Book Review: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

I think a lot about the intersection of globalization and identity. I have lived my whole life in big cities in America where the name of the game is fusion: a bit of this, a bit of that, across the entire cultural spectrum. From art to cuisine to people, big city life in the U.S. is the non-stop sampling of different cultures. A life diet of hybridity is fundamentally American.

I have also traveled to big, cosmopolitan cities around the world, where a similar fusion game takes place. The people of Zurich, Hong Kong, or Buenos Aires practice similar types of cultural consumption (which includes their media/information diet) and therefore maintain mongrelized identities as well.

It’s safe to say that I feel a stronger connection to place and people when I’m in a cosmopolitan metropolis overseas than when I am in a small town in America.

Yet, my passport says “USA,” and I resist the label, increasingly claimed by fellow big-city dwellers and international travelers, of “citizen of the world.” They are usually oblivious to the many ways their country of origin has shaped their worldview.

Plus, to be a “citizen of the world” comes with its own set of obligations to “the world,” right? Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who thinks about the ethical questions that accompany a cosmopolitan identity. His book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is a relatively academic treatment on this topic.

Here’s a sketch of the book:

Our ancestors lived in small tribes where they interacted with a small set of people who they knew. Others were of rival tribes and to be viewed with suspicion. Information about other ways of life didn’t really flow into the village. That’s changing:

The challenge is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

Appiah’s chosen word to describe this task is “cosmopolitanism.” He finds it superior to “globalization” (an overused word that can mean everything from a marketing strategy to an economic thesis) or “multiculturalism” (which he says is “another shape shifter, which so often designates the disease it purports to cure”). He admits that cosmopolitanism can have elitist connotations. But it’s actually a term rooted more in the idea of cosmos — the universe: “Talk of cosmopolitanism originally signaled a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities.”

He describes two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism:

One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.

This raises some tricky philosophical questions about whether we are supposed to, then, be as loyal to the vast abstraction “humanity” as to our neighbor who looks and talks like us. Appiah claims middle ground:

We need take sides neither with the nationalist who abandons all foreigners nor with the hard-core cosmopolitan who regards her friends and fellow citizens with icy impartiality. The position worth defending might be called (in both senses) a partial cosmopolitanism.

But rather than clarify this middle ground by putting forth a prescriptive framework — i.e, what exactly is our philosophical obligation toward strangers? — Appiah instead just offers questions:

How real are values? What do we talk about when we talk about difference? Is any form of relativism right? When do morals and manners clash? Can culture be “owned”? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?

He does work through these questions. He rejects cultural relativism; not everything is local custom. He rejects arguments that tie globalization to cultural imperialism or increased homogeneity. (Tyler Cowen wrote a whole book on this; my notes.) He exposes the failings of the “Golden Rule” as a principle to live by. And to his colleague Peter Singer — who I say is the most overrated living philosopher — he delivers a very satisfying take-down of Singer’s shallow pond theory of saving children.

So he stakes out his middle ground of partial cosmopolitanism more by talking about what it’s not. On the positive side, we get a lot of generalities: it’s important to talk with people from other cultures, to maintain mutual respect, to learn about other ways of life, and most of all — his favorite phrase, which captures the modesty of his proposals — we need the curiosity inherent in a partial cosmopolitan outlook so that we can “get used to one another” and live peacefully together. We do not, he stresses, need to share underlying values or agree on everything.

It feels unsatisfying — a bit too flexible. But this doesn’t mean the book is not worthwhile on the whole. There are many interesting discussions of philosophy throughout, and Appiah’s personal story as a Ghanaian immigrant endows his discussion with a passion rarely found in these types of books.


Here are all my posts on globalization. Here are my posts on Americanism. G. Pascal Zachary makes a related case in The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge. Here’s my old post titled “Conflicted Identity as Commonality in America.” Here’s an excerpt from Yi-Fu Tuan on this topic.


Other choice sentences from Appiah’s book:

“A cosmopolitan openness to the world is perfectly consistent with picking and choosing among the options you find in your search.”

“We’ve identified three kinds of disagreement about values: we can fail to share a vocabulary of evaluation; we can give the same vocabulary different interpretations; and we can give the same values different weights.”

“When it comes to change, what moves people is often not an argument from a principle, not a long discussion about values, but just a gradually acquired new way of seeing things.”

“We can live in harmony without agreeing on underlying values (except, perhaps, the cosmopolitan value of living together). It works the other way, too: we can find ourselves in conflict when we do agree on values. Warring parties are seldom at odds because they have clashing conceptions of “the good.” On the contrary, conflict arises most often when two people have identified the same thing as good.

“Our moral intuitions are often more secure than the principles we appeal to in explaining them.”

5 Responses to Book Review: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

  1. Russell says:

    There’s an essay from a few years ago by Tuan Yi-Fu titled “Cosmos and Hearth” which touches on a number of similar topics and themes. I’d recommend it to those interested in reading more on this.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    He also wrote a book by the same title — decent not great.

  3. My take: The moral choice of saying no to another (or a group of others) makes the choice to say yes something extraordinary. Obligation robs the contribution of its real value: One could have so easily turned away.

    Sorry for not articulating this well. To come over all college freshman, I’ll paraphrase Rand: I would never live my life for another man, nor ask another man to live his life for me. (That said, serving others is the purest joy I have experienced. As long as one is not sacrificing one’s own wellbeing to do so, it’s all win.)

  4. Akshay Kapur says:

    Deep post Ben. Especially this part: “It feels unsatisfying — a bit too flexible.” Coexistence without full agreement doesn’t sound glamorous which makes it hard to market. Conflict sells so much more easily.

  5. Krishna says:

    I think I’d take all of that. It underscores my pet theme “Respect the difference”.

    In particular that line *We need take sides neither with the nationalist who abandons all foreigners nor with the hard-core cosmopolitan who regards her friends and fellow citizens with icy impartiality.*

    Pure Gem. Mark it to Al Qaeda and such other band of religious goons that wishes the whole world to wear their robes and look like them.

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