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


The three books by leading philosophers under review share one theme: cosmopolitanism. Otherwise, they could hardly be more different. Anthony Appiah and Amartya Sen have written short, brisk, pointed essays on the perils of cultural isolation and narrowness. Martha Nussbaum has written a substantial philosophical treatise on the difficulties that recent fashions in political theory have put in the way of understanding the nature of justice for the mentally and physically disabled, foreigners, and animals. But Appiah and Sen take very different approaches. In Cosmopolitanism, Appiah suggests that if people with vastly different religious, sexual, and political attachments are to live together without violence they must master the arts of conversation. In Identity and Violence, Sen makes a flat-out assault on the use of exclusive attachments and social groupings to define our relations to others. He deplores the ways that people use sexual, racial, religious, and other forms of identity as reasons to fight and persecute one another. Aptly enough, Cosmopolitanism is relaxed and conversational, while Identity and Violence is often irritated and sometimes angry: “Violence,” Sen writes, referring to conflicts in Rwanda, Congo, Israel, Palestine, and other places, “is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror.”

Amartya Sen is not only a Nobel Prize–winning economist, but someone who can draw on his own experience and character to discredit the idea of identifying people by one trait or another. He is, he writes,

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, . . . a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a “before-life” as well).

The last few pages of Identity and Violence tell us something else; when Amartya Sen was eleven years old, there were intercommunal riots in Dhaka, where his family were then living. A poor Muslim laborer named Kader Mia staggered into the garden, bleeding profusely, looking for help; he had been stabbed in the street by Hindu thugs. Sen’s father drove him to a hospital, where he died from his wounds. Kader Mia’s ghost haunts this little book.

Anthony Appiah was born into two upper classes, British and Ghanaian. His father was Joe Appiah—an Asante aristocrat, and a campaigner for independence from Britain in the 1950s; to the surprise of both their families and most of their friends, he married Peggy Cripps, a daughter of the formidable British Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps. Peggy went to Ghana and became a distinguished folklorist; when Joe Appiah fell out with President Nkrumah, Anthony endured English boarding schools, then studied philosophy at Cambridge on his way to a career in the Ivy League. Peggy showed her loyalty to her new home by purchasing a grave plot in Kumasi; as Appiah tells the reader in Cosmopolitanism, she placed a slab of concrete on top so that nobody could be buried there in her place. Two months ago, she died in Kumasi at the age of eighty-six.

Appiah’s exploration of cosmopolitanism begins with an elegant demolition of two common ideas: the first is that different cultures live to all intents and purposes in different universes; the second is that if we all live in the same universe, one story about that universe must be right and the rest just wrong. Consider illness. As Appiah observes, Asante people will seek to explain illness through their belief in witchcraft:

People do get sick for unaccountable reasons all the time, do they not? Many of them have reason to think that there are people who dislike them. So that once you have an idea of witchcraft, there will be plenty of occasions when the general theory will seem to be confirmed.

On the other hand,

When people get sick for unaccountable reasons in Manhattan, there is much talk of viruses and bacteria. Since doctors do not claim to be able to do much about most viruses, they do not put much effort into identifying them. Nor will the course of a viral infection be much changed by a visit to the doctor. In short, most appeals in everyday life to viruses are like most everyday appeals to witchcraft. They are supported only by a general conviction that sickness can be explained, and the conviction that viruses can make you sick.

Do we have to choose between these interpretations? There is no simple answer. Anthony Appiah’s sister is a deaconess of the Anglican Church. When her son was ill, she consulted the local remover of spells—who happened to be a Muslim imam. Between his skills and up-to-date medical treatment the child recovered.


We smile, but when a friend goes into the hospital we wish him or her luck, even though we may not strictly believe in luck. Faced with a skeptic who doubted that there were such things as germs and stuck to the familiar story about evil spells, how many of us could convince him or her? Germs are less visible than envious neighbors; and who knows whom we might have offended? We live in one world, but have many different ways of interpreting it; some are effective for particular purposes—space travel comes more easily to those who know Newtonian physics—but the world allows plenty of leeway for interpretation. To understand what we do and do not have in common, we can only engage in conversation with each other, and since both the human species and each of its members deals with the world with a variety of interpretative techniques, there is much to talk about.

