Professor Profile: Kwame Anthony Appiah

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah received B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from Clare College in Cambridge University. He has taught philosophy and African-American studies at Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Cornell, and is now the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton. He also has an appointment in the University Center for Human Values, and is associated with the Center for African American Studies, the Programs in African Studies and Translation Studies, and the Departments of Comparative Literature and Politics. His most recent book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, was assigned as the “pre-read” for the Class of 2017.

What was your motivation for writing The Honor Code?

I wrote the book…for the reason I wrote all the books I write, and that’s because I was puzzled and interested in something… I found myself thinking about these questions of moral change and moral illusions because you have these very big shifts in behavior and attitude over a relatively short time… It began with footbinding, then I got into honor, and then I noticed this connection with honor and revolutions and started thinking about revolutions and moral change. Then it’s just a matter of thinking about it more and finding more examples.

In the book you write extensively about this idea of “honor peers” and how it is important to establish yourself as an honor peer before you try to modify someone else’s honor code. What are the exceptions to this rule?

It’s fine to criticize people if they’re wrong; I don’t mind people criticizing people if they’re wrong. My point is that it won’t make any difference unless they’re prepared to respond to you in the sort of way in which honor peers respond to one another… Sometimes there’s a reason not to express a critical judgment, which is that precisely because the judgment is correct, you need to be careful about whether what you say will actually lead to a decrease in the practice rather than to an increase… I think the morally appropriate standard of a critic is that she should have made a good faith effort to try and understand the thing she’s criticizing. I think criticism by people who have no idea what they’re talking about is stupid and unhelpful… I don’t think that people respond very well to critics who they don’t think of as peers in this sense.

You’ve criticized the U.S. on the way it has handled situations in the Middle East…How do you think the U.S. should refer to and interact with Muslim countries at this point, especially those with which we disagree?

You should always bear in mind that if you criticize a government, especially in ways that seem uncomprehending, you will strengthen them, not weaken them. You will build support for them in their own society. It’s a good question whether you want to do that… I would say, “no.” This has nothing to do with whether we’re entitled to have these judgments. To the extent that we know what’s going on, we should apply rigorously the standards that we believe are the best standards, and if they fail them, we should make the judgment that they failed, just as we should apply those standards rigorously to ourselves.

What about military intervention, in cases like Syria?

I think my view on Syria is that I don’t know enough… But I would say this: We are in danger of falling into a pattern which I saw in the United States policy when I was growing up in Africa… which is, I think, a fatally foolish way of thinking about foreign policy, which is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend… The rag tag bunch of people who are opposing Assad includes some people whose agenda is worse than Assad’s. The abuses of people in Syria are terrible, but they’re not crazy, and they were motivated by the desire to protect the regime. They weren’t motivated by a desire to drive the society backwards on women’s rights, and the rights of Christians, and other things, which Assad actually was pretty good on. So, if I could flick my fingers and have the Syrian opposition win, I wouldn’t – I don’t think – because two years from now we’d be trying to get rid of them, and we’d be having at least as hard a time… We are currently arming various people. If you arm people in a civil war, you’re just raising the death toll… If there was some reason to think that that was the only way to advance the main end here, which should be the development of a Syria that’s a good place for Syrians to live in, then maybe we should. But there’s no evidence for that right now, as far as I’m concerned, and so I don’t think we should be doing it… And, I think we should have learned this….I was somewhat in favor of intervention in Iraq and I now realize that I was wrong. And I was wrong because, though he was a terrible person, Saddam Hussein, and it was a bad regime, the cost of getting rid of it, in terms of every level of cost – the cost to the Iraqi people, the cost of destabilization of their society, the cost of raising the level of hostility between Sunni and Shi’a and between Kurd and Arab, but also the literal cost of more than 100,000 deaths, the destruction of heritage of every sort, and the cost to us: a trillion dollars; tens of thousands of American war veterans who are going to be living with the cost for the rest of their lives… I don’t see how anyone could think that cost justified what we now have in Iraq.

