K. Anthony Appiah
K. Anthony Appiah; drawing by David Levine


“Rootless cosmopolitans” was the belittling label that Stalinists applied to Jewish intellectuals during the Soviet purges; and although the American academy is neither Stalinist nor anti-Semitic, there has for the past twenty years been a good deal of argument between the enthusiasts for roots and the defenders of cosmopolitanism. Writers such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel and the London School of Economics’ John Gray have contrasted the rootless condition of cosmopolitan liberalism with the rootedness of traditional societies elsewhere in the world and of our own society at various times in the past, invariably to the disadvantage of liberalism.

Skeptics have thought the contrast was overdone, and historically minded skeptics have pointed out that Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill would have been deeply astonished to be told that a concern for community was incompatible with a concern for individuality. If asked whether they wanted us to have deep attachments—to our friends, families, towns or villages, regions, and nations, with their particular histories and quirks—or whether they wanted us to pursue our individual intimations of the good life, drawing on the resources of the whole world and the whole of human culture, they would certainly have answered “both.”

The Ethics of Identity offers a defense of the “rooted cosmopolitanism” that Anthony Appiah thinks that liberals are really committed to. It does a great deal more than that, but its central theme is indeed that no sane person supposes that a commitment to liberal individualism implies that we are to construct our lives out of absolutely nothing, any more than a sane person supposes that poetic originality requires that the poet should abjure the use of all known languages when she sets out to write. Conversely, the liberal individualist is cosmopolitan to the extent that she thinks that we can find the ingredients for an interesting life in more than one place, more than one culture, and that a decent respect for what we have inherited is consistent with a wish to do something novel with it.

“Cosmopolitanism” is in many ways a slightly inapt term to cover everything that is at stake; one need not think of oneself as a citizen of the entire world in any literal sense to believe that what people should do with their lives should not be dictated—morally, logically, or physically—by where, and into what family, ethnos, or nation, they were born. Nor does the fact that one thinks that different persons, families, cultures, and nations can learn from one another imply that such lessons should be imposed by brute force upon the unwilling. Still, cosmopolitanism is by no means a wholly inapt term in a world of contending nationalisms, where it is far from easy to persuade either citizens or their leaders that nations have much to learn from one another.

Nobody is better placed than Anthony Appiah to make the case for rooted cosmopolitanism. His father, Joe Appiah, was a leading figure in the independence movement that saw the former Gold Coast colony become Ghana in 1957; within a few years his father was in jail along with most of President Nkrumah’s for-mer allies. Anthony Appiah’s mother, Peggy Cripps, is the daughter of the famously austere Sir Stafford Cripps—a barrister like his son-in-law Joe, and the Labour finance minister who had to rescue a bankrupt Britain after World War II. Like Bertrand Rus-sell, Anthony Appiah is the child of aristocratic radicals and, like Rus-sell, he acquired not only the habit of intellectual independence but an enviable intellectual elegance into the bargain.

He was a child in Ghana, a teenager at an English boarding school, an undergraduate and graduate student at Cambridge. His career thereafter has been in the United States: at Cornell, Duke, Harvard, and Princeton. In short, he is a man of multiple identities: by nationality Ghanian and British, and an American citizen, by profession not only a philosopher but a novelist; he is more literally an African-American than most people to whom that label is applied, but politically much less inclined to identify with the label—or any other label—than many of his colleagues in Afro-American Studies. He is also gay. If anyone should have something interesting to say about identity, it is he.


It is true but slightly misleading to say that The Ethics of Identity revisits John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and brings it up to date. Certainly Anthony Appiah self-consciously allows Mill to set his agenda: “I plan to explore the ethics of identity in our personal and political lives,” he says at the outset,

but I want to do so in an account that takes seriously Mill’s notion of individuality. Indeed, Mill, who has become a central figure in modern political thought for many good reasons, and a few bad ones, will serve us as something of a traveling companion in the pages ahead. What will make him an agreeable traveling companion—as opposed to a traveling icon, dangling from the rearview mirror—isn’t that we will agree with all his analyses; it’s that he cared about so many of the issues we care about, and, in a day when talk of “identity” can sound merely modish, he reminds us that the issues it presents are scarcely alien to the high canon of political philosophy.

