Monday, January 14, 2019

As If

As If

Thomas Nagel


As If: Idealization and Ideals

by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Appiah’s latest book, As If: Idealization and Ideals, is in part a return to his earlier, more abstract and technical interests. It is derived from his Carus Lectures to the American Philosophical Association and is addressed first of all to a philosophical audience. Yet Appiah writes very clearly, and much of this original and absorbing book will be of interest to general readers. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a writer and thinker of remarkable range. He began his academic career as an analytic philosopher of language, but soon branched out to become one of the most prominent and respected philosophical voices addressing a wide public on topics of moral and political importance such as race, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, codes of honor, and moral psychology. Two years ago he even took on the “Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine, and it is easy to become addicted to his incisive answers to the extraordinary variety of real-life moral questions posed by readers.

Its theme and its title pay tribute to the work of Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933), a currently neglected German philosopher whose masterwork, published in 1911, was called The Philosophy of “As If.”1 Vaihinger contended that much of our most fruitful thought about the world, particularly in the sciences, relies on idealizations, or what he called “fictions”—descriptions or laws or theories that are literally false but that provide an easier and more useful way to think about certain subjects than the truth in all its complexity would. We can often learn a great deal by treating a subject as if it conformed to a certain theory, even though we know that this is a simplification. As Vaihinger says, such fictions “provide an instrument for finding our way about more easily in the world.”
One of the clearest examples Vaihinger offers is Adam Smith’s assumption, for purposes of economic theory, that economic agents are motivated exclusively by self-interest—that they are egoists. Smith knew perfectly well that human motivation was much richer than that, as he demonstrated in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work less widely known than The Wealth of Nations. But as Vaihinger explains:

For the construction of his system of political economy it was essential for Adam Smith to interpret human activity causally. With unerring instinct he realized that the main cause lay in egoism and he formulated his assumption in such a way that all human actions, and particularly those of a business or politico-economical nature, could be looked upon as if their driving force lay in one factor—egoism. Thus all the subsidiary causes and partially conditional factors, such as good will, habit, and so forth, are here neglected. With the aid of this abstract cause Adam Smith succeeded in bringing the whole of political economy into an ordered system.
Vaihinger explored the phenomenon in a wide range of cases, from mathematics, the natural sciences, ethics, law, religion, and philosophy. Appiah’s range is equally wide, but his examples are different; he gives special attention to psychology, ethics, political theory, social thought, and literature. In general he defends the value of idealization, but he is also aware of its intellectual dangers. He emphasizes that it is essential to hold on to the contrasting concept of truth, and to keep in mind both the departures from truth that idealization involves and the specific purposes for which it is useful.
Appiah has packed into this short book an impressive amount of original reflection on a number of topics, so my discussion will have to be selective. He mentions some examples from the natural sciences, but in such abbreviated form that they cannot be understood by readers who are not already familiar with the theories in question.2 I shall discuss some cases where Appiah’s analyses of idealization are more accessible.

The contemporary theory of what is standardly referred to as economic rationality is descended from Adam Smith’s egoistic model of economic behavior; it is based on a much more sophisticated and quantitatively precise but still-idealized model of the psychology of individual choice. The modern discipline of decision theory has permitted a great increase in the exactness of what we can say about this type of human motivation, by introducing quantitative measures of subjective degrees of belief and subjective degrees of preference.

If, for example, on a cloudy day you have to decide whether or not to take an umbrella when you go out, you face four possibilities: (1) rain and umbrella; (2) no rain and umbrella; (3) rain and no umbrella; (4) no rain and no umbrella. Obviously your decision will depend both on your estimate of the likelihood of rain and on how much you mind getting wet, or alternatively how much you mind carrying an umbrella when it isn’t raining, but decision theory makes this more precise. It says your choice is explained by the fact that you assign a probability p between zero and one to the prospect of rain, and (ignoring misty in-between states) a probability of one minus p to the prospect of no rain, and that you assign a desirability, positive or negative, to each of the possibilities (1) to (4). By multiplying the probability and the desirability for each of these outcomes, one can calculate what is called the “expected value” of each of them, and therefore the expected value of taking an umbrella and of not taking an umbrella. The rational choice is to do what has the higher expected value.3
Decision theory applies this kind of calculus to choices among alternatives of any complexity, with any possible assignment of subjective probabilities and desirabilities. With the help of game theory it can be extended to multiperson interactions, as in a market economy. What interests Appiah is that the theory assigns these supposed quantifiable psychological states to individuals only on the basis of an idealization. They are not discovered by asking people to report their subjective probabilities and desirabilities: in general, people do not have introspective access to these numbers. Rather, precise psychological states of this type are assigned by the theory itself, on the basis of something to which people do have access, namely their preferences or rankings (better, worse, indifferent) among alternatives.

