Across cultures

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

The book suggests moral tools for a new way of ordering ethics in the face of pressing historical and political challenges.

WE live in a world divested of the merciful shrouds of distance and mystery that sustained our peace with those with whom we disagree. The resultant chaos and our inability to rise above the raucous din of our moral differences is the subject of Anthony Appiah's latest work. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is, at its heart, a welcome admission of the failure of post-Enlightenment ethics in meeting the challenge of ordering moral relations in a world thrust into uncomfortable proximity with moral differences previously mitigated by distance. Denuded of the temporal respites of communication that required days to reach distant lands and stories that changed in content and character as they travelled across tongues, we can see, hear and feel the "other" like never before. The tragedy of this burdensome closeness is that the challenge of maintaining conversations with each other is the greatest at a moment in history when our proclivity to meet its demands ebbs at its lowest.

Appiah's book is an attempt to resuscitate this conversation between "others" denuded of mystery and forced into toleration, by restocking the moral arsenal available to order the exchange. In classic philosophic form, and in the footsteps of other emigre philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss who wrote in the United States in the wake of international catastrophe, Appiah harkens back to the ancients for inspiration. He emerges from his ambitious dig into humanity's philosophical past with "cosmopolitanism" - a theory forgotten in the moral vocabulary of our times yet promising in its potential for diagnosing the moral paralysis of our age. Garnering support from cosmopolitanism's origins with the philosophy of the Cynics in the fourth century B.C. and eventual resurgence in the Kantian prescription for the "League of Nations", Appiah brings forth a promising rethinking in the terrain of navigating moral differences. He presents cosmopolitanism as the unification of two core concepts: one, the idea of having obligations to others, "obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by ties of kith and kind", and the other that "we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives". Cosmopolitanism respects both the difference between humans and the necessity of universal concern; thus overtly acknowledging that maintaining a conversation across difference is neither easy nor comfortable but fraught with the inevitable discomfort of a constant rethinking of one's own values. The imperative and hope incipient in Appiah's project, however, cannot be successfully grappled with without entertaining his arguments regarding why moral relativism and liberal universalism have failed in advancing conversation between "others".

Appiah's critique of moral relativism is situated within a meticulous deconstruction of the fact-value dichotomy engendered within logical positivism, its philosophic progenitor. This dichotomy, which has insidiously seeped into our common understandings of what can and cannot be rationally known, assumes that beliefs can be evaluated successfully against whether or not they correspond with a fact in the natural world. Values, on the other hand, are a subset of desires that cannot be evaluated against the factual world and consequently cannot be rationally known. The consequence of these positivist theorisations in terms of the problem of dealing with moral difference in a way that preserves dialogue is that it leaves participants morally paralysed. Values are never wrong or right, hence all equally valid, what more is there to say?

It is this curse of moral relativism, and its self-congratulatory disguise as a philosophy of tolerance, that has in Appiah's view been instrumental in rendering us mute before moral difference. Relativism and its propagation by the likes of cultural anthropologists reify difference in a way that forces an artificial and vacuous tolerance. Repeatedly, they lead us to conclusions that insist, for example, that while we do not drink the blood of our ancestors in our culture "over here" it is okay for them over there to drink the blood of their ancestors in a different culture "over there". The moral paucity of such a perspective is subsumed by the fact that our proximity with historical strangers has left us without an "over there" and hence necessitating an engagement that goes much farther than the simple avoidance of judgment. Appiah's analysis is instrumental in exposing the failure of current notions of European multiculturalism that are predicated on moral relativism and have historically insisted on maintaining a silence towards cultural practices of the "other". Several European governments now faced with the choice of either condoning practices such as polygamy and forced marriages find themselves unable to formulate moral arguments that can lead to conversations about such practices with their Muslim minorities. The consequent stalemate breeds more resentment and further misunderstandings, making co-existence increasingly acrimonious and burdensome for both sides.

Another essential focus of Appiah's argument is deconstructing the belief that disagreements about core values are the substantive content of cross-cultural moral differences. Grappling with controversial examples such as female genital mutilation, gay marriage and honour killing, he distils moral disagreement to three basic kinds: the failure to share a vocabulary of evaluation, different interpretations of the same moral vocabulary and different prioritisation of values. Our values, therefore, are often similar; and our disagreements lie in the vocabulary, prioritisation and interpretation of these values. In arguing thus, Appiah attempts to divest us of the familiar moral perspective focussed obstinately on difference rather than similarity. Formulated thus, the possibility of changing one's mind as a result of cross-cultural moral exchange becomes not a lurid example of devastating moral defeat but rather one of many possibilities emerging out of meaningful exchange. The priority remains the conversation and not the consensus. Indeed, we may balk at this change proposed by Appiah and discredit it as "easier said than done", but perhaps we need to look at the tumultuous world around us to be persuaded otherwise.

The remaining chapters continue to supplant the ambitious project of expanding our moral horizons to fit the already expanded economic and cultural horizons. In a chapter on "Cultural contamination", Appiah impresses upon his readers the artificiality of insisting on a definition of cultural authenticity that denigrates all non-indigenous influences. A product of post-colonialism himself, Appiah recognises the futility of the search for an "authentic" or "original" cultural identity and acknowledges the fiction of its presence, a reality apparent to all but those who stubbornly wish to create imaginary "others". The case for contamination rests on the necessity of fallibility as the crucial concept for the cosmopolitan. Having abandoned both the ridiculous silence of the moral relativist as well as the pushy impositions of the liberal universalist, the cosmopolitan maintains the dialogue across difference based on the likelihood of his own fallibility. Conversion thus is neither a goal nor a myth but nevertheless a possibility. From this possibility emerges the necessity of also allowing cultures the freedom to change. Building on his previous work, Appiah exposes identity, when it operates as a limit on humanity's capacity for compassion, as a moral anaesthetic that allows us to rationalise limiting our moral responsibilities to others. Construed such, Americans may only care for Americans, Muslims only for Muslims and whites only for whites. As he says: "Humanity isn't, in the relevant sense, an identity at all."

For those who are yet unconvinced and reticent to adopt the moral challenge posed by Appiah in his work, the last chapter of the book places his argument within the contemporary concerns that necessitate such a rethinking of cross-cultural ethics. In discussing Islamic fundamentalism and its reliance on the global concept of the ummah, Appiah presents evidence of the current existence of such counter-cosmopolitanisms that seek to appropriate the global proximity of cultural strangers for glaringly divergent purposes. Islamic neo-fundamentalists with their rhetoric of the global ummah rely on the same trans-cultural conversation that cosmopolitanism hinges on. However, unlike cosmopolitans, Islamists wish to create a homogeneous ideological community that is inherently exclusionary, thereby representing an ugly inversion of the notion of fallibilism and concern for a community larger than one's kith and kind.

It is quite evidently this bloody challenge of global fundamentalisms, one that has now led to the destruction of many lives, that motivates Appiah's attempt to revitalise a more hard-working and viable concept of tolerance. In presenting cosmopolitanism as an alternative that evades both the moral turbidity of relativism and the imperialist taint of liberal universalism, he presents the moral tools for a new way of ordering ethics in the face of pressing historical and political challenges. It remains to be seen whether Appiah's work will be embraced for the possibility of deliverance from silence that it potentially embodies, or die a tragic death at the hands of a cynical post-modern world unused to moral prescriptions that purport at solutions.

Rafia Zakaria is a graduate student in Political Science at Indiana University.

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