That neatly catches the way Mill is put to work here; both his ideas and his life are drawn on for illumination and illustration. Nonetheless, we should not exaggerate the similarity of what Anthony Appiah does and what Mill did a century and a half ago. For one thing, Mill painstakingly tried to demonstrate that his defense of the right of every civilized person to do as she or he chose so long as nobody else was damaged in the process could be derived from the principle of utility—the principle that the ultimate test of behavior was the maximization of the general happiness. Like many other philosophers, Appiah does not give that argument the time of day.1


Again, Mill very often wrote as though he thought that freedom of thought, speech, writing, and acting at our own risk is essentially instrumental; that is, he wrote as though we are to take the idea that individual lives are “experiments in living” quite literally. And this suggests that just as we expect to converge on one set of scientific truths, so we shall eventually come to be of one mind about the meaning of life and the point of human existence. At this point freedom of thought in ethics will be of no more interest than freedom of thought in chemistry.

Like Bernard Williams and Stuart Hampshire, Appiah thinks the prospects of such a convergence are not worth discussing. There is much to be said about what makes a great variety of good lives good; that we shall ever agree that one of them is the one good life is deeply implausible. Quite what Mill thought remains obscure; he certainly thought that convergence of views on ethical questions was centuries away if it was ever in prospect, and mocked contemporaries such as Auguste Comte who claimed to have all the answers. More often, Mill wrote as though the human imagination was inexhaustible, and convergence as unlikely in ethics as in music and poetry.

What Appiah does is what Mill would have been well advised to do, but it is very much not what Mill did. Appiah leaves deep metaphysical questions to one side, and does not try to assist his argument by linking it to a contestable moral theory. Where Mill argued deductively from principles to cases, Appiah argues inductively from particular lives, particular political dilemmas, particular cultural commitments, sometimes invoking his own experience, sometimes reflecting on contemporary political dilemmas, some-times drawing examples and arguments from fiction. Mill’s intellectual style was abstract where Appiah’s is concrete. It is difficult to imagine Mill exploring the puzzling connection between originality and personal character by evoking the secondhand but sincere progressivism of Anna Karenina’s brother Stepan Arkadyich or the way the butler, Mr. Stevens, understands his vocation in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It is quite impossible to imagine Anthony Appiah not considering such works.

Anthony Appiah also has rather different opponents from Mill’s. Mill fought on two fronts, both political in a straightforward sense: on the one side he fought against conservatives who thought that what was customary was in a deep sense “natural,” and on the other side he was fighting his own allies, tidy-minded reformers who wanted to create a well-managed, contented, but in the last resort authoritarian utopia. Like Appiah, Mill explored the interaction of character, culture, and politics as he had learned to do by reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; but On Liberty is a more public and polemical work than The Ethics of Identity.

Anthony Appiah’s opponents are mostly to be found in the academy: as already suggested, they include political philosophers of an exaggeratedly communitarian persuasion, but they also include postmodernist critics who see all forms of cultural attachment as constraints, reflections of power relations that make aspirations to freedom delusive. His other opponents are not very visible in the pages of The Ethics of Identity, but ever since the publication of In My Father’s House in 1992, Professor Appiah’s coolness toward Afrocentrism has drawn fire both in the United States and from Ghanaian and other African critics.

The Ethics of Identity is wonderfully straightforward. It does just what it proposes to do. It explores the demands of “individuality,” and rejects extreme understandings of what autonomy requires. It considers the relation of personal and group identity to morals and ethics—the thought that most of our obligations and attachments are those we have “as a” son, teacher, American, gay, Christian, or whatever. It moves on to the links between identity and culture—in the general sense of the distinctive reservoir of meanings that attach to any given identity. Here Appiah has some very wise and original things to say about the inevitability of a liberal state affecting the inner life of its citizens. He ends with a defense of rooted cosmopolitanism. Not only is the argument direct; it is untechnical, transparent, and unaggressive.


