Pulling Liberal Rabbits out of Cosmopolitan Hats

John Gray is often irritating, but this review in The Nation of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is not too bad. It also hooks up with some things we’ve been talking about lately in the discussions on comprehensive liberalism v political liberalism.

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.

Hmm. One has to wonder exactly what that means (so one will have to read the book in order to find out, won’t one). I suppose what it means is – it’s not enough to value others just as specimens of universal humanity; in order to value them properly, that is, realistically, one has to acknowledge that they have practices and beliefs that are often different from our own and that matter to them. In other words one has to realize that there may be some difficulty in this process of valuing others. One has to make one’s valuing of other people not conditional on their agreeing with oneself in every particular. That seems to fit, and it’s also worth pointing out. But at the same time – depending on just how much one is expected to value others, and in just what way – such an attitude may be in strong tension with other desirable attitudes or commitments. Others may have lives whose meaning is bound up with accusing children of witchcraft and then torturing them, for instance. We can value those other in the sense of wanting to change their minds, and especially their practice, rather than wanting to torture them back – but we probably don’t simply want to value them and let it go at that. We don’t want to value them as they are, and let them go on doing what they’re doing. So our ‘valuing’ others may be more or less weak, depending on the circumstances.

That’s the same problem we talked about in Respect One and Respect Two. It’s a pre-emptive way of thinking – and as such, it may often be a much worse idea than the merely formal valuing of others as specimens of humanity. We can’t really sign up to a blanket promise to value everyone whose practices and beliefs are different from our own, sight unseen, no matter what the practices and beliefs are. It depends. It depends on just how cruel, unjust, exploitive, violent, arbitrary and the like, the practices are. And since it does depend, the pre-emption implicit in that idea seems to be pretty much ruled out. We can’t really accept that pre-emption, because if we do, we may find ourselves expected to value mass murderers, or slave-owners, or exorcists. The idea seems to be quite similar to political liberalism, and tricky for just the same kind of reasons.

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.”

Just so. Appiah recognizes the tension (not surprisingly). One thing Gray says in that passage strikes me though. ‘There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible.’ Well – no, actually. Not species-wide. Male of the species-wide, but not species-wide. Because one of those beliefs and practices that we don’t all agree on, and a very widespread one, is the practice of not allowing women to take part in communication with the rest of the species at all. There are whole immense cultures where species-wide communication is not remotely a goal – where in fact the very opposite is the goal: where half the humans who make up that species are permanently sequestered and incarcerated and forbidden to talk to male non-relatives ever at all. Species-wide communication is therefore impossible in such cultures; it’s not even an idea or a dream or a goal, it’s more of an abomination. So from that point of view, cosmopolitanism is also not a value there; it can’t be. How can women be cosmopolitan while confined to quarters? They can’t; it’s a contradiction. So unless one is thinking of male cosmopolitanism only – which would be a pretty parochial kind of cosmopolitianism – there is a disabling tension right at the beginning. Real cosmopolitanism seems out of reach until that changes.*

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…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.

There you go. It’s just not always possible to celebrate moral diversity and endorse universalism. Sometimes it has to be one or the other but not both.

*Update. Harry points out in comments that I misread that sentence. He reads ‘There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible’ to mean ‘that human beings are alike in fundamental (genetic etc.) ways, and that this universal human nature is what makes species-wide communication possible’ and adds that this is a central pillar in our belief in human rights, and a corrective to postmodern denial of universals. I think his reading is the right one, which means I think mine is the wrong one. Never mind.

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