Andy Hamilton with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah, NYU professor of philosophy and law, was named in Forbes magazine in 2009 as one of the “world’s seven most powerful thinkers” by then-Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman.

Appiah’s pioneering philosophy on identity and our individual role in the global community have gained acclaim through his numerous books—including 2007’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an “appeal for mutual respect and understanding” that he hoped would be heard “far and wide.” Many will surely know him, quite simply, as “The Ethicist”—which is the title of the weekly New York Times Magazine column in which he answers questions posed by readers facing moral dilemmas.

Appiah was born in London, where his parents, Joseph (who would become a member of Ghana’s parliament, an ambassador, and president of the Ghana Bar Association) and Peggy Cripps (a novelist, art collector, scholar, and children’s writer) met. On his father's side, his ancestry is traced to the king of Ashanti, a constitutionally protected state in union with Ghana; his mother's lineage extends back to William the Conqueror. Appiah moved as an infant with his parents to Kumasi, Ghana, where he was raised, and eventually earned his PhD in philosophy at the University of Cambridge in 1982. Since then he has also taught at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Ghana, among other institutions. 

Full Transcript

Andy Hamilton Interviews Kwame Anthony Appiah:

Subway Conductor: [00:02] This is...this is West 8th Street, New York University.

Announcer: [00:14] From New York University, you’re listening to Conversations, hosted by President Andy Hamilton. In each episode, Andy talks insight, inquiry, and imagination with a leading mind from the NYU community.

Andy Hamilton [00:33] Today we welcome Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law here at NYU, who in 2009 was named in Forbes magazine as one of the world's seven most powerful thinkers. Antony's pioneering philosophy on identity and our role in the global community has gained acclaim through his numerous books including 2007’s Cosmopolitanism Ethics in a World of Strangers. Many will surely know him better quite simply as The Ethicist, the title of the weekly New York Times Magazine column in which he answers questions posed by readers facing moral dilemmas.

Andy Hamilton [01:28] Much of your writing, a considerable part of your writing in recent years, Anthony, has been on identity and identity in the modern world. This diverse student body—in your conversations with NYU students what are the kind of identity issues that they are struggling with, that they are considering as they find their feet and express their opinions.

Kwame Anthony Appiah [01:50] Well I think, you know, we live, in the North Atlantic anyway, we live in a world where racial identities are inevitably part of the package of things people think about—I think especially if they're minority. I think it's increasingly possible for white students to kind of not think too much about the fact that they're white. And I think that actually in a way is a sign of progress. But I think is still the case that if you are—I was just, I just came from talking to one of my students who is not an American. He's Korean, but he you know I think he's aware of the fact that here is an Asian in the eyes of other people and he's not unhappy about that though he thinks, I think that it doesn't always advantage him that people see him in that way. So, I think I think people have a sense of themselves as having racial identity. I think, increasingly, and this is surprising because it's not historically been the case in the United States, there is an awareness of issues of class and the different experiences of first generation students and students whose parents, you know, had been to college and therefore can tell them some things about what it’s going to be like. I think that's an issue, class identity—people don't necessarily talk about it that way.

Andy Hamilton [03:08] And Anthony, in your teaching how do you use philosophy, how do you use law to help students think about these issues and form their own ways of considering them?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [03:23] Well I think that one of the most useful things you can do—because people can get focused on one dimension of their identity—is to place race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin in a framework where they can be thought about together and to point out that even if you fix all those, people are also different in lots of other important ways that aren't just identity ways. So, to sort of maybe loosen up their sense of how much your identity in the social identity sense fixes you, and to recognize two things: one is that even if you don't have much choice about whether you're, say, black, which in United States you don't have much choice about if you look a certain way, you do have choice about what you're going to do with it. You do have choice about what it means to you, and you should feel free to exercise that choice. You should think about—it’s my life, what am I going to do with these identities. Of course, significant proportion of our identity life now is connected with things that we are entitled to determine for ourselves. This country from its beginnings thought of religious identities as things that people had to decide for themselves, that they weren't to be fixed in a religious identity by your birth. And, so, there's been a lot of movement around and over the last, since the 1950s actually, a huge increase in the ways in which people move across religious identities in the United States. A very large proportion of Americans who are serious about religion, which is a lot of Americans, are serious about a religion different from the one they were raised in. They're also living in multi-religious families, which again wasn't true very much in the 1950s, there was a lot of marriage within the Catholic—in fact not just within Catholic—Italian Catholic, Polish Catholic. Within you know, people married Baptist, Baptist married Baptist, Methodist married Methodist, Jews married Jews. Again, that's significantly declined where we're not just a multi-religious nation, we have lots of multi-religious families. That makes a big difference to how religious identities work.

