Who do you think you are? That’s a question bound up in another: What do you think you are? Gender. Religion. Race. Nationality. Class. Culture. Such affiliations give contours to our sense of self, and shape our polarized world. Yet the collective identities they spawn are riddled with contradictions, and cratered with falsehoods.
Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind is an incandescent exploration of the nature and history of the identities that define us. It challenges our assumptions about how identities work. We all know there are conflicts between identities, but Appiah shows how identities are created by conflict. Religion, he demonstrates, gains power because it isn’t primarily about belief. Our everyday notions of race are the detritus of discarded nineteenth-century science. Our cherished concept of the sovereign nation—of self-rule—is incoherent and unstable. Class systems can become entrenched by efforts to reform them. Even the very idea of Western culture is a shimmering mirage.
From Anton Wilhelm Amo, the eighteenth-century African child who miraculously became an eminent European philosopher before retiring back to Africa, to Italo Svevo, the literary marvel who changed citizenship without leaving home, to Appiah’s own father, Joseph, an anticolonial firebrand who was ready to give his life for a nation that did not yet exist, Appiah interweaves keen-edged argument with vibrant narratives to expose the myths behind our collective identities.
These “mistaken identities,” Appiah explains, can fuel some of our worst atrocities—from chattel slavery to genocide. And yet, he argues that social identities aren’t something we can simply do away with. They can usher in moral progress and bring significance to our lives by connecting the small scale of our daily existence with larger movements, causes, and concerns.
Elaborating a bold and clarifying new theory of identity, The Lies That Bind is a ringing philosophical statement for the anxious, conflict-ridden twenty-first century. This book will transform the way we think about who—and what—“we” are.
The Ethics of Identity takes seriously both the claims of individuality--the task of making a life---and the claims of identity, these large and often abstract social categories through which we define ourselves.
What sort of life one should lead is a subject that has preoccupied moral and political thinkers from Aristotle to Mill. Here, Appiah develops an account of ethics, in just this venerable sense--but an account that connects moral obligations with collective allegiances, our individuality with our identities. As he observes, the question who we are has always been linked to the question what we are.
Adopting a broadly interdisciplinary perspective, Appiah takes aim at the clichés and received ideas amid which talk of identity so often founders. Is "culture" a good? For that matter, does the concept of culture really explain anything? Is diversity of value in itself? Are moral obligations the only kind there are? Has the rhetoric of "human rights" been overstretched? In the end, Appiah's arguments make it harder to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest; between locals and cosmopolitans; between Us and Them. The result is a new vision of liberal humanism--one that can accommodate the vagaries and variety that make us human.
Appiah begins by establishing the problematic nature of the idea of race. He draws on the scholarly consensus that "race" has no legitimate biological basis, exploring the history of its invention as a social category and showing how the concept has been used to explain differences among groups of people by mistakenly attributing various "essences" to them. Appiah argues that, while people of color may still need to gather together, in the face of racism, under the banner of race, they need also to balance carefully the calls of race against the many other dimensions of individual identity; and he suggests, finally, what this might mean for our political life.
Gutmann examines alternative political responses to racial injustice. She argues that American politics cannot be fair to all citizens by being color blind because American society is not color blind. Fairness, not color blindness, is a fundamental principle of justice. Whether policies should be color-conscious, class conscious, or both in particular situations, depends on an open-minded assessment of their fairness. Exploring timely issues of university admissions, corporate hiring, and political representation, Gutmann develops a moral perspective that supports a commitment to constitutional democracy.
Appiah and Gutmann write candidly and carefully, presenting many-faceted interpretations of a host of controversial issues. Rather than supplying simple answers to complex questions, they offer to citizens of every color principled starting points for the ongoing national discussions about race.
While recognizing the obvious virtue of the desire to buy the freedom of slaves, the contributors ask difficult and troubling questions: Does redeeming slaves actually increase the demand for--and so the number of--slaves? And what about cases where it is far from clear that redemption will improve the material condition, or increase the real freedom, of a slave?
Buying Freedom includes essays by the editors and by Dean Karlan and Alan Krueger, Carol Ann Rogers and Kenneth Swinnerton, Arnab Basu and Nancy Chau, Stanley Engerman, Jonathan Conning and Michael Kevane, Jok Madut Jok, Ann McDougall, Lisa Cook, Margaret Kellow, John Stauffer, and Howard McGary.