This by itself does not imply that the states are fictional: real but unobservable underlying causes can often be inferred from observable effects. The fiction comes from the way the inference proceeds in this case. Given a sufficiently extensive set of preferences (rankings of alternatives) by an individual, it is possible, employing relatively simple laws, to assign to that individual a set of subjective probabilities and desirabilities that would account for those preferences, if the individual were rational in the sense of the theory. But since rationality in the sense of the theory involves such superhuman capacities as immunity to logical error, instantaneous calculation of logical consequences, and assigning equal probability and desirability to all possibilities that are logically equivalent, it is clear that no actual humans are rational in this sense. So if we use the theory of economic rationality to think about the behavior of real human beings, we are treating them as if they were superrational (“Cognitive Angels,” in Appiah’s phrase); we are employing a useful fiction, which allows us to bring human action under quantitative laws.

The fiction is useful only for certain purposes. If it is not to lead us astray, we have to recognize the ways in which it deviates from reality, and to correct for those deviations when they make a difference that matters. This is in fact the concern of the recently developed field of behavioral economics, which tries to identify the consequences of systematic deviations of actual human behavior from the standards of classical economic rationality. (For example, people often fail to count logically equivalent possibilities as equally desirable: an outcome framed as a loss will be counted as less desirable than the same outcome framed as the absence of a gain; an outcome described in terms of the probability of death will be evaluated differently from the same outcome described in terms of the probability of survival.) Appiah’s point is more general: if we try to formulate laws of human psychology, we will inevitably have to ignore a great deal of the messy complexity of actual human life. This is sometimes legitimate, provided that we recognize the idealization and are prepared to restore the complexity when necessary—when, for example, assuming the rationality of every free market would send us off an economic cliff.
Consider next a completely nontechnical type of idealization that is omnipresent in contemporary thought and discourse: racial and sexual categories such as “Negro” and “homosexual.” The thought that someone—oneself or another—is a Negro or a homosexual has great personal, social, and political significance in our society. Yet in light of the actual complexity and variety of people’s biological heredity and erotic dispositions these are very crude concepts; they do not correspond to well-defined properties or categories in the real world. Nevertheless, Appiah says, we may find it indispensable to employ them:
In earlier work of my own, for example, I have argued both that races, strictly speaking, don’t exist, and that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of a person’s race. This can usually be parsed out in a way that is not strictly inconsistent: What is wrong is discrimination against someone because you believe her to be, say, a Negro even though there are, in fact, strictly speaking, no Negroes. But in responding to discrimination with affirmative action, we find ourselves assigning people to racial categories. We think it justified to treat people as if they had races even when we officially believe that they don’t.

These cases do not start out as idealizations. “Negro” and “homosexual” became important social identities because it was widely believed that they were essential properties possessed by some people and not others, and that they had behavioral, social, and moral consequences. Appiah maintains that when someone who does not share these beliefs goes on using the terms, this is not just the verbal acknowledgment of a misguided but tenacious social illusion; it is an example of fictional thinking. We do not truly distance ourselves from these categories and perhaps should not:

Identities, conceived of as stable features of a social ontology grounded in natural facts, are often…assumed in our moral thinking, even though, in our theoretical hearts, we know them not to be real. They are one of our most potent idealizations.

This invites the question: When are these idealizations indispensable, and when on the contrary should we resist them, by appealing to the more complex truth? Appiah addresses this and related questions with great insight in an earlier book, The Ethics of Identity,4 but not here.
Appiah considers another type of idealization that he calls “counter-normative”: thinking or acting as if a moral principle is true although we know it isn’t. He believes we do this when we treat certain prohibitions—against murder or torture, for example—as moral absolutes. His view is that strictly, there are exceptions to any such rule, but it may be better to treat it as exceptionless. In that way we will be sure to avoid unjustified violations, without countervailing risk, since “it is remarkably unlikely that I will ever be in one of those situations where it might be that murder was permissible (and even less likely that I will ever be in one where it is required).” Appiah adds that sometimes the advantage of the fiction will depend on its acceptance not by an individual but by a community. Perhaps the strict rule against making false promises would be an example, since even if it is not universally obeyed, the general belief that it is generally accepted encourages people to trust one another.

