The Ethics of Identity


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our members and guests to our Books for Breakfast program.

Today we are very pleased to have with us Kwame Anthony Appiah, who will be discussing his book The Ethics of Identity.

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers and scholars have all struggled to find the answers to the questions of who we are and who we are not. These debates continue today, but within a broader scope that encompasses not only issues of personal identity but those of national identity, race, religion, and gender as well.

In The Ethics of Identity Professor Appiah critiques these various aspects of identity—not with the intent to minimize or deny their legitimacy, but to show that if we subsume people under specific rubrics, such as race or religion, we script their lives too narrowly and risk furthering the injustice and violence of the present social order, and this, as we know, can result in catastrophic events, as we have witnessed in the past decades.

His argument gives credence both to the claims of individuality, realizing one's own innate potential, and to the claims of identity, which are often based on the core categories through which we define our uniqueness. He indicates that the resolution of this dialectic depends on how we reconcile the broader question of liberalism's promise of equality with the demands of our inborn differences.

When you finish going through Professor Appiah's arguments, it becomes harder to think of the world as divided between the West and the rest, between locals and cosmopolitans, between them and us. Clearly, Professor Appiah's writings reflect his own life experiences and are based on the interlocking themes of race, culture, and identity.

It is no surprise to find that he articulates so many of these issues in his work, as he himself has been successful in crossing so many of the borders that divide and alienate us from each other. He was born in his mother's native England, spent his formative years in his father's native Ghana, and was later educated in England. He was trained in the rigors of Cambridge's legendary School of Analytic Philosophy and received his bachelor's degree with first class honors and his doctorate there a few years later.

Judging from the breadth of our speaker's publications alone, it is obvious that he is a man who is comfortable working within multiple disciplines. His written works run the gamut from monographs on the philosophy of language, to mystery novels, to essays on African literature, and to editing anthologies of poetry and encyclopedias of culture.

Although Professor Appiah had established quite a reputation as a professional philosopher, it was with the 1992 publication of the instant classic In My Father's House, a book about Africa's struggle for self-definition in a world dominated by Western values that placed him in the forefront of contemporary African studies. He later expanded his expertise with Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, a book he wrote with African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates.

After graduating from Cambridge, our guest crossed the Atlantic and took on a series of academic appointments at such institutions as Yale, Duke, Harvard, and now Princeton, where he is the Laurence S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy, and he is also at the Center for Human Values.

Today it gives me great pleasure to welcome to the Carnegie Council the renowned academic and philosopher, not only Saturday's child, but for all his many accomplishments he is known to remain calm in the eye of the storm. Please join me in welcoming Kwame Anthony Appiah.


KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Thank you for that very generous introduction.

The books I write do not normally lead to book tours, so I asked my, as it were, brother-in-law —"as it were" because my partner is male; but my partner's brother—who is a very successful thriller writer and who does this all the time, "What should you do when you are talking about a book?" He said: "Tell them who you are, tell them why you wrote the book, and tell them what it's about." So I propose to proceed under those three rubrics, though the generous introduction already tells you a bit about who I am. But I would like to talk about who I am in such a way as to explain one of the puzzles that led me to write this book.

I grew up in Ghana, in a country where there are many languages. Languages are hard to count for a reason that's obvious, if you reflect upon the question "how many languages is English?" For example, in the books, my paternal grandmother's language is called Ashanti Twi, but it does not seem much more different from, say, the native tongue of the people of Atlanta from that of those of Chicago.

We also have many religions: Islam, both Catholic and Protestant denominations of Christianity, and many religious traditions. Those forty or fifty languages are associated with forty or fifty ethnic groups, each of which has its own religious traditions, which are now in interaction with Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. In recent years you can also find Buddhist temples and all the normal appurtenances of religious modernity in Ghana too.

We have in our society people whose cultures and traditions, like those of the Secretary General [Kofi Annan] and me, are matrilineal and people whose cultures and traditions are patrilineal. I grew up with a mother from a patrilineal society and father from a matrilineal society, thus guaranteeing me no family at all. But fortunately, both sides of my family grasped the situation immediately and I've always been very welcome in both.

