The Cosmopolitan Predicament   /   Fall 2009   /    Interview

Making Sense of Cosmopolitanism

A Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Joshua J. Yates

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2011.

Joshua J. Yates (JJY): What is a cosmopolitan? what does it mean to be a “citizen of the world”?

Kwame Anthony Appiah (KAA): You might think that these two terms are interchangeable, so let me say what I think the essence of cosmopolitanism is. “Cosmopolitanism” etymologically comes from an expression that means “citizen of the cosmos.” When the Cynics and the Stoics invented this term, they understood citizenship in the particular way that people understood citizenship in the ancient world, which is different than the way we understand it now.

What I take from that tradition is the notion of cosmopolitanism as combining two things: The first is something that I think every cosmopolitan has always had as part of her arsenal of ideas, which is the idea that every human being is responsible for the whole human community. In this sense, your obligations aren’t limited by the particular society that you’re in. So there’s an element of universality. But—and this is the second part—the particular kind of cosmopolitanism that I’d like to defend combines that universality with a respect for legitimate kinds of difference.

The contrast I’m making here is with the kind of universalism that expresses concerns for everybody in the human community, but does so in a way that urges everyone toward the same kind of life. I think what’s distinctive about cosmopolitanism as it has developed is its combination of a concern for everybody with a willingness to accept that there are many legitimate ways of living.

A Catholic, for instance, is a universalist. But a Catholic tends to be, or can be, the kind of universalist who thinks that ideally everybody will end up looking pretty much the same. Not only will we all be attending services conducted in the same ways at the same time of the day with the same regularity, but daily life itself will conform to the teachings of the Church, and so on. Of course, Catholicism contains a vast range of diversity. The liturgy has to be translated into local languages nowadays, and musical and worship forms will differ from place to place. Yet Catholics will be working through the same ideas and translations of the same texts. While it wouldn’t necessarily be a world of homogeneity, you could see that it could lead to a certain kind of colonizing. The Catholicism of the sort that went with the French empire, for example, really did try to turn everybody into little Frenchmen, and if it had succeeded, the world would be France. The cosmopolitan’s view is that France is great as one of the options, but as the only option, France is less than attractive.

All of this emphasizes the cultural and aesthetic side of cosmopolitanism, and less the strictly political side of it. When you speak of global citizenship, that invites you to think more explicitly about political forms and arrangements. Now I have personal views about such things, but my form of cosmopolitanism would promote a general openness to a lot of different forms of political and legal arrangements. You wouldn’t be committed to any particular form. You would be committed only to the thought that if you made political arrangements that channeled everybody into only one kind of political life that would be a mistake. It would be a mistake partly because you could only do that by limiting human freedom in ways that are unacceptable, but partly because one of the things we’re doing as a species is exploring a very wide range of possible values, forms of social life, and cultural institutions. Of course, that can sound like someone who’s valuing diversity for its own sake, and that’s not the view. There are kinds of diversity that are objectionable, morally objectionable.

JJY: You say the motto for your cosmopolitanism is “universality plus difference.” Can you say more about what is universal for cosmopolitans?

KAA: Cosmopolitanism commits you to a global conversation, or a set of global conversations, about the things that matter. I count someone as a cosmopolitan if they’re willing to engage in that conversation without the hope of making everybody like them. But I believe I can identify a number of norms that should be recognized by everybody in that conversation. I don’t mean that they currently are recognized by everybody, but that as the conversation continues, they will become recognized in many cases. Even if they don’t, they should be acknowledged because they are morally commanding norms.

JJY: Is the universalism you champion basically a kind of proceduralism for talking about our differences? is it akin to a set of norms, which, like traffic lights, are intended to help people to get by with their differences and disagreements?

KAA: There is a commitment to the methods of conversation, but, again, the outcome of the conversation isn’t guaranteed; it isn’t stipulated to be the correct outcome. The method of conversation is defended as desirable in itself, not because it provides a procedure that guarantees the correct answers to moral questions.