Which moral rules one regards as fictions or idealizations will depend on what one believes to be the basis of moral truth. Appiah does not take up this large topic, but his discussion seems most consistent with the view that the ultimate standard of right and wrong is what will produce the best overall outcomes. Counternormative fictions then become useful if we will not achieve the best overall outcomes by aiming in each case at the best overall outcome: it is better to put murder and torture entirely off the table. This is an area of perennial controversy, but those who think the prohibitions on murder, torture, and false promises have a different source, dependent on the intrinsic character of those acts rather than overall outcomes, may be less prone than Appiah to attribute their strictness to idealization.
Appiah concludes with a topic of great philosophical interest, that of idealization in moral theory itself. There is some possibility of confusion here, because he is talking about idealization in a sense somewhat different from that discussed so far.

Every morality is an ideal; it enjoins us to conform to standards of conduct and character that we are often tempted to violate, and it is predictable that ordinary human beings will sometimes fail to conform, even if they accept the morality as correct. This by itself does not involve idealization in Appiah’s sense. The moral principles need depend on no assumptions that are not strictly true. A morality describes not how people do behave but how they should behave; and it has to assume only that they could behave in that way, even if at the moment many of them do not.

The idealization that interests Appiah occurs when political thinkers or philosophers theorize about morality. In developing their accounts, they will often imagine situations or possibilities that differ from what is true in the actual world, as an aid to evaluating moral or political hypotheses. One type of idealization consists in evaluating a moral or political principle by considering what things would be like if everyone complied with it. But as Appiah points out, this is far from decisive:

Consider a familiar kind of dispute. One philosopher—let us call her Dr. Welfare—proposes that we should act in a way that maximizes human well-being. What could be more evident than that this would make for the best world? Another—Prof. Partiality—proposes instead that we should avoid harm to others in general but focus our benevolence on those to whom we have special ties. There is every reason to doubt that this will make a world in which everyone is as well off as could be. But a world in which everyone is succeeding in complying pretty well with Prof. Partiality’s prescription might be better (by standards they share) than a world where most of us are failing pretty miserably to comply with Dr. Welfare’s. And given what people are actually like, one might suppose that these are the likely outcomes.

An ideal that cannot be implemented is futile. The question is, how much of a drag on moral ideals should be exercised by the stubborn facts of human psychology? How far can moral ideals ask us to transcend our self-centered human dispositions without becoming unrealistically utopian? As Appiah says,

Some aspects of human nature have to be taken as given in normative theorizing…, but to take us exactly as we are would involve giving up ideals altogether. So when should we ignore, and when insist on, human nature?

I would suggest that to idealize in this context is not to ignore human nature but to regard it, rightly or wrongly, as capable of change. Only if the change is impossible or undesirable is the idealization utopian.

Appiah illustrates a different kind of reason to avoid excessive idealization with the example of immigration policy. To even pose the problem that faces us we have to take the existence of national boundaries as given, as well as the fact that some states treat their own citizens with flagrant injustice or are beset by chaos and severe deprivation. In thinking about what obligations such a situation places on stable and prosperous states, it is no use imagining a unified world without state boundaries, or a world of uniformly just states in which people are free to move from one to another. Such ideal possibilities do not tell us what we should do now, as things are.

Appiah’s response relies on the idea of fortunate nations each doing their fair share toward alleviating the plight of those seeking asylum, while acknowledging that many nations probably won’t meet this standard. This too is an ideal, but it doesn’t depend on imagining a world very different from the actual one.

Immigration is a special case, but Appiah deploys a more general form of the argument—unsuccessfully, in my view—to criticize the structure of John Rawls’s theory of justice. Rawls presents his most general principles of justice by the device of what he called “ideal theory.” That is, he tries to describe the structure and functioning of a fully just or “well-ordered” society, in which “everyone is presumed to act justly and to do his part in upholding just institutions.” Rawls held that ideal theory was the natural first stage in formulating principles of justice, before proceeding to a systematic treatment of the various forms of injustice and the right ways to deal with them—such as criminal law and principles of rectification. The latter enterprise he described as “nonideal theory,” and he held that it depends on the results of ideal theory.

Appiah objects that the description of a fully just society is no help with the problem we actually face, which is how to make improvements in our actual, seriously unjust society. He adds:
The history of our collective moral learning doesn’t start with the growing acceptance of a picture of an ideal society. It starts with the rejection of some current actual practice or structure, which we come to see as wrong. You learn to be in favor of equality by noticing what is wrong with unequal treatment of blacks, or women, or working-class or lower-caste people. You learn to be in favor of freedom by seeing what is wrong in the life of the enslaved or of women in purdah.

