At Liberty Live! Kwame Anthony Appiah on Identity and the Law (ep. 32)

February 7, 2019
mytubethumbplay
%3Ciframe%20width%3D%22100%25%22%20height%3D%22166px%22%20scrolling%3D%22no%22%20frameborder%3D%22no%22%20allow%3D%22autoplay%22%20thumb%3D%22sites%2Fall%2Fmodules%2Fcustom%2Faclu_podcast%2Fimages%2Fpodcast-at-liberty-click-wall-full.jpg%22%20play-icon%3D%22sites%2Fall%2Fmodules%2Fcustom%2Faclu_podcast%2Fimages%2Fpodcast-play-btn-full.png%22%20src%3D%22https%3A%2F%2Fw.soundcloud.com%2Fplayer%2F%3Furl%3Dhttps%253A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F571263039%26amp%3Bcolor%3D%2523000000%26amp%3Binverse%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bauto_play%3Dtrue%26amp%3Bhide_related%3Dtrue%26amp%3Bshow_comments%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bshow_user%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bshow_reposts%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bshow_teaser%3Dfalse%22%3E%3C%2Fiframe%3E
Privacy statement. This embed will serve content from soundcloud.com.

As part of the Brooklyn Public Library’s "Night of Philosophy and Ideas," renowned philosopher and NYT Ethicist columnist Kwame Anthony Appiah joined host Emerson Sykes — and a live audience! — to discuss identity, ethics, and the law. 

Download Audio File

On iTunes

EMERSON SYKES
From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney at the ACLU and your host. This week’s show was a bit different. We taped it in front of a live audience at the Brooklyn Public Library as a part of the Night of Philosophy and Ideas. We were joined by Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of law and philosophy at NYU and the New York Times’ Ethicist. We hope you enjoy our conversation.

EMERSON
Good evening Brooklyn.

It's a great pleasure to be with all of you thinking people on this very cold night. Special thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library and to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy for inviting us here for the Night of Philosophy.

This is a special opportunity for us to have our first live taping of At Liberty. It's the ACLU’s weekly podcast featuring conversations on civil rights and civil liberties. My name is Emerson Sykes. I'm a staff attorney at the ACLU working on First Amendment free speech issues and I'm also the host of At Liberty. Thanks!

Tonight, our guest is Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who probably needs no introduction. Professor Appiah is currently a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and previously taught at Princeton, Harvard, and every other great university on the planet. He's the author of numerous books, most recently The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. And you may also know him as the weekly columnist for The New York Times, The Ethicist.

Professor Appiah, welcome to the podcast.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH
It’s great to be here with you.

EMERSON
Since your most recent book is about identity, I wanted to start with a very basic question. How do you identify?

KWAME
[2:01] Well honestly, it depends on who's talking to me and why they asked. So in this kind of situation, which is, in some sense, contextless, it's rather hard to know what to say. So, I am an American citizen. That's what it says on my passport. I believe I'm entitled to British citizenship, as well, but I haven't tried to do anything with that recently, so... I grew up in Ghana. That's important to me. It's important to me that I'm gay, mostly because I'm married to my husband, and that kind of very central feature of my life, I'm glad to say. And we've been together for 30 something years. So it's going well.

I guess I've increasingly come to think that it's important that I was raised a Christian, though I'm not a Christian. I'm not a theist. But I realized that a lot of the way I think about things is the result of having had a kind of Protestant… my schools were basically Anglican, but I was baptized a Methodist. So that's important to me.

EMERSON
Well I'll stop you there. So you started the list with country of origin, sexual orientation, and religious upbringing.

Why do those seem to be the most salient identities?

KWAME
Well, I think your national identity is obviously important for political life. I mean, it's it's, this is the country I'm responsible for, along with the other three hundred and thirty odd million people. Some of them very odd. And together, we have to blow the wind in its sails and push on its rudder. So that matters, and because politics is, seems to me, important.

It's one of the privileges of living in a working society that you don't have to think about politics all the time. When I was a kid in Ghana, when my father was a political prisoner, for example, we had to think about politics all the time. That's not so great. You want to be able to think about other things. So it is one of the great and important virtues of a functioning society. And I sort of feel we're teetering on the edge in the United States today, of not being in that way a decent society, because I find I have to think about politics pretty much every, every morning.

