Cosmopolitanism Ethics In A World Of Strangers Philosophy Essay

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5/12/16 Philosophy Reference this

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The book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, is a clear and well-written book which is enjoyable to read. K. A. Appiah is himself a citizen of the world: a professor of philosophy at Princeton, with a Ghanian father and an English mother, he was raised in Ghana and educated in England, and also lived in Africa, Europe and North America. After reading this book, I have to say that Appiah skillfully blends his philosophical ideas with anecdotes about his own life and background. It brings us too many places and we come to know him a little and also his father, mother, and various other kinsfolk and tribe members. He introduces us to many traditions, practices and ideas of his African ancestry to clarify his ideas on human interactions, conversations, and globalisation. It reassesses the case for reviving an ancient stream of thought in a world full of strangers, and finds that Cosmopolitanism is a universal trait of humankind. The overall scheme of the book concerns the principles of the existence of different people bound by a simple nexus of common values and humanity. 

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1.1 Introduction: Marking Conversation

Appiah starts with the fact that our ancestors lived in small tribes where they interacted with a small set of people who they knew. Others were of rival tribes and to be viewed with suspicion. Information about other ways of life didn’t really flow into the village. That was in the old days. Nowadays, our human world is getting smaller now, because people have more access to each other than ever before in history. We are getting to know and access each other through migration, international trade, tourism, and the worldwide web of information, which comes from radio, television, telephones, and especially the internet. This mass media and the amazing cyberspace give us plenty of opportunities ‘not only that we can affect the lives of others everywhere but that we can to learn about life anywhere, too'(p xiii).

The world is getting smaller and we are living in a new global tribe in the face of the world globalization. How are we to deal with these new circumstances? What ideas and institutions can help us to live together in this global village? Appiah addresses the notion of cosmopolitanism, that is the challenge to ‘take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become'(p xiii). The notion actually combines two inter-related strands: ‘One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship'(p xv). The other is that ‘we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance’ (p xv). Appiah believes that it is an obligation to understand those with whom we share this planet. People are different, and there is much to learn from our differences. Because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life. Appiah also stresses that ‘whatever our obligations are to others (or theirs to us) they often have the right to go their own way’ (p xv), it is respect for difference.

According to Appiah, cosmopolitanism is more accommodating of diversity than the current liberal consensus but does not fall into moral relativism. Cosmopolitanism embodies two core values: ‘universal concern’ for all humanity above family and nation and a ‘respect for legitimate difference’. Appiah recognizes that these two values clash, and as such ‘cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge’ (p. xv). Appiah takes a step further to summarise the challenges, which are: (1) to avoid falling into moral relativism while respecting difference; (2) to find a middle way between an unrooted abstract universalism and self-interested nationalism; (3) to recognise that cultural difference has been exaggerated by ‘an order of magnitude’ (p. xix); and (4) to work for ‘conversation’, in the sense both of association and exchange of ideas, while realising that humanity will never arrive at an agreed hierarchy of universal values. Cosmopolitanism is a process involving the human community in habits of co-existence, of ‘conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association’ (p. xix). The crux of getting along is to recognise that while one might live with integrity in accordance with one’s own beliefs, one does not need to share the same rationale with someone else to develop this habit of ‘conservation’.

In the interpretation of cosmopolitanism, Appiah is sympathetic to the view that local loyalties and allegiances are important because they determine who we are. So he encourages us to embrace both local and universal loyalties and allegiances and denies that they necessarily come into conflict with each other. He holds that we need to take sides neither with the nationalist who abandons all foreigners nor with the hard-core cosmopolitan who regards friends and fellow citizens with icy impartiality. The position worth defending might be called (in both senses) a partial cosmopolitanism. So he stakes out his middle ground of partial cosmopolitanism more by talking about what it’s not. On the positive side, we get a lot of generalities: it’s important to talk with people from other cultures, to maintain mutual respect, to learn about other ways of life. We need the curiosity inherent in a partial cosmopolitan outlook so that we can ‘get used to one another’ and live peacefully together. We do not, he stresses, need to share underlying values or agree on everything.

