Easier Said Than Done | The Nation


Easier Said Than Done

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Appiah argues that as a result of the influence of positivism, an erroneous view of moral language has come to be widely accepted. For positivists science is the model for all other modes of discourse, and since moral reasoning contains nothing like the procedures for verification and falsification that are found in science, ethics is bound to seem a second-rate form of thought. Quite correctly, Appiah maintains that a great deal of human discourse does not fit this positivist model. When people with divergent moral outlooks talk to one another about the good life, he suggests, they are usually not engaged in argument. They are best understood as partners in conversation--an open-ended encounter that can be useful and enlightening even if, as is commonly the case, it does not end in consensus. As Appiah elegantly puts it: "We enter every conversation--whether with neighbors or with strangers--without a promise of final agreement." We can enter into the moral worlds of others and come to see that we partake in a common humanity without ever converging on a shared morality.

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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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Appiah's version of cosmopolitan ethics strikes me as being very close to the value-pluralism defended by Isaiah Berlin, and it suffers from some of the same weaknesses. The advantage of Berlin's view is that it can acknowledge rationally insuperable moral differences without falling into relativism. Contemporary relativists follow the ancient Greek Sophists in holding that judgments of value are matters of opinion. However, human life contains goods and evils that do not depend on our opinions. To be at risk of genocide or subject to torture is an evil for all human beings whatever their beliefs. These evils are not culture-relative, and protection from them is a species-wide good. Once we recognize this, we cannot avoid speaking of universal human values; but this is not the same as having a universal morality. As Berlin never ceased to remind us, the most fundamental human values can make conflicting demands in practice, and in some of these conflicts reasonable people end up with different views of what is right. That is one reason there are different ways of life.

Value-pluralism undercuts the claims of all universal moralities, including liberal morality. Like Berlin in some of his writings, Appiah seems to want to celebrate moral diversity and at the same time endorse the universality of liberal values. The result is that he is constantly pulling liberal rabbits out of cosmopolitan hats. In discussing the issue of gay marriage, for example, Appiah informs us that while most Americans are against it they don't quite know why, whereas for those who favor gay marriage it just seems right. He adds: "The younger they are, the more likely it is that they think gay marriage is fine. And if they don't, it will probably be because they have had religious objections reinforced regularly throughout life in church, mosque or temple." It's not clear how Appiah knows this to be true, but that is not the point. What some people end up feeling cannot decide a question of this kind. If many religious people preach against gay marriage, it is because they believe being gay is wrong. If others think that "gay marriage is fine," it is because they believe there is nothing wrong with being gay. The point is that one cannot avoid making a moral judgment, and this inescapably means accepting or rejecting certain religious beliefs. Those who favor gay marriage--as I do--do so because they reject the belief that being gay is in any way bad or wrong. Cosmopolitanism has very little bearing on the issue.

Appiah defends cosmopolitanism in the apparent belief that it tends to bolster liberal values, when in fact it is bound to be open-ended. Cosmopolitan thinkers may endorse some liberal positions, but this has nothing to do with the logic of cosmopolitan theory. As a political theory, cosmopolitanism is a doctrine of live and let live--a very different thing from liberalism as usually understood today. Appiah tells us that the cosmopolitan view was expressed in modern times in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but actually it was most clearly held by thinkers who had no truck with declarations of rights. For Thomas Hobbes and David Hume the end of politics was not a regime of rights but peace--and they were ready to curb freedom whenever it posed a serious threat to the achievement of that end. Again, Michel de Montaigne is surely one of the great early modern exponents of cosmopolitan ethics. He affirmed a common humanity transcending differences of custom and tradition--and at the same time denied that any one way of life was best for everyone. These modern cosmopolitans were too aware of the intractability of human affairs to imagine that great human evils such as anarchy, war and tyranny could be overcome by seeking to make a single form of government universal. They believed--to my mind rightly--that pursuing such a goal would only add to the sum of human evils. Nothing could be more alien to these cosmopolitan thinkers than the missionary certainties of the kind of liberalism that seeks to establish one type of regime throughout the world.

Appiah believes that cosmopolitan theory has a special relevance today, and he succeeds in showing that this neglected and attractive tradition of thought deserves serious attention as a habitable middle ground between liberalism and relativism. Where he fails is in not exploring the points at which cosmopolitanism and liberalism diverge. Yet these are precisely the areas where a cosmopolitan viewpoint is currently most needed. As Appiah notes, contemporary thought is beset by the notion that we can live together only if we are alike. In international relations this idea is expressed in the prevailing belief that only regimes that respect human rights or practice democracy (it's not always clear which) can be legitimate--a view that has been used by the neoconservative right to justify the calamitous attack on Iraq. If we are to avoid similar disasters in the future, we need an account of legitimacy as applied in the society of states that is not just a recent version of liberalism writ large. Cosmopolitanism could surely help frame such an account, but it would have to be more willing to challenge current pieties than the version presented by Appiah.

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