But this is misguided as a response to Rawls, whose method in moral theory is to begin precisely with intuitively obvious examples of injustice like those Appiah cites. Rawls’s philosophical project is to discover general principles that give a morally illuminating account of what is wrong in those cases by showing how they deviate from the standards that we should want to govern our society. Such general principles are needed to help us judge what would be right in less obvious cases. Both levels of inquiry are essential to the systematic pursuit and philosophical understanding of justice, and the whole aim of Rawls’s theory is to unite them. It is highly implausible to claim that an understanding of the general principles that would govern a fully just society will not help us to decide what kinds of social or legal or economic changes to our actual society will make it more just.

There is much more in this rich and illuminating book, including a fine discussion of our emotional response to fiction and drama. Appiah’s insight is that when we feel genuine sadness at the death of Ophelia, it is not because of what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief,” but because of the suspension of “the normal affective response to disbelief.” We react as if we believe an unhappy young woman has died, although we do not believe it, so this is another case of idealization.

The examples that Appiah discusses are interesting in themselves, but he also thinks they offer a larger lesson:
Once we come to see that many of our best theories are idealizations, we will also see why our best chance of understanding the world must be to have a plurality of ways of thinking about it. This book is about why we need a multitude of pictures of the world. It is a gentle jeremiad against theoretical monism.
It isn’t just that we need different theories for different aspects of the world, but that our best understanding may come from theories or models that are not strictly true, and some of which may contradict one another. This is a liberating outlook, though care must be taken not to let it become too liberating. As Appiah insists, we should not allow the plurality of useful theories to undermine our belief in the existence of the truth, leaving us with nothing but a disparate collection of stories. It is conscious deviation from the truth that makes a theory an idealization, and keeping this in mind is a condition of its value.

1 The Philosophy of “As If”: A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, translated by C.K. Ogden (Harcourt, Brace, 1924).


At several points he references the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, who explored the phenomenon in her book How the Laws of Physics Lie (Oxford University Press, 1983).


For example, if your subjective probability of rain is 0.4 and your subjective desirabilities for the four possibilities are +1,–1,–6, +2, then the expected values are +0.4,–0.6,–2.4, +1.2. This makes the expected value for you of taking an umbrella–0.2 and of not taking one–1.2, so it’s rational to take one.


Princeton University Press, 2005.





Saturday, January 12, 2019

Identity: Fukuyama and Appiah

From my subscription to the NYRB:

The Identity Illusion
Stephen Holmes

JANUARY 17, 2019

1) Francis Fukuyama

2) Kwame Anthony Appiah

1. Tribalism and clannishness are coeval with human social life. Yet the recent worldwide outbreak of fundamentalisms, nativisms, nationalisms, and separatisms suggests that something portentously new is afoot, a kind of global backlash against the perceived failures of liberal societies. One familiar example, in both America and Europe, is panic in the face of a real or threatened influx of culturally diverse immigrants. That the president of the United States finds political advantage in stoking such anxieties is another sign of our identity-troubled times. Francis Fukuyama in Identity and Anthony Appiah in The Lies That Bind share an admirable ambition: to change the way we see membership and belonging in the hope that this will help defang religious bigotry, ethnic prejudice, and other ill-disposed forms of group self-understanding and thus allow individuals with dissimilar traits and backgrounds to coexist peaceably and enrich each other’s lives. Stephane Grangier/Corbis/Getty Images Francis Fukuyama, Paris, 2015

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man(1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

He confesses at the outset that Identity would not have been written had Trump not been elected president, revealing the extent to which “white nationalism has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.” In the overwrought fears of “hard-core immigration opponents” who reject all proposals to grant undocumented aliens a path to citizenship, Fukuyama sees a “proxy” for white middle-class anxieties about loss of status in the globalized economy. To make sense of white nationalism, he argues, we must recognize that personal economic reversals are often experienced as a painful loss of social status and that joblessness and declining incomes, compounded by family breakdown and an explosion of deaths by overdose, make downwardly mobile citizens feel socially “invisible.”

After surveying a few economic trends that he believes have fueled xenophobic nativism in Europe as well as America, Fukuyama shifts to apportioning blame. Left-wing multiculturalism turns out to be the principal culprit: “Identity politics as currently practiced on the left…has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right.” Without the left’s cult of diversity, apparently, there would have been no white nationalist backlash. Trump did little more, it seems, than help move “the focus of identity politics from the left, where it was born, to the right, where it is now taking root.”