But Anthony Appiah knows that the substance of what he is arguing is very far from straightforward, and one of his many virtues is his readiness to point out to the reader all those many places where a search for sharp distinctions is going to be frustrated. There are so many that all one can offer here is a representative sample; but there is a general moral worth drawing before turning to that sample. A standing temptation in moral and political philosophy is to suppose that the philosopher’s task is to search for some way, if not of tidying up the world, at least of tidying up our understanding of it. Liberal political theory, for instance, is full of attempts to draw a sharp line between what is “public” and therefore amenable to legal regulation and what is “private” and therefore not. Antidiscrimination laws forbid us to discriminate among those whom we admit to public accommodations, but they do not insist that we also invite all and sundry into our living rooms.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Anthony Appiah doubts whether we can always give a sharply principled account of how and why we draw the line between the public and the private when and where we do. The messiness of the process of pushing and pulling aspects of our social interactions from one category to the other—the use of the law to force the acceptance of women in “private” clubs for “men only” where business matters are habitually discussed, for instance—is intrinsic to the politics of liberal societies. The philosopher is better em- ployed charting the reality of conflict than in trying to settle it by one argument or another.


Although political questions surface throughout The Ethics of Identity, Appiah insists that his focus is on ethics, that is, on the question “What should I make of my life?” This is not the moral question “What do I owe to everyone else?” nor is it the political question “What are the proper functions of the liberal state?” But because the ethical task of making a life is one that cannot be conducted in isolation from the lives of everyone else, political questions inevitably arise in the course of the argument. What Appiah does not set out to do is to provide political answers to the dilemmas facing us: “If an agenda, a set of action items, is what you’re after, my one bit of practical advice is that you look elsewhere.”

Appiah begins by considering the demands of constructing a distinctive individual life; he rejects two popular pictures of what individuality demands. One is “authenticity,” understood as the search for who we really are, for what is “innate” in us as opposed to what is superficial; the other is “existentialist creativity,” understood as self-creation more or less ex nihilo. The first fails because there is an element of creation in making a life for ourselves—nature supplies ingredients, not a finished self; the second fails because out of nothing one can create nothing, and if we are to create a life we must create it out of what is available to us. Here is where Mr. Stevens, the butler from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, quietly enters the picture.

Mr. Stevens is a deeply committed butler; but a butler at his best is a man who in obvious ways subordinates his individuality to the demands of his role as a very superior servant. Mr. Stevens, however, is a deeply self-conscious practitioner of his craft. He is loyal to a demanding profession; his father was a butler before him, and he is also loyal to his father’s memory. He is thoughtful about what the skills are that he must possess and hone, if he is to be an excellent butler. His standards are very much his own; he could be a much worse butler than he is without his master ever noticing:

What makes Mr. Stevens a useful example of the power of individuality, then, is that he exemplifies it even though he himself doesn’t much believe in liberty, equality, or fraternity. Even someone as illiberal as Mr. Stevens, that is, demonstrates the power of individuality as an ideal.

The thought cuts both ways. Individuality as such is not a liberal ideal; we may make a way of life our own and make something of our lives in pursuing a way of life without thinking that the way of life itself should embody a generous or creative vision of human life. The liberal version of the ideal of individuality must emphasize another value, that of autonomy. The autonomous individual is the ideal of Mill’s On Liberty, the person who is in command of his or her own thoughts and ideals, whose life plan is the one he or she has chosen. Quite how far a person must be in command is another question. Can I be said to be intellectually autonomous only if I have literally examined every idea to which I subscribe, and admitted it to the ranks of what I believe only after being fully convinced that it deserves to be there? If so, there are no autonomous thinkers. Only if we take most of our beliefs on trust is everyday life possible.

No doubt there are some beliefs we ought not to subscribe to without the fiercest testing, but they are few in number. What is true of beliefs is true of our other commitments; most of what we want, hope for, and think right or wrong we have to take on trust. Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have observed that we move from babyhood to adulthood by acquiring habitual allegiances to people, places, and values, and that only when that process is accomplished do we have the ability to pause and reflect on which of these allegiances to retain or reject. If moral autonomy meant that all of our allegiances were adopted in the first place only after rational scrutiny, none of us would be morally autonomous.