And I wish that weren't so.

EMERSON
[4:08] Well, I think in your book you talk about the origins of your inquiries into identity and you talk about being mistaken for different things in taxis.

KWAME
Right. Yes. I mean taxi drivers are the great... you know, they're driving around. It's really boring. And the only interesting thing that happens to them is that people keep coming in and out of the backseat and, you know, some of them are willing to talk. So in many places in the world, you know, one of the things they do is they ask you, you know, where you're from, or they say where do you come from, where were you born?

And this is a very unhelpful question in my case, because I was born in London but that was just because my father happened to be a student there at the time. And I grew up in Ghana and my sisters were all born in Ghana. My home is in Ghana, and that's what they want to know actually. They don't really want to know where I was born. They want to know where I grew up.

But then they're puzzled often when I say that really what you want to know is that I come from Ghana, then they're puzzled because I don't sound like most people from Ghana. Which is true, I don't. But then my mother was English, so there you are. And I went to English schools. And then coming here, I came to the United States, you know, I was already in my late twenties by the first time I came here. I didn't spend any time in the United States as a child.

And I had grown up in Ghana, where being Black means one thing, and I spent a lot of time in England, where being brown means something. And then I got to this other place where I had to figure out what it meant all over again. One of the great privileges of my life has been, I think, that many African-American people who are now my friends sort of accepted me in part because I had African ancestry. They didn't pick me at random to be friends with and I've often felt not entitled to the welcome that I've been given. I've been given very warm welcomes into many African-American homes over the years. And so I had to figure out, you know, what racial identity meant here, which is different obviously from what it means in those two other places.

EMERSON
[6:12] Well, if I may, I wanted to just share a brief story because I've sort of lived this in the opposite, having grown up as an African-American but then living for a period in Ghana. So I hope maybe you'll participate a bit in this story. So when I was living in a small village in Ghana, in a town called Jinijini, all of the children in the village — well, not even just the children — they called me oburoni. Can you translate oburoni?

KWAME
No. It's very hard to translate.

I mean, it's normally translated as “white man,” but that's because it's sort of what it's come to mean. I suspect it used to mean “stranger.” But it's, but now it gets translated as “white man.”

EMERSON
So as an African-American in a small village in Ghana, I'm interpreted as oburoni which, loosely, is white man. When I traveled to the capital — to Accra — people referred to me as chale.

KWAME
Yes. Chale. That's even harder to explain what that one means. So I'm not going to try.

EMERSON
“Friend,” right? It's, it's almost anything, but it's certainly friendly.

KWAME
Yes. And oburoni wasn't unfriendly either.

EMERSON
Hmm.

KWAME
I mean, on the whole, Ghanaians like strangers.

So, but it's just a way of saying “you're not one of us.”

Of course, you know, many people find the gesture of being reminded that you're not one of us alienating. But it's true, very often, that one isn't one of them. And it doesn't have to be alienating. You can say, “Well, you’re not one of us, but hey, you're you're a welcome stranger.” But chale is just a term of affection.

EMERSON
For me, it was jarring. Yes, I was a stranger. But of course, coming from where I came from it was jarring to be called what was loosely translated as white. And for me it just sort of highlighted how contextual race is.

[8:00] And I just wanted to read a short passage from your book. “There's no dispensing with identities, but we need to understand them better if we can hope to reconfigure them and free ourselves from mistakes about them that are often a couple of hundred years old. Much of what is dangerous about them has to do with the way identities — religion, nation, race, class, and culture — divide us and set us against one another. They can be the enemies of human solidarity, the sources of war, horsemen of scores of apocalypses, from apartheid to genocide. Yet these errors are also central to the way identities unite us today. We need to reform them, because at their best, they make it possible for groups large and small to do things together. They are the lies that bind.”

So you referred to identities as lies in some way, and sort of the project of the book is to complicate the idea of identity. And one of the most common reactions that I've heard, or criticisms, is if you're calling race, for instance, in some way a lie, how do you then also hold the idea that racism is real?

KWAME
Well, part of the reason racism is real is because people do think that there are races.

