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.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: At the moment [July 2007], I think it’s a bit hard to be too optimistic about the situation and the species because of the way in which our behavior is causing our environment to collapse around us. I’m pretty certain that the kind of collapse that will make life intolerable isn’t going to happen in my lifetime; but I think it may happen not long after--unless we make pretty big changes.
And I worry that we don’t have the institutions that will allow people who have a sense of responsibility for the environment to act upon it in a way that actually makes the necessary changes. And here I think is a place where we need really very much to have responsible leadership.
Again, people talk about democracies as if a democracy is everything; as if it were the result of the activities of the people. But in a well organized democracy, we do indeed select the people who make the big decisions; but their characters, and their individual visions, and the visions of the parties and institutions within which they live can make a big difference as to how we’re led.
Here’s an important fact about democratic societies. The democratic societies in Europe, which have abandoned capital punishment, almost all did so at a time when a majority of the voters were in favor of it. And as a matter of fact, a majority of the voters are in favor of capital punishment in many European counties today even thought they don’t practice it anymore. But immediately after the abolition of capital punishment in England, which happened when I was in school in England, there was a big shift in public opinion. People said, "Well, as it were, it used to be legal. So we thought okay, it’s okay. Now it’s not legal, so now we think maybe it’s not okay."
And there was a case where responsible leaders voting in Parliament without actually pressured from their parties – they were just told vote your conscience – made a decision. And that decision not only produced, I think, a good result, but it produced a result that shifted public opinion.
So I know from that experience, living through that, that people can be led by responsible leadership.
Recorded on: July 31 2007