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Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2006

    important insights

    This is a fascinating book, but in the end it seems incomplete ¿ more like a collection of essays than a single book. The topic is one of vital interest. How should we think about the differences between the ways of life in various countries, and within countries? Some cultural differences seem interesting but unthreatening: spicy food or bland? Other differences go deeper: strict social control, or free-wheeling experimentalism? Can a cosmopolitan somehow stand above the whole range of differences, or is cosmopolitanism just one controversial position among the others? Appiah uses his own life as an example of cosmopolitanism: he grew up in Ghana, where his family participates actively in the traditions of the Asante, as well as those of Great Britain, and now of the whole world, as his family members now live in several countries. With this background, he is in a good position from which to discuss issues of tolerance, cultural change, and authenticity. If he criticizes those who would impose a single set of values, whether conserative or liberal, on the whole world, he is just as critical of those who value fixed cultural identities, to be preserved in the face of globalization. Appiah prefers the vision of ever- changing cultural mixtures, and global interactions going back as far as we can see into history. As an example he points out that the ¿traditional¿ African Kente cloth was always woven from oriental silk, brought to Africa by European traders, and dyed in brilliant colors using European dyes. As he sees it, Kente cloth is at the same time fully African, and fully cosmopolitan. On the critical side, some of Appiah¿s arguments are unconvincing. I thought he was unduly impressed by a sociological study done in the fifties, in which two groups of eleven-year-old boys, artificially separated, developed different ¿cultures¿. Aren¿t there enough ¿real¿ cultures to discuss? In the last chapter Appiah shifts his concern from the nature of cosmopolitanism, to the nature of the responsibility richer people have for helping poorer people. He presents a detailed critique of some claims that the well-off have an extreme moral responsibility to give up a great deal of their resources to help the poor. Appiah defends a more moderate level of responsibility. This is an interesting (and arguable) discussion, but these ethical issues don¿t seem related to questions of cosmopolitanism. I¿m afraid that the last chapter supports an American tendency to think that, in the end, the unfamiliar cultures of the world aren¿t so much subjects of interest or even curiosity, as objects of charity. I look forward to further works by this author, on all the subjects, biographical and philosophical, touched on in this book.

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