As this debatable thesis suggests, Fukuyama sides with those who fault the Democratic Party for attempting to build “a coalition of disparate identity groups.” “Activists on the left” turned their backs on the antipoverty programs and redistributive policies that would have helped struggling whites in order to pursue positive discrimination for marginalized groups—blacks, women, immigrants, and LGBT people. They stopped paying attention to “the white American working class” just as it was being “dragged into an underclass.” Without questioning how important “Donald Trump’s working-class supporters” were to his Electoral College victory, Fukuyama wants us to know that they were not wrong to “feel they have been disregarded by the national elites.” On this interpretation, the left’s coddling of minorities compelled many economically distressed voters to rally around their own white Christian identity in self-defense.

Fukuyama is not wholly opposed to identity politics. The two examples he cites as welcome correctives of injustice are the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter. But his main point is that positive discrimination in favor of minorities has fomented a dangerous backlash among a population already traumatized by deindustrialization and and an inverted world where “women were displacing men in an increasingly service-dominated new economy.” And he adds a second charge: the multiculturalist apotheosis of separate, distinct, and internally homogeneous social groupings is incompatible with the national integration of a diverse population through shared primary and secondary education. Fukuyama is especially shocked by those who view the integrationist demand for monolingual public schooling as somehow racist and intolerant when it is actually eminently democratic.

He recognizes, of course, that the fragmentation of the American public into “self-contained communities, walled off not by physical barriers but by belief in shared identity” has been “facilitated by technological change.” What disturbs him, however, is less the mutually inaccessible niches of reciprocally applauding partisans made possible by the Internet than the politically motivated shift of attention, allegedly pioneered by the left, “toward the protection of ever narrower group identities.” The “ever-proliferating identity groups inaccessible to outsiders” celebrated by multiculturalists not only threaten to destroy democracy, they augur the end of rationality. Mutually suspicious and insulated groupings are incapable of rational debate. They no longer share a common world or a common understanding of the difference between truths and lies.

But if identity politics on the left provoked the emergence of identity politics on the right, what caused the rise of identity politics on the left? Fukuyama answers this question with his signature invocation of economic and cultural factors. On the one hand, deunionization of workers and tax evasion by the wealthy have made the resort to fiscally undemanding symbolic politics almost inevitable. For the left, in particular, budgetary austerity made it “easier to talk about respect and dignity than to come up with potentially costly plans that would concretely reduce inequality.” But constraints on spending alone cannot explain the rise of multiculturalism and minority rights.

More important, from Fukuyama’s perspective, is a cultural story involving the way that “the left has moved further to the left,” by which he means not toward egalitarianism but toward condemning Western culture as “the incubator of colonialism, patriarchy, and environmental destruction.” He accuses US leftists in particular of seeking to

undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are somehow intrinsic to the country’s DNA.

Digging deeper, Fukuyama believes he has unearthed the origins of modern identity politics, first, in the way “societies started to modernize a few hundred years ago” and, second, in Rousseau’s valorization of “subjective inner feeling over the shared norms and understandings of the surrounding society.” At the origins of human civilization, people farmed and raised their families in settled agricultural villages where the grip of inherited social roles meant that no one ever asked the modern question: Who am I? That changed when urbanization, commercialization, literacy, science, and the other acids of modernity confronted human beings for the first time with a myriad of options from which to choose while simultaneously depriving them of authoritative social norms to guide them in their choices. He calls this the “identity confusion created by rapid modernization.”

The crucial development that purportedly paved the way to our current crisis was the emergence in European intellectual circles, under the conditions just described, of an unprecedented distinction between an “authentic inner self” that is “intrinsically valuable” and an “outer society” that is “systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation” of that self. Quintessentially modern thinkers, including Rousseau, worked out “a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.”

You might think it far-fetched to locate the historical origins of America’s current political dysfunction in the inwardness of sentimental individualists. But Fukuyama believes he can make this idiosyncratic genealogy work by deploying the distinction between Erlebnis (subjectively lived experience that is incommunicable to others) and Erfahrung (objective and shared experience on which scientific experiments are based). First Rousseau elevated the ineffable experience of private individuals over socially shared and publicly verifiable experience, and then his heirs applied a similar approach to groups. The idea that each person harbors an innermost self that is inscrutable to others eventually morphed into the “idea that each group has its own identity that was not accessible to outsiders.”