One of the hopes for a world in which cosmopolitan conversations are taking place is certainly that the conflict that arises out of misunderstanding will be reduced. Of course, much conflict in the world does not rise out of misunderstanding. It arises out of disagreement. Conversation between parties to a serious disagreement do not usually end up with resolution, at least in the short run. But if you’re in a general conversation with people within which disagreements arise, if you have an established baseline of mutual knowledge and the practice of conversability, as it were, you may be better placed to continue in dialogue with one another than if you don’t. But I’m not Pollyannaish about certain kinds of disagreement, that merely talking them through is bound to resolve them.

That said, if in the course of conversation, you come across a disagreement, and you talk it through, sometimes its importance is reduced somewhat by the discovery that someone you like and with whom you are in conversation has a different view. That’s one of the ways human beings adjust to one another—not by changing our minds, but by giving less weight to something because we’re in dialogue with someone.

The discovery, for example, that you have in your family someone who has converted to another faith will not likely make you a convert, but it might lead you to have a more sympathetic attitude to that other faith. While you may have initially been mad, as you adjust to the conversion with your family member, the question of belonging to the right faith can be ratcheted down in importance because you’re already committed to that relationship with a loved one.

To speak of a conversation is, of course, only a metaphor. Real conversations tend to be undirected, and that’s the point. They don’t have any given aim. A conversation is something that human beings do with one another because it’s enjoyable in itself, because we learn about and from one another, because we get used to each other’s ways of being in the world, of thinking and talking. To be in a conversation doesn’t imply agreement.

JJY: Yet, if we extend your thoughts about cosmopolitan conversation beyond the inter- personal to the societal level, for instance, the conversation metaphor breaks down quickly. in any given social context, our differences often keep the conversations you envision from happening and frequently amount to opposing political programs and policy agendas—in effect, to disputes over which people get the goods and which do not.

In the present we live in nation-state societies and that means that those with whom we share real co-citizenship are limited in number. It is with respect to our literal fellow citizens, not figurative fellow citizens around the world, that such difference matters.

I think two things about that. One is that you can have a lot of substantial difference. The United States provides an example of a country where citizens are remarkably diverse with respect to religious belief and practice and nevertheless share in the public world. Orthodox Jews and devout Sunni Muslims walk around together on 34th Street in New York City, and they don’t attack one another. If they do, the state knows what to do about it.

And not only do they share in the public in that way, they also share the public in the sense that they vote in a way that means that they accept the results of democratic and judicial processes of a liberal society. So even the most devout evangelical Christian or Jewish person understands that it would be wrong to deny permission to someone to build a mosque in a place where they would be permitted to build a synagogue or a church. Maybe you can’t build any public religious buildings in that place, but if you can build any, then you can build a mosque.

JJY: It is clear you’re trying to work the middle ground between unqualified universalism, on the one hand, and a kind of multicultural pluralism, on the other. do you think the political arrangements of the United States approximate the proper balance?

KAA: Yes. I think the balance is right, but I also think it’s important that most Americans also think so. It wouldn’t be a very satisfactory arrangement if it was just philosophers who thought this. It is important that I share this view with my fellow citizens. There are lots of cases where people on the boundaries disagree, and some of the boundaries are very important. Some people think that our Constitution requires us to prohibit abortion, and other people disagree. People are deeply divided about what the right thing to do is. There are people who think that if the Constitution says what Roe v. Wade interprets it to say, then the Constitution should be changed. Similarly, in the unlikely event that the federal courts were to declare gay marriage guaranteed by the Civil Rights Amendments, many people would say that doesn’t settle it. We should change the Constitution if that’s what it requires. But most people are willing to accept whatever the courts currently say the Constitution says, even on the most contentious topics. If they don’t accept it, they generally work to change the Constitution in broadly legal ways. They’re not in a revolutionary mood about these things even though they involve things that are very important to them.