Cosmopolitanism is far from artless. Appiah balances an affectionate understanding of the sheer variousness of different cultures with an insistence that “my people” means, in the last resort, nothing less than “human beings.” We do not construct our interpretations of the world out of nothing; we pick them up in the societies in which we grow up. On the other hand, we are much less the children of one society than we imagine. A trading people such as the Asante not only engaged in commerce with Arab merchants whose Islamic faith was—on the face of it—at odds with their Asante animism; they also married them. We are more naturally cosmopolitan than many recent commentators, who grumble about the diluting effects of globalization on “culture,” suppose. Evoking his own Asante village, Appiah writes:

We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more. And the marks of cosmopolitanism in that Asante village—soccer, Muhammad Ali, hip-hop—entered their lives, as they entered yours, not as work, but as pleasure.

This thought leads Appiah into the contentious territory of cultural property, on which he has recently written in these pages.* The provocation he discusses is not the Metropolitan Museum’s recent travails with the Euphronios krater but the looting and destruction of the King of Asante’s palace by Sir Garnet Wolseley in the late nineteenth century. Appiah argues not that the British were anything other than wicked but rather that their wickedness does not mean they should now send everything back. Some of the loot should be returned; but it would be of more use to Ghana if Britain would lend antiquities from other parts of the world and allow Ghanaians to see what they otherwise would have to travel to the British Museum to see.

Appiah is very critical of those who talk too easily of the “cultural patrimony” of contemporary nations. A peculiarity of the recent demands from countries throughout the world for the repatriation of objects declared to be their own cultural patrimony is that the present inhabitants of the countries in question often bear a very indirect relationship to the people who created the artifacts in question—the Italian government has claimed title to the Euphronios krater, a Greek pot that was exported in antiquity to Etruria. In some cases, moreover, the values of today’s national and religious leaders are violently opposed to everything that informed the lives of the original artists and artisans. Who thinks it was a good thing that the Taliban could smash the contents of “their” museums?

The route by which many of the treasures that are the glory of the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum got to those museums is often dubious. That does not settle the question of what to do about them now. The glory of Venice rests on the looted treasures of Constantinople, but nobody so far has proposed that the horses of St. Mark’s basilica—which are nowadays in its museum—should be sent back to Istanbul. If such things really are the patrimony of the entire world, as UNESCO keeps on saying, any particular state or people should see itself as the custodian pro tem. It is, as Appiah says, a curious thing that people who think of themselves as combatting the greed of dealers and rich collectors have themselves such a narrowly possessive notion of cultural property.


It is cultural cosmopolitanism that most interests Appiah; but he also raises some nagging political questions that readers will have in their minds from the first page. The most obvious is this: If the remedy for cultural narrowness is to listen to anyone who is prepared to talk about his view of the world and its implications, what are we to do with those who believe that they possess a unique, saving truth, and have no intention of discussing anyone else’s? Appiah does not provide an answer; but then he does not set out to do so. He tries to make clear the difference between openness to the views of others and offers of friendship such as that made by Osama bin Laden in 2002 when he presented the United States with the choice between conversion and continued terrorism. As he writes,


Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values.

On the other hand,

Counter-cosmopolitans [such as Osama bin Laden], once more like many Christian fundamentalists, do think that there is one right way for all human beings to live; that all differences must be in the details.

Appiah finds this view epitomized in the scathing German couplet:

Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein,
So schlag’ ich Dir den Schädel ein.

Which is to say, “If you won’t my brother be, then thy skull I’ll smash for thee.”