Just another measure of the diversity of Ghana, is that there's no language that is confidently spoken by a majority of the population as a first language. We use English as our government language, but there are many people who don't speak English, even after a couple of generations of the promise of universal primary and secondary education in English.

So that's where I grew up. But as I child, I went often to England, my mother's country, and that seemed, by comparison, rather homogeneous, though less homogeneous than it imagined itself to be.

Now, much has changed since I was a child in England. Takeout curry has replaced fish and chips, for example, which, having grown up in England in the 1960s I do not regard as progress. Most English towns do not, like my home town and most small towns in Ghana, have both mosques and churches. It's true that in England a significant majority of the population does speak English, the common public language that is mastered by all.

Coming from those two places to the United States in my twenties, what struck me was that despite the diversity of the appearance of Americans—they come in all shades—they seemed terribly like each other.

It's true that, for example, Americans have religions with lots of different names, yet they are all remarkably similar. I have had the privilege of going on Yom Kippur to Temple Emmanuel in Manhattan, and it struck me as a completely familiar place. It was like an English cathedral. There are many Protestant denominations, but outside church it is hard to tell Americans apart.

The reason why the next Pope will not be an American is because American Catholics are too unlike the rest of the Catholic world and too like each other, and in fact too like Protestants. When I was in the Vatican recently, I asked our guide about who the next Pope would be. She said, "One thing I can tell you is it won't be an American." I could have told her that already.

Furthermore, if you ask why it is, for example, that American Catholics seem so like American Protestants, it is because they believe deeply in the sovereignty of the individual conscience. They, for example, support and oppose abortion rights, contraception, and gay marriage in about the same proportion as people of other faiths, despite their church's strong official stance on these matters.

One way into my puzzle about identity was: here I was, coming from a country that struck me as genuinely culturally diverse to a place that struck me as relatively homogeneous and being puzzled by the stress Americans placed on their diversity. Yet most Americans, for example, only speak one language. Many people in Ghana don't master English, but there is nobody in Ghana who doesn't have a go at at least two or three languages.

Another way to explain my interest in identity has to do with my intellectual background. Though I started out in the philosophy of language, the book that brought me into analytic philosophy was a book I read after I had decided, after getting a third in part one of the Cambridge medical sciences track, that I wasn't going to be a doctor. That book was John Rawls' Theory of Justice, which is the great modern statement of philosophical liberalism. I was admitted into the philosophy program, and I managed to get a first for the next two years. So, clearly, it was the right choice to move out of medicine, and I'm glad that Rawls made me see that not only could philosophers think about the questions that I was excited about in the philosophy of language and in metaphysics and epistemology, but I could also think about the great public issues of our time.

My family background also contributed to these interests, since my father was a member of Parliament in Ghana, my grandfather and great-grandfather were members of Parliament in England, and my great-great-grandfather was the MP for Cirencester and Gloucestershire. So I come from a family on both sides in which public life and politics is very important.

I come at it trained as a philosophical liberal. The main tenet of liberalism is laid out in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, in chapter 3, titled "On Individuality as an Element of Well-being." The heart of liberalism is a respect for human individuality, which explains why liberals care about human rights. Each individual is a bearer of rights, rights to manage and create his or her own life, and this is why we care about the provision of basic welfare. Without the basic resources of life you can't be the kind of person that Mill said we were all entitled to be.

Questions of identity, especially various forms of political identity, ethnicity, nationality, and politicized religion, are supposed to be problems for liberalism. So I became interested as well in how one should find a place for these forms of identity while maintaining the basic liberal faith in the importance of individuality.

The first place to start is not to allow people to conflate a respect for individuality with individualism. To hold that people are bearers of abstract rights and equal dignity is not to hold that we should simply spend our lives pursuing our own self-interest. The development of one's individuality, for Mill and for all philosophical liberals, entails recognizing that one is a social being, that one has moral obligations, and that by way of one's identity one is intimately connected with other people. Nevertheless, identity has been seen to be a problem for liberalism, partly by opponents who have conflated respect for individuality with a form of egoistic pursuit of individualism.