Andy Hamilton [05:33] But that fluidity that you're describing in culture and religion is also happening at a time where we seem to be seeing a hardening of political boundaries, a distancing of political perspectives. Is that something that is inevitable or a consequence of a political trend?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [06:00] I hope it isn't inevitable. But I think again it's useful to think about the big political identities, which in our country are liberal and conservative and Democrat and Republican. And to some extent independent to think of those as also part of the identity picture. Increasingly, you can't actually tell what people will really think about the issues by knowing whether they're, say, liberal or conservative because what counts as a conservative or liberal position actually shifts over time. Over the last five years, conservatives have become much more pro-Russian, in part because the president seems to be pro-Russian, and he's supposed to be conservative. So, there's a lot of tribalism in our political identities. And the idea that they're ideological is a bit misleading. They're really identitarian. That is to say they have the features of identities. And one of the features of identities is that they guide your sense of who you are, but the other is that they hold themselves together very often by having a sense of negative characterization of the people who aren't us.

Andy Hamilton [07:07] Theresa May famously said that if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere—a direct assault on cosmopolitanism. Now how do you see this now unfolding with the threats? Cosmopolitanism is critical for the world yet we've got to fight against a rhetoric, at least, which is counter to that.

Kwame Anthony Appiah [07:33] It's an interesting thing because you know I read a book about cosmopolitanism and it's a very long tradition. And the enemies of it have always misunderstood certain things about it. So, one thing is that it's just sort of a mistake to think that you can't be loyal to more than one thing. That's just an astonishing mistake. You know we are loyal to all our children. We are loyal to our churches and synagogues and to our professions—we are loyal to all kinds of things. And you know we live in New York City. I'm a citizen of New York City, of New York State, and of the United States, legally speaking, and everybody can handle that perfectly well. So it just seems absurd to suppose that you couldn't handle as well the thought that you could be in some interesting and somewhat metaphorical sense a citizen of the world as well. I've always found this very peculiar because my father who, among other things, spent some time with United Nations and was a diplomat for Ghana as well as a member of parliament, so he was very much involved in Ghanaian politics, raised us, explicitly, he used to say to us—and the last thing he said to us—he left us a letter and he said: "You've got to remember that you're always citizens of the world.” That was not an argument against caring about Ghana.

Andy Hamilton [08:53] You've often used the expression "rooted cosmopolitanism." Just tell us about that concept and how you define it and particularly how do we then avoid that slipping over into nationalism, into excessive patriotism.