Once you move outside the state—the U.S. or some other—you have to imagine a world in which, for the reason that the cosmopolitan imagines, there are many morally possible ways for human beings to organize themselves. The question of non-establishment in a decent society is a case in point. After all, the first democracies, that is, the oldest constitutions that are now democratic like the British Constitution, have lived with establishment all along. The great liberal democracies of Scandinavia all had Lutheran establishments. Even the small but varying number of Muslim immigrants in those countries by and large seem not to be troubled by the official establishment of the Christian faith. Now, these represent a rather limited sort of establishment, but still, from a symbolic point of view, it raises the problem of the states’ identifying themselves in a rather substantial way with one sub-community of citizens. Nevertheless, these societies seem to have found a way to do it that is consistent with the liberal principle of the free exercise of religion. And that’s why Muslims think that it’s possible to be a contented citizen of those countries and why most Muslims in those countries—and this would apply to Germany and France, for that matter—don’t want the caliphate. They’re not in the business of trying to turn the countries in which they’re now living into Islamic states. It doesn’t even occur to them. It has to be because they think that they can be devout Muslims outside the Islamic world and formally Islamic states. So there will be different arrangements. None of them will be perfect.

JJY: Beyond a general notion of not wanting a world monoculture or a uniform political system, what does the cosmopolitan say “no” to?

KAA: Well, if the cosmopolitan is the person who’s willing to engage with others in the assumption that we’re all responsible for one another and nevertheless that we don’t all have to be the same, then different cosmopolitans are going to say “no” to different things. But in principle, there are things that I’m going to say “no” to as a cosmopolitan: excluding anybody from the human community, denying to any human being respect and concern for their welfare. That means that my kind of cosmopolitan just can’t, for example, accept that a woman’s life matters more than a man’s life or that the life of a Muslim matters more than the life of Christian and so on.

Of course, as a member of the Methodist church or something, I may care more about Methodists than I care about people in general, but that’s a permissible partiality. That partiality, however, does not entitle me to deny to anybody who isn’t a Methodist the things that flow from the recognition of their humanity—their liberty or rights. So we say “no” to a lot of things in the world.

Because it’s a conversational view, we’re constantly hearing from our fellow cosmopolitans from other societies criticisms of what we do, and we are constantly criticizing certain things that they do. It strikes us that they do something we don’t understand or agree with. I might ask my Saudi friends why, for instance, women can’t drive in their society.

But the real challenge comes when things happen that require you to stop the conversation altogether. Genocide, for instance. Genocide is a case where you just can’t talk. You have to say to the person with whom you’re in conversation; “Look, I’m sorry, the conversation stops, and we’re going to try and stop you from doing what you’re doing, if we have the resources. If we don’t, then we’ll work for sanctions of one sort or another. Either way, we’ll certainly make an effort to impose whatever costs we can on you to get you to stop because we think that genocide is impermissible and transcends our general desire to be in dialogue with people.”

JJY: But genocide is an extreme case—an important one, to be sure. But let’s take the case of women not being able to drive. is this something that the cosmopolitan is willing, according to your vision, to tolerate? do you condemn it only in conversation with your Saudi friends? or, do you support women’s INGOs that are actively working to empower women in such places?

KAA: I would be inclined to support women’s INGOs. I don’t have to say that such a practice is okay by any means. I can understand it from the other guy’s point of view and still think that it’s bad or wrong. Whether the wrong rises to the level to which I’m morally obliged to do something about it depends on two very different kinds of consideration, both of which are important and both of which cosmopolitans need to be smart about. The first is what resources I have at my disposal to bring about change. I’m sure the Saudi royal family is well aware that the world is not on their side on this issue. But what are we going to do? How can I influence them? I hope that the U.S. government reminds them that it is the view of the American people that men and women are equal and that some of the things that go on there don’t look like they’re consistent with our view. Of course, I also think that thanks to the web it is easier for average people to do something, to get in touch with those working for women’s rights in Saudi civil society. We can support advocacy organizations, both by argument and money. It’s perfectly consistent with cosmopolitanism to come to the judgment that one feature of a society is unacceptable and then use morally acceptable means to try and change it.