Two basic challenges have been made to this liberal ideal. One, which I call the multicultural challenge, has been to say that the notion of individuality is simply too Western. The other challenge, what I will call the communitarian challenge, is to say that it is too individualist.

Once we pursue a proper understanding of the role of identity in shaping our lives, we can show that the communitarian challenge is a misunderstanding, because the point about identity—gender, religion, nationality—is that it is part of what constitutes our individuality, and therefore part of what constitutes us as the people we are, and something that we share with others. It is precisely as an American citizen that one shapes one's life, and consequently one's faith; and the meaning of one's life is bound up with the fate of one's country and the fate of others who bear that identity.

As for the multicultural challenge, the uptake of human rights discourse around the world—for example, by women activists opposing female genital mutilation (FGM), or by other women who want to pick their own husbands rather than have them picked by their families, or by people in China who want to be allowed to have their own religious faith—suggests to me that it is wrong to think of concern for individuality as a particularly Western thing.

One of the examples I give in my book is from the Akan traditions in Ghana, central to which are ideas about dignity and respect which tie very closely into liberal notions of the idea that a decent, proper life, is one in which the person living it is making the central decisions.

But the same point could be made by considering a completely different tradition, the tradition of Confucian thought. When I started looking for examples around the world, I was delighted to find that many books have been written in recent years by philosophers working on Chinese traditions on the topic of self-development in Confucian thought. For a couple of thousand years, Chinese philosophers have been addressing the same question that Mill was thinking about.

The reason why people believe that there is a contrast between Mill's notions of dignity and individuality and these other notions is not because the central preoccupation with dignity and individuality is particularly Western. What is distinctive about the modern liberal notion is the idea that this is a set of rights that belongs to all.

If you read Aristotle's discussion of these questions in The Nichomachean Ethics, it is clear that he doesn't think that everybody has a life with the same value that Mill attributes to every human life. If you read Confucius, you see that he is preoccupied with the individuality and the dignity of a certain class of person.

I would make one final point about the multicultural objection to the liberal idea of individuality. Suppose it were true that this was a Western idea. Suppose nobody before Mill had ever had this idea anywhere. So what? Good ideas come from all sorts of places. To argue that people around the world shouldn't be taking up the notion of individuality on the basis of where the idea came from would be like arguing that Italians should give up pasta became it came from China or Christians should abandon algebra because it was invented by Muslim Arabs, or English people should reject constitutional democracy because it was invented in the United States.

One of the important things we've learned in the multicultural opening of American education over the last couple of decades is how much of what we value in the West comes from elsewhere. Everybody always knew, at least in the higher academy, that we wouldn't have Plato and Aristotle, we wouldn't have the early Stoics, if the Arabs hadn't maintained knowledge of Greek and possession of those texts and returned them to Europe in the Renaissance.

These are some of the themes that I take up in the book. I also look at a set of arguments dealing with the dangers of appeal to ideas about culture to justify derogations from the fundamental human rights in the name of recognizing the cultural distinctness of peoples. Another set of issues has to do with what I take to be the virtues of cosmopolitan conversation; that is, conversation with people of different identities, both across and within societies.

Questions and Answers

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you.

I'd like to open the floor to questions.

QUESTION: My question is about the rights of women as individuals, where Ghana and Nigeria are certainly setting an excellent example. But what about Afghanistan and the Muslim world? You've spoken highly of the highlights of Muslim accomplishments in the past. But the challenge now for all societies is to empower women as individuals, to have more choice.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I agree with the thrust of what you say, though it is important to underline the difficulty of the challenge. My own sense is that the best way forward here is to be judicious in the application of outside cultural, economic and military power in trying to pursue this end which we share.

Let me just give you an example, which has nothing to do with Islam, but has to do with the ways in which these kinds of interventions can backfire. It is clear that FGM in Kenya would have been totally abandoned by now had it not become one of the symbols of anticolonial resistance because of the objections to it made by missionaries and colonial modernizers.

We have to be careful in trying to figure out how to intervene judiciously in supporting women around the world in their legitimate struggles to achieve equal dignity, and therefore the right to pursue their own lives, their own individualities. It is an interesting that in this respect Africa does seem to be ahead on many measures of many places in East and South Asia.

