Wonderful Ideas Drowning in a Shallow Pond, Composing, 20/09/2016

So last week, I said that I’d read through Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to figure out the details of precisely how such a cosmopolitan morality and politics would work. Etienne Balibar and I both see that general approach as the best alternative to the extreme nationalism that’s consuming European and American politics.

That nationalism is even creeping into Canada, through the dog-whistle racism and terrorism paranoia that’s already slipped into our Conservative Party.

As interesting a thinker as Appiah is, reading Cosmopolitanism left so
many blanks in the implications and deeper content of his ideas.
I’d had a copy of Cosmopolitanism for years, but never got around to reading it. I knew it was a book that helped establish Appiah as one of the leading political philosophers of the English-speaking world. So I thought I’d find a short, but dense and challenging book of interesting political and moral concepts. 

Well, the book was interesting and short. But Appiah’s presentation wasn’t ultimately very challenging at all. And it was actually very superficial. Most of the text was taken up by accounts of historical, social, and personal examples showing how complex and plural human societies have always been and always will be.

The entire book Cosmopolitanism was essentially an introduction, when I was expecting some deeper conceptual probing and analysis. 

I found plenty to think about, and I’ll write a few posts over the rest of the week detailing what I have been thinking about among Appiah’s ideas. But they'll be at a more basic level that I shouldn't have had to think about. 

Or at least, I don't think I should have had to keep my thoughts at such a basic level, given the reputation of Cosmopolitanism as a book. I’m not sure why Appiah kept his analysis at such a simple level here. I’d like my friends who are still more closely embedded in professional scholarly networks to get back to me about this, because I do feel at kind of a loss. 

Here are my hypotheses. 1) Cosmopolitanism was always intended for the mass market. So it would be read and cited by a professional scholarly audience, but it would also serve as a popular reference guide for Appiah’s thought. So he scaled back the complexity of his analysis, presuming that it would be too dense or dry for a casual reader.

One of the many elements of my disenchantment with the world of
academic scholarship was that their world of books has become
so disconnected from the concerns of the real world, while
simultaneously losing the profundity that's supposed to come
with deep thinking. So much academic discourse has devolved
into a debater's club that it's incapable of real progress.
In that case, I’d ask my friends with access to paywalled scholarly journals to send me some of the material where Appiah actually gets into the meat of his concept and its implications. But the scholarly-popular distinction may not be all that’s going on here.

2) The state of the moral-political debates among philosophy scholars actually didn’t get that deep. Most of the debates among scholars at the time revolved around particular duties individuals and governments would have to other individuals and governments around the world. 

Subjects included the nature, amount, and conditions of foreign aid delivery from rich to poor countries; which countries had the rights to control the movement and sale of ancient art and artifacts around the world; the proper structure of international forums.

The more profound ideas about the construction of cultures and culture itself, the nature of nationhood, how communication and exposure to differences shapes moral principles and ethical development – all these seem to have been black boxes in the debates.

In this case, I’d come at my university-connected friends with another request. Let me know what people were really talking about in this era, tell me what I may have missed at the time. 

I was only briefly introduced to these scenes at the end of my undergraduate education. I wasn’t yet an insider able to get the more detailed dope on these discussions. The fact that I don’t have access to paywalled scholarly publications anymore means that I can’t easily look this stuff up.

One more hypothesis.

3) Scholarly philosophy (at least in the English speaking world) has a very poor idea of what it means to elaborate a concept. They mistake replying to others’ objections for improving your understanding of the ideas.

It's like falling into the deepest catacombs of Borges'
Library of Babel and never even understanding that
you're stuck anywhere.
Here’s what I mean. After nine chapters, Appiah acknowledges that he’s really only introduced his concept of cosmopolitanism, but hasn’t really gotten that detailed. He opens Chapter 10, the last of the book, with a promise to do just that.

Instead, we get an extended treatment of Appiah’s reply to the Shallow Pond problem in utilitarian moral philosophy. In short, the Shallow Pond problem was, in 2006, often used to critique cosmopolitan moral ideas. It starts from a thought experiment.

You walk by a muddy shallow pond, wearing an expensive suit. You see a child drowning in the pond and you’re the only other person around. Even though your suit gets wrecked, you have a moral obligation to wade in and rescue the child. 

This gets abstracted to the principle that, no matter how much inconvenience and pain may come to you in the process, if you’re a rich person (or a rich society), you have a moral obligation to give all that you can – even to the point of destitution – to uplift the destitute and desperate. 

The Shallow Pond problem becomes an objection to cosmopolitanism when a writer takes it as a demonstration that all charity is ridiculous, especially charity to people who have very little attachment to you and your society. See, the Shallow Pond problem is inherently ridiculous because, as Appiah says and I agree, you can't reduce the complexity of today’s global economic system to have such a simple solution as rich people sending money to poor people.

A cosmopolitan’s obligations to people around the world is more like advocating for a better economic system. An end to pollution, authoritarian regimes and the kleptocracy they encourage, and all the horrible aspects of oligarchy that freezes enormous amounts of wealth in the private accounts of a few thousand people.

That's a lot more than just emptying your pockets to give to charities that feed hungry children or deliver them free water. That’s what the Shallow Pond problem makes economic justice look like, when it’s really a band-aid.

Falling helplessly into a shallow pond sounds like a
pretty good metaphor to describe a moribund academic
conversation, now that I think about it.
You’ll notice my summary of this Shallow Pond discussion doesn’t actually talk much about cosmopolitanism as a concept. It just responds to an objection, and ends up talking more about the objection than the concept itself.

And I noticed this mistake was widespread when I was in the academy. I’d regularly encounter professors who thought they improved a philosophical work by making objections to its ideas that shared pretty much no conceptual ground. They thought progress in philosophy was to become better and better at winning and defeating arguments. 

In which case, I’d ask my academy friends two questions. One is, like in the other hypotheses, if they could confirm that this really was the scholarly debate unfolding behind the paywalls. 

The other is whether I’d be able to convince any publishers – academic or popular – whether there’s a market for actually profound engagements with political ideas about how community building and social idealism is bound into essential human nature.

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