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Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah Talks Cosmopolitanism and Ethics

Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of law and philosophy at New York University, presented a lecture entitled “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” as part of the Lowell Humanities Speaker Series on Thursday evening at Boston College. The event was co-sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy.

Appiah also teaches in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and has written and spoken extensively about nationalism and the ethics of global citizenship. He also writes for the New York Times column “The Ethicist,” where Appiah responds to readers’ ethical dilemmas.

He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2012 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science. Concerned with identity, especially in a world faced with increasing globalization, Appiah wrote the book The Lies that Bind in 2018, examining the many lies that make up people’s different identities. 

Appiah began his lecture by refuting the charge that former Prime Minister Theresa May and others have made that people who are citizens of the world are, in reality, citizens of nowhere. 

“It presupposes that you have to weigh the relative importance of your global and your local allegiances against each other,” he said. 

Using the fact that he is a voting member of New York City, New York state, and the United States as an example, Appiah demonstrated the faultiness of the presupposition. It would be difficult for him to choose which of these three pieces of his identity that he was most connected to. 

“Citizenship is a kind of identity that's pull, like all identities, varies, of course, with the context and the issue,” Appiah declared. 

“In presidential elections, I find myself thinking as both a citizen of the United States and as a citizen of the world—I want the president of the United States to be good for the world and my country,” he finished. 

Morals mean to respect the rights of others to be different from ourselves, stemming from the belief that every human being matters—there is no person that can simply be ignored.

Cosmopolitanism takes this understanding a step further by allowing that each human being has the right to decide for themselves what this means to them. Thus the people who prefer a particular place with particular customs must be allowed to coexist with the cosmopolitans. 

But, just as the cosmopolitan-minded people must allow these “localists” to live in communities of like-minded people with similar culture and traditions, the “localists” must also allow for cosmopolitan-minded people to continue their lifestyle.

“Furthermore, societies have moral and legal duties to admit at least some foreigners, mainly those escaping persecution and death in societies elsewhere,” Appiah said.

The two different groups, “localists” and cosmopolitans, must work together to promote the law of the community, while also fulfilling the moral duties society has already determined. Neither group can meet these moral and legal duties on their own. 

“Each of us has a life to live,” said Appiah. “Our pursuit of the good life is constrained by morality, but also, by our historical circumstances and our physical and mental endowments.”

Transitioning to the individual level of cosmopolitanism, Appiah argued, “it’s important that human beings live by standards they, themselves, believe in.” 

“Because cosmopolitanism is fallibilist, cosmopolitan conversations are about learning as much as about teaching,” Appiah concluded. “It’s about listening as much as it is about talking.”

Next, the conversation transitioned into a question and answer section. 

A graduate student who is moving to the Philippines after graduate school to live with his wife asked, “what kinds of claims [can] an immigrant (...) make upon a host country for inclusion?”

Appiah focused his answer on the right of married couples of different nationalities to be united in the country of their choosing. He cited his British mother and Ghanaian father living in Ghana as an example. 

“The Universal Declaration, among the rights it enumerates, [includes] the right to marriage,” Appiah said. “It seems to me that it’s just a violation of the recognition of that right if you don’t allow couples of different citizenships to come together in one or [another] country.”

“I place the unification of married couples up there with asylum as one of the fundamental principles of just migration,” he added. 

Appiah expanded by explaining that the host country owes the married couple the possibility to become “loving spouses and, perhaps, loving parents of new citizens of your country.” 

Currently, Appiah is working on a book tentatively titled, “On the Very Idea of Religion,” which is based on his 2016 lectures series for Yale University.

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