Cosmopolitanism: An Age Old Concept with Contemporary Relevance
By Chapel Talk, April 27, 2012
May 4, 2012
A Reading from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad:
No one is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. Do you love your Creator? Love your fellow-beings first. Kindness is a mark of faith: and whoever has not kindness has not faith. All God’s creatures are His family; and he is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures. What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured. Feed the hungry and visit the sick, and free the captive, if he be unjustly confined. Assist any person oppressed, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Follow up an evil deed by a good one which will wipe [the former] out, and behave good-naturedly to people. Actions will be judged according to intentions. Every good act is charity; and verily it is a good act to meet your brother with an open countenance, and to pour water from your own water-bag into his vessel.
April 27, 2012, 31 days ‘til Prize Day, as some of you VI Formers might call out if we had School Meeting today. As the academic year winds down, it is normal to get a bit reflective about what has happened here at School and also about how you VI Formers and the rest of you will approach the years ahead. In that spirit, I would like to talk today about a concept which captured my attention in a book I read recently. The concept is called cosmopolitanism, and the book carries that title along with the subtitle Ethics in A World of Strangers. The author is Princeton University philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah.
One reason I like the book so much and want to talk about it today is because it focuses on a topic I care deeply about: how we at St. Mark’s can best fulfill the last phrase of our mission statement, encouraging each of you to explore your place in the larger world beyond our campus. Your exploring the larger world, whether in your courses, in your personal research or experiences, or in School sponsored travel, has been on my mind this year because it is central to Global Citizenship, one of the three initiatives that comprise our recently adopted Strategic Plan. Another reason I was drawn to this book as the subject for a Chapel Talk is because Appiah offers provocative assertions about global citizenship that really made me think, some of which I hope I can convey in a way that will make you think.
So here goes.
Cosmopolitanism is actually a very old term which has carried a number of connotations through the ages. If you are like me you probably think of a cosmopolitan person as sophisticated, worldly, a person with a wide range of acquaintances, well read, well traveled. So far as we know, the term originated in Ancient Greece with the Cynics, a group of Greek philosophers who Dr. Harwood and Ms. Cook can tell you about, and the term meant Citizen of the Cosmos, someone who views their responsibilities as a citizen in the broadest possible terms.
Appiah believes that we should all be cosmopolitans, in the way the Ancient Greeks understood the term—that we should all view our responsibilities as citizens in the broadest possible way. Appiah argues that this premise has two implications, implications that I agree with but if taken seriously are very challenging. First, he argues, we need to recognize that we have obligations to others that stretch, in his words, “beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin,” and even beyond those to whom we are related by national citizenship. In other words, in addition to obligations to family and friends, we also have obligations to strangers, to people we have never met and never will meet. Second, Appiah argues, we must take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means, in Appiah’s words, “taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend (lives) significance.” Appiah’s thinking echoes the passage from Mohammed in a lovely manner.
As I reflect on the past year, I feel good about ways the St. Mark’s school community is meeting the standard of cosmopolitanism, as Appiah frames it. Nine of you students and two Faculty members spent part of your Christmas vacation working with children at the Sankofa Children’s Home in Ghana. Listening to trip participants and reading the trip blog amply demonstrates that each participant has adopted the broad sense of responsibility Appiah advocates. Thanks to the participants’ advocacy, the Havoc on the Hardwood tournament raised $1500 for the Home, on top of $1000 raised during the Holiday Gift Drive. Our attention has also been raised about the awful events taking place in Uganda, the brutal regime there of Joseph Kony and the atrocities of his Lord’s Resistance Army. And recently, we have engaged in discussion of the Trayvon Martin Case. I was very proud as I participated in a Burnett House discussion last week about how reflective students in the group were about racial profiling, and about assumptions made regarding how a person chooses to dress. I was particularly proud, in my own conversation and from reports of other conversations, about the thoughtful engaged manner in which student leaders facilitated the discussions.
So, on a certain level, Appiah’s argument is easy to endorse and lends validation to our good efforts.
But, I would argue, Appiah’s major premises are actually very challenging. You do not have to think about Appiah’s argument very long before you ask yourself: how do I balance my obligations to my family and friends with my obligations to strangers? You also quickly discover that initiatives of caring often become subject to criticism, forcing you to question assumptions. Bono, for example, has contributed millions to relief efforts in Africa, and has inspired many others to contribute. But he has been criticized (perhaps unfairly, perhaps fairly) because, in the judgment of the critics, the organizations he supports have not made a positive difference and have even increased corruption and dependency. And if you focus your attention on one place, say Uganda, what makes the suffering there more worthy of your attention than suffering in Libya, Syria, Palestine, or the United States? The sheer magnitude of the world’s problems are another factor which makes it difficult to figure out how to think about people beyond those you can see and touch. In 2004, two million people died of malaria, 240,000 people died every month of AIDS, and 136,000 died every month of diarrhea.