Some of the more virulent fundamentalist assaults on women in the Muslim world are part of an anti-Western backlash, a part of insisting on difference from us. Their complaint against us is that we have let our women behave in what they regard as undignified ways by taking their place in public life, which they think is inappropriate. Unfortunately, holding women back has become identified with a form of cultural nationalism, and therefore in a way, direct outside intervention may simply have the effect of encouraging it.

The most direct forms of intervention—coming in and announcing that it's wrong, or penalizing governments in countries which do that with economic sanctions—are unlikely to be effective. In the end, what matters isn't that we stand up for our principles; it is that we make our principles work. So I am arguing for practical wisdom of a sort that philosophers don't have.

QUESTION: In the face of the various phenomena which we call globalization, we have seen a revival of manifestations of local identity in many parts of the world. This is a reaction that is searching for a comfort zone in the face of the fear of loss of identity through globalization. Do you address that phenomenon in your book?

One underlying assumption under everything you have said is that we are dealing in the world and in individual countries with the interaction between different groups which have separate identities. Do you also address the other phenomenon, which is that we have many more individuals who are, like yourself, what Pascal Zachary has described as mongrels, who have a multilayered identity, who actually don't fit in unambiguously into any of these individual communities? What do you do with them, and do you address that phenomenon as well in your book?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH:On the question of local identity, part of what I am defending is a recognition that was actually present in the 19th century in Europe in thinking about these matters, which is that nationalism and cosmopolitanism can go together. For some reason, we have come to think of them as naturally opposed.

But nationalism in the modern state involves imaginary communities; that is to say, identifying with people whom we don't know and whom we cannot know. You cannot fit all Americans into a stadium and go around and shake hands with them all.

Cosmopolitanism is also imaginary. It requires us to think of ourselves as sharing the world with other members of our species, most of whom we will not meet.

That makes nationalism and cosmopolitanism part of the same exercise. They don't have to be opposed to one another. I defend a cosmopolitanism that recognizes that we have collective human identity and also the crucial importance of many more local forms of identity, and that many forms of identity crosscut national identities, which is where those of us who are mongrels come in.

An American Catholic belongs to a global community of Catholics that crosses national borders; an American Jew belongs to a global community of Jews who cross national borders. Most large religious sects are multinational.

Similarly, just to go back for a moment to some of the questions about women's rights, cross-national organization by women, through initiatives like the UN women's conferences, has been enormously important, and probably one of the most productive ways in which people have come to be able to raise the status of women in various places. It is because of the large imaginary identity, in the sense in which nationality is imaginary, namely "woman."

I am against the kind of cosmopolitanism expressed in Tolstoy, for example. He says that in order to destroy war, one must destroy patriotism. What he means is that it is only if we have only a human identity that we can survive. This is the opposite of the truth. What we need is to recognize and to endorse what is good about the local identities while tempering them by other forms of identity which can stop them from becoming dangerous.

People ask you sometimes if you write about identity whether you are for or against nationalism. I'm for good nationalism and I'm against bad nationalism.

I'm not for or against religion. As for whether I am for or against identity, I wrote in my book: "And so I write neither as identity's friend nor its foe. Either posture is likely to call to mind the foolhardy avowal by the American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, 'I accept the universe,' and Carlisle's famous rejoinder, 'Gad, she better.'"

Being for or against identity is like being for or against gravity. The question is, how can we manage it and how can we take what is good about each form of identity and sustain it but discipline it by other forms of identity and by the general demands of morality, which include respect for fundamental human rights.

QUESTION: As you talked about cosmopolitanism, I kept thinking of rootless cosmopolitanism, which is that people aren't identified with any particular point of view or race or identity.

I was struck that you call your book The Ethics of Identity and not "The Politics of Identity." But there are very essential identity questions that have arisen in modern politic. As people drill down in search for the core of their political, racial, and national identity, we have confronted huge numbers of problems. How would your framework serve to manage the following problems?

One, Samuel Huntington came out with the idea that the American identity is threatened by the Latinization, as he called it, of America, and he posited that there is a Puritan-Protestant culture at the heart of America, even though you don't have to be Protestant or Puritan to be part of it.