There is a point in reminding ourselves of these obvious truths. Philosophical discussion of autonomy has too often consisted of setting impossibly high standards—requiring that we possess perfect information, that we are perfectly consistent, that we are exempt from the ordinary flow of cause and effect—and then announcing that we fail to meet them. Appiah acknowledges that there are deep puzzles about how creatures such as human beings who are built out of the familiar raw materials that they share with their animal relatives possess free will. But such issues are not central to the distinctions he wants to make. He wants to consider the ordinary understanding of freedom that we rely on when we complain of some people that they cannot respond to argument because they are simply too frightened of changing their minds. Or when we complain that they cannot respond to argument because ideas flit in and out of their minds without rhyme or reason. Neither is autonomous. Neither is sufficiently in command of themselves to be in this sense free.

The person whose beliefs are too unstable to be autonomous is the more interesting case for the purposes of The Ethics of Identity. In the past two decades, the most common complaints against the liberal account of the autonomous person have been, on the one hand, that it is a recipe for social and psychological instability and incoherence or, on the other, that it represents a peculiarly brash ideal that Western liberals wish to impose on the rest of the world. Appiah defuses both complaints with what is in essence one argument. This is where what he describes as “the demands of identity” have serious effects.

To have a stable sense of who you are, what you think, hope, admire, and detest is a substantial part of what it is to have an identity. Anthony Appiah concentrates on a double question: how we acquire an individual identity by acquiring a social identity, and how we find—and make—an identity that is not a straitjacket. In pursuing this question, Appiah begins to explore one of the most fascinating and difficult questions in moral philosophy, the relationship between general principles and particular attachments. It is a question that was raised most famously by William Godwin, the late-eighteenth-century utilitarian, anarchist, children’s writer, and husband of Mary Wollstone- craft. Brought up to be a Calvinist minister and discovering early on that he did not believe in Calvin’s God, Godwin nonetheless believed that we are put on the earth to do as much good as we can possibly do.

This led Godwin to the view that the only good reason for doing anything was to maximize the happiness of everyone, taking everyone’s interests equally into account. Godwin drew some famously counterintuitive conclusions from this principle. The notorious example that he offered his readers was this: if there is a fire in the house, and you are offered the choice between saving Archbishop Fenelon, a man of great virtue and a benefactor of the species, or saving his valet, you must save the Archbishop, even if his valet is your brother, father, or benefactor. It takes little imagination to perceive the implications for marriage, family life generally, and allegiance to anything less than humanity at large, but Godwin did not flinch. “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in over-turning the decisions of impartial truth?” asked Godwin. Two thirds of The Ethics of Identity provides a subtle defense of the thought that there is a great deal of magic in the personal pronoun. This is why identity matters; the man who risks his life to save his wife from drowning does not risk his life to save “a wife” who just happens to be his. It is she he is saving.

We acquire an identity, not least because we learn to identify with individual people of various kinds; and we are ourselves identified by others as the children of particular parents, residents of a particular village, the first black holder of a Harvard Ph.D., and so on. What we can imaginatively identify with and what we can plausibly adopt as a way of life may, however, pull further and further apart. One reason why the picture of Mr. Stevens in Ishiguro’s novel is so unsettling is that The Remains of the Day is set in a grand country house in the late 1930s at the moment when the way of life such houses sheltered was dying and would very soon be dead.

We empathize with Mr. Stevens and his vision of the perfect butler, but we do it almost in the way in which we empathize with the Spartan warrior; we can see how it might be to live like that, and feel the pull of its implicit obligations, but living like that is not an option for us. That means that the question, what is an option for us? is a central ethical question. You can imaginatively step outside the social frame into which you are born, but what more you can do is another matter. Nietzsche was not guilty of logical or sociological error when he contrasted the heroic ethos of the Greek warrior with the slave morality of Christianity. But he would have been as absurd as Don Quixote if he had attempted to be a Homeric hero.

We are not the rootless creatures imagined by the critics of liberal culture, because we acquire both our individuality and our sense of who we are by learning how to fill the social roles available to us. This is a thought more salient in the writings of John Dewey than in those of Mill, but it is one that is in fact equally emphasized in the reflective analyses of both. The thought does much to defuse the complaint that a belief in autonomy draws a sharp line between Enlightenment liberalism and the cultural attachments that are seen as in conflict with it. For one thing, a strong sense of the importance of our own very particular allegiances, with their time- and space-bound quality, must inhibit us from thinking that we can impose them on people with very different histories and attachments.