To this unconventional storyline Fukuyama adds the more familiar idea that modern society places an unbearable strain on ordinary men and women who are natural conformists and personally uncomfortable with autonomy. The kind of “expressive individualism” that makes sense for a few exceptional people can’t possibly work for the vast majority because “most people do not have infinite depths of individuality that is theirs alone.” Deprived by modernization of a shared moral horizon, such people will “not know who their true self is” and will therefore seek to rebind themselves “to a social group and reestablish a clear moral horizon.” This apparently explains why nationalism “appeared on the world stage” at a moment “of social transition from traditional isolated agrarian societies to modern ones.”

Alongside this grand narrative with only patchy empirical support, Fukuyama fields a handful of policy proposals. His premise is that liberal democracy will not survive “if citizens do not believe they are part of the same polity.” The “remedy” he advocates is “to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.” Because political coherence cannot be restored to America on the basis of common ancestry or a shared cultural heritage, no matter how judiciously the country manages immigration and assimilation, he urges Americans to adopt “an inclusive sense of national identity” anchored in constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

On this basis, Fukuyama trumpets an agenda aimed at “the successful assimilation of foreigners” into what he sees as America’s “dominant culture.” The United States should continue to be open to immigrants from across the world. But it should do so only in modest enough numbers to facilitate the gradual process of assimilation and to avoid the kind of cultural shock that is bound to excite demographic panic. We must make sure that newcomers become “irrationally attached” to America’s “creedal identity,” which boils down to a “belief in equality and democratic values.” These abstract principles should be woven into uplifting “narratives” that are taught to the children of immigrants in public schools. Their emotions of “pride and patriotism,” and not only their intellects, must be engaged.

Fukuyama’s analysis is flawed in several ways. Three decades ago, he argued that the human desire for respect and recognition was the driving force behind the universal embrace of liberal democracy. Today, he depicts the human desire for respect and recognition as the driving force behind the repudiation of liberal democracy. The reader’s hope for some account, or even mention, of this extraordinary volte face goes unfulfilled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely address the impossibility of explaining recent ups and downs in the prestige of liberal democracy by invoking an eternal longing of the human soul. What’s more, he fails to consider the possibility that after 1989 the obligation for ex-Communist countries to imitate the West, which was how his End-of-History thesis was put into practice, might itself have been experienced in countries like Hungary and Poland as a source of humiliation and subordination destined to excite antiliberal resentment and an aggressive reassertion of nationalism.

Similarly, to blame the rise of white nationalism in America chiefly on the left’s profligate attentiveness to marginalized groups is to deemphasize the multiplicity of factors involved, including a history of anti-immigrant nativism that long predates the emergence of multiculturalism. One wonders, for example, if resentment of Barack Obama, whose presidency upended a racial hierarchy that has been fundamental to US nationhood since its inception, might not provide a simpler and more realistic explanation for the country’s relapse into nativism than outrage at multiculturalism and inequality.

Another problem concerns Fukuyama’s overly romantic understanding of “lived experience.” It seems fair to say that white American motorists have difficulty comprehending the experience of black motorists stopped by lethally armed police officers. What is completely implausible is to suggest, as Fukuyama’s analysis does, that late-eighteenth-century ideas about incommunicable interiority and plenitudes of inner feeling help explain that difficulty.

Finally, Fukuyama’s occasional suggestion that white nationalism reflects a rational concern that new immigrants will not successfully assimilate can also be questioned. Could not extreme nationalists be more afraid that newcomers will successfully assimilate? After all, the implication of successful assimilation is that the identity of natives is something wholly superficial and not really an indelible inheritance that connects them profoundly to their dead forefathers. If so, intensified efforts at assimilation, rather than dousing the flames of white nationalism, might unintentionally add fuel to the fire.

Anthony Appiah’s contribution to the debate on identity is predictably stylish and erudite. He weaves his philosophical argument into “scores of stories,” often about individuals with multiple or hybrid identities. Gliding comfortably across many civilizations and time periods, he writes not as a historian or comparativist but as a raconteur who selects captivating episodes to illustrate his themes, including “family stories” dramatizing the experience of children born with two grandmother tongues. Associating himself with “tolerant, pluralist, self-questioning, cosmopolitan” values, he adds that “I can love what is best in anyone’s traditions while sharing it gladly with others.”

Although cultural diversity seems more darkly ominous to Fukuyama and more brightly auspicious to Appiah, their approaches otherwise have much in common. Identities “matter to people” because they determine how we behave as well as how we see and evaluate ourselves and one another. Because “many of our thoughts about the identities that define us are misleading,” it follows that “we would have a better grasp on the real challenges that face us if we thought about them in new ways.”