Two, on the other side of the Atlantic, is the whole idea of European identity as opposed to the new Islam that has come into Europe and threatens Europeans themselves with a sense of who they are.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Before going on to your second point, part of my final chapter is called "rooted cosmopolitanism." It is a defense of the idea, wonderfully expressed by Gertrude Stein in one of her many aphorisms. "What good are roots if you can't take them with you?" The great 19th-century nationalists and the Great Enlightenment nationalists in Europe, all recognized that you could be both cosmopolitan and patriotic.

On the question of Sam Huntington, he is a very important thinker. When we were colleagues at Harvard, we met from time to time and I like him. But on this he is just wrong because of some very important empirical facts.

The first is that the new immigrants, like the old, learn English. They may not speak it all the time, but then neither did the old immigrants. But not only do Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States learn English de facto, they believe in learning English. Polling data show that 97 percent of Spanish-speaking immigrants say it is very important for their children to learn English. So the idea that there is a resistance to accepting, for example, English as the political language is false.

Now, as for the question about whether something from Protestantism is crucial to American identity, this is one of the ways in which talk of culture gets in the way. Individuality clearly has roots in European Protestantism. This particular way of conceiving of the individual conscience as sovereign, and therefore each person having special responsibility for the management of his or her own life, is clearly there. It is an important part of what happened in the Reformation. Its development through John Locke, in the Treatise on Toleration, and into Mill, has a Protestant background. But it is an idea you can separate from any creedal or other form of affiliation to any particular denomination.

This is an idea held by Americans, and which divides the United States from Europe. It is a sort of skepticism about the state, codified by the Founders in the Madisonian structure of our Constitution, which is designed to make government difficult. In the arguments for the First Amendment freedom of the free exercise of religion, part of Madison's thinking was that if you allow these varieties of sects to remain strong, you will have sources of social power outside of the government to counterbalance the dangerous accumulation of too much power by the government.

Now, this is not a Protestant argument; this is a separate argument based in a political theory that the American Founders developed. Many Europeans find this instinctive hostility to government—the instinctive assumption that if the government is doing it we should first ask whether somebody else couldn't do it better—to be part of American individuality, but it has nothing to do with Protestantism.

On the question of sovereignty, that we are in charge of our own lives, it appears that Spanish-speaking immigrants have bought in to the idea. I haven't seen data yet on the issue of skepticism about government.

These are empirical disagreements; these are not disagreements of principle. If things were going the way Sam Huntington thinks they were going, I would be worried too. I don't have any abstract objection to the worry; I have an empirical objection to his account of what is happening.

QUESTION: Many of my friends who share my political values have stopped calling themselves "liberals"; they call themselves "progressives." The word "progress" is a good American word.

What's happening to the words "liberal" and "conservative?" Is it possible in American public life to use those words with any stability anymore, where "liberal" for some people means a first cousin to socialist; for others, it means individualism? The erosion of words in American public life goes on apace. Is there any hope that we could rescue those words?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: One thing I say in the preface is that I tried to write this book without using the word "liberal"—not because I am ashamed of it, but because of the problem you just stated. I decided that I couldn't because that is the academic name for the political tradition and the ethical tradition to which I was referring. I could have invented a new word, but I'm against that unless you absolutely have to. So I use it less often than I might.

The issues that I discuss in the book are important for you, even if, mirabile dictu, you do not think of yourself as a liberal at all, as they have roots in very widespread moral thinking.

I often say that I am talking about liberalism in a sense in which both Teddy Kennedy and Strom Thurmond are liberals. They both believe in these Bill of Rights rights under the Constitution. They both believe in individuality.

But as they are used in public life, neither the word "liberal" nor the word "conservative" tells you very much anymore. This is partly for reasons that have to do with the breakdown of the way of formulating American conservatism and liberalism that developed during the Cold War. We face different problems now, and the alliance that was created in the context of that time—that conservatism—no longer has the defining enemy that gave it meaning.

We see this in our practical politics. A big set of battles is ongoing among self-described conservatives, and within the Republican Party, about what this label shall mean. Now, a large part of politics is about claiming, defining and redefining labels, and so it's not surprising that that is happening.