1.2 The Shattered Mirror

Appiah argues that looking at the world clearly shows that there are a variety of ways of life and thought. Human beings are different and that ‘we can learn from each other’s differences’ (p4). When we are exposed to the range of human customs and beliefs, a cosmopolitan openness to the world is ‘perfectly consistent with picking and choosing among the options you find in your search’ (p5). However, such exposure to different human customs and beliefs hardly leaves the traveler unattached from his own. Thus, not all disagreements can be resolved and it urges us to accept differences. (pp.4-7)

Appiah holds that a complex truth is like images of the shattered mirror—‘each shard of which reflects one part of a complex truth from its own particular angle’. He supposed the deepest mistake is to ‘think that your little shard of mirror can reflect the whole’. Actually, Appiah points out that ‘there is no singular truth. In that case, there’s no one shattered mirror; there are lots of mirrors, lots of moral truths, and we can at best agree to differ’ (p11), therefore, we need to embrace pluralism, and adopt a live-and let-live attitude.

Appiah cites works by ethnographers, and draws a number of persuasive parallels to establish universality and shared values (good and bad). He stresses that people in far-flung places are the same in that ‘[they] have gods, food, language, dance music, carvings, medicines, family lives, rituals, jokes and children’s tales.  They smiled, slept, had sex and children, wept, and in the end, died’ (p.14). Another commonality according to Appiah, is that ‘a lot of what we take to be right or wrong is simply a matter of customs’.  His argument about ideas and concepts which are common to most cultures in the world, draws further on acts like ‘good parenting’, as well as ‘taboo’, which exists in his native Ghana (akywandee), or in Igbo land (nso), but is Polynesian in origin.

1.3 The Escape from Positivism

Appiah writes of relativism, positivism, and particular the fact and value distinction in this chapter. Appiah claims that the influence of positivism has led to value relativism by splitting values (or ‘ends’) from facts about the world (or ‘means’), in other words, what philosophers have called the naturalistic fallacy, or the inability to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Appiah avers that relativism and positivism often get in the way of the cosmopolitan project and undermine conversation across boundaries. Because ‘every people finds its own ways (to be) good’ (p16), this conversation is important. It helps us to know others who are different and to learn from them. Simply put, if when we disagree we are both right, then there is nothing to talk about. ‘if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless’ (p31).

From a positivist slant, Appiah observes that what is custom is linked to values, which in the end, ‘guide our acts, thoughts and our feelings’ (p 25). It is in this context that he underscores that being kind is an attribute of experience more than any other variable since ‘people learn to be kind by being treated kindly and noticing it’. 

Appiah also emphasises the way our values are shaped by conversations with others, in which we try to shape each others’ views and feelings, but relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation, ‘it’s just a reason to fall silent’ (p 31) because of the relativist’s toleration.

1.4 Facts on the Ground

The chapter is an attack on the positivist notion of fact. Appiah argues that facts are not as solid as we may suppose. He tries to show that facts are on no more solid ground than values. He uses the example of trying to persuade a traditional Asante (his kinfolk) that witchcraft cannot harm people, to show that facts largely depend on what you already believe and what ideas you already have.

