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Cosmopolitan Ethics

2009 September 1

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.


4 Responses leave one →
  1. Lloyd Chia permalink
    September 1, 2009

    Thanks for this very helpful review Julie. I would very much like to check out the book now. I’ve been reading a book titled “The Solidarity of Others in a Divided World: A Postmodern Theology after Postmodernism”, by a Claremont professor Anselm Min. He makes some of the same points, although not through the concept of cosmopolitanism. Maybe you might want to check that out too!

  2. September 1, 2009

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. July 23, 2010

    Thanks for this post. I searched for a web page on “Cosmopolitan Ethics,” and yours came up first. I recently read _World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice_, by Paul Harris, and met the term for the first time.

  4. Amanda permalink
    February 14, 2014

    I am currently taking a communication and ethics class at Drury University, and this book seems to go right along with what we are studying for the week. In one of our texts, Ess says that we need to learn to respond differently to new ways that have been introduced, and to respect the differences. He touches on the idea of “Other as target,” and “Other as Other.” The difference between “Other as target” and “Other as Other” is that “Other as target” is more of a personal gain, such as wanting to take advantage, and “Other as Other” is appreciating how someone from another culture is different from yourself. “Other as target” is not always taking advantage of someone else, and could very well happen by accident. But for the most part, this is not the case. Our other text for the semester talks about a strong relationship between the cosmopolitan view and Chen and Starosta’s guidelines, and mainly because the guidelines are questions that should be asked, and guidelines that should be followed in order to have ethical communication with other cultures. They go hand and hand. One good example on how to use Chen and Starosta’s guidelines in a helpful manner is not to impose personal biases and judgment. For example, just because you had an issue with a person from the Japanese culture, does not mean that every person that falls under that category will cause the same or worse issues. Everyone is different, and deserves to have a chance. Another god example is to “maintain the right to freedom from harm.” No matter what kind of situation you get into with a different culture, or even the same culture for that matter, both parties have that right. If a customer verbally abuses you, that is not an ethical business communication and should be stopped immediately.

    Ess, C. (2009). Digital Media Ethics. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K.S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

    Amanda Prock
    Elementary Education Undergraduate at Drury University

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