The core of The Lies That Bind is a sequential study of five subjects: religion, nation, race, culture, and what Appiah calls “class” but would be better described as inherited social status. In each case, he exposes the mistakes, fallacies, and misunderstandings inherent in the way these classifications are generally understood and applied. All of them are “false” in some important sense and distort the way we see ourselves and treat one another. Although “every identity has its own distinctive misconceptions,” each of the ones Appiah studies (class aside) suffers from a fault he calls “essentialism about identities,” which is to assume that there exists an “inner something” common to all members of an identity group. This is untrue: “In general, there isn’t some inner essence that explains why people of a certain social identity are the way they are.” The facile supposition that “similarity” or “sameness” can create group cohesion or explain why groups “hold together” is absurd on its face, since similarity and sameness are not social relations at all but simply comparisons that imply nothing about cooperative inclinations or emotional identifications.

As a philosophical nominalist, Appiah wants us to reconceive religious, national, racial, and cultural identities as “labels.” They are not accurate representations of or references to existing realities but rather coordinating devices or “ways of grouping people” that, for good or ill, allow us to simplify a complex reality by attributing a spurious homogeneity and unchanging nature to heterogeneous and constantly shape-shifting swaths of the human population. For example, you may think of yourself as sharing an ethnic or religious identity with predecessors who lived centuries ago, but this is a delusion. All you have in common is the “label.” Indeed, you probably share more habits of the heart, not to mention DNA, with a next-door neighbor who adheres to a different religious tradition than with distant ancestors who bore your beloved label. Dominique Nabokov
Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York City, 2010

Appiah addresses himself directly to his readers on this basis: “You may not realize how much your religion has drifted from the religion of those you view as your congregational predecessors.” He aligns himself, by contrast, with the “objective observers” who “can see that religion, like everything else that is important in human life, evolves.” That is also true of nations, which, far from being biological entities that last forever, are contingent social constructions that never cease to undergo convulsive internal transformations. The “new Romantic sense of what made a people a people,” which arose in late-eighteenth-century Europe, is a childish mirage. The line between members and nonmembers of the nation has nothing to do with consanguinity or an “ancient spirit of the Folk.” If we falsely believe that the label “nation” refers to some underlying essence, on the other hand, we may be tempted into “genocides…perpetrated in the name of one people against another with the aim of securing a homogeneous nation.”

Neither is there any biological basis for most common ideas of race, bequeathed to a scientifically unenlightened public by now discredited nineteenth-century science. Genetically, populations are not homogeneous and unchanging but mixed and fluid. Belief to the contrary is not only erroneous but produces such abominations as “white racial nationalism” whose bigoted adherents doubt that “you could be black and American.”

Similarly, those who extol “the West” or “Western civilization” mistakenly believe that a culture is an organic whole that tightly knits together all its parts. Racists among them assume that biological ancestry presents almost insuperable barriers to the cultural Westernization of non-Westerners. In truth, “Western civilization” is a vacuous concept since a culture, by definition, “is messy and muddled, not pristine and pure.” It follows that we “should give up the very idea of Western civilization,” not only because it is associated with racialist prejudice, but also because it refers to nothing except “a loose assemblage of disparate fragments” perpetually undergoing kaleidoscopic reconfigurings.

Because it makes no mention of the fatal flaw of essentialism around which his other “test cases” are organized, Appiah’s fascinating chapter on “Class” needs to be mentioned separately. He begins with the sociologist and social activist Michael Young’s idea that meritocracy, if it were ever established, would be an especially humiliating form of social hierarchy because those at the top would try to justify their privileges on the grounds that “equality of opportunity” is eminently fair and therefore those who succeed deserve to enjoy the fruits of their talents and efforts. Young’s attack on this spurious justification focuses on “the desire of families to pass on advantages to their children.” The capacity of parents to prepare their offspring for life’s challenges varies greatly across class lines. As a result, what passes for equality of opportunity will inevitably produce the oxymoron of an inherited meritocracy.

In a modest effort to align Young’s analysis with the central thesis of his book, Appiah emphasizes a second way in which the myth of meritocracy leads us to assign credit where no credit is due. No one deserves their natural talents or capacity to make an effort any more than they deserve their parents. Rewarding effort and talent, therefore, amounts to a morally arbitrary and unjustifiable allocation of benefits to those who won a genetic lottery. As a philosophically rigorous analysis of what individuals genuinely “deserve,” this argument is unexceptionable. If generally accepted, however, it would make nonsense of most of the culturally (and legally) familiar ways in which we assign praise and blame. This suggests a potential weakness in Appiah’s project of unmasking socially consequential lies. Even though his deeper truths may make good sense in theory, they are unlikely to have much effect in practice.