It's a philosophical project to decide whether our concept of race can be sustained in the light of the best understandings of history, sociology, biology, and so on. My inclination is to say that it isn't much use as a sort of biological concept, but I think racial identities are a very important part of the furniture of the social world and like all identities, however, they're built around things that are at best simplifications, and at worst just outright mistakes.

So, just to step away from race, for the moment. In the domain of gender, there's a tendency in many societies — not all — to think that the world parses people into two biological kinds, men and women. That's just not so. That is, if you understand the way in which embryos develop and the way in which human beings develop socially after they've left the womb, the question — whether someone's a man or woman — is often a complicated one.

[10:15] It's not always straightforward. And even in the cases where it's straightforward, people have to decide what to do with it. Even if I have a standard male body and even if I'm not trans — I don't mind having a standard male body — I still have to decide how to be a man. And there is more than one way of doing that.

And whatever those ways are, they aren't given by genetics, they aren't given by God, they're given by us together, making these things work with one another. I can't make my masculinity mean something all on my own. I have to interact with the existing structures of gender. And the same is true about race. So you could have explained to the people in Jinijini that there was a sense in which, it was misleading to call you oburoni.

They would already have known that because they would have looked at you and decided that you didn't come from Europe. They may have been in a small village in Ghana, but they know quite a lot about the world. But you couldn't, as it were, impose upon them your conception of what your racial identity was, though you could talk to them and negotiate with them and maybe they would have eventually been willing to find you a place as obibini, as a somebody from hereabouts as a Black person.

EMERSON
I tried very hard to convince them, and the best I could get was a pat on the shoulder and a, “Okay, you're not white.”

KWAME
Okay. Yes. Right. Well, there you are.

EMERSON
Well, one of the, one of the... you've mentioned several times, politics and the political climate and its relevance to identity and one of the buzzwords now is, “identity politics.” And fairly or unfairly, you've been described as a critic of identity politics. So what problems do you see with this framework?

KWAME
[12:01] Well if by a critic of identity politics you mean someone who thinks we should, as it were evacuate, the identity from politics, not only do I not think that's a good idea, I think it's barely coherent as a proposal. So I'm not against identities and I don't think any sane person should be.

Occasionally, I have conversations people who say, you know... I had a conversation with a person on the radio, on the other coast, a person who I was thinking of as a white person, and he said he didn't like to be thought of as white. Well, I think that's silly in the United States because it may be that at some point in the future it won't mean anything. But it so does mean things now in so many contexts that it would be irresponsible to raise a child without an awareness of those sorts of things. And obviously the same for people of color and different kinds of people of color, depending on where their color comes from.

So you can't be against identity. What you can be against is bad uses of identity. I'd say that one thing that troubles me a lot is that, is something that is said by people who call themselves critics of identity politics. But I would put it in a very different way. I think we have paid insufficient attention in our politics recently to the problems of poor people. But I would say that the mistake there is that we don't have a class politics.

We're don’t have the class politics we need to deal with the forms of inequality associated with class. And so there is a place where I think we need more identity politics, we need class politics. We need to recognize that our system, our society — like most modern societies — is organized around axes that are not just about money, though money is very important. They're also about cultural capital and social capital. They're about connections. They’re about the people who can send their kids off to internships and subsidize them. And also that there are ways of behaving, what Bordieu calls “habitus,” forms of, ways of speaking, ways of moving that are validated and ways that are looked down upon and so on.

[14:05] All of that is part of the structure of our social world and it has led us to ignoring the problems of some of those people at the bottom of the hierarchies of cultural, social, and financial capital, both Black and white. And that's a bad thing. So there's a place for identity politics.

I don't think that it's sensible to think that there's a competition to be had between worrying about the things I just talked about — the class inequality — and worrying about sexism, racism, and homophobia. Those are all bad things, and maybe the president can't do more than one thing at a time, but the rest of us are perfectly capable of thinking about more than one thing at a time and addressing and recognizing that there are many forms of injustice, and that we'd like to do something about all of them.

And we have been doing good things about all of them. I don't think we've been doing enough about the problems of the working class. But that's not to say we haven't made enormous and fine progress on many forms of identity politics.

