” Justice and love serve much in the way some would desire “absolutes” to function, but they are a far cry from those rigid foundational dogmas. Justice and love are more pervasive than a so-called “firm foundation.” They are more like the ties that bind us all together – pervasive and indefinable at the same time. It is far bigger than ourselves, which, I think, in a cosmopolitan world, is what we need in order to navigate uncertain ethical interactions.