Appiah’s approach has a few other problems as well. He may have a good reason for associating “essentialism” with characteristically nineteenth-century mistakes about identity while simultaneously declaring that the human species has always, from time immemorial, been “prone to essentialism.” But he leaves his readers unsure if he is fighting a period-specific fallacy or human nature itself. Second, his decision to treat his five identities sequentially means that he devotes insufficient attention to the crucial phenomenon of cross-cutting identities. In most of the book he comes out in favor of fluid, ambiguous, and constantly “renegotiated” identities, which he associates with tolerance for diversity and an openness to all humanity. But a shared religion, for example, can lead fellow believers to ignore differences of nationality, just as a joint combat mission in wartime can lead fellow soldiers to ignore differences of race that would otherwise be unbridgeable.

In his detailed exposition, Appiah illustrates this point a number of times, explaining, for example, that every identity “comes with mechanisms by which fellow members recognize one another.” The self-conscious in-groups that result are inclusive because they are exclusive, as when Americans devoted solely to gay rights make common cause with LGBT advocates in culturally remote countries. Particular identities, as a result, “can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit,” connecting “the small scale where we live our lives alongside our kith and kin with larger movements, causes, and concerns.” Such passages contain an implicit admission that particular and inflexibly entrenched identities not only “divide us and set us against one another” but can also connect us with geographically distant members of our narrowly defined identity group. That Appiah understands perfectly well the antiparochial potential inherent in particularistic identities is implied by his mild boast that “intellectuals like me” have readers among “educated people in every continent.” But he fails to integrate this insight persuasively into his general theory.

His project of liberalizing and loosening all arrogant, entrenched, dogmatic, aggressive, and barricaded identities by showing how they are based on nothing substantial runs into another problem as well. Without grouping ourselves and others in ways that overlook intragroup variety and change, he admits, human beings could never solve their collective action problems or mobilize loyalty to pursue important shared objectives. So what would happen if Appiah succeeded in replacing the lies that bind with pictures that are “closer to the truth”? Consider an identity steeled in underground resistance and evading manhunts, such as that of decolonization partisans in, say, 1950s West Africa. If this identity had been less unrelenting and aggressive, if it had not imbued group members with a partisan definition of their shared task and purpose, would it have been equally successful?

Admittedly, he twice cites Ernest Renan’s thesis that historical error “is an essential element in the creation of a nation.” But if the “errors” this book is devoted to exposing are “also central to the way identities unite us today,” what price is to be paid for correcting them? Inhabiting a particular identity means accepting a set of evaluations about the world: good versus bad, appropriate versus inappropriate, beautiful versus ugly, and so forth. Won’t persuading people of the empirical baselessness of their identity claims necessarily weaken the grip of such evaluations on their perception and behavior? The closest Appiah gets to confronting this problem is to state lamely that he wants to revise our fallacious concepts of identity, not to align them completely with the disheartening truth but only to make them “roughly” adequate to the flux and heterogeneity lurking beneath all superficial labels. Such a nonsolution presumably illustrates his modest commitment “to start conversations, not to end them.”

According to Appiah, finally, the “cosmopolitan impulse” today “has become a necessity.” That this statement is more autobiographical than sociological is implied by his conclusion that the 2016 American presidential election was in part an “expression of resentment against…cosmopolitan, degree-laden people.” This brings us to one of the most charming details in the book: an implicit comparison between, on the one hand, Appiah’s Manhattan—“the marvelous city I live in”—and, on the other, Italo Svevo’s Trieste and C.P. Cavafy’s Alexandria. The place where you live can be more or less “hospitable” to a cosmopolitan identity. The most important turn in his own life, Appiah reports, was moving to New York City, a “cultural hodgepodge that could provide the space” for a lifestyle not boxed in by patriarchal assumptions and that can be experienced as “a dance with ambiguities.” Stressing the need for a favorable environment to make cosmopolitan identity possible, he concludes: “If I had stayed in Ghana…I would…have a long road still to travel.”

What this passage and indeed this entire book make clear is that Appiah himself possesses a distinctive personal identity involving rather stable (not constantly renegotiated) moral commitments of an admirable and arguably noble kind. His cosmopolitan identity is no less a “label” and no more firmly grounded on the realities of the human condition than the parochial identities that he, like Cavafy and Svevo, would find personally insufferable. But the reader need not accept any suggestion to the contrary to appreciate the breadth of knowledge and wealth of insight contained in this exquisitely conducted tour of identity’s many troubled and promising contemporary horizons.