Kwame Anthony Appiah (1954-current) is a British born, American-Ghanaian philosopher.

He is best known for his work on cosmopolitanism, a philosophy that holds all human beings as members of a single, global community. A professor of philosophy and law at New York University, he also writes the popular everyday advice column ‘The Ethicist’ in the New York Times.



We’re responsible for every human being

Because Appiah is a cosmopolitan (meaning “citizen of the world”), he believes we have just as much moral responsibility to our neighbours as we do those halfway across the world. Our obligations to other people transcend national borders, the same way they bypass political ideas and religious beliefs.

However, these obligations shouldn’t mean treating yourself unjustly. Appiah doesn’t advocate for giving everything away so you are worse off than the people you are trying to help.

By focussing too much on eliminating everything bad from the world, Appiah worries we’d fulfil our duties to others at the expense of our duties to ourselves. We’d let go of everything that makes life worth living and meaningful.

He also thinks we’re more productive when we work together. He sees our duties to others as collective rather than individual. The best way to help other people is to unite and ensure nations can provide citizens with what they need to live a good life. This means working with international aid organisations and governments. We’re all in this together.

What unites us is stronger than what divides us

For Appiah, the other basic principle of cosmopolitanism is valuing people’s differences.

“Because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we neither expect nor demand that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life.”

It’s not enough to campaign for international human rights for everyone. These matter, but we should also care about the specific things that give people’s lives meaning – culture, religion, art and so on.

Besides, underneath cultural differences are often shared values and practices. Whether it’s art, friendship, norms of respect or a belief in good and evil, the things that seem so different are often based in ideas we all share.

Moral progress isn’t made by argument

In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen Appiah argues that seriously unjust practices aren’t defeated by new moral arguments. Instead, they’re defeated by changing attitudes about what’s honourable or shameful.

Appiah points to the overthrow of slavery in Britain and the US as being largely a product of honour. Even though slave owners and traders were aware of moral arguments defending the humanity of their so called stock, that didn’t provide the impetus to change. What really overthrew it was public criticism. The appeal to honour had far more influence than any moral and philosophical ideals.

We can see honour as the middle ground between narrow self interest and self sacrificing altruism. Appiah’s point is a powerful one for people wanting to make change in the world. It would be great if everyone did the right thing for its own sake but sometimes we need a push. Honour, praise and shame can be just the thing.

It’s important to note Appiah thinks honour and ethics are separate. What is seen as honourable isn’t always the same as what’s right. Killing someone in defence of your honour is one clear example.

What’s more, as anyone who has ever logged onto Twitter knows, praise and shame can be abused. Because they are so effective at changing people’s behaviour, it’s tempting to use them when it’s entirely inappropriate. And sometimes this has disastrous effects.

The deeper point is we aren’t purely rational creatures. We work on emotion and our thoughts and actions are driven by cultural attitudes and judgements.

Being aware of this means we might be able harness our communal nature as a force for good and speak both to people’s heads and hearts.