A second large question takes Appiah to the heart of the philosopher’s ambition to found morality on something other than familial and local affection. What can get us to take seriously the needs of distant strangers? Here Appiah differs with Amartya Sen, who rightly reminds us of the swiftness with which people in rich countries can sometimes rush to contribute to disaster relief when presented, as in the case of the tsunami, with vivid evidence of the suffering of faraway people. Appiah does not rely on fellow-feeling to sustain a cosmopolitan ethics. Nor does he suggest, as the philosopher Peter Singer once did, that the only rational guide to conduct is a form of utilitarianism that tells us that since our resources would satisfy more urgent needs if they were given to the very poor than they satisfy for us, we should give away everything we have until we can provide only the bare necessities for ourselves.

Instead, and perhaps surprisingly after all that has gone before, he reaches back to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Smith’s invocation of the “internal spectator” who judges our actions from a moral point of view. This is the voice of moral reasonableness:

To say that we have obligations to strangers isn’t to demand that they have the same grip on our sympathies as our nearest and dearest. We’d better start with the recognition that they don’t.

Appiah argues that the utilitarian calculus is a travesty of moral reasoning, but also that doing something useful to help those in need wherever they might be is a moral obligation. Since it appears that a bare forty-five cents a day from each inhabitant of the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Japan would lift the very poorest out of acute misery, it would be a reasonable contribution; and little though it is, it is much more than is now spent in nonmilitary aid. The only difficulty one might raise with this line of thought is that generosity requires institutions to make it effective; most people will contribute their fair share when efficient arrangements for using their contribution are in place, but their willingness rapidly diminishes if they think their contribution will not be used efficiently. Until we have an effective international welfare system, it will be hard to persuade even generous people to take fairness seriously.


Amartya Sen approaches these same issues from a different angle. Although Sen has been perhaps the world’s most distinguished analyst of the welfare of poor people over the past three decades, his new book is mostly about the psychology of politics. He includes a short, deft, and persuasive discussion of economic globalization, and reminds us that without just arrangements for sharing the benefits of greater efficiency, globalization will not enhance the prospects of peace, but may exacerbate national resentments. His final chapter extols the “freedom to think” and echoes Immanuel Kant’s claim that the motto of the Enlightenment was “dare to know.” But most of Sen’s book is an extended sermon on the wickedness of locking ourselves into a single identity, of ascribing to that identity all the virtues—and in the process denying them to all others—and conducting relations with all other religious, ethnic, or national groups on the basis of hostility and suspicion.

Anyone who lived in Britain during the thirty-odd years of the recent troubles in Northern Ireland—Amartya Sen did so for much of that time—knows all too well the misery produced by communal conflict. Each side treats politics as a zero-sum game, in which any gain for our opponents is by definition a loss for ourselves. Even when conflict does not erupt into violence, politics degenerates into a grinding exercise in denying an advantage to the other side, no matter what the long-term damage to yourself might be.

Identity and Violence is directed at readers who might be tempted to take at face value the insistence of representatives of assorted extremist faiths that they uniquely represent “true” Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or whatever. On Sen’s understanding of the matter, tolerant, open-minded Muslims (or Christians) are no less and no more genuine Muslims (or Christians) than their fundamentalist coreligionists. The point can be widely applied; almost all the virtues that groups claim for themselves are ones they share with different groups and ones that not all their own members share. When Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian prime minister of Singapore, attacked liberalism as the product of “Western values” that were alien to Southeast Asia, he ignored the extent to which indigenous habits of toleration and open-mindedness were to be found throughout Asia.

As Sen observes, the Spanish were burning heretics when the Emperor Akbar passed laws allowing his non-Muslim subjects to practice their faith in peace. But Sen also avoids falling into the reverse trap of ascribing all the virtues to a tolerant Asia. He reminds the reader that Akbar’s great-grandson Aurangzeb was intolerant of other religions and imposed punitive taxation on their practitioners.

Identity and Violence is not complex or technical; its argument relies a good deal on small, evocative details, mostly about the history of Islam and Asia, but often enough about contemporary politics. Sen is especially perceptive about the educational folly that has seized the present British government, which has reacted to the arrival of a large Muslim population in Britain by exaggerating the importance of self-proclaimed religious leaders in immigrant communities and imposed policies that will exacerbate the social isolation from which new immigrants often suffer. Tony Blair has endorsed so-called “faith schools,” whose object is to keep immigrant children firmly locked into their own communities—as understood by their parents and their spiritual advisers. But as Sen observes:

Education is not just about getting children, even very young ones, immersed in an old, inherited ethos. It is also about helping children to develop the ability to reason about new decisions any grown-up person will have to take. The important goal is not some formulaic “parity” in relation to old Brits with their old faith schools but what would best enhance the capability of the children to live “examined lives” as they grow up in an integrated country.

