Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Appiah was born in London but moved as an infant to Ghana, where he grew up. His father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer and politician, was also, at various times, a Member of Parliament, an Ambassador, and a President of the Ghana Bar Association. His mother, Peggy Appiah, whose family was English, was a novelist, children’s writer, and social activist. In 1970, Appiah's great-uncle, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle, Otumfuo Nana Poku Ware II, as king of Ashanti.
Appiah was educated abroad in England, ultimately graduating from Clare College, Cambridge University, in England, where he took both B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the philosophy department. Since Cambridge, he has taught at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and lectured at many other institutions in the United States, Germany, Ghana and South Africa, as well as at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
Appiah is the author of several books including "The Ethics of Identity," "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers," "Experiment in Ethics," and "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen." He has also written three novels and reviews regularly for the New York Review of Books.
He currently serves as President of the PEN American Center. He has homes in New York city and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his partner, Henry Finder, Editorial Director of the New Yorker magazine.
Question: Does religion inform your worldview?
Kwame Anthony Appiah: I have, no doubt, I got my basic morals and compass from Sunday school and my parents as it were. And I don’t want to, as it were, deny or hide any of that; but that has to do with where it comes from, and where an idea comes from doesn’t settle the question of whether it’s right or not.
So some of the moral ideas that I was raised with I think were incorrect. And so I haven’t held on to all of them. But the basic thought – the basic sort of what I take to be the basics of a Christian thought – which is that we’re all responsible for one another; that you should care about the fate of other people to a reasonable degree and so on. These are thoughts that I happened to learn this way.
Of course they’re there in most of the world’s traditions. I’m not saying it’s a Christian thought in the sense that it’s unique to Christian thought; but it is a thought that is central to Christian moral. That’s how I got it, but I wouldn’t think that’s a reason for holding on to it.
I think I’ve tried to subject it to criticism, analysis, reflection. And so the version of it I hold isn’t exactly the version I was taught in Sunday school.
I don’t, for example, believe in the Golden Rule. I think that the Golden Rule is misframed; but I do feel that that’s an important part of where I came from.
How important religion should be as a source of ideas both about morality and about metaphysic; about what the world is like; about who made us, if anybody; and how the universe was made and so on, of course depends on which religious claims are correct. Clearly if the central claims of, say, Buddhist metaphysics are correct, then the Buddhist worldview is a great view and it should be the source of your views if you know that.
But of course the difficulty is that because of our rather poor epistemological situation, I don’t think most of us are very well placed to decide what the correct metaphysical view is – which of the religious traditions are right about what, if anything.
But people have to live with the views that they have. I think they should sustain them, subject them to some kind of analysis, reflection, perhaps even criticism. But still, even if you do that, you’re going to end up with a view that is going to be different from views of lots of other people, and you’re going to have to live in a world where that’s true – where lots of other people have different views about these religious questions; and you are not likely in the course of a lifetime going to be able to persuade any single person around to the same view as you have. And nor are you going to be able to be able to come to a consensus with them that some view in between your view and theirs.
And so we have to learn to live in a world in which, because we are in a poor epistemological system situation, because we’re not well placed to find out the truth, we have to accept that other people will have views that are different from ours on some very important questions. And that there’s not much we can do to come to agreement about that.
Though I think there is something we can do to try to understand other people’s points of view and to learn from that. I think even the most thoughtful and convinced atheist has things to learn from talking to people in religious traditions, whether or not she recognizes it and vice versa. And people in religious positions, I think, have things to learn form each other and non-religious people if they are willing to engage in a conversation.
If the conversation is guided by the thought that three weeks from now we’re going to come to agreement, then that’s a mistake, and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Recorded on: July 31 2007