1.5 Moral Disagreement

In this chapter, Appiah goes on to look at the various ways we can come in conflict over values, which are more likely to arise between people from different societies. They are: (1) no shared vocabulary of evaluation. Value terms are essentially contestable and they will always be argued about both across cultures and within them. (2) Even when we share the same moral vocabulary, conflict over values might come in varying interpretations of the same vocabulary and (3) giving the same values different weight. However none of this is insurmountable: ‘we can agree to do things without agreeing on why’ (p67), but more important is Appiah’s point, pace Samuel Huntingdon, that most conflict is not articulated through warring values in the first place. In fact, intense conflict may ‘arise through dispute over the meaning of the same values’ (p67), e.g. on abortion, American pro-lifers and pro-abortionists both respect the sanctity of life, but differ on why it is precious and on when life begins. To better understand this point, Appiah gives us other example that, the US and Iraq being at war is not because the people of the two countries have different values. But this is not a point the politicians in Washington would readily accept, certainly, not the ideologues. Here, Appiah analyses that the ‘Golden Rule’-what you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others- requires that we should take other people’s interests seriously, take them into account. Appiah suggests that ‘encouraging cosmopolitan engagement, presupposes the acceptance of disagreement’.  Perhaps, this is why cosmopolitans endorse as a key aim, that we ‘learn about other people’s situations and then use our imagination to walk in their Moccasins’ (p.68). He also exposes the failings of the ‘Golden Rule’ as a principle to live by. It’s just that we can’t claim that the way is easy.

1.6 The Primacy of Practice

Appiah argues that even though moral disagreements can happen and are real, crosscultural conversations about values do not have to end in disagreement, because it is often possible to agree about what to do even when we do not agree on the reasons behind it. For example, we can live in peace and harmony without agreeing on the underlying values. (pp.69-81) Appiah discourages us from insisting on reaching agreements on values by means of reasoned arguments and persuasion. These very often fail to move people. Moreover, if we make this insistence, then we will lose what is worthwhile about conversations across boundaries. As Appiah avers, ‘conversation is hardly guaranteed to lead to agreement about what to think and feel. Yet we go wrong if we think the point of conversation is to persuade, and imagine it proceeding as a debate, in which points are scored for the Proposition and the Opposition. Often enough, as Faust said, in the beginning is the deed: practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace’ (pp.84-85).When Appiah proposes conversations between people, what he has in mind by conversation is really ‘an engagement with the experience and the ideas of others’ (p85). In this sense, ‘conversations do not have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it’s enough that it helps people get used to one another’ (p85).

1.7 Imaginary Strangers

Appiah argues that the points of entry to crosscultural conversations are things that are shared by those who are in the conversation. They do not need to be universal; ‘all they need to be is what these particular people have in common’ (p97). And human beings everywhere have so much in common. These include everyday activities, such as buying things, eating, reading the paper, laughing, going to movies, parties and funerals. They also include universal values such as kindness and generosity. He argues that these can be entry points to cross cultural conversations, because ‘once we have found enough (things which) we share, there is the further possibility that we will be able to enjoy discovering things we do not yet share'(p97), and we can open up more to other ways of thinking, feeling and acting. That is one of the payoffs of cosmopolitan curiosity.

Appiah also notes that the problem of cross-cultural communication can seem immensely difficult in theory, when we are trying to imagine making sense of a stranger in the abstract. But ‘the great lesson of anthropology is that when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but, if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end’ (pp.98-99).

1.8 Cosmopolitan Contamination

In the seventh chapter called Cosmopolitan Contamination, Appiah argues against those who criticize globalization for producing homogeneity and getting rid of cultural differences. He claims that globalization is also a threat to homogeneity because it creates new forms of difference (p101-105). He thinks that instead of the talk of preserving diversity and trapping people in conditions they want to escape from, we have got to let people choose for themselves. He mentions that ‘cosmopolitans think human variety matters because people are entitled to the options they need to shape their lives in partnership with others’ (p104). Appiah also writes of the trouble with ‘cultural imperialism’, he believes that ‘people in each place make their own uses even of the most famous global commodities’ (p113). Such as the fact that Levis are worn on every continent. ‘In some places they are informal wear; in others they are dressy'(p113).They are not blank tablets on which global capitalism can write whatever it wants, they are not fools but they can resist. That is why something does not ever change, like the identity of a society can survive when cultures are made of continuities and changes.

1.9 Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?