Reading Sen and Appiah together raises large questions about the ways identity, culture, and community are invoked in contemporary politics. All have been made too much of—especially the concept of identity. Even as individuals, many of us manage our lives in the way a not very competent chairman might manage a fractious committee. We can take for granted identity in the form of the physical continuity of our bodies, but consistency of taste, belief, affection, and allegiance is another matter entirely. Not only do different people achieve different degrees of consistency in these matters, they may have very different feelings about the importance of such consistency. How much more so with groups. Appropriately enough, Sen and Appiah each has his own emphasis when it comes to questions of group identity. Sen emphasizes the way that some groups are created by exclusionary social pressures:

Sometimes a classification that is hard to justify intellectually may nevertheless be made important through social arrangements…. That is what competitive examinations do (the 300th candidate is still something, the 301st is nothing). In other words, the social world constitutes differences by the mere fact of designing them.

People who are divided in this way are genuinely members of a different group, and their fates will depend on that membership; but this is not an identity they would choose and it is not one that enhances their lives.

Both Sen and Appiah take two things for granted. The first is that identity matters—that people need roots in some cultural soil or other, even if they should not be so rooted that they cannot migrate physically, linguistically, socially, and culturally. The second is that we all possess multiple identities—that a man will not just be gay, but gay and Catholic and Croatian. What neither writer does is provide a wholly satisfactory account of the ways in which, and the conditions under which, one of those identities swallows up the rest. Sen points out over and over again that we may attach importance to all our identities without slighting one or other of them, although he acknowledges that some forms of affiliation or group identification are likely to be much stronger than others. But on the subject of why people so easily forget this and attack those who seem different, he says little more than that trouble breaks out when someone with an interest in fomenting violence persuades people—poor Hindu laborers in Gujarat, perhaps—that the only thing that matters is that they are Hindu, and that all their misfortunes are to be laid at the door of their Muslim enemies.

The puzzle remains: Why do we succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity—ethnic, racial, religious—rather than to appeals based on the rational forms—economic above all? Or, to put it in dramatic terms: Why do identity politics so often rest on hatreds that do as much damage to the aggressors as to their victims? Until we have a deeper understanding of the answers to that question, both Professor Sen and Professor Appiah are somewhat in the position of explaining what it would be like to behave better to an audience that often seems, unhappily, incapable of following their advice.


Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice makes so many good points, and is so well written, that it seems unkind to say that it is not wholly successful. Its cosmopolitan credentials are impeccable. Unlike Sen and Appiah, Nussbaum ranges not only across cultures and nations but across species; and she is philosophically deft. The problem is that she has written two books rather than one, and they are addressed to different audiences with different interests. In the first, she draws on a technical analysis to explain why the revived social contract theorizing of John Rawls’s path-breaking A Theory of Justice is an inadequate basis for thinking about justice toward the disabled, toward foreigners, and toward animals. The second book, in contrast, is an essay in moral and political persuasion, which is presented with a minimum of technicality and a maximum of cogent example.

The first book is the bread and butter of graduate classes in philosophy, where teachers and students may agree on the limitations of the contractual accounts of justice—indeed of all accounts of justice—that have been much discussed over the past thirty-five years. The idea that justice rests on a “contract for mutual advantage” is as old as Plato’s Republic, where Glaucon claimed that the agreement “neither to do nor to suffer evil” is the essence of justice. The account of justice John Rawls produced in 1971 rests on the thought that we should ask ourselves what rules for the regulation of society and the distribution of the benefits of social cooperation we would agree to if we had to make such an agreement in ignorance of the social position we would occupy: the device of “the veil of ignorance.” It is a question that yields many insights and puzzles, although they often involve, as in Nussbaum’s account, a good deal of technical analysis of Rawls and other philosophers.

