Let’s take female genital cutting (or female genital mutilation or female circumcision depending on your bias) as an example. Amnesty International estimates that over 130 million women worldwide have undergone some form of female genital cutting, with over 2 million procedures being performed every year. If you are a supporter of the practice, writes Kwame Anthony Appiah, you might defend the practice by arguing that:
… unmodified sexual organs are unaesthetic; that the ritual gives young people the opportunity to display courage in their transition to adulthood; that you can see their excitement as they go to their ceremony, their pride when they return. You will say that it is very strange that someone who has not been through it should presume to now whether or not sex is pleasurable for you. And, if someone should try to force you to stop from the outside, you may decide to defend the practice as an expression of your cultural identity. They say it is mutilation, but is that any more than a reflex response to an unfamiliar practice? They exaggerate the medical risks. They say that female circumcision demeans women, but do not seem to think that male circumcision demeans men.
Let me clarify, Appiah is himself against female genital cutting, but what he wants to emphasize is this: “a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to.”
Those butchers want to torture you on your first days in this world and cause you unbearable pain when urine touches the gaping wound .. those ignorant butchers! Fear them not, no one will lay a finger on you as long as I am alive. When you grow up you can cut off whichever part of your body you choose … until then no one will touch you.
That is an excerpt from a blog post of an Egyptian mother who recently gave birth to a newborn baby. The doctor suggested circumcision, but the mother adamantly refused. The baby, I should point out, is a boy. (A Facebook group in Arabic to end male circumcision currently has 973 members.)
Is male circumcision wrong? On the one hand, it alters the most private anatomy of a baby boy before he is able to make the decision for himself. It also reduces his sensitivity and sexual pleasure. On the other hand, doctors report improved hygiene and lower HIV transmission among males who are circumcised. Is there a single moral answer for all humanity or does it depend on each culture, community, and country?
This is where Cosmopolitanism becomes deeply philosophical. Tracing its roots to the Cynics and the Stoics, Cosmopolitanism is founded on moral universalism, the idea that the same moral code applies to all humans regardless of their race, religion, culture, nationality, or any other sub-category of our humanness. It stands in stark contrast to moral relativism, which states that our moral beliefs do not reflect universal moral truths, but rather are mere values based on our social and temporal circumstances.
For the vast majority of the past 10,000 years, it was not considered ‘wrong’ to kill someone from outside your tribe; that is just how it was. Today it is not considered ‘wrong’ to kill chimpanzees for science or cows for dinner; that is just how it is. Moral relativists say this is because our “morals” are simply social norms that we construct to live peacefully. Kwame Anthony Appiah says that morals are universal and eternal, even if we haven’t yet discovered what those timeless moral laws are.
Conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it’s enough that it helps people get used to one another.
As a believer of evolution, I don’t subscribe to Appiah’s moral universalism. (And I have yet to find a way to believe in one without contradicting the other.) But that doesn’t lessen my appreciation of Cosmopolitanism as a framework for thinking about ethics at a global level. I would consider its golden rule to be this: “focus on understanding difference first; work on coming to an agreement about universality later.” It is very much related to what Chris Blattman half-jokingly calls “A Thinkavist Manifesto“: that it is better to understand without acting than it is to act without understanding.
Several of the book’s chapters challenged some of my previous-held thoughts, but none more so than “In Praise of Contamination.” Appiah pokes fun at “cultural preservationists” who “make their case by invoking the evil of cultural imperialism.” Such talk, he says, is based on “an image of how the world used to be – an image that is both unrealistic and unappealing.” He reminds us that there is no such thing as cultural purity. Brightly colored kente clothing that is associated with West Africa and worn by so many Black nationalists in the USA was originally imported by the Dutch from Indonesia. Most “native” cultures and languages in Southern Africa actually came from a single group, the Bantu, who made up the African cultural empire from 1500 to 1000 BC. And the bombin, the most distinctive accessory of female indigenous dress in Bolivia, was introduced by British railway workers in the 1920’s.
Any group of individuals have the choice to maintain their own culture or to adopt the culture of others. While so many cultural anthropologists lament the latter, Appiah is adamant that the choice is not theirs to make. He says it is “deeply condescending” to force anyone to adopt any cultural practice or tradition, even if it is their own.
As Lokman and I finished our last foamy swigs of beer at Cambridge Commons I asked him what he’s learned so far in his Ph.D. thesis research of Global Voices. What were his impressions, for example, of how we all communicate on the vast network of mailing lists Global Voices uses to stay on the same page?
“Something that stands out for me,” he said, his words always slow and measured, “is just how polite and receptive everyone is. No idea is treated as too far out there, and everyone is encouraged to speak up.” We walked another 30 yards back toward Harvard Law School until Lokman was ready to finish his thought: “and that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in studying Global Voices. I think it represents the future for all of us. We are all going to have to learn how to communicate and work with people from completely different cultures who speak different languages.”
I thought of Lokman’s observation weeks later when I was staying at a $10-a-night hostel in northern Argentina. It was late, we all had drunk too much wine, and in the corner by the pool table two Israelis, a German, and an Australian Jew were yelling at one another about when it is and is not appropriate to make holocaust jokes. At one point I thought fists were going to fly. I finished my glass of wine, headed back to my dorm room, and made a mental observation that not every global community was as exemplarily tolerant as Global Voices.