When somebody tells me she's a liberal or a conservative, I want to say, "Tell me more." By itself that doesn't tell me very much.

QUESTION:I have a colleague who is probably one of the world's top experts on the Stans. Years ago, he wrote the seminal work on how the Soviets were able to break the patriarchal societies in the Stans and advance the rights of women. By doing so, they broke all of the traditional structures. On the other hand, after the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Taliban came and regained and retook all of the positions that the women had in some way taken through the Sovietization of the area.

The second aspect is this. Once you leave your culture, isn't it more possible to be a little more multicultural? If you are in a small town in America, in Europe, in Africa, it is difficult to break outside the rituals and the thinking of the tribe. But once you liberate yourself, you can be a bit more individualistic.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Your first point about the Stans is an instance of the problem I have mentioned, which is that from a narrow point of view it looks good. It is not surprising that once the oppressive Soviet state was gone, some of its positive achievements were also taken away. That's what I mean by practical wisdom of the sort that philosophers lack. I don't have any more wisdom except to point out that wisdom is needed.

On the second point, I would say that you find both individuality and cosmopolitanism and resistance to them everywhere. In Kumasi, my hometown, there is an old lady who is the most uncosmopolitan person I have ever met. She was a great friend of my father's. She's in her nineties now. When I go to visit, she says hello. She asks me how I am. She's not interested in what I'm doing in America. She wants to tell me all the gossip about my hometown. She wouldn't cross the Pra River, which is the southern boundary of the former state, except at gunpoint. As far as she is concerned, the only interesting place in the world is the place where she is. She is the Queen Mother, so she is a royal.

But there are plenty of people around her, who live in the same place, in the same building, who are intensely curious about the rest of the world. Many Asanti royals now live in London and New York. They have traveled.

On the street where I grew up, there was our house, my grandfather's house, and then another house. That house has people living in it now. One of them is married to a Japanese and lives in Kyoto. One lives in Madrid. One lives in London. Two live in New York. Maybe Ghanaians are more likely to do this than some people, but many people do the same.

When I recommend cosmopolitanism, I'm not saying that it is morally obligatory. If people want to live in a small town and be small-town people, as long as they recognize the moral rights of people in other places, fine. I lived part of my life in a small town in New Jersey, and I liked living in this place where people in the supermarket ask after my sheep.

What I'm doing is kind of ersatz, but there are people for whom it is real. Especially in other parts of the world, those people who are happy in small towns are uncomfortable with the various forms of globalization. They feel threatened by the influx of ideas, in particular through the radio and the television and increasingly the Internet, from other places. They worry about their children being different from them in ways that they don't like. We are perhaps often insufficiently sensitive to that concern, those of us who are happy travelers.

QUESTION: How would a philosophical liberal respond to the Marxist argument that the concept of individuality is simply a rationalization by the bourgeoisie for (1) the activities of the capitalists who ignore the interests of others; and (2) a way of dividing the working class and justifying the continued existence of the social order?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I'm pleased to hear the Marxist questions raised in the early 21st century in the United States, where I worry about the lack of intellectual diversity. The Left is represented in U.S. universities, though the form of Marxism that has survived in the American university is very unconnected with a realistic appreciation of life. But we also have an underrepresented conservative position in the university. Too few people are intelligently and vigorously defending conservative positions.

First of all, I don't believe in the kind of relationship between economics and ideas that's implicit in that way of thinking. There is much more relative autonomy, as the Marxist theorists themselves would have said, of ideology from economic interest.

But more than that, I don't find it true that working-class people in the United States have any difficulty in appreciating the value of individuality. Second, the main obstacle to individuality in the world today is poverty, so liberals should be worried about the problem insofar as it hinders the free development of persons, and should work with those Marxists who are concerned about the unequal division of resources. Along with progressives, we have a possible alliance at least, even if we don't agree on the theoretical question, because, far from only asserting that we should be happy with whatever allocation of resources is produced by modern capitalism, liberalism has a strong set of arguments to make about the necessity of raising the baseline for all in order to further the pursuit of individuality.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

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