Easier Said Than Done | The Nation


Easier Said Than Done

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There is a strange presumption in recent thought about human values. When we think about basic issues in ethics and politics, it is taken as a given that we face a choice between liberalism and relativism. Believing that human values are cultural constructions that vary widely across time and space, relativists urge us to be conscious of difference. If they have a political message it is one of tolerance: "Don't try to impose your way of life on others; be sensitive to the claims of cultural minorities in your own society." Liberals, on the other hand, insist that there are requirements of justice or rights that apply to all human beings regardless of the communities or cultures to which they belong. The liberal political message is one of universalism: "The human species is--or may one day become--a single moral community in which the same values are honored everywhere." Either we commit ourselves to liberal universalism or we must embrace moral relativism.

About the Author

John Gray
John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. His most recent book is Heresies: Against...

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There are many things wrong with this dichotomy. One of the most obvious is that it is highly parochial. Liberalism may look like the only game in town these days, but just a generation ago there were Marxists, anarchists, socialists and others who believed a systematic alternative to liberal society was desirable, imaginable and practically feasible. Further back in the history of thought, there were many versions of universalism--most of them nonliberal. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas all believed in universal values, but no one would call them liberals. Looking outside the Western tradition, the same is true of Confucian, Buddhist and Islamic thinkers. It is one thing to assert the existence of universal values, quite another to claim these values are in some sense liberal. It is also true that most relativists have not been greatly concerned with issues of difference. Often relativism has gone hand in hand with the idea that society is an organic whole--a highly dubious notion, which if it tends to support diversity does so only at the level of entire cultures. Herder and the Romantics celebrated the differences among peoples, but they were indifferent or hostile to the claims of cultural minorities.

The idea that we must choose between liberalism and relativism reflects the poverty of the contemporary political imagination and a disabling loss of historical memory. Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is a welcome attempt to resurrect an older tradition of moral and political reflection and to show its relevance to our current condition. Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, seeks to revive cosmopolitanism, a view of humans as citizens of the world that was advanced by the Cynics in Greece in the fourth century BCE and elaborated by Stoic philosophers in Roman times. In Appiah's view cosmopolitanism has two intertwined strands: the idea that we have obligations to other human beings above and beyond those to whom we are related by ties of family, kinship or formal citizenship; and an attitude that values others not just as specimens of universal humanity but as having lives whose meaning is bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own. Appiah sees this cosmopolitan perspective re-emerging in the Enlightenment and expressed in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Kant's idea of a League of Nations.

As a position in ethical theory, cosmopolitanism is distinct from relativism and universalism. It affirms the possibility of mutual understanding between adherents to different moralities but without holding out the promise of any ultimate consensus. There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible--and yet these commonalities do not ground anything like a single universally valid morality or way of life. Clearly this is a position that carries within it a certain tension. The idea that we have universal moral obligations is not always easily reconciled with the practices and beliefs that give particular human lives their meaning. Appiah recognizes this tension, and writes: "There will be times when these two ideals--universal concern and respect for legitimate difference--clash. There's a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge."

A large part of Cosmopolitanism spells out the philosophy that underpins this position. What Appiah has to say in defense of cosmopolitanism is eminently sensible, but it is in no way new. In a move that will be familiar to anyone who recalls the ideas about "open texture" and "essential contestability" that were at the forefront of philosophical debate about language and values a generation ago, Appiah suggests that moral discourse is essentially practical in character. It seeks to express our desires and shape the attitudes of others rather than to report the way things are in the world. Like other types of discourse, moral language requires the use of judgment, which means different people will use it in different ways; but that does not mean morality is subjective. Rather, it means the possibility of moral conflict is built into language itself. As Appiah puts it: "When we describe past acts with words like 'courageous' and 'cowardly,' 'cruel' and 'kind,' we are shaping what people think and feel about what was done--and shaping our understanding of our moral language as well. Because that language is open-textured and essentially contestable, even people who share a moral vocabulary have plenty to fight about."

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