Appiah begins by pointing out that some of the museums of the world, particularly in the West, have large collections of objects and artefacts which were looted from poor and developing countries. He then asks: who owns these cultural artefacts and properties? Our first answer may be that since they make up the cultural heritage of a people, they belong to the people and culture from whom they were taken. Appiah disputes this and argues that ‘the right way is to take not a national but a cosmopolitan perspective: to ask what system of international rules about objects of this sort will respect the many legitimate human interests at stake’ (pp.126-127). If some cultural artefacts are of potential value to all human beings, they should belong to all of humanity. He thinks that when they make a contribution to world culture, they should be protected by being made available to those who would benefit from experiencing them and put into the trusteeship of humanity (pp.130-134). Appiah argues that rather than focusing on returning stolen art and putting a lot of money and effort into it, it may serve the interest of those whose artefacts were stolen better to be exposed to a decent collection of art from around the world, like people everywhere else.

1.10 The Counter-Cosmopolitanism

Appiah’s writing on ‘Believers without Borders’ as in ‘Doctors without Borders’ is instructive in explaining universalism as well as its driving motives and consequences:

‘They believe in human dignity across nations… share ideals with people in many countries, speaking many languages… they would never go to war for (a) country, but they will enlist (in a) campaign against any nation that gets in the way of universal justice.  They are young, global Muslim fundamentalist; they are the recruiting ground of Al Qaeda’ (pp. 137-138).

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Appiah goes on to suggest that such fundamentalism exemplifies the universal ethics, which ‘inverts the picture of Cosmopolitanism and in the absence of toleration, turns easily to murder’ (p141). For example, Islamic and Christian fundamentalists who seek a community of those who share their faith and reject all national and local allegiances have no tolerance for religious difference. We should be wary of and reject universal community, because they can lead to bloodbaths, which ‘is one lesson we can learn from the sad history of Christian religious warfare in Europe’ (p141).

Then Appiah turns to argue that their universalism is contrary to cosmopolitanism which embraces pluralism and promotes the view that our knowledge is imperfect and provisional and that we might learn something from those we disagree with. As he writes: ‘to say what, in principle, distinguishes the cosmopolitan from the counter-cosmopolitan, we plainly need to go beyond talk of truth and tolerance. One distinctively cosmopolitan commitment is to pluralism. Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values. (But they have to be values worth living by.) Another aspect of cosmopolitanism is what philosophers call fallibilism— the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence’ (p 144).

If cosmopolitanism is, in a slogan, universality plus difference, there are the other enemies of cosmopolitanism. They reject universality altogether, and claim that ‘not everyone matters’. One such inescapable obligation is this: when you do something that harms someone else, you must be able to justify it. Those we think of are willing to claim that not everyone matters. They tell us why. Such and such people are destroying our nation; they are inferior; ‘It is not actually that they don’t matter; it’s that they have earned our hatred or contempt. They deserve what we are doing to them’ (pp.150-152).

Appiah avers that the real challenge to cosmopolitanism isn’t the belief that other people don’t matter at all; it’s the belief that they don’t matter very much. It’s easy to get agreement that ‘we have some obligations to strangers. We can’t do terrible thing to them’. (p153)

