Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Peviews of 'The Ethics of Identity' (Appiah), 'The World is Flat' (Friedman) and 'The Ethical Brain' (Gazzaniga
By Thomas Riggins [Political Affairs Archives]

Here is another of our occasional book round ups consisting of short notices of works we have not been able to fully review. These are essentially meta-reviews (reviews of book reviews). If any of our readers are inspired to read one of these books and wish to write a full review for us, please contact

THE ETHICS OF IDENTITY by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton University Press, 2004, 358 pp., reviewed by Jonathan Freedman in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 12, 2005.

Any book by Appiah is worth reading. In this book he wants to give a boost to the revival of liberalism by up dating, as it were, the views of John Stuart Mill as expressed in his classic "On Liberty." Freedman says Appiah wants to "focus ethical attention on the notion of identity." The individual self has the freedom to create itself on the one hand, and on the other "it is shaped by collective identities" as Freedman puts it. This is a complicated dialectic to navigate. For example, Appiah says "The final responsibility for each life is always the responsibility of the person whose life it is." This was the also the view of J-P Sartre in his existentialist mood-- but the contradictions in this view drove him from existentialism towards Marxism. I wonder if Appiah will be nudged away from Mill towards Marx by those same contradictions. What are the contradictions? Here is Freedman again: Appiah "insists that [the] very process of having an identity involves ‘soul making’ the nurturance of the possibility of ‘ethical success’; and he is clear that the state has not just the right but the obligation to undertake this task...." Well he is in good company along with Plato and Aristotle and Marx himself! We see the contradiction-- the state is obligated to nurture our ethical consciousness but the "final responsibility" is ours. Is it? What about being in a state like the US-- a monopoly capitalist corporate dictatorship with a formal, but in many respects non-functioning, democracy that under educates the poor and exploits immigrants and racial minorities. If the state fails to undertake its ethical educative function, how can individuals end up with the "final responsibility" for their ethical makeup? Appiah deals with many other problems as well. He has a notion of "rooted cosmopolitanism." That is, I am a citizen of the world but I am also an American citizen citizen of the world. Appiah insists, according to Freedman, "that without a deeply felt commitment to the local there can be no genuine sense of obligation to the universal." This is an important book by one of the most important contemporary social philosophers.

THE WORLD IS FLAT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Thomas L. Friedman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 488 pp., reviewed by Amitabh Pal in The Progressive, July 2005.

I really feel for this reviewer, having to wade through 488 pages of Friedman’s nonsense when there are really important books to be read. This book is another paean to the wonders of globalization. The main point of this book is, as Pal writes, that "Technological forces-- such as the Internet and out-sourcing-- have altered the nature of the workplace so fundamentally that they have changed the world." This takes 488 pages? Friedman thinks this thesis proves how great globalization is for everyone in the world. That is why the world is "flat"-- our differences are flattening out. Pal points out that he does have a chapter about those who don’t benefit from globalization "such as in rural areas in many parts of the globe." We are talking here of billions of people but Friedman quickly gets back on track singing hosannas to "free trade [which is trade actually manipulated by the rich countries], capitalism, and technological innovation." Pal thinks, "The jury is still out on whether Friedman’s beloved globalization will bring any relief to the world’s deprived."

What is he talking about? The jury has been back a long time now. Globalization does not exist to bring relief to the deprived and it only worsens deprivation. Pal himself says, vis a vis India (one of Friedman’s examples of good globalization) that "free market policies have failed to reduce poverty any faster than the state-oriented policies before them...." In fact, he says, "the free market has done worse in some respects." As for the USA, which Friedman thinks benefits from globalization, Pal points out the poverty figure is "significantly higher" than in most of Europe. Yes Virginia, people are better off in France than here. Pal also says that this book virtually ignores South America. This is because South America "has fallen on hard times and the people of that region have repeatedly rejected the neoliberal model in recent elections." If Pal is still waiting for the jury to come back someone should tell him the courtroom is empty because they came back a long ago with a negative verdict for globalization and everyone has gone home already. Don’t waste your time with this book!

THE ETHICAL BRAIN by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Dana Press, 2005, 201pp., reviewed by Sally Satel in The New York Times Book Review for Sunday, June 19, 2005.

If this book is anything like its review then it has serious problems. Its author is a certified neuroscientist but appears to be prone to using science to support his personal opinions. This is similar to biologists bitten by the God bug who want to use Darwin to support religious causes. He is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Knowing of the President’s deep commitment to science and to ethics I imagine Mr Bush uses the same high standards of appointment for this position has he does in judicial appointments. Ms. Satel approves of this book. She is a resident "scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute. The quotation marks are to remind people that this is an Institute funded for and by the right-wing and any similarity to scholarship that goes on there is purely coincidental. This, by the way, does not stop The New York Times from opening its pages to it. Here are a few examples of Gazzaniga opinions. He thinks we will be able to do some tampering with our genes to increase physical and mental abilities. He concludes, "I remain convinced that enhancers that improve motor skills are cheating, while those that help you remember where you put your car keys are fine." This is based on, according to Satel, considerations having to do with basketball and the "logic of competition." He also has opinions about using science in social disputes. For example, some scientists argue against killing juveniles who have broken capital laws. Their reasons are that young people’s brains are not fully developed vis a vis their frontal lobes-- the brain area that helps "curb impulses and conduct moral reasoning." Is this sort of information relevant? Gazzaniga writes, "Neuroscientists should stay in the lab and let lawyers stay in the courtroom." This is in the Bush scientific tradition-- let environmental scientists stay in their labs and classrooms and let congressmen get on with making the environmental laws the administration favors, for example. Here is another finding: "It appears that a process in the brain makes it likely that people will categorize others on the bases of race." He also, the ethical part here, explores the idea that we have "an innate human moral sense." He concludes that, "We must commit ourselves to the view that a universal ethics is possible." I have a feeling the American Enterprise Institute thinks it has already been found: In the red states.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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