cosmopolitanism, last time through

I just finished Cosmpolitanism to which I have dedicated a couple of posts already. On the whole, this is a very good book. It’s concise, well-written, and thoughtful. It leaves you with a lot to ponder.

I wrote a brief summary to help myself remember the gist of the book, which I’m pasting below in case anyone is interested.

There are two basic principles of cosmopolitanism. The first is that we accept the notion of moral obligations and not just to individuals within our close-knit community (although we do have special obligations to them). The second is that we value not just human life as an aggregate notion but individual human lives and what imbues those lives with meaning. This means not only respecting the plurality of values but also having an intellectual and cultural curiosity about other ways of life. The upshot of this, as Appiah argues intently, is that cultural artifacts should be shared throughout the world and that we should abandon any notion we have cultural ownership: individuals create works of art not for nation states but for other individuals.


What’s more, Appiah insists that we should welcome the globalization of culture. For Appiah, this mechanism represents choice. Some will argue that outside cultures are forced upon others who lack the ability to resist for economic reasons. This, however, is not an argument against the choice brought by globalization. It is an argument for making people richer so they can choose to live the lives they want. 


Appiah makes the further point that ‘cultural purity’ is a very difficult notion to understand. Bagpipes, an artifact we strongly associate with Scotland, actually came from Egypt. The traditional West African dress came from Indonesia with Dutch traders. Cultures have drawn off of others for centuries. We should celebrate and encourage this diversity.


And yet there are still glaring challenges to the cosmopolitan. Perhaps the most difficult is that of our obligations to others. Some philosophers, such as Peter Singer and Peter Unger, challenge us to give away all of our earthly resources until doing so harms us more than the harm that would be done by failing to give them away. Appiah rejects this notion. He points out that it is both counter-intuitive (instead of ruining a suit to save a child from drowning, we should let the child die and then sell our suit to save more children) and makes the only thing important in the world the saving of lives. We should care about cultural plurality and flourishing also. But when it comes to obligations to others Singer and Unger are certainly right that more needs to be done.


In the end, Appiah encourages us to adopt a human capabilities framework of rights such as that of Nussbaum and Sen. When it comes to particular obligations, however, he is still open-ended. There’s no single obligation as he can see it. More, a true cosmopolitan will respect a plurality of understandings of obligation (presumably as long as they don’t violate a human capabilities approach).


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