Cosmopolitan responsibility

Can we, through mere conversation, come to tolerate and accept every other human being on this planet? Do we have a practical and positive responsibility to every single human being on this planet by the nature of our shared humanity? What are our basic responsibilities to every other human on the planet?

I read Cosmopolitanism by K.A. Appiah over Christmas. It took a couple of goes and lots of jotting down to figure out his argument but I think I’ve got the basics. The questions above were raised by Appiah and answered in a sort of philosophical/anthropological/sociological/economical way. It went something like:

Through conversation, we can come to understand anyone’s point of view. We can understand what they mean when they place value judgements on an action or practice. We may disagree with them on what that value is, in fact in many cases we’re guaranteed to due to conflicting value judgements, but we can nevertheless understand it. This happens within communities and outside of communities. Through these conversations we can connect with anyone in the world and see that everyone matters. We can learn tolerance.  “Conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it is enough that it helps people get used to one another.”

We shouldn’t, he insists, accept relativism which argues for accepting that “you think this is morally good and I don’t but that’s the end of the conversation, go about your business.” This mutes conversation and the opportunity to learn from and really understand one another. If does not allow us to see the world as shared, just bubbles of “morality” anchored in a space-time that actually have nothing to do with us. They do not require any action from us except from that which is in our own morality bubble. Therefore, we would have no moral responsibility to anyone else and would have no grounds for intervening when it comes to moral bads happening to other people.

(Unless, I add, we contained “we must help people and be kind to people” in our own bubble and kindness and help were seen as things like “don’t punch kids” and “say please and thank you” and “help etc. If that was the case then it would seem we do have a responsibility to others within relativism. However, in relativism, if no one had these stipulations that would be just as okay and that is its problem. If everyone had the stipulation “do punch kids in the face” in their morality bubble, it would therefore be an okay thing to do and no one could say you were morally wrong for doing it.)

He instead argues for pluralism – “there are many values worth living by and you cannot live by all of them.” As well as fallibilism – “our knowledge is imperfect, provisional and subject to revision in the face of new evidence.”

Okay, so, what does this mean for us? We can tolerate people through conversation and we recognise that there are many morally acceptable ways of living including our own. What now? According to Appiah, this tolerance directly breeds obligation. We are obliged to other people because of our shared humanity and our recognition that they operate under one of the morally good ways to live. That obligation is called the “basic obligation” and it is to ensure that every human has their “basic needs” met, which he describes as including water, food, shelter, education and freedom from cruelty.

(I’m not quite sure why this is the case. Why should I do something to help anyone else just because of our shared humanity? I don’t see an obvious obligation. However, I concede that I am likely missing something either in the argument or in my own structure. Appiah points out that we don’t need to know why something is a good thing to do or why we feel compelled to act upon it, but that nevertheless we recognise that it is good and that we must act upon it. This sounds like it would make cosmopolitan conversation and understanding very difficult. Anyway, back to the book.)

So, should we just go around helping everyone, giving up all our time and resources to other people at the detriment of our own happiness and quality of life as Peter Singer (whom I personally think is balmy) would have us do?


There are limits to our obligations. There must be, otherwise, we would be missing the point of being human. If everyone just dropped everything and gave all they had to those who had significantly less we would level out extreme poverty very quickly but, 1) it would only be temporary as this is not sustainable, 2) we would be exercising our moral energies on people to whom we have less real life responsibility towards such as our families 3) we would be denying ourselves a good quality of life, something which we hold in extremely high regard.

So, instead of operating under the moral code “If I can help someone, I should” (which would bring about Peter Singer’s state of affairs), Appiah offers something like “if I am aware that someone is not having their needs met and I am the best person to help them meet their needs then I should do so.” Appiah therefore presents the following structure for how we can help everybody:

  1. The best way for everyone on the planet to get their basic needs met is if their government provided it for them.
    Within our own social moral circles and boundaries of law and justice, or the “nation state” Appiah uses to illustrate his point, we are all obliged to help one another meet our basic needs. If all governments did this then there would be no problem.
    However, as Appiah rightly pointed out, there are governments which don’t or can’t do this (many/most of them perhaps?). In this instance, because we all recognise the cosmopolitan statement that everyone matters, we must as a nation exercise our basic obligation and organise to intervene.
  2. We are only obliged to do our fair share and no more therefore recognising that our key responsibility is to those with which we have the strongest human connection such as family.
  3. We should take the opportunity to enjoy life. It shouldn’t be a moral bad to spend money on doing something you love such as going to the cinema or a sport or hobby. By doing so you are adding to your own life and contributing to the knowledge and happiness of humanity as a whole and this a good thing.

Therefore, Appiah’s view of what we should do with our lives, under the banner of cosmopolitanism, is that we should understand that every human life matters (regardless of their race, culture etc) and that we have a basic obligation to ensure that all of those lives have their basic needs met.  Since, as a first world country, places like the UK, Europe and America are in the best position to help people, they are obliged to ensure that the basic needs of other nations are being met through national and international organisation.

This does not allow for cultural imperialism or invasion. Our obligation is to make sure that people are getting their basic needs met. That is it. Outside of that, we are not out of moral obligation.

That’s how I understood the book and the argument. If anyone read it differently, I’d love to hear from you and find out what you think of it.



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