Deporting the Cosmopolitans, Appiah's Ethics in a World of Strangers


Undocumented immigrants in flight from Arizona to Guatemala City
One recurring argument against providing refugee status to Central American child immigrants is that we have to take care of “our own” first (See Janesville, WI Community Page comment stream as a typical example).   People often ask why the United States should help people from other countries when there are still homeless people here.  In Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers Kwame Anthony Appiah considers what obligations we have to others based on a shared humanity.

It seems ironic that one of the most prosperous countries in the World with a relatively low population density would be so inhospitable to refugees in need.  However, Appiah argues that indifference to other cultures is a luxury of privileged groups.  It is only the privileged populations that do not need to become versed in second or third languages and cultures.  Going to other countries is fueled by a curiosity about the “exotic” and when traveling in other countries they are tourists who impose their own language and culture on others.  Appiah argues that true cosmopolitans are often the world’s poor and marginalized peoples that are forced to migrate.  In the case of refugees from Central America, these children are forcefully immersed in multiple cultures because they are fleeing violence.  For Appiah, immigrants and refugees are some of the most well traveled and culturally diverse polyglots.    

Still cosmopolitanism is not something new.  Appiah defines cosmopolitanism as a philosophy that dates back to the Cynics of the fourth century BC, whose notion of “citizen of the cosmos” reflected the general Cynic skepticism toward custom, tradition, and loyalty to a particular community.  Cosmopolitanism is a sense of obligation and responsibility to others beyond the immediate community and an interest in other beliefs and practices.  Cosmopolitan thought often inveighs against the “stupidity” of patriotism and the artificiality of the boundaries of nations.  The Stoics beginning in the third century BC, the Romans-Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius all were influenced by cosmopolitanism.  It is also patent in Saint Paul’s insistence in human equality in the eyes of God and underwrote the great moral achievements of the Enlightenment including the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Immanuel Kant’s work proposing a “league of nations.” 

Appiah argues that, given the global flows of people, products, and culture, “a world in which communities are neatly hived off from one another seems no longer a serious option, if it ever was.”  Even the privileged populations are now having to deal with the fact that the world is getting more crowded.  Appiah advocates a partial cosmopolitanism in which local partialities are maintained, but universal morality is also fostered.  He proposes conversation as a way to continually negotiate understandings with people of other beliefs and practices and, in fact, conversation does seem to be missing from the Central American refugee situation.  There is a lot of talk about Central Americans, but is there a way to engage in discussions with them to foster understanding?