But again, the conversation metaphor is important because the chances of being able to change something depend hugely on how well you understand what it is you’re trying to change. It’s very unhelpful to come into a place in a way that shows you don’t even understand what it is that you’re criticizing. If you seem like you’re mischaracterizing the situation, you won’t be taken seriously as a critic and interlocutor, and this is not merely a theoretical possibility. I think it has happened a certain amount in the debates about female genital mutilations. People are so appalled, and rightly so, when they’re faced with what is involved that they haven’t made the effort to try and understand what the people think they’re doing, how it connects with Islam and religious life, and so on. Once you have the kind of understanding that basically only takes an afternoon to acquire because the books have been written and the articles are there, you can see that certain approaches won’t work. You can see that in all the societies where we’re worried about genital mutilation these days, there are women’s organizations that we can support that are trying to stop it, and that’s probably a more effective way of trying to stop it than making imperialist moral pronouncements from far away. I think that cosmopolitanism provides us with both reasons to intervene—they’re human beings who deserve our care—and resources for better understanding what’s going on and intervening more wisely.

JJY: At the beginning of the interview, you mentioned the Catholic who shares a number of universal concerns, but who, at the end of the day, hopes that the world conforms to the Catholic vision of what the world should look like. when i hear the cosmopolitan vision you put forward, it also seems to want to change the world in certain ways, though granted it is open to mutual criticism and so forth. So what’s the difference? Put differently, can a religious person be a cosmopolitan?

KAA: Oh, absolutely. Yes. The difference depends on what kind of Catholic a person is. Of course there are cosmopolitan Catholics. Indeed, there always have been cosmopolitan Catholics because Christianity developed during the late Roman Empire where Stoic notions of cosmopolitanism were prevalent. It’s clear from reading Paul that he was shaped by these ideas. Therefore, you can point to the cosmopolitan tradition that goes right back to the beginning of Christianity. Think also of the kind of Jesuit missionaries who went into societies and learned the language and traditions, designed priestly garments that were more recognizable by local people, and generally adapted their faith, not on the creedal level but on the liturgical level. So, yes, it’s perfectly consistent. I don’t even think it’s incompatible with cosmopolitanism to have the hope that everyone will be “saved” in the end because it’s an eschatological hope. It’s not a hope about next week or next month or next year. It’s about the end of history, not about what’s going to happen within history.

But you don’t have to be religious to think that there is a deep truth of things we all ought to be in touch with. Maybe you believe that there isn’t a God and the universe is a result of impersonal physical processes and the result of evolution. It seems to me that thinking there is a correct way to live in the world, and that it would be better, other things being equal, if everybody lived that way, is compatible with cosmopolitanism. But for my kind of cosmopolitan that is only all right if it comes about as the result of everyone’s coming to see it as the best way to live. I myself don’t think there is one best way.

What’s not compatible with cosmopolitanism is wanting to settle things by coercion in the short run. There are very uncosmopolitan people in all traditions. There are people who are trying to force others into conformity with Islam at the moment, and there are many Christians who would be perfectly happy to force conformity with their beliefs. So I don’t mean that Christianity is in itself cosmopolitan, but it’s definitely not uncosmopolitan in itself either. There are good historical reasons, moreover, for thinking that Christianity, and rabbinic Judaism and Islam as well, have cosmopolitan roots. In Islam, the Prophet himself wanted to live in harmony with Christians and Jews and, from the very beginning, seems to have thought of his message as the message of the same God that had spoken to the Christians and to the Jews, but for the Arabs. That seems to be how the Prophet himself thought about these things, and so he didn’t see what the point was of converting Jews to Islam. They already had a relationship with Allah, Jehovah, and similarly for the Christians. From the very beginning, at least in relation to the religions of that part of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism—pluralism was already built into the thing. Pluralism is not built into Islam with respect to Buddhism and Hinduism from the beginning because it hadn’t met those religions yet. But what happens when Islam does go to India, at least under Akbar, for example? It was remarkably pluralist, including Hindus and Buddhists among the communities of religious conversation. So there are these strong cosmopoli- tan pluralist traditions within the major religions.