Frontiers of Justice is not helped by being aimed both at graduate students and at lay readers; it is also undermined by an excess of academic virtue. Like everyone who worked with John Rawls or who knew him even slightly, Nussbaum cannot criticize his views without expressing her respect for his work. This has been a feature of academic political philosophy for the past thirty-five years, and it testifies to John Rawls’s hold on a generation of philosophers. But it gets in the way of what Professor Nussbaum really wants to do, which is to work her way through the interesting and important issues raised by the apparently simple question “What do we owe to the disabled, to strangers, and to animals?”

To reach the answer she invokes an idea that Amartya Sen put into the discussion of justice and well-being two decades ago. This is the thought that what people—in this context, animals also—have a right to is not some level of income or well-being, but to the enhancement of their “capabilities.” Trying to promote the welfare of other people runs into innumerable problems about the gap between their resources and what they can and cannot do with those resources. If I cannot play the piano, my welfare is not increased by having a $100,000 Steinway; and even if I can play the piano I might have my own ideas about how to spend that much money. What we should think about is what people can do and enjoy in their particular situation.

As a matter of political philosophy, it is not clear that the concept of capabilities has much advanced our understanding of justice. The concept of a resource is sufficiently capacious to embrace most of what talk of capabilities refers to. For example, is a Steinway a resource for the nonplayer? It certainly isn’t in the way it would be for a gifted pianist. Does it enhance his capabilities? Yes in the sense that if he wants to learn how to play the piano he would have a good one to play on, and no in the sense that it does nothing for him if he lacks those skills or doesn’t want to acquire them. On the other hand, talk of capabilities may have a useful purpose in helping us to think differently about the needs of people who are very different or very distant from ourselves, and about animals of different species from our own.

In discussing people with disabilities, it is easy to focus on what a person cannot do; and then the people in charge of spending resources may fear that we might devote vast resources to the task of only very slightly reducing their handicaps. If we think of capabilities, there is more room to ask ourselves what capacity for a decent life a disabled person has; and in the process, we can move from the daunting question of what we can do to make the lives of such people more nearly “normal” to the slightly less daunting question of which, among the needs of any other human being, disabled people can satisfy and how.

That is the approach that Martha Nussbaum adopts, and she does it by drawing on the experiences that she and others have had of living with the severely handicapped. She writes:

My nephew Arthur is a big good-looking ten-year-old. He loves machines of all sorts, and by now he has impressive knowledge of their workings. I could talk with Arthur all day about the theory of relativity, if I understood it as well as he does…. But Art has been unable to learn in a public school classroom, and he cannot be left alone for a minute when he and his mother are out shopping. He has few social skills, and he seems unable to learn them. Affectionate at home, he becomes terrified if a stranger touches him…. Arthur has both Asperger’s syndrome, which is probably a type of high-functioning autism, and Tourette’s syndrome. Both of his parents have full-time jobs, and they cannot afford much help.

As others have done in such a situation, she emphasizes how rich a life severely handicapped children can have if they are taken sufficiently seriously. Their happiness is fragile; many such children thrive in the right circumstances and collapse into inconsolable misery otherwise. Some who are physically badly off will always need as much care and assistance as—for instance—elderly people who have lost most of their memory and have become immobile and incontinent. But their needs are urgent and we commit an injustice if we do not meet them.

The problem with Professor Nussbaum’s account is not that she is unpersuasive about the needs and capacities of the disabled. The problem is that it is not clear why our obligations to them are a matter of justice; what would be lost by saying that the duties are stringent, inescapable, and urgent, but not duties of justice? Nussbaum shows—over and over—that no theory that explains justice as a contract for mutual advantage will show that these duties toward the disabled are a matter of justice. There may be little mutual advantage for the person who helps Arthur. Do we then need a different theory of justice or should we say that many duties are grounded directly in the needs of the beings to whom the duties are owed, but are not a matter of justice? What difference does it make which we say?

