Creating Technology for Social Change

Anthony Appiah on the Ethics of Diversity

Facing History and Ourselves hosted a Day of Learning “Reimagining Self and Others” at Harvard Law School on May 10, 2013. This is a liveblog of the opening presentation by Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, whose latest book is The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

Appiah begins by framing the ethics of diversity with motivating questions that go back to Aristotle’s ethics: 1) What is it for a life to go well? 2) What is human well-being? These are tied to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is poorly translated as ‘happiness’ but is more robust, representing the successful life, or flourishing life.

To work through the ethics of diversity, Appiah suggests three ethical principles:

  1. Everybody matters (this was not true in Aristotle’s Athens, he only spoke of free, adult males)
  2. We owe everyone respect for their human dignity: we must bear in mind the facts about them that should shape how we treat them
  3. Each person is in charge of managing his or her own life

Appiah expands on the kind of facts that matter in ethical principle #2: They can suffer. They need food and drink. They need friendship and love. They are making a life (the core of Aristotle’s ethics).

“Among the tools we have for making our lives are: our talents, our educations, and our identities,” says Appiah. Identities are the tools we use to evaluate our lives. So, how do identities work? First, he says, we create labels. And these labels are mixed up in the social processes of negotiating on what basis the labels should be applied to people, what people who have the labels should do (e.g. as an American, I am meant to keep track of what my President does and vote them out of office if necessary), and how people with the labels should be treated (e.g. solidarity with fellow Americans or fellow Muslims).

“The ideas that shape our identities are communicated in society, through the ways people respond to each other, including things we say. But they can be contested.” Appiah gives the example: if you are a black person you should be in favor of Affirmative Action. But we also contest who the label applies to, e.g. you are not a muslim because…. We also contest what it means to be an identity, and how you should treat people of other identities. The historical U.S. example being how blacks and whites should relate to each other.

The rules of the social negotiation of identity unfold in several ways. 1) Nobody is entitled to fix the meaning of an identity on their own. It’s a social process, to change the meaning of identity requires politics and organizing. 2) People who are in the group have a primary role in determining what it’s social meaning is. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers had a right to insist that black Americans be called African-Americans, and he was speaking to both the in-ground and the out-group, blacks and whites, because although he and his community had the primary role it is still a social process. 3) Individuals have the right to figure out their own way of fitting their identities into their lives, deciding whether they’re important and, if so, how.

In other words, we each have our own measure of being the identities we have. We have to answer some questions for ourselves: Is it important to me to be black? What does it mean to me to be black? Appiah asserts that individuals don’t own identities but are entitled to figure out what it means to them (Ethical Principle #3).

Appiah suggest that this means that we enter a world in which people have diverse identities, who are entitled to diverse identities, and are entitled to make the best sense they can of the identities that are out there, to try to invent new ones, and to reshape existing ones. “That imposes demands on the rest of us. Because if each person is entitled to make their own life and if they need to do so as people of various identities, we should make that possible for each other.”

BUT, we don’t always do what we should says Appiah. Sometimes we use identities to place cramping limits on other people; that’s what antisemeitism, islampohobia, races, sexism, and homophobia do. They take an identity and boss people around, take a source of positivity and impose negative meaning and consequences on it. Notice that the problem with these isn’t treating people as having identities. That’s a good thing. What’s bad is having a demeaning or disabling conception of what their identities mean.

Referring to the rest of the agenda for the Day of Learning, Appiah says “We’re going to learn today about some of the ways in which the study of history, sociology, psychology, and law can help us understand the obstacles there are to dealing respectfully with difference.” This is how to enable lives to flourish. Everyone should have access to a range of identities to use in the production of their life (again, these are tools).

He ends by reminding the audience that we should try to respond to other people’s identities respectfully at all times. His example is to how we relate with our mothers, sisters, and wives. You don’t ignore the fact that they’re women when respecting them, you take it very much on board. Similarly with Jews, you don’t relate to them by forgetting they are Jews, you learn how being Jewish affects their life. And we do this so that we can all achieve the goal of making a life.