The contrast at stake is in any event misrepresented as a conflict between Western Enlightenment and its traditional opponents. It is, after all, a conflict visible within every modern liberal society, and responses to it are as varied as the French insistence that Muslim young women not wear head scarves at school and the British proposal to hand large amounts of taxpayers’ money to “faith schools.” To most Americans, who believe in freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state, both ways of reacting to the religious convictions of teen-agers will seem odd. What we are faced with is a tension between a respect for the variousness of different ways of life and a wish to help individuals to emancipate themselves from any one of them if they so choose. It is the tension between a respect for pluralism and a belief in the overriding value of freedom that readers of Isaiah Berlin are very familiar with.

As Appiah observes, that tension is a feature of everyday American life. In a 1972 Supreme Court decision about the free exercise of religion, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court found that the Old Order Amish parents of an eighth-grade student were allowed to withdraw him from high school. Many liberal legal theorists agree with the Court and most, however reluctantly, would accept the legitimacy of home schooling; but the more aggressive sort of liberal thinks that the Court got it wrong and that young Yoder had an interest that the Court was obliged to protect, not only in being competent to earn a living as an adult, but in becoming a fully formed member of secular American society. These are arguments within the so-called Western Enlightenment, rather than arguments between it and something or somewhere else.

Professor Appiah’s insistence on the debt individuals owe to the circumstances of their birth and upbringing might lead one to think that he is a friend of multiculturalism. He is not. In a chapter revealingly entitled “The Trouble with Culture,” he repudiates any suggestion that we should attach all our loyalties to some particular one of the many cultures to which we may feel allegiance. Some years ago, a lecture was advertised at Princeton with the wonderfully plaintive title “Must I always be a Representative of My Culture?” Appiah’s answer is a firm “no.” This is not because he rejects the idea of culture. If there is one thing that The Ethics of Identity emphasizes, it is the importance of cultural resources in constructing a life—this way of expressing love, that way of showing respect, this way of mourning the dead.

What Appiah fears is what he calls the Medusa stare of an exaggerated respect for culture. Medusa, it will be remembered, turned her victims to stone, and what Appiah fears is that otherwise benign campaigns to secure respect for gays, black Americans, the disabled, or whoever can end by trying to impose one canonical identity on individuals. When Shylock asks his tormentors, “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” it is not respect for his Jewishness he is asking for, but respect for his ordinary, common humanity, his shared capacity for suffering. It is because he is a suffering Jew, not because of any characteristic Jewish suffering, that we squirm at his question. Rooted cosmopolitans are citizens of the world who employ the resources of the particular cultures to which they are attached in order to construct their own, individual lives.

Among the many ways in which The Ethics of Identity pays homage to Mill’s essay On Liberty, one is particularly striking. Anthony Appiah begins The Ethics of Identity by crediting Harriet Taylor with an influence on Mill’s life that Mill himself noted, but almost no commentator has ever picked up.2 After his first revolt against the education he had received from his father, Mill adopted a policy of eclecticism—trying to learn from everyone he could. One of the services that the strong-minded Mrs. Taylor performed was providing a stability to Mill’s ideas that he might have been hard put to it to provide for himself. Many of Mill’s readers have flinched at the way he rebelled against one strong-willed teacher only to subject to himself to another; Appiah reminds us that Mill did not see it like that and that what Mill gained was very worth having.

At the very end of his book, Appiah returns to the same theme in thanking his partner, Henry Finder, for having a place in his own life similar to the one Mrs. Taylor occupied in Mill’s. His epilogue is so delicately and persuasively written that one wishes Mill had been able to read it before he wrote his own encomium to Harriet Taylor. Following the death of Susan Sontag, some commentators in the British press observed that the obituaries had understated the importance of her relationship with Annie Leibovitz, and that we still find it hard to talk sensibly of such same-sex marriages of minds and personalities without getting embroiled in political fights about gay marriage. Anthony Appiah shows just how to write about the intimate, formative relations that are central to a life, most strikingly in his epilogue, but as you realize when you reach that ending, he has been doing it, as well as a great deal else, throughout The Ethics of Identity.

This Issue

April 28, 2005