1.11 Kindness to Strangers

Appiah looks at the question of what do we owe strangers? His answer is mainly negative. Appiah begins by referring the viewpoints of Peter Singer and Peter Unger. The Singer principle (from the works of Peter Singer) states: ‘If you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you ought to do it’ (p 160). Unger takes it a step further by stating that it would be immoral not to donate all of one’s wealth to organizations, such as UNICEF and Oxfam, which benefit less fortunate people. Based on these beliefs, Singer and Unger would likely agree that it would be wrong to spend money on the opera if that money could otherwise be used to save the life of a child (p159-162). Appiah, however, doesn’t agree with that decision. He believes that Singer and Unger are missing a key piece of morality and human nature: It is illogical-and just plain wrong- to assume that a person values all lives equally. In reality, a person is likely to value the people around them, such as family and friends, and even themselves, over those whom they have never met. That’s not to say that such a person does not care about other, unknown people; it is only to reaffirm the fact that humans prefer familiarity. Cosmopolitanism cannot and does not demand from us to have more sympathy and concern for strangers than those close to us. In addition, Singer and Unger’s principles are vague and without exceptions. They don’t seem to consider all possible situations and they fail to account for human nature. As Appiah mentions, if everyone spent all of their money to save starving children and none on activities they enjoy, the world would be a ‘flat and dreary place’. (p 166) No one would want to live at all if they weren’t able to do things other than saving other people’s lives. People need entertainment and joy in their lives in order to be happy and successful. These thinkers are mistaken to burden us with incredible obligations which would dramatically reduce the quality of our lives (pp.156-166). It is much more helpful, as Appiah believes, to contribute, in whatever way possible, to a cause that will focus on improving the general living conditions of a location, which, in turn, will eliminate the hunger of the children living there. Providing clean water or a better education system to Third World children will do more for their future than simply feeding them for a day, which, as Appiah points out, may actually be detrimental to the farmers and the economy of the area. And it wouldn’t necessarily require all of one’s wealth to be donated to the cause in order to make it happen.

As Appiah points out, Singer and Unger seem to imply that all values can be measured in a ‘single thin currency of goodness and badness’ and those decisions should be made based on a comparison of the amounts of this currency for each possible outcome (p 166). That theory is a misguided and an inaccurate one, as it fails to account for outside forces. All decisions must be made by considering the many variables involved; this ‘morality price’, as one might call it, is only one such variable. According to Appiah, whatever our obligations are to strangers, they must not be too burdensome because these are not the only obligations that matter. As such, Appiah is correct in his conclusions that neither the Singer principle nor Unger’s beliefs should be the sole guiding force in one’s decision-making process. While it may be appropriate to assign the morality price a heavy weight when it comes to making a decision, it is impossible to force the human mind to think only of such a value. As Appiah argues, human values and decision making processes should be based on more than just one specific rule-designed by one specific human. The world is too complex for one sentence to handle.

Appiah also makes an argument based on the saying that ‘the end justifies the means’. Slavery, in and of itself, is wrong; the existence of the pyramids or of the United States, however, is not. Plus, it is unreasonable to assume that giving away all of one’s wealth will cause any permanent change. It is more likely that doing so would simply prolong the possibly-dreadful life of a starving child for a set period of time. After that, the living conditions of the child would simply return to their previous state.

2 Evaluations

2.1 The Notion of Cosmopolitanism

Appiah’s chosen word to describe this task in this book is ‘cosmopolitanism’. This term can be traced back to the founding father of the Cynic movement in Ancient Greece, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 B.C.). Of Diogenes it is said: Asked where he came from, he answered: ‘I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)’ [1] . The word of Cosmopolitan derives from Greek cosmos (the Universe) and polis (city). Appiah picks this term to suggest the possibility of a cosmopolitan community in which individuals from varying locations (physical, economic, etc.) enter relationships of mutual respect despite their differing beliefs (moral, religious, political, etc.). According to the meaning which is intended , he finds ‘cosmopolitan’ superior to ‘globalization’, which is an overused word that can mean everything from a marketing strategy to an economic thesis, or ‘multiculturalism’, which he says is ‘another shape shifter, which so often designates the disease it purports to cure’. Appiah admits that cosmopolitanism can have elitist connotations. But it’s actually a term rooted more in the idea of cosmos — the universe: ‘talk of cosmopolitanism originally signaled a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities’.

In order to better understand the notion of Cosmopolitanism in the book, it is necessary to make a brief survey of the differences in meaning among some conceptions, which are: relativism, universalism, nationalism, patriotism and liberalism. Relativism refers to any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions regarding the differences in moral or ethical judgments between different people and cultures. Universalism is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for ‘all similarly situated individuals’, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature. Nationalism involves a strong identification of one’s social identity with that of a nation or state. Patriotism is love and devotion to one’s country. Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equality. And, Cosmopolitanism is in a slogan, ‘universality plus difference’ (p151).

