Ikenberry On Sen and Appiah’s Looks at Identity and Conflict

Over at TPM Cafe, John Ikenberry reviews Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism and Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence.

So Appiah and Sen are worrying about the same danger – the solitarist belittling of human identity. They have a similar vision of a proper functioning and enlightened human society. It is a world were people are complexly integrated into various realms of political and social life. Overlapping and multiple identities reinforce restraint and toleration.

They both have grand principles they would like to defend. Alas, they are a bit less articulate when it comes to proposals and programs that might help create and extend a world of cosmopolitanism and freely chosen and shifting identities.

Appiah focuses on the promulgation of conceptions of basic human rights, secured in the first and last instance by nation-states. Cosmopolitans are rare who want world government. Obligations to others must be consistent with our own sense of self and sensitivities. Sen argues for a world where people have a full-blown freedom of choice for affiliations and associations. “The freedom to determine our loyalties and priorities between the different groups to all of which we may belong is a peculiarly important liberty which we have reason to recognize, value, and defend.”

So what does all of this mean? It seems to me that what these two intellectuals are searching for is really some sort of perfected global version of Western liberal society. After all, Europe and the West has been here before, starting perhaps with the religious wars of the early modern era. Western societies entered the modern democratic age when they succeeded in pushing ethnic and religious identities down into civil society. They semi-privatized these identities and created different layers and venues for the expression of social, political, and religious identities and affiliations.