Kwame Anthony Appiah On Values, Sexuality And The Perfect Cosmopolitan

Where does Kwame Anthony Appiah find the time?! The London-born, Ghana-reared Princeton professor has penned or edited twelve books, three novels and countless other pieces on cultural and social theory. His most recent work, Cosmopolitanism – which came out in 2006 and will soon be eclipsed by Experiments in Ethics – compels the reader to engage the wider global community. How can we revel in our particular communities while reaching beyond to our fellow man?

Our editor chatted with Appiah earlier this week to discuss the difference between morals and values, what to do with wing-nut fundamentalists like Fred Phelps and why Appiah won’t force anything down your throat. Unless you ask for it, of course.

We’ve split the conversation into two parts. Part one can be found after the trusty jump. You’ll have to wait until Monday to finish this job (see below).

Andrew Belonsky: One thing that comes up in your work is the idea of tolerance. You discuss how we have to have dialogue with people. We have to converse with all people to breed tolerance and come to some basic communal understanding. A lot of people take issue with the word “tolerance”. I’m sure you’ve heard this before – you know, you tolerate a spur in your boot if you’re backpacking and don’t want to take your shoe off. It’s something that can still irritate, not something that you accept. Through your thinking, is it possible to grow acceptance from tolerance? Or is tolerance the end?

Anthony Appiah: Well, I think it depends on what you’re talking about, but assuming the thing you’re tolerating, you’re just bearing with it – that’s not the same thing as acceptance at all. Unless there is a process – many people go through it – that begins with tolerance and ends with acceptance. But I completely agree that acceptance and toleration are very different, at least with respect to homosexuality. Part of the reason I think that is because many of the arguments against sexuality are terrible! They’re such bad arguments! If you grow up in a homophobic culture, you can be a reasonable person who doesn’t like homosexuals. I think a reasonable culture will eventually accept homosexuals, not just tolerate them, but then someone in a different culture sees tolerating homosexuals as unreasonable.

AB: A cosmopolitan thinker creates boundaries of where they’re willing to go with somebody. There are people who are going to be unreasonable and you have to know your boundaries. If someone crosses that boundary – for example, someone like Fred Phelps: someone who insists on going around holding signs saying “Fags Must Die”. If we can accept that there are people that we’re not going to be able to come to an understanding with, what happens to those people in a cosmopolitan society? Do they just create their own camp and there’s no communication?

AA: I think the idea is that you have to stop people from acting on these things. You can’t just say that they’re wrong. If they’re acting in ways that are- beating people up, stopping them from doing things they’re entitled to do, then you have to line up and stop them. If they beat people up, they should be arrested.

AB: What if they’re not assaulting someone? What if they’re picketing a gay man’s funeral?

AA: Well, the people who do that are very particular in our society. They’re not the standard. That’s not the standard form – most of us think you shouldn’t picket funerals – period. We understand it’s a particularly cruel thing to do. I think the people who do this are hateful. I think we should say that they’re hateful and I think we should persuade them that they’re not right. But, in the end, what we can do is offer comfort to the people they’re picketing.

AB: Can we discuss the difference between values and morals? Values “guide acts, thoughts and feelings,” you say in the book. They’re are informed by your family, your friends. Values are contextual on a subjective level. Meanwhile, morals can be applied on a more universal level.

AA: Sure. There are traditional ways of thinking about what defines morality, and no simple answer. But there are two, I think, very big thoughts about this. One is that we should think of morality as having to do with our obligations to other people – what we ought to do or ought not to do to and for them. It defines morality by its subject matter. Another way of thinking about morality is that it’s the set of universalizable rules: things that we ought not to do whoever we are, wherever we are, no matter what. If you take the second view, if you think of morality as consisting of the rule – the norms – that everybody ought to conform to, then many values are not moral values.

AB: Can you elaborate?

AA: Many of the things that guide my life are not the kinds of things I think that other people ought to follow. They’re just the ones that I follow. They are things that I care about, because they’re subject to my life. I don’t expect other people to conform to them, but there are the ones that I do. Morality is essentially about which norms everybody ought to conform to. If you take the other way of thinking: morality defines itself in terms of what we owe to others, then it seems to me that the question of sexuality isn’t obviously moral at all, because much sexuality only affects other people through their consent. Most sex acts are with people who want it and it’s not a moral issue at all.