In the domain of gender, I think it's one of the great things, I sort of wake up when I'm trying to cheer myself up in the morning, I think about how much progress we've made, how hard it was for trans people when I was growing up. The process is by no means complete, of course, but how much we've done to find a place, a better place for trans people in the world.

And for that to happen, all of us had to change our ideas about gender. It wasn't just trans people having their ideas — the rest of us had to go along with it. And some people won't go along with it, and so we're still dragging them behind us. But we do need to shift identities in the domain of gender. We've done that a lot. We did it first reconfiguring the whole status of women. Again, incredible things have happened over the course of my lifetime, in that respect. I have three sisters. Their prospects are, were enormously shifted in the course of our growing up, more in Europe than in Ghana, because Ghana is a place where, which is pretty good on gender topics actually, though progress needs to be made there, too. So I don't think it's a matter of being for or against identity. We need to focus on the ways in which identity lead to injustice and try to undo those forms of injustice.

[16:17] And if we haven't paid sufficient attention to the problems of the working class, that's bad, but we won't solve the problems of the working class by ignoring identity because a lot of the problems of the working class are problems of identity. We need to rethink the way we think about the dignity of working people. We have a society that inherits a long history of contempt or dishonor for working people.

This goes back a long way and if we don't think about it, we can't do anything about it.

EMERSON
Well, we certainly have a lot to do, and I agree that we have to do more than one thing at once. And this is something that you have mastered. Now, you're a professor of philosophy and a professor of law, and also the Ethicist. So I'd like to ask you a few questions about your role as the Ethicist. The first one is maybe just procedural, but do you get to choose the questions that you answer?

KWAME
I answer all the questions I am sent. My editor chooses them, but she tells me — and I trust her — that she sends me all the questions that she thinks are questions. Apparently, apparently the e-mail address gets a bunch of things that don't really count as questions. And also, it gets a bunch of things that count as questions that you might want to ask an accountant or a tax lawyer, but not someone who knows nothing about the IRS regulations.

EMERSON
What are the hardest kinds of questions that you get?

KWAME
I mean, as a sort of structural matter the hardest problem is that people don't usually tell you everything you want to know. I think getting ethical things right is usually a matter of coming up with the right description of the situation — that is, a description that includes all the things that matter. And one of the things I notice is that people often ask me questions where I know there's something wrong because they've just left out a part of the story that you need to have in order to figure out what to do. And for good reasons, I'm not allowed to contact the people who send these messages.

[18:16] They are all contacted by a fact checker who checks that every claim they make about their situation is true. So those letters are not made up. So I think that, structurally, that’s the hardest problem.

I'd say the other thing is that what you should do in many contexts depends a bit on what's customary in your society. I've been here longer than all my students, so I like to remind them I may have been born a foreigner, but I've lived in America longer than they've been alive. But there are some things about how I sort of spontaneously respond, for example on family matters, that I think probably have something to do with having grown up in a Ghanaian family, which is a much more extended and octopus-like thing than most American nuclear families seem to me to be. So probably, I get things from the point of view of some people wrong because I think of family as more extensive than many Americans. But not all Americans because we, you know, we come from lots of different places. And actually, I think the way I think about families is probably a bit like the way many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints think about family.

They also think of it as vast and complex and encompassing.

EMERSON
So the identity of the questioner is important to you in your crafting of your answer.

KWAME
Yes, because I think, you know, a lot of what we owe to other people depends on what they’re entitled to expect. And what they're entitled to expect depends on what's customary.

So just to give you a family example. I mean, I'm a wofa; that is to say, I am the maternal uncle of a bunch of kids, seven boys and two girls. My responsibilities to them, according to the traditions of the Akan, which was where my father came from, are more extensive than the obligations of a typical American uncle in a sort of standard family.

[20:04] For example, I'm proud of these guys and girls so I'm going to boast about them. Two of them went to Cambridge and one went to Oxford, and each of those three came and spent time before their final exams living with us in New Jersey and preparing for the exams. I imagine that most American uncles don't think that that's their job, to help prepare their children for their final exams at university. But that's not how it works here. We have different notions of family. I've sort of accepted that as natural, these obligations that come from a particular cultural context, and I think that that's the right way to think about these things. I think both these ways of doing family life work and you should do your best to make the one that you're in work well.