Kwame Anthony Appiah [09:10] So the the point of talking about rooted cosmopolitanism is obviously to counter the standard slander against the cosmopolitan which is that cosmopolitan is rootless. I like something that Gertrude Stein said about this, who was a woman from Oakland who lived most of her life in Paris, she said this wonderful thing, one of many wonderful things she said, was she said, "What's the point of roots if you can't take them with you?" But I think there's a great deal of truth in that. So, look, if you think this distinctive cosmopolitan thought that people don't all have to be the same, and you're sort of excited and engaged with the people who aren't like you, that I think is the characteristic cosmopolitan attitude—why would you think that? Well it's because they've got something that is—in their place—connected with what it is to be them. And that's part of, as it were, the great chorus of humanity. They're singing one of the many lines in the hymn of humanity. Well, if that's true, so are you. I mean your line is a line too. Why would you think that other people's lines were important if you didn't think your own line was important as well? So I think that's that that's the key thing to see is that, in fact, the kind of cosmopolitan that respects difference is actually bound to be rooted because it's bound to take some interest in my place because that's what I'm bringing to the cosmopolitan conversation. So now, yes, of course, we live in a decade, but also I think in a long century in which people have taken the nationalist thing clearly too far on too many occasions. What are the counterbalancing forces? I think one is the cosmopolitans in each of these societies, not everybody is going to be cosmopolitan but the cosmopolitans are an important part of the mix of a society, they're the people who in the society remind it that there are valuable things elsewhere, that hostility to others is not productive. But also I think and again this is a very general and important point about identity, that we don't just have one identity, and that if you find yourself being totally consumed by your national identity or by your state identity, by your Texas-ness or by your city identify, if you find yourself being totally consumed by that you should pull back for a moment and ask yourself: Is that a reasonable way for human being to be when I'm also all these other things? And I think you know the answer that is almost always going to be “no, it's not a reasonable thing.”

Andy Hamilton [11:52] You have a very cosmopolitan background and perhaps as you referred to in your writings, that naturally has led to your open mindedness, your view of the world as being a better place, for being connected and cosmopolitan. Now how do we then take these ideas, these critical ideas for the future of the world and then convince those who have had a very different background?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [12:21] So I think a really important point is that while the kind of background I have makes it very hard not to be cosmopolitan, it's surprising how many people have a cosmopolitan impulse even if they come from places, small places with not many connections, not many obvious connections to the world. That sense of the cosmopolitan is to be found in refugee camps, is to be found among the poor as well as among the rich. It's a matter of a kind of frame of mind. How do you persuade people? Well I think, first of all, you're not gonna be able to persuade everybody, so we should just start with that. I'm not on a mission to evangelize the Amish if they want to live alone and separate and live their own world I think that's their right. I'm curious about them because I am a cosmopolitan and I wish they would talk to me, but if they don’t want to I am not going to feel that they should be forced. But I think education opportunities widely available to everybody in the society, and that means of course starting at 5 and going on the whole way through, that include exposure to, and here I think the kind of cultural dimension of cosmopolitanism is so important, just exposure to reading and thinking about things from elsewhere. Both in terms of sort of social science and civics, but also just in terms of music and fiction and history and all the other things that you can learn about that give you a sense that you are connected even if you don't want to spend much time interacting with these other people, you are connected. I like to point out to my students that whatever you feel about all these cosmopolitan things, if you get a flu jab in the fall, it's because there's a massive global system, which collects the viruses in China so that they've got something ready before they come here. We are, in other words, just every year in the flu season we see the fact that we're biologically a global species system. Our economy cannot flourish unless the world trade system flourishes. We cannot do well on our own, we can do better than others sometimes but as a whole. The problems of the challenges with climate, we can't deal with on our own, we can't, by ourselves, solve the problems of the planet. And that means New York City can't do it, New York state can't do it, the United States can't do it. We need to be interconnected.

