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Ethics, Healthy Disagreement, Emotional Intelligence and Refugee Camp Cosmopolitanism: An Interview with Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah Part II

                                                          (c) Irene Gutierrez

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah is a much-feted, interdisciplinary public intellectual. Initially coming to prominence in the field of philosophy and ethics, he has held positions in several of the Ivy league universities in his adopted home of the US. He’s currently professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University and has a regular column, The Ethicist, in The New York Times.

Born in London to a Ghanaian father and English mother, Appiah divided his childhood between the former Gold Coast and the UK. His father was a relative of the Asante king and his maternal grandfather was the Chancellor of Exchequer under Clement Attlee’s transformative post-war Labour government.

Prof. Appiah’s acclaimed 2018 book, The Lies that Bind, examines – and problematises – some of the many intersecting strands of which individual and collective identities are apparently formed, within the context of ever fraught socio-political relations.

In June 2024, Prof. Appiah gave the inaugural speech for the Ties That Bind Us lecture series; organised by Belgian university VUB, in partnership with the European Research Council and Pépite Blues Afro-bookshop.

In the second and final part of this interview, Prof. Appiah reflects on why cosmopolitanism is misunderstood, the unavoidability of divergence, the role of ethics in public discourse and his reservations about the concept of emotional intelligence.

AP: You describe cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’. However, the word can also be perceived as having elitist connotations. In his 1995 book Blood and Belonging, the historian Michael Ignatieff claimed that ‘…cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation-state for granted’. Perhaps you disagree. Would you say the word cosmopolitan(ism) brings with it a type of baggage? Does your definition seek to repurpose it?

KAA: Certain kinds of cosmopolitan practice are easier if you have money and the privilege of a certain kind of passport, for example. But lots of things are easier if you have these things. That’s not an argument against them. I think everybody should have money and a good passport. If not having those things gets in the way of exercising a cosmopolitan spirit, I’d like the world to change. But it’s not true, just as an empirical matter, that the cosmopolitan attitude is something that’s limited to privileged people. There’s what I call “Platinum Frequent Flyer Cosmopolitanism”. Yet, if you listen to people talking in refugee camps in Kenya or Palestine, some of them are cosmopolitan and some of them aren’t. Some of them are interested in music and films from everywhere and not just their country of origin.

AP: So, according to you cosmopolitanism is a state of mind?

KAA: Fundamentally, it has to do with an attitude of engagement across difference. It’s condescending to the non-privileged to think they can’t have that, since some of them do. Some of them don’t but then, lots of elite people don’t have that attitude. A lot of Platinum Frequent Flyers are not cosmopolitan. They go from the Hyatt Regency in Rio to the Hyatt Regency in Hong Kong to the Hyatt Regency in Mumbai. They don’t go out on the street, they don’t mingle or learn anything. [Cosmopolitanism] is fundamentally an attitude and one you can find anywhere.

Exercising this attitude depends on your resources, of course, including your political resources i.e. having a ‘strong’ passport or secure state. The universal declaration [on human rights] says that everybody has a right to a nationality. The world has stateless people. That’s a violation of their rights. Somebody ought to give them a passport. If nobody is going to then there’s something wrong with the world, not with them. Precisely, irregular migrants are people on the move. It might be they’re being pushed by a bad situation at home or pulled by opportunities elsewhere… Reasons vary but part of it is because they’re actually interested in being somewhere else. And that doesn’t mean that they’ve lost a connection with the place they came from.

A cosmopolitan isn’t someone who abandons somewhere in order to loosely connect with everywhere. The idea that cosmopolitans have to be hostile to their homes, that’s a mistake. The first person who used the word cosmopolitan in Greek, as far as I know, was Diogenes of Sinope. He was a street dweller in exile in Athens. So I don’t think it’s a matter of means. That’s neither necessary nor sufficient.

As I said before, I have a very privileged background so a lot of this is easy for me. I’m not denying any of that. I’m just saying the attitude strikes me as one that you could have without much in the way of power and resources, and a lot of people do. If there’s ‘Frequent Flyer Cosmopolitanism’ then there’s ‘Refugee Camp Cosmopolitanism’.

AP: Like many public thinkers and commentators, you’ve expressed concerns about the divisiveness of contemporary societies. Yet, as you’ve acknowledged elsewhere, divergence is also a necessary part of arriving at the common good. According to the political theorist, Chantal Mouffe : ‘…What is important is that conflict, when it arises, takes the form not of an “antagonism” …but of an “…agonism…”…The opponent is considered not an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate…”. Would you thus say that the problem is not so much divergence per se, as not knowing how to disagree well; the animus and polarisation? If this is the case, as an ethicist how would you suggest we resolve this?

KAA: Liberalism, in the sense of Rawls’ theory of justice, assumes societies will consist of fellow citizens who’ll have different conceptions of the good life. That’s an inescapable feature of life. We’re not going to come round one day to all agreeing about these things. Once you’ve accepted that, then you have to ask; how can we organise as a society that works for us all? That involves not believing I have to win every battle. It won’t work for others if I always win. I have to be willing sometimes to concede; not to lose but to give stuff up. “Winner Takes All” politics has no chance of working, once you grant that we’re going to live in societies where we disagree deeply about all the things people might be. Against that background, it’s crazy not to try to find ways of accepting that you’re going to be living with plurality.

