Book Review: Cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitianism:  Ethics In A World Of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Considerable credit belongs to Ghanaian-English philosopher Kwame Appiah for making his point of what cosmopolitanism is well enough that I know that I am not really a Cosmopolitan sort of person according to his definition.  Some writers would look at the problem of how we are to get along in the world [1] and would seek to minimize the distance between a one world agenda and the legitimate concerns that many people have about cosmopolitan ideals, but the author is principled enough to make his case honestly.  I happen to understand that case and I happen to disagree with it.  Nevertheless, I think it is worth my respect as an argument, as this is a presentation of the best case for secular humanism, even if that case isn’t a very good one by the standards of scripture.  The fact that this book’s back cover includes a great deal of praise from former Nobel Prize winners, including the author’s countryman Kofi Annan suggests that the author’s ethic strongly resonates among those who are the most notable globalists of our age, and our feelings about this ideal are likely to be mirrored in our feelings for this book.  Not all authors are so honest about their worldviews.

The contents of this book are a straightforward discussion of the author’s own life as a person of mixed-race heritage with roots in England as well as Kumasi.  As someone who has spent a bit of time in Kumasi on a volunteer project, the book was in that sense a reminder of those days and my own fondness for the Akan culture centered there.  Beyond this sort of nostalgia, the book itself has a fair amount to offer, including the reminder of the author’s own status as an elite within the context of his Ghanaian culture, which perhaps explains why he feels the appeal of cosmopolitanism like so many of our own corrupt elites in the West.  He sees himself as a peer of those elites and responds accordingly, even if he does not phrase his argument in precisely that fashion.  The ten chapters of this book have names like:  The Shattered Mirror, The Escape From Positivism, Facts on the Ground, Moral Disagreement, The Primacy of Practice, Imaginary Strangers, Cosmopolitan Contamination, Whose Culture Is It Anyway?, The Counter-Cosmopolitans, and Kindness To Strangers.  And the titles are fairly straightforward–the author advocates the sort of contamination that results from cultural hybridism and relishes the brotherhood by which the alien and corrupt practices of others become less and less shocking because one is around them a lot.

It is that which presents the sharpest evidence of the wickedness of the author’s worldview, where the author does not shrink from giving very specific applications of this evil.  According to the author’s worldview, I would best be considered as a counter-cosmopolitan, which in the author’s case would be a bit of a chilling reminder that not all of those who seek to rise above the corruption of traditional history and the pulls of nationalism receive the author’s praise.  In talking about how the presence of what is disgusting and immoral over time reduces one’s moral outrage to the state of passive tolerance and acceptance, the author agrees with the Bible (see the Law as well as 1 Corinthians 5 for some applications of this) that one’s conscience can become hardened and deadened by the continual presence of sin that one does not war against.  The key difference is the author considers that wearing down of the conscience as a good and noble thing that makes it easier to be a cosmopolitan elite who serves as a true citizen of the world, while the Bible without exception considers this process to be among the most disastrous fates that can befall someone.  The difference between those two beliefs is the difference between my own worldview and that of the author.  And so even as I vigorously disagree with the author’s worldview, and even with the worth of preserving the artifacts of extinct heathen cultures, at least I can understand the seriousness of the grounds of that disagreement, and that is worthy of praise.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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