Andy Hamilton [14:51] Anthony, one of the ways in which you encourage people to think hard, and in fact a large number of people to think hard about what they do and how they think, is of course through your weekly column in The New York Times—The Ethicist, the much read Ethicist. How do you prepare yourself for what are, sometimes, really quite searing stories that are put in front of you? Is this something that you felt came naturally or have you had to exercise your own ethical muscles to be able to deal with the wide range of issues?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [15:25] So when I agreed to do it I was grateful to have been asked, I was honored to be asked, but I wasn't sure that the kind of training that I have as a philosopher was necessarily going to prepare me for this particular kind of work. To some extent it's more like a sort of pastoral work than it is like academic, philosophical work. But it did turn out that because you know we've spent several thousand years thinking about the shape of the things that matter and living a good life, things come to mind when people ask me these questions. Things come to mind that you know might have come from Aristotle or Kant or Confucius, but I don't need to say that. I just take the ideas and see if it can be used to be helpful. So there's sort of buckets of ideas, ideas about you know it's important think about the consequences of what you do, it's important to think about the rights and duties involved; it's important to think about the relationships, and so on, and that comes from theoretical reflection. I think, however, the thing that has been most useful probably to me in doing this is that I was raised by a mother who encouraged us to read fiction. And when I came home from my boarding school for the holidays, there would be a pile of books on my bedside table my mother had selected for me. And she had strong tastes. I didn't share interest in D.H. Lawrence though I read somewhat as a courtesy to her. But I agreed with her that War and Peace was a wonderful experience and so on and I rewarded myself in between the serious reading with sort of Agatha Christie in between. I think that the muscle, that sort of the moral muscle as it were, is the imagination. Thinking about—that's what the novel teaches you.

Andy Hamilton [17:25] You know, I wonder often as I read the column, do you find out what happens next? Do you ever get any feedback from the family in terms of a second letter? "Well we did what you suggested and it was a disaster" or "It worked out wonderfully"?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [17:44] So I made a decision when I started that I wasn't going to respond to that. My editor sends me from time to time letters that come in that she thinks I'll find interesting. But I'm not expected to do anything except meditate upon them and maybe share them with my family. First, I think it's important to be clear—for me to be clear—that my main responsibility is to the several million readers of the magazine. Frankly, if the only thing these people are doing to solve their problem is writing to me, they've got a bigger problem than anything that I can solve. So you are helping them a little bit, perhaps, you hope. But mostly you're using their questions as it were to think out loud and in public about some ethically significant issue. The most interesting letter I've ever read that came back was— the original letter had been from a woman who was dealing with the fact that her husband was interested in another woman. And she told a certain story and she told it very well, it was actually a very beautifully crafted narrative, her letter. Well we got a letter from the other woman saying "I recognize that this is me you're talking about and I want to tell you how the story looks to me," and this other woman also wrote a beautifully crafted letter. I thought, you know, I wish we could publish this but she hadn't sent it to us to be published. She just sent it to us, just wanted me to know I suppose. So that's the best thing that's happened because it wasn't that I learned whether anyone had done anything that we'd suggested, it was that I was reminded of something that I think all the time, which is if I were actually the only person advising this person, the first thing I would say is let me talk to some of the other people involved, because you know you can only see it from your point of view, and also tell me more because almost always there are things you want to know. Now the column like everything the New York Times is fact checked so that somebody calls each of these writers and says if you said that such and such are placed in such—a school did something, we don't publish the name of the school. But we want to know what the school is and we want to know whether they did it. So the stories are checked. In the course of that process, we discover other things, but we discover them after I've written my answer. So usually I can't do anything about it except make slight alterations to the letter. But as I say, I think the main thing that I feel is that I'm not, I couldn't possibly accept responsibility for being the only adviser these people have. When I think about the people who write the letters, I imagine them very often opening the magazine and saying either: "That's not right," and never looking at it again, or saying "Ha! You see, I was right!" And then going to their wife, husband, brother and slamming it down on the table and saying, "You see, he agrees with me!"

Andy Hamilton [21:13] Anthony in thinking about your intellectual interests, the range is vast. We've talked about philosophy and law and how you bring that into your teaching. We've talked about cosmopolitanism and folk culture and what we can learn from that. Those listening to us may not realize that you have authored three detective stories and I will read the titles: Avenging Angel, Nobody Likes Letitia, and Another Death in Venice. Now, how did you enter into that genre? Do you bring some of those comments that you've just made about the folk culture and the relationship between individuals and their families? That would seem to resonate wonderfully with detective stories and the tensions that they often reveal in human relationships.