Do you think if there were WMDs in Iraq and we were able to recover them that those costs would have been justified?

That was what provided the legal basis for the intervention… It was never a large part of the reason why I thought it was a good idea. I thought it was a good idea to intervene because it might make Iraq a better place for the Iraqis. So I would be inclined to say: Look, yes. If my war ends had been achieved – making Iraq a better place for the Iraqis – I still would have thought that this was an awfully high price to pay but I would’ve thought that the people who died died for something. I wouldn’t have felt that if Iraq was where it is today, same cost, but we had recovered weapons of mass destruction. That wouldn’t have made much difference for me… We were acting for humanity. We were not acting narrowly for our own interests, despite all the people who say it was all about oil… Some of what we were trying to do was good, and worth doing if you could do it. But I think one of the things that both Afghanistan and Iraq have reinforced in me is a strong sense that there are ways of helping societies develop and move forward, but it’s very hard to force them… But we haven’t learned the lesson, because that’s essentially the lesson of Vietnam. And, if we had learned the lesson, we probably wouldn’t have started these wars, either.

Your family has been very involved with the Labour Party in England for quite some time now. To what extent do you think that has shaped your own political ideals?

I would say that the thing that I got from them, which I think was very important to all the participation in the political life of my mother’s family, was a thought that, explicitly in my grandfather’s case came from his Christianity, which was that to those whom much has been given owe a special set of obligations to their own society… We were very rich, by the local standards where I was growing up in Ghana… And we were raised to think that that meant we had certain obligations to our society… This is perhaps not entirely attractive, but it did lead people to do some very, I think, positive and honorable things, this ideology of a kind of elite service class. And I grew up around people like that… I’m not ashamed of my family’s contributions to these things. I think that I would say that I disagree, as a matter of general thinking… I think that markets are more important, and a better way of distributing goods and information than they realized, and that they were, I think, too inclined to think that the state should engage in planning large areas of the economy… I don’t mean that I’m against government – there are lots of things for government to be doing – but I am not as sympathetic as they were to the thought that the state should be active in all sorts of enterprises. In that way I don’t inherit part of socialist tradition, I suppose. But then I think there are not many people left who haven’t grasped that there’s a really important place for markets… But, that isn’t a disagreement about ends. It’s a disagreement about means. They thought it was really important and I think it’s really important that we manage the state and shape the economy in such a way that every citizen in every society has a shot at a decent life, in which they make the major decisions for themselves.

Then is it more about ends than opportunity for you?

Morality requires us to accept that people must to some extent live with the consequences of their choices. So, the fact that somebody’s done badly as a result of choices they have made doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to fall below the floor lines; there has to be a basic floor level, I think, that we guarantee to people. I think everybody, however foolish, should be able to go to bed at night under cover and eat. But, I don’t think a just society can ignore the fact that some people are better off as a result of their choices and other people are worse off. And because that’s a result of their choices, that’s okay morally… So far as capitalism has a kind of moral accord to it, it’s that capitalists take risks and the rewards they get are the premium for taking those risks. That also means that if they lose, that’s also fair… I think that to guarantee everybody an equal life would be to ignore the moral fact, the ethical fact, that a life is something that a person’s responsible for herself… The equality of outcome system ignores that moral idea. I think that’s wrong. It’s not just that I don’t agree with it; I think it’s wrong to ignore that idea.

Finally, why are you still at Princeton, still teaching and talking to college students – freshmen like me?

The secret truth about me is that I like freshmen teaching more than any other kind of teaching, and I think it’s because freshmen, above all else, remind you that it isn’t obvious why one should be doing the sort of thing I do. And, therefore, they force you every year, if you teach them every year, to rethink why you’re doing what you’re doing as a teacher… There are people who do philosophy in institutes. I just don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t teach.

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