Sometimes people don’t like the word toleration. It comes from a Latin root meaning ‘I’m bearing with you’. Yet, the fact is sometimes that is what I’m doing. Being willing to say, ‘this is my view of the perfect world but it’s not yours. Let’s see if we can make a world that is habitable for both of us’, that’s essential for any kind of politics. Even without democracy, you’re going to have people living together. What you have to agree on is what to do. You don’t have to agree on the why.

There are lots of compromises- and it’s not a bad word in democratic politics. A compromise is something which at the end, almost everybody accepts the outcome. They don’t have to agree on why they’re accepting it. The idea that democracies are about majorities is a terrible one. Democracy is about everybody. And so, I’ll be willing to have things happen that I don’t want to because I want to bring others along. In return, they’ll bring me along when they’re in the majority. If you just think ‘We’ve got 50% + 1 so we can do what we like’, that’s not the democratic attitude. Rather, it is that everybody matters.

AP: Notwithstanding certain exceptions, it appears that ethics is not nearly as strong a consideration as it should be in public discourse; around contentious subjects like reproductive rights and the proliferation of AI, for example. Perhaps ethics is associated with moralising and seen as problematic. Do you also believe there’s a dearth of ethical consideration in the public square? If so how, in the world of social media echo chambers, do we revive these traditions?

KAA: People do raise relevant ethical issues about AI. There was a proposal [in the US] to use AI around parole decisions. Because it tends to reproduce the average, it turned out to be even worse for black potential parolees than the better judges. People did and are thinking about the ethics around job loss and so on. They have all along. We had debates about this around the time of the industrial revolution.

One part of the difficulty is about how people use the word ethics or even perhaps morals. I think in the English-speaking world (and this is not so true in French or German), if you say morals to people, the first thing they think about is sex. Actually, that’s a very small part of morality. It only has to do with a very narrow range of human interactions. Another part of the problem is a particular background assumption. It is that we live in morally pluralist societies, so an appeal to a moral idea is just inevitably controversial. In political argument, you want to avoid controversy. You want to get as many people as possible to agree with you.

AP: That depends on the political actor. Some are happy to court controversy more than others…

KAA: Yes, but it’s all in the service of winning. Sometimes the best way to win is to be uncontroversial. I myself am not that kind of moral relativist. I think there are correct kinds of moral questions and that some communities are just wrong about certain things, including some communities I belong to. I am, however, tempted by the thought that we shouldn’t try and settle grand moral questions if we don’t need to, for the practical purpose at hand. That’s the job of philosophers; we work on that and think about these things.

AP: But if it’s delegated to a rarefied set, that’s not very democratic…

KAA: I’m not saying philosophical debates are how society decides. I’m actually sceptical of the idea of moral expertise but if what’s at stake is a moral question, then we just have to discuss that and try to see if we get enough consensus around the relevance of the moral issues to come to an agreement. Sometimes we can’t.

I actually think the question about abortion, for instance – only one amongst many other reproductive rights – is a genuinely difficult one. [In the US] there seem to be people who think only the rights of foetuses matter and others who think only the rights of womb-bearers matter. I think the evidence in the polling is that most people are in the middle. They understand the arguments on both sides. They think this is one of those places where a compromise is needed but the politics isn’t producing one. It’s either one side or the other. Regular people don’t think those who are disagreeing with them are wicked. They just think they’re mistaken. Yet, the only well-represented positions are the ones that characterise the other side as evil.

There’s a tradition in American liberal theory that you should only use what Rawls called ‘Public Reasons’ in the political sphere; reasons that can appeal to the overlapping consensus amongst almost everybody. I think that’s a bad idea of democracy. I want to know what motivates my fellow citizens, even if I don’t agree with them. I don’t want them to pretend they care about this, when what they really care about is that. I’m happy for people to make any arguments they like. On the other hand, they have to recognise – given the inevitably plural character of modern societies – that some arguments they make won’t land. As long as people accept that, I don’t mind them telling me. I like these discussions. You learn things.

Reading through your The Ethicist archive, you clearly take pains to write with emotional intelligence. This comes through also in your thoughts on the role of Religion for much of the world’s population. Would you say emotional intelligence is a pre-requisite for being a good ethicist?

[Long pause] I’m not always clear what people mean by emotional intelligence. There’s a lot of scepticism in the scientific community about exactly how to use the idea. Practical wisdom, sensitivity to how things are for people, humanity… those things are very important for advising people about practical ethics. There were some great moral theorists who were not good at that. They had something else to contribute. You can be a very good ethicist and not have that practical humanity. It’s just a division of labour. You wouldn’t want to ask advice of that kind of ethicist but they might make a contribution to philosophical understanding.

Part I

An abridged version of this interview also appears on the MERLIT website.

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