So I think, for example, under Ghanaian law, it isn't the case but it ought to be the case that you should be able to make orders to require support for sisters’ children just as you can make orders for support from husbands. The relationship between a wofa and his wofaase, his niece and nephew, is like, in some sense, like a parental relationship, and so you have obligations and they’re the obligations you have because of the way the society is, and that's how it is.

EMERSON
Well I'm glad you brought up the issue of the relationship between laws and ethics. I was thinking about your role as the Ethicist sort of as analogous to a judge in some way. Do you see yourself as a referee, saying, “Yes ethical or not ethical, the rules are clear. I'm just applying the rules?”

Or is it more like a judge in our system, where you sort of add the rules plus wisdom and you sit for a while with it and you come to the right answer? Or are you trying to give people the answers for the way you wish they would act?

Are you doing some kind of social engineering in terms of trying to craft a future that you would like to see?

KWAME:
[21:56] So I'm definitely not doing the last thing, and the reason — no, but the reason is very simple. I'm writing the column for my readers. I'm not writing my column for the people who write in to me. I don't have enough knowledge about the lives of the people who write into me to give them what I would think of, as it were, definitively useful advice. So all I can do is take the materials given to me by the people who write to me and use it to say something that I hope might be helpful to them. But basically to use it to think about whatever is the issue that they have raised with the people who read me who will agree or not — but they will, it'll be their opportunity over breakfast on a Sunday to think about some interesting set of questions. So that's my main sense of responsibility, is to them.

We take care of the people who write in in various ways. For example, quite often people write in thinking that they have disguised themselves sufficiently. And we have to tell them that in the age of Google it isn't going to be enough just to take their name off the bottom of the letter, that it'll be obvious to lots of people who they are.

We had an example like this once of someone who was complaining about a letter sent round by umm, by an administrator and she didn't want us to know what university it was at. But all I had to do was to take the sentence from the letter and put it into Google and I could tell you what university it was. So we said, “We can't put that sentence in if you don't want people to know who you are.” So we do some protection of our of the writers. So we have, I don't mean we have no obligations to them.

But I think... you know, most of the people who write in, I think…. I imagine them opening the magazine and thinking either, “Damn, I'm not gonna be able to slam this down on the table and say to my wife or my husband or my friend, hey, he agrees with me.” Or they're thinking, “Hey, he agrees with me! So I can I can go and talk to whoever it is that I was having the argument with and say, see, he's on my side.” But I think the main thing that is useful, I hope, for the people that I'm writing in response to is usually just trying to frame their choices for them in a way that seems to me more helpful than the way that they have framed it for themselves.

[24:06] If somebody has framed their situation completely correctly I'm inclined to write a short answer. You know like “yes, you're right.”

Or, yes, or “Do that.”

But I mean this fits with a with a with a thing that I, a conclusion I came to from thinking about some of the ways in which we do formal moral philosophy. In formal moral philosophy, we often elicit people's intuitions about morality by giving them highly structured situations and asking them whether they would do A or B. In most of moral life, it's not like that. You have to figure out what the options are. You have to figure out what the relevant stuff is. God doesn't say to you, “Here are all the relevant considerations. Here are the five options. Which are you going to do?” The world doesn't come at you like that. And learning how to figure out how to sort of configure the world as it comes to you in a way that makes it possible to make sensible decisions, I think that's the great task of of living a decent life.

EMERSON
Well I want to come back to the proposition that you made that uncles should be required...

KWAME
Yes.

EMERSON
...to pay support. And maybe it’ll make sense eventually why that's relevant. But I'm writing a brief right now where basically we're saying that the government should not be allowed to make judgments about what is moral. And at the ACLU we're very suspicious anytime you have government officials deciding what is or is not moral because that's just not sufficiently clear, it's not easy enough for the people who are going to be subjected to those rules to figure out what the government's going to decide in any given situation. So at the ACLU we have a very strong stance that it is not the role of the government to decide what is and is not moral. So, for you, if something is good or right does it necessarily need to be legal or illegal? What do you think is the appropriate relationship between law and morality?