2.2 Relativism and Cosmopolitanism

Relativists claim that not everything is local custom, and they argue that education must be morally neutral, and that all values are situational and negotiable. Appiah thinks it is mercifully fading out. Appiah rejects cultural relativism, he pushes it further toward obsolescence and denies a key tenet of relativism, which he describes as ‘the basic suspicion that moral claims just reflect local preferences’ rather than universal truths.

Before relativism’s destruction, its proponents relied on the comfortable certainty that ‘tolerance trumped all other values’. For relativists, dealing with multiple cultures was easy: Just tolerate everything. But in the absence of that idea, how do we relate to what Appiah calls ‘a world of strangers’? Since there are ‘some values that are, and should be, universal,’ do we deliberately rinse away all expressions of cultural diversity that don’t uphold those universals? If values are universal, how can we maintain them while still respecting cultural distinctness? How can we avoid the pitfall those relativists feared, that of imposing our values on others? Appiah makes it work. He avers that ‘Cosmopolitanism’ helps us find ways to consider such conceptual complexities. As mentioned before, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism intertwines two ideas, ‘obligations to others’ and ‘value of particular human lives’. For the cosmopolitan, then, ‘no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilities to every other.’ Those responsibilities are best played out in ‘conversations across differences’ where the ‘language of values … helps us coordinate our lives with one another’.

2.3 Globalization

Appiah talks about globalization in chapter 7. He is dismissive of those who are critical of globalization and focuses only on one aspect of their criticisms, namely their worry that globalization wipes out local cultures. So he does not address the worry that the global financial institutions and multinational corporations want to expand the world markets for their own interests and that they undercut and weaken local governments, laws, and decision-making. Western industrial nations promote free trade, but this in fact benefits them and makes them richer and more powerful. The agriculture and export subsidies in the West are one of the main causes of agricultural decline in many developing countries. So globalization per petuates and worsens the unequal balance of power between rich industrial and poor developing countries, rather than addressing it in any way. Appiah casts the critics of globalization as people who are afraid of change, but some of the critics are legitimately concerned with global justice and local sovereignty.

2.4 Cosmopolitan Justice

Cosmopolitan justice is discussed in Chapter10, but it is a little weak. One of the main components of Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is ethical commitment to strangers. But his view of what this amounts to is very thin. Instead of speculating about what commitments we incur if we want to make the world a substantially better place, Appiah comes up with a list of constraints. He is very critical of the idea of world government as a vehicle for upholding and guaranteeing people’s basic rights. For Appiah the primary mechanism for ensuring basic rights is the nation-state. Appiah then warns us about those who want to burden us with too much and urge us to overlook our obligations to those close to us and to our own self and projects.

It is difficult to see how the concerns which underpin cosmopolitan ethics or justice can be addressed solely in the context of national politics. Those who are passionate about cosmopolitan justice are concerned about extreme poverty, tyranny, oppression, and environmental degradation. Seriously addressing these seems to also require working with international organizations which go beyond national borders and forming connections and associations with others elsewhere who have similar goals.

Moreover, despite Appiah’s legitimate worries about establishing a world government, it is clear that world governing bodies and institutions, such as United Nations and World Bank, already exist, deal with cosmopolitan justice issues, and have much power. At the least, making the world more just would demand that these institutions become more democratic and fair and do a better job of protecting people’s rights.

2.5 Global Conversation

Cosmopolitanism works because values like courtesy, hospitality, generosity and reciprocity are widely shared, alongside other basic concepts and social customs, to enable differences to be explored. Appiah thinks that we share enough to work through human differences. Commonality allows for a global conversation. In the end, attaining a state of peaceful, diverse co-existence is more important to cosmopolitanism than resolving all conflict over human values either philosophically or politically. Appiah calls for a global conversation to make our world suitable for coexistence and living well. But he does not refer to appropriate ways. When we look for some enlightenment in the context of Chinese Confucianism, we can find that Confucian toleration has some characteristics of engagement in such conversations; the characteristics are: openness to t

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