I like the way Appiah responds to the temptation to throw up your hands and say the world’s problems are just too complicated and massive for me to become involved in, with my time or my resources or my heart. Cosmopolitanism, Appiah argues, “is about intelligence and curiosity as well as engagement.” Following this logic, If we put our mind to it, we can figure out a way to balance caring about friends and family with caring about those we have never met, and how we balance those priorities will differ among us, which is normal and right. I particularly like Appiah’s words intelligence and curiosity in this context. I am confident that intelligence and curiosity will lead you to an answer you can be at peace with regarding how to approach the horrors in Uganda, or Syria, or Palestine. And there are so many ways you can use your Intelligence and curiosity effectively on behalf of those you do not know as well as on behalf of those you do know. As Jyotsna Mahendra told us on Seminar Day, if you are tempted to make a financial contribution to an organization that supports a cause you believe in, you should do research to gain confidence your money will be well spent. And of course, just because you cannot do everything does not mean you should do nothing. Plenty of worthy organizations would benefit from your help, whether with resources or with time. I can imagine some of you, at some point in your life, might make a commitment like 2008 graduate Nick Ciccolo did during the summer between his V and VI Form years. Nick became fascinated by microlending, where banks and other organizations make small loans to individuals in developing countries that will help them start businesses and thus start a cycle of greater prosperity in their village or town. Nick did his research, employing his intelligence and curiosity. He pondered the argument that funds placed in a bank and then loaned out in this manner would address poverty better than other commonly used alternatives, like donating grain to communities which had the unintended consequence of putting local farmers out of business. Nick also pondered the negative argument that microlending can create a debt trap, leaving borrowers beholden to banks. The conclusion Nick arrived at was that, on balance, microlending was a force for good and so he spent part of the summer in Guatemala working on a microlending project. Nick also used Broadway Night as a fund-raiser for the project.
Now I would like to turn briefly to Appiah’s second principle of cosmopolitanism, that we must take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that give lives significance. Here again Appiah is advocating curiosity, a desire to learn how an individual, perhaps in our own community or perhaps in a very different culture views, him or herself, family, friend relations, people like you. What are that person’s customs, likes, and dislikes? It seems logical to me that an open-minded desire to understand how another individual views the world, deriving in us from an assumption of human equality, will increase the inclination to care about that person. St. Mark’s is a wonderful place to develop this habit of mind that Appiah advocates. Each of you have ample opportunities to explore what you have in common and what you do not have in common with your roommate, your fellow student living down the hall, your teammate, and your partner in a Chemistry or Math project. You have many classroom opportunities in multiple disciplines to develop that mindset as well. Travel, of course, can be a great way to create these opportunities. Once you discover some sort of commonality of thinking with another person, either in conversation or in study, you are more eager to reflect upon what you do not have in common, thus further enriching your understanding and your caring.
Like Appiah’s urging that we feel a responsibility for strangers, this advocacy to take an interest in the practices and beliefs of others can be very challenging too. I am pretty sure that everyone here has been brought up to believe and practice some variant of the Golden Rule: treat everyone as you hope you will be treated. In the larger world beyond St. Mark’s, you have probably already discovered that some people who you encounter or learn about and who Appiah advocates that you care about, do not share this belief about the Golden Rule. Appiah’s answer to this problem is: get used to it, do not be naïve. Appiah also does not advocate respecting all cultural practices. Appiah acknowledges that how one makes sense of the fact that evil exists in the world, what is happening in places like Uganda, and Syria, and in too many other places including here in the United States, will remain for each of us a real struggle.
Despite the difficulty, I believe Appiah is right to advocate taking a deep interest in the practices and beliefs of others. My own understanding of the practices and beliefs of Afghanis, for example, was deepened by reading The Kite Runner, which I know some of you have read too. The struggles of the main characters to maintain family ties and human dignity amidst horrific violence and political disruption helped me appreciate my similarities with those individuals and also differences. The human reference point provided by the book increased my degree of caring about what is happening to people in Afghanistan and counteracts any inclination to objectify them or make glib generalizations you sometimes hear, like, “those Afghani people have been warring for centuries. They must like it; I bet they’ll be warring for centuries more.”
 P. xv
 David R. Francis, “U.S. Foreign Aid: Do Americans Give Enough?” Christian Science Monitor, January 6, 2005, cited in Appiah p. 170.
 Appiah P. 168