KWAME
[25:55] Good. So I think there are lots of things that are bad, some of them very bad, that shouldn't be illegal. It's very bad to shout angrily at your children over breakfast. Responsible parents shouldn't do that, but I do not believe it's the business of anybody — of government in particular — to make regulations about that kind of thing. Now if you reach the point where you're beating up your children then the government may step in to protect their physical integrity, or their mental health. Adultery is wrong but it isn't, it shouldn't be a crime. So there are lots of things that are wrong shouldn't be crimes.

Also, there are lots of things that are perfectly okay that you can criminalize. There's nothing morally wrong with putting your car next to the sidewalk in front of your house. But if there's a sign there that says no parking between the hours of seven and nine then the law will punish you, correctly, if you do. So there are lots of things that wouldn't be bad unless they were illegal. And there's perfectly good reasons for having rules of that sort.

What you're talking about is the enforcement of controversial claims about people's conduct which are paternalist. That is to say, they have to do with telling you that the government's decided that it's better for you if you don't do this thing or if you do do this thing. I'm sort of against those. I think people should be allowed to make their own mistakes. I think people make mistakes like this all the time.

And one whole area of legislation that has in my view correctly largely disappeared in the area of the regulation of sexual behavior was based on the thought that some forms of sexual behavior were wrong, not because they were bad for anybody else but because they were wrong and you shouldn't do them. I think that's up to each person to make up their own mind about those things. Again, if in the course of sexual activity you harm someone, then we're back in the domain of the criminal law. But criminalizing consensual sexual acts I think is a bad idea. And also solitary sexual acts, acts that have no, don't require consent because it's just you. That's a bad idea, too, which doesn't mean I don't think there are sexual acts you shouldn't engage in.

[28:09] I mean I have views about that, right. But I don't think that those are views that the state ought to impose on people. So there's a whole set of areas of things that are bad but shouldn't be illegal. There's a bunch of things that are only bad because they're illegal. And in a democratic society we have to figure out where we want to go with those things. In a plural society, I think it's unwise to do too much legislation in the criminal area that isn't guided by the thought that we're trying to protect people from avoidable harms of a serious kind caused by the bad behavior of other people.

EMERSON
Thanks very much. I wanted to close with a question sort of where we began, which is around family.

KWAME
Yes.

EMERSON
And you've talked a lot about the fact that your father was Ghanaian and your mother was English, and how that has informed your concept of identity. I have kids and their father is Black and Muslim, and their mother is white and Jewish and I think given that it's 2019 and we're in Brooklyn, we're probably not the only two people in this room with families of mixed race. So you've talked about the stories that your family told you and the formation of your identity later on, and I wonder if you can share how, at your earliest childhood, your parents talked to you about your identity. And were there things that they said that make you feel grounded while also not feeling bound by any particular identity that you can share with us as some insights?

KWAME
So I think the main thing that particularly my father did was to instill in us a sense that we came from two families, and to tell us stories about both of them — my English family and his family — and to say that we had reason to be proud of them both. So, accentuating the positive.

[29:53] You know, as I grew up I realized that well for, here’s an example: my middle name, which I don't use anymore because when I filled in the forms when I became a citizen they told me that they weren't going to allow me to use, to bring all my names with me. So I had to pick Kwame Anthony. But my proper name on my baptismal certificate is Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah. And Akroma-Ampim was an 18th century general who was the sort of founder, Asante general, who was the founder of the lineage. He was a slaver. He made his fortune by capturing people and taking them down to the coast and selling them to Danes and British and various other people who were coming along the coast in the slave trade. One of the shipping lines that developed in the slave trade out of Liverpool was run by one of my mother's family ancestors.

So I’ve got slavers on both sides. I'm not proud of this, but I'm not ashamed either because it's not me. I didn't do it. I'm against it. But I am, on the other hand, some of the things they did, I am proud of. And I, I take credit for, as it were — not, not moral credit but pride in. So my great grandfather was the first socialist leader of the House of Lords. I think it's great to be a peer and to decide to be a class traitor.

