A Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

A Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah


The literature on moral relativism has
made this all seem much harder than I think in practice it is. It seems to me
that once you understand what it is for a human being to suffer, which is
something that we learn very young, as children, you can see that you ought not
to bring down on other people unnecessarily. Do we have an obligation
to intervene when other people are doing it? I think, again, I think we just have to
think about that in the way that we normally do think about these things.
Which is we asked first of all, do I have the capacity to intervene, is there
anything I can do that would be helpful. Do I have a special relationship to it?
if I do that raises the stakes it makes it more likely that I have the
obligation to intervene. Basically I think most people in the world accept
that they have, especially these negative obligations, not to cause harm, not to be
responsible for doing bad things to people for no reason and so on. Take the
language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins by saying that
these rights are grounded in the equal dignity of human beings. To say that
someone has dignity is to say that they have properties in virtue of which they
have the right to be respected. And how that respect shows up depends on which
property it is you’re thinking about. So the fact that people can suffer grounds
the dignity right, as it were, of to be protected from suffering. We’re
seeing this in relation to two issues of women and gender, I think. There’s
remarkable shifts are going on in the world which relatively recently began to
some extent in the North Atlantic world. But women’s rights catches on pretty
easily in most places and even in the places which we think of as kind of most resistant. Which doesn’t mean that I
think that you know will all solve all these problems would all end up in
exactly the same place, either anytime soon or even
necessarily ever. But I do think the areas of disagreement the important
areas of disagreement are getting smaller. I believe that it’s obvious that
there are things more important than obeying the law. I don’t think any
serious person denies that. But I respect you know good laws properly made, and I
even respect bad laws if they’re properly made, but that isn’t the most
important thing in the world. And if someone is, if a state is doing things
that violate the fundamental dignity and rights of human beings, then I think it’s
okay, the fact it may be required to break the law in order to achieve what’s
right.

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