JJY: Historically, cosmopolitanism seems to have gone hand-in-hand with empire. To what extent is your vision also dependent on the power and influence of a historically specific and materially concrete global system, backed by global capitalism, the military might of Pax Americana, as well as the liberal human rights ideology of the european Union and the United Nations? And what are its prospects if those things begin to fade or fail?

KAA: If the United States plays a smaller role in the world in the future and a larger role is played either by the E.U. or U.N., or even by the Chinese, we’ll still have a world in which there’s strong pressure to have something like the liberal institutions arrangements we have now in order to trade and travel and have peace.

JJY: So the liberal human rights genie is out of the bottle?

KAA: Yes. I think there will be backwards and forwards movement on rights. Moreover, some of the things that are announced as fundamental rights under the U.N., like a fresh water supply, strike me as nice to have, but not especially illuminated by saying that there is a fundamental right to them. There is some pushback going on some of these things, mostly around gender. On the whole, around things like torture, there isn’t. What happens is people just ignore the conventions, but they don’t defend their breaches of them. They don’t know how to defend them, and they try to find creative legal mechanisms to evade them. The Bush administration consistently said it wasn’t torturing, and I think they genuinely thought that they had succeeded in defining their way around the accusation of torture. But their very efforts at evasion are a sign of the success of the consensus against torture, not the failure of it.

The point is that there’s a framework now for talking about these things. And it’s powerful enough that even people who don’t like it have to make their way around it, and that’s good. These institutions should be favored by cosmopolitans, and the existence of people with these cosmopolitan attitudes in many, many societies today means that they have a genuine grounding. It’s a misunderstanding to think that cosmopolitans are only a bunch of elite westerners. Michael Ignatieff has this nice phrase that human rights have gone global by going local. It’s true. Women’s groups in Ghana and Indonesia, for example, have taken up these notions and are using them. Of course, the international structures that they put themselves in alliance with are helpful to them. They couldn’t do it without them, but it’s not being imposed upon them. Human rights ideas are being imposed upon the governments, but these ideas are meant to be imposed upon governments. We impose upon our own governments when we ask our senators to endorse human rights treaties of various sorts. Yes, we do need a framework of international law and order and regulation in order to live the cosmopolitan life, but I think we’re getting that.

JJY: You’re not worried that the social conditions that make such ideas and framework so compelling are disappearing?

KAA: I would be worried if I thought they were going to disappear. But I don’t have the sense that they will. They are more and more grounded in actual people who are in different places in the world. They started out very much in one part of the world, and the people who represented the rest of the world, for instance, in the creation of the U.N. Charter tended to be western-trained. They might have been Indian, but they were British loyalists by training, so that they weren’t really deeply rooted in local traditions. But now we do have a real focus on articulating the local roots of things like human rights and trying to frame them in a way that is recognizably correct from multiple perspectives.

A lot of our moral modernity consists not in discovering that something is good or bad, but in drawing from that recognition the conclusion that the good things ought to be available to everybody and the bad things should be kept away from everybody. This is often conceived of in the old bare universalist cosmopolitan way, demanding that we should respond to people simply because they are fellow humans. But that’s not the only way you can achieve it. You can also achieve it by saying in any particular context where someone is potentially going to be subjected to pain, for example, “Look, he’s your fellow something or other, he’s your fellow doctor, he’s your fellow lawyer, he’s a fellow worker, he’s a fellow Christian.” People give money to people in the Sudan who they think of as Christians. They don’t know anything about these people’s lives. They just identify with them as Christians. They don’t identify with them as human beings primarily. They identify with them as fellow Christians and that leads them to extend the full range of moral response to them. You don’t need humanity as a mechanism for doing it. There are lots of ways, and in each context there is going to be something that you can draw on that is below the level of abstract concern for humanity. Such differences give us a wide range of identities on which to draw and by which to express our concern for other people.

Kwame Anthony Appiah was educated at Clare College, Cambridge, where he took BA and PhD degrees in philosophy. He writes mystery novels, the occasional poem, and reviews of many kinds of writing, as well as publishing articles and books in philosophy. Much of his recent work is at the intersection of ethics and politics.