At Scripps, "The Ethicist" Talks Human Spirit, Narrative, and Universal Political Morality

Photo courtesy of Scripps Presents.

British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher and New York University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, best known as the writer behind the New York Times’ weekly “The Ethicist” column, shared a fresh perspective on 21st century moral and political theory at Scripps Presents on Sept. 14.

A leader in scholarly research, Appiah focused his lecture on ethical ideas surrounding class, culture, race, and identity, evaluating “what makes us a people” from collective histories, narratives, and genetic inheritances that bind individuals together.

The event was packed with 5C students and staff at Scripps College’s Hampton Room as Professor of Philosophy Rivka Weinberg introduced Appiah as a renowned professor who received his bachelors, masters, and PhD degrees in Philosophy from Cambridge University. 

“Professor Appiah is known for a particular brand of cosmopolitanism, which acknowledges the universality and the particularity of human experience,” Weinberg said. “What I find so refreshing about this approach is that it acknowledges lived reality as well as human ideals. We recognize that we may not have our tribal affiliations, but we are also all humans, and that gives us both the natural and a moral commonality.”

Weinberg further elaborated that Appiah’s perspective showcases the roots of people’s common humanity. She pointed toward the importance of needing to hold onto individual characteristics while sharing one’s idiosyncrasies with others.

“If we narrow our worlds to those exactly like [ours], we deprive ourselves of much that we can learn, enjoy, and partake of in human culture,” Weinberg said. "We restrict ourselves to our particularities, and [thus] risk not giving those outsiders moral respect, human empathy, and care that we all deserve from each other. But if we err in the other direction and deny our particularities, it’s unrealistic and can deprive us of the special bonds we may share with those who can understand just where we’re coming from.”

Throughout the talk, Appiah surveyed what ‘human culture’ constituted, investigating the ideologies of various historical figures – such as the founder of cultural anthropology Edward Burnet Tylor, who believed it was absurd for a person to lack culture, and Matthew Arnold, an English poet and cultural critic who asserted that culture was the ‘pursuit of total perfection.’ 

Appiah also referenced Romantic philosophers who argued that the ‘spirit’ embodied in a person came above all else in language and literature. He discussed some of the ways in which people’s identities can be formed by the stories passed on from different generations. 

"Identities can be held together, in short, by narratives – without essences,” Appiah said. “We don’t get to be called ‘English’ because there’s an essence that this label attracts. We’re ‘English’ because we have rules that determine that anyone with the collective base called ‘England’ is entitled to that label." 

From shifting to Western culture, Appiah bluntly asserted that “if Western culture were real, we wouldn’t spend so much time talking it up.” Appiah holds the belief that what glues modern culture together today are the traditions – such as dress and greetings – and behavioral habits that continue to influence people’s relationships.

More importantly, Appiah noted the need to establish a political structure in society based on merit, rather than “reducing people to a single measure” of their contribution to the economy.

“Even a wholly democratic [society] is still a system of class,” Appiah said. 

The alternative that Appiah suggests is to urge society to acknowledge that ‘human worth’ has no comparative ranking, explaining that each person comes equipped with different talents and is born into different circumstances.

“There is no sensible answer to the question if one person meets one challenge better than the other,” Appiah remarked. “Did Bertrand Russell achieve more than Mozart? The only sane answer is that Russell was a better philosopher and that Mozart was a better musician.”

During the Q&A portion, Appiah admitted that challenging society’s reward systems would be “a task for the imagination.” However, he said that if society were to continue weighing every form of accomplishment in terms of money, such a social structure would deplete “all other kinds of significance.” 

Audience member Spencer Louie PO ’19, currently in the class “Ethical Theory: Ancient to Early Modern” taught by Professor of Philosophy Julie Tenenbaum, spoke highly of Appiah’s lecture. He commented on Appiah’s “pragmatic approach” toward resolving difficult ethical problems.

“[Appiah] definitely has a compelling argument about equality and how to address that, [along with addressing how] we view each other in terms of identities, [while] weaving into that historical narrative of class, gender, race, etc,” Louie said.

While Semassa Boko PO ’18 agreed that he enjoyed Appiah’s discourse on nation states, civilization, and how those social structures contributed to people’s ideas of identities, Boko said that he disagreed with some of Appiah’s conclusions.

“I think he glosses over a lot of the brutality and violence that went into constructing a number of nation states,” Boko said. “And he focuses more on the consensus [of narratives], which I think is an idealistic view.”

Boko also further indicated the discrepancies between Appiah’s desire “to imagine something close a radical change in values” and the limitations of material structures in society.

Although Boko understands that one cannot have an effect on grassroots movements without theory, he strongly believes in the importance of work on-the-ground in order to alter society’s status quo.

“We look to our creatives, our art, our philosophers, our poets, to imagine a new society. But, that alone is not enough to create that shift in people’s values and thinkings. You can change someone’s mind, you can change how someone deals with [his or her] family, but you can’t change a society without changing the material and structural conditions that we rely [on]."

Correction: This article was originally missing its last two paragraphs; it has been amended to include the missing material.