Kwame Anthony Appiah: The uncaring ethics of the cultural studies scholar

Remember Kwame Anthony Appiah, my cultural studies friends? Yeap, that one. Well, he now advises that people should report those in the country illegally…Or that is the essential implication of his ethical counsel. He even provides directions for anonymous reporting, since his encouraging of doing the “good thing” does not imply having the nerve to confront the affected…particularly after the affected confided in you.

Please, pay particular attention to this lovely paragraph:

Obviously, the person who told you about this crime assumed, for whatever reason, that you wouldn’t pass the information on. But you didn’t agree to that, and your informant had no right to expect you to cover for her. Would it make a difference if the abuser here had been a closer friend and not just an acquaintance? No doubt. For one thing, with a closer friend, you would have known all along what she was planning and you could have urged her not to do it. And a friend is owed considerations of loyalty and confidentiality. The whole moral situation would have been different. Finally: The funding for your job has no bearing on what you should do. If you were not an American, though, the call on you to act here, which is related in part to your membership as a citizen, would be less obvious.

Did you see how the person became informant? Was the receiver of the information in a sting operation or something along those lines? How did the other become informant?

But the next part is even juicier for someone who comes from precisely Appiah’s background. No, don’t even try it. I am not referring to his ethnic, “racial”, or national background. I am referring to the background we do choose: the intellectual one, the political one, the research one, the one that speaks about other-ing and the creation of convenient distinctions that exculpate us from crimes perpetrated in our names, or even by ourselves, just because the others are so foreign, so distant, so…other.


Kwame Anthony Appiah

According to Appiah, The Ethicist, it would have made a difference if the “abuser” had been a close friend. Yes, I guess it would have made a difference for the would-be snitch, who probably would not have considered even the question. But for the “abuser” – who might be seeking a life chance otherwise unattainable, escaping from poverty, fleeing an abusive family situation, or the never-ending list of reasons why since the dawn of time people have done unsavory things to go to greener pastures – for her there would be no difference, because telling on her would stop her chance, friend, acquaintance or foe.

And, yes, I did read that this particular “abuser” may not be in the most desperate of situations but neither Appiah, nor the would-be snitch are presenting that as a reason, or even a consideration, for how to proceed.

But, the key difference Appiah presents is rather problematic from an, ahem, ethical standpoint. He says: If this were your friend – that is, if this were someone like you – “the whole moral situation would be difference.” Make sure you remind the police about this ethical distinction anytime they try to compel you to testify about a friend who robbed a bank or something. And Trump thinking we should torture families of potential terrorists because they know what’s going on.

No, actually, there is no ethical distinction: If this is a crime, it is a crime, and your relation to the criminal is irrelevant. If you could sleep just fine knowing that a close friend committed this most outrageous barbarity, the fact that the perpetrator was just a passing acquaintance shouldn’t disturb your bedtime in the slightest.

Unless, that is, as Appiah well knows, we think that they are, at the end, just other, and to those others in the world we owe nothing.


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