Wednesday, February 22, 2006

some essays for the week.

Some great essays appeared this week.

In The New Republic, Amartya Sen analyzes the uses and abuses of multiculturalism.

Thomas Nagel reviews K. Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism and also his The Ethics of Identity. (Extract of Cosmopolitanism in the NYT magazine here). The review is a succinct summary of Appiah's book. Some passages that I thought were worth chewing on:

Appiah poses the societal question this way: "What claims, if any, can identity groups as such justly make upon the state?" His answer, basically, is "none." Groups have no inherent moral standing; their importance depends on their importance to the lives of individuals. Appiah resists Charles Taylor's claim that the value of a culture is not derivative from its value to individuals, but the reverse.

Whatever may be the political implications, I think that he is here taking ethical individualism too far, and that Taylor is on to something important. When a language and its literature, or a musical or artistic form, or even a cuisine or a game, dies out, so that no one is able any longer to appreciate or to practice it, something valuable has gone out of existence. This cannot be explained by the harm to existing individuals, all of whom will have other things to do and other ways to flourish. Even though the lost element of culture could have continued only in the lives of individuals, its absence is not a loss to them if they do not miss it. It is the recognition that its disappearance would be a loss nonetheless, though a loss to no one, that motivates some of the strongest desires for cultural preservation, however quixotic. (I sympathize completely with the lament of a classicist I know that students at Oxford are no longer required to write Greek and Latin verse.)

Appiah shares with Mill an insistence on the value of social diversity to permit the flourishing of different individuals, and a distaste for uniformity. But like Mill, he thinks this means that some forms of diversity should not be tolerated: "It may be that many of us value diversity not because it is a primordial good but because we take it to be a correlative of liberty, of nondomination. But if autonomy is the sponsoring concern, the diversity principle--the value of diversity simpliciter--cannot command our loyalty." So he is not sympathetic to the kind of anthropological relativism that supports the protection of traditional group practices even if they impose serious disadvantages or inequalities on some members of the group (often its female members, as with arranged early marriage). And he denies that the mere legal possibility of exit from such a group is sufficient to immunize it from societal oversight to protect the individual rights of its members. The right of exit is not enough to cancel the constraining power of strong communal identities. What the state should do, however, depends on how fundamental the competing claims are: Appiah would not require the Catholic Church to admit women to the priesthood.

Appiah is also unsympathetic to preservationism: the obligation of a society to help identity groups, cultural or linguistic, to ensure their survival into succeeding generations--which goes beyond its obligation to see that present members of those groups do not suffer discrimination or persecution. Individual autonomy trumps group preservation, just as it does in the case of arranged marriages.

And this one:

Appiah is very good on the confusing issue of the "neutrality" of the state in a pluralistic liberal society. Since this is an evaluative concept, it cannot mean general value neutrality, but must mean neutrality among a certain subset of values and practices based on a non-neutral evaluative premise. Appiah believes that a requirement of equal respect for individuals underlies such neutrality as liberalism requires--among religions, conceptions of the good life, sexual mores, and so forth. But respect for individuals and their autonomy will rule out respect for identities that undermine it, and the liberal state, while it will not engage in the formation of souls to a single standard, will try to impose through education and public forms of equality the conditions for pluralistic self-realization.

Equal respect is required of the state, but not of individuals, whose personal associations and communal identities essentially involve exclusive attachments without which life would be impoverished and abstract: "A radical egalitarian might give his money to the poor, but he can't give his friends to the friendless." Or, "to put the matter paradoxically: impartiality is a strictly position-dependent obligation. What is a virtue in a referee is not a virtue in a prize-fighter's wife."

Finally Nagel quotes Appiah himself on this:

Identity is at the heart of human life: liberalism ... takes this picture seriously, and tries to construct a state and society that take account of the ethics of identity without losing sight of the values of personal autonomy. But the cosmopolitan impulse is central to this view, too, because it sees a world of cultural and social variety as a precondition for the self-creation that is at the heart of a meaningful human life.
Nagel ends on this dismal note:

Appiah believes that the accumulation of changes in individual consciousness brought on by communication and mobility is already propelling us along this upward path. He rejects by implication the "clash of civilizations" as the global drama to which we are all condemned. I hope the future will prove him right, though the experience of our time makes me wonder. Episodes such as the recent widespread and violent reaction to a few cartoon depictions of Mohammed prompt the grim reflection that it took centuries of bloodshed for the West to move from the wars of religion to its present roughly liberal consensus. We may have to wait a long time.
Finally, Leon Weiseltier, in his typically melodramatic fashion, takes on Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I don't much care for Wieseltier's scorched-earth sarcastic (and slightly melodramatic) style myself, but since he's penned this essay as an outraged believer, it seems to suit the issue just fine.

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