Professor Nussbaum does not address this question directly in her book. On the face of it, her case is simply that if a creature has urgent needs, it can claim certain rights and impose corresponding duties upon us. But if the essence of justice is respect for the rights of others—as John Stuart Mill suggested many years ago—our failure to do enough for the handicapped, for hard-up strangers, and for animals is unjust, not simply ungenerous or mean-spirited. Still, however we label the wrong we do them, what is really needed is a cogent account of their needs and how we can meet those needs without frustrating other needs of equal urgency.

Martha Nussbaum is very good at this task. Her discussion of international justice in particular is a model of subtlety and good sense; she has an unusually deft touch in balancing two competing thoughts that all discussions have to handle with care. On the one hand, we think that the ultimate claimants on our attention are individual people; it is this woman who is not safe from politically motivated rape, that child who is likely to be abandoned on the street, and they, therefore, who have a claim on us. If it is an injustice to leave the needs of these people unmet, international boundaries are irrelevant; we should do what we can, where we can.

On the other hand, the world is in fact a world of separate nation-states; each state is supposed to be the primary agency in securing the welfare of its inhabitants. The more seriously we take the sovereignty of each separate state—the principle on which the United Nations is founded—the more scope there is for people in the better-off world to say that the welfare of the Malians is the business of the government of Mali, and keep in their own pockets the forty-five cents a day that Anthony Appiah wants us to chip in to help the worse-off. But simply ignoring the sovereignty of each separate state takes our eyes off the most important aspect of international justice: that is, doing all we can to ensure that the political system in every country secures the human rights and well-being of its inhabitants and does not sacrifice the weak, the poor, and the unpopular. Professor Nussbaum conveys very persuasively the importance of nation-building that is not coercive.

If it is obvious that a contract for mutual advantage does not illuminate our duties to strangers, it is still more obvious that it does not illuminate our duties to nonhuman animals. Martha Nussbaum reminds us that natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century author of On the Law of War and Peace, had a lot to say about relations between the powerful and the powerless in international relations. But traditional natural law is not a good basis for an account of justice toward animals; John Locke insisted that human beings are not made to be used for another person’s purposes—but the contrast he had in mind was with the lower animals, which were put on earth to be used for human purposes.

Nor does Jeremy Bentham provide what Professor Nussbaum needs to address our treatment of animals. Bentham famously denounced slavery and cruelty to animals in the same sentence; but it was “inhumanity” rather than “injustice” that he denounced. It was not the animals’ capabilities that moved him, other than their capacity to suffer. Here, however, she is exploring the “frontiers of justice”; if animals are to have claims of justice against humanity, they have to have rights. It won’t do to urge only that we should not behave disgustingly toward them; we certainly ought not to, but that is not a matter of justice so much as what morality more generally demands.

Nussbaum crosses what she calls the frontier. Animals, she argues, have a natural good that they urgently need to pursue, and that fact naturally leads, she says, to the conclusion that they are entitled to pursue it. What that implies for creatures whose natural good requires them to prey on other creatures is not obvious, and she is—avowedly—unsure what our duties are in reconciling the good of gazelles and the good of the tigers who prey on them. She talks, somewhat vaguely, of our exercising “trusteeship,” but what that means in practice is anyone’s guess. Other practical implications are less elusive. If animals are entitled to pursue their own good, and if by killing and eating animals we are interfering with that good, then why should we not be vegetarians if vegetarianism does not lead to a great loss of human welfare? And if vegetarianism would lead to a great loss of human welfare, the animals we propose to eat would at least have a right to live well and be killed painlessly.

One could, of course, approach the issue from innumerable different directions; if we asked how human beings might share the world fairly with other species, for instance, we would end with an account of justice between species that might have much in common with Professor Nussbaum’s but which would also be very different. That is not a complaint, rather an acknowledgment that one real achievement of Frontiers of Justice is to stir up the reader’s imagination. Some books beat the reader into submission; Martha Nussbaum has never done that, and here she invites the reader into an open-ended discussion in just the way one wishes that all other philosophers did.

This Issue

June 22, 2006