I think that's, I think that's excellent. I'm, I'm very proud of that. And I'm proud of things. Obviously, I'm proud of my father. Actually, he did many, many important things for Ghana. So I think the main thing they did was to bring us up with a secure sense of being embedded in these two family histories. I think it was also very important for my parents, both of them, that they went to different churches but they wanted us to be Christians, they wanted to raise us as Christians but in a very open way. So we had Muslim cousins, we went for — Ramadan is a great time because they're all starving and only feasting when it gets dark and you've been eating all day and then you can go and join them. And then they came to us for Christmas.

[32:02] So it wasn't a kind of sectarian Christianity. We weren't anti-Catholics because we were Protestants. We weren't anti Muslims. I have a Jewish husband — nobody in my family thinks that's a bad thing, on my Christian family. But they thought it was important to raise us as Christians and they, I think my parents probably were sad that I am not a Christian, that I’m, because I’m not a theist. That's one of the things philosophy can do to you.

EMERSON
Well, Professor Appiah, we really appreciate you taking the time.

Do we have time for questions? We have a few minutes left for questions. I see one hand there.

AUDIENCE MEMBER
So you talked about how goodness and legality don't and shouldn't always line up. I wanted to ask: If the law shouldn't be striving to create a good world, what sort of world should it be trying to create? A safe one? An organized one?

What exactly?

KWAME
Well that's a great question. I think, I mean I'm inclined to accept a view here that was developed by John Rawles, which is that we should be — in the domain of ethical judgment, we should be working in what he called the overlapping consensus of the main reasonable views in our society. So if something is part of the main reasonable view of most everybody I think it's fine to use that as a basis of judgment.

But the other really important thing in our kind of society is that we have to have democratic conversations about what we want to do. And that doesn't mean conversations where if you get 50 percent plus one you declare victory and go home. That's not what democracy is about. In democracy we care about everybody. And so we don't just try to win. We try to win people over and we try even if we can't win them over to take account of the dissatisfactions of our citizens, fellow citizens who don't agree with what we're doing.

And that will lead us to be able to do some things, in the end we're going to have to do some things that aren't in the overlapping consensus because we either are going, I mean there isn't an overlapping consensus in our society about abortion so we're going… and we have to have the law say something. Either abortion is going to be permissible sometimes or they aren't. We can't, we can't just back off and say, “Well, let's wait until we've all agreed about this.”

[34:12] But there, I think we should be very attentive you know to the views of the people who don't agree with with whatever judgement we come to. We should try to be respectful of them and try to make sure we've understood what they're saying, and if that means that we change our minds and want to modify the regulations in a way that reflects what, they want we should do that.

EMERSON
Thanks. We can take a second question.

I think there was one in the back.

AUDIENCE MEMBER
You said that you think needs to be more identity politics focused on class and poor people. Do you think like contemporary identity politics as it's commonly understood needs to transition to that? Or can it exist alongside a class-inflected identity politics?

KWAME
I think we can keep going with the forms of identity politics that people are objecting to. And at the same time attend to the problems of class.

Again Rawles is good here.

Rawles said that a decent society, a fair society would guarantee everybody what he called “the social bases of self-respect.” So if your society is reflecting back to people a disrespectful image or an image that makes it hard for them to respect themselves then there's something wrong.

And I think that that one of the things our failure to talk about class means is that we do have people in our society who have an image sort of read back to them by the social world that essentially looks down on them. We shouldn't do that. That requires complicated and active cultural work but it also requires political work. It requires organizing such people to rise up and insist on their being properly recognized.

[35:54] But we can do that at the same time as making sure that trans people have the social bases of self-respect, making sure that Black and brown people have the social bases of self respect. Making sure that women have the social bases — all women — have the social bases, and all men as well. And so I don't think, as I say, it seems to me the idea that there are alternatives here is a problem. It's not a good idea.

EMERSON
I think that's a great note to end on. And I want to ask you to join me in thanking Professor Appiah for his time.

KWAME
Thank you.

EMERSON
And thank you all in the audience for coming. I wish you good luck in your future seven and a half — what nine? — more hours of philosophy.

KWAME
Nine.

EMERSON
Enjoy. Thank you very much.

KWAME
Thanks. Thank you, that was great.

EMERSON
Thanks very much for listening. We hope you enjoyed that conversation with Professor Appiah. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast, rate us, and tweet @ACLU with feedback. We appreciate your input, and will be sure to read every message. Till next week. Peace.

Stay Informed