Kwame Anthony Appiah [22:07] I started doing this because it's a sort of weird thing and writers often say things like this and sometimes it just seems very hard to make sense of but what happened was I wrote one day. It was the summer, I wasn't teaching. I was sort of working on various philosophical things, and I find myself writing down a description of a body dead in a room in a Cambridge college. And that was all I did for a long time, and then Henry, my husband, said to me: "Why don't you explain that? Why don't you tell the story that explains why he's dead?" I said, "Well I don't know. I wasn't thinking of writing novels." And he said, "Go into the study." He said, "I'll bring you sort of tea and sandwiches and see what happens." And over two weeks I wrote a most of a novel which did explain why this guy was dead.

Andy Hamilton [22:59] Did the novel come from just each hour, each day, a new direction would come, or were you more scientific?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [23:07] For me it was just, and again, this is a weird thing because people say this all the time and it just seems very peculiar but it really was the characters as it were wanted to do things. So I sort of let them do things. After a while I had a thought about—so I didn't, to begin with, have any idea about why he was dead or who had killed him. Eventually I sort of came to a view about who in this complex network of circumstances might have had a reason to kill him. And then I decided it was somebody, and then I realized that that was going to make it too obvious to the readers. So what I did was I wrote it as if that person had done it and then about two-thirds of the way through I just I picked somebody else to have done it, I went on writing with that person and tried to get the two to come together at the end. So it was sad to think of that extent. So in terms of sort of ideas, one thing, I made my protagonist a barrister but I made him a Catholic, because I thought I want someone who's a little bit of an outsider and I think most English Protestants don't realize how English Catholics do sometimes feel outside, including elite ones like barristers. So that was a choice. And then I followed this guy through—the second one is set on an island in Scotland and the third is set in Venice—and I followed him, this couple, the detective and his wife, I mean the solver, he's not really a detective. And in each case there's stuff about identity, about class, about this religion thing in England, in English life, about there are things in the Venice one about Australians and so on and the relation to… But you know in the end you're trying to write things that people will enjoy and they won't enjoy it if they feel they're being lectured to. So you try not to be too lecture-y about it.

Andy Hamilton [25:06] Anthony, a last question and certainly one of the things that you've been busy with many things in recent years, and you've described life at NYU and living in this wonderful city and the dynamism, the delights of urban life. But I also know that you and your partner Henry have a farm, a farm in New Jersey with sheep and geese and ducks… fish, I think. You know, a menagerie.

Kwame Anthony Appiah [25:37] And unfortunately foxes as well.

Andy Hamilton [25:39] And foxes, with drama, I'm sure, on occasion. That must be a wonderful refuge, an opportunity to live a very different life. How does the philosopher deal with shearing sheep?

Kwame Anthony Appiah [25:55] So my mother grew up on a farm, and so when we were children we went to my uncle's farm but we were basically raised as city kids. It was only when I moved to teach at Princeton which I did for 11 years, that we thought we're in a place where you could have a place that was close to work but in the country so let's try that. And we've kept it because I think—for me, there's, first of all, there's something… I mean, city life is exciting but that also means it can be enervating. And to go to a place where the rhythms are the rhythms that human beings have lived with for a very long time—the way we handle it is by having lots of help, because I don’t know how to shear a sheep or anything. But I must say you go out to see the sheep and you think they—and some of them are affectionate and some of them aren't—but, so, you're interacting with one or two of them and you think, I find myself thinking "She doesn't know about Donald Trump. She doesn't she doesn't know about Victor or about the crisis of the Central European University. And we can make her life pleasant. We can make sure she has the water and the feed and the grass and the grain and so on that she likes. And it is somehow calming to have a slightly more manageable piece of the world.

Andy Hamilton [00:27:19] It sounds wonderful and as the siren goes outside of my window at two o'clock in the morning tonight, I will think of that wonderful calm. Anthony Appiah, thank you very much. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for coming.

Kwame Anthony Appiah [00:27:33] It was very nice to talk with you.

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