It’s important to insist, however, that to say that Muslims should go to Mecca for this reason isn’t to agree with Muslims. It is to give our reason for them to do something that they do for a different reason.
We go astray, similarly, when we think of a moral vocabulary as the possession of a solitary individual. If meanings ain’t in the head, neither are morals. The concept of kindness, or cruelty, enshrines a kind of social consensus.
There is nothing unreasonable, then, about my kinsmen’s belief in witchcraft. They think only what most people would think, given the concepts and beliefs they inherited; if you grew up with their beliefs and had their experiences, that is what you would believe, too.
If we are to encourage cosmopolitan engagement, moral conversation between people across societies, we must expect such disagreements: after all, they occur within societies.
Reasoning—by which I mean the public act of exchanging stated justifications—comes in not when we are going on in the usual way, but when we are thinking about change. And when it comes to change, what moves people is often not an argument from a principle, not a long discussion about values, but just a gradually acquired new way of seeing things.
There are Muslims, many of them young men, who feel that forces from outside their society—forces that they might think of as Western or, in a different moment, American—are pressuring them to reshape relations between men and women. Part of that pressure, they feel, comes from our media. Our films and our television programs are crammed with indescribable indecency. Our fashion magazines show women without modesty, women whose presence on many streets in the Muslim world would be a provocation, they think, presenting an almost irresistible temptation to men. Those magazines influence publications in their own countries, pulling them inevitably in the same direction. We permit women to swim almost naked with strange men, which is our business; but it is hard to keep the news of these acts of immodesty from Muslim women and children or to protect Muslim men from the temptations they inevitably create. As the Internet spreads, it will get even harder, and their children, especially their girls, will be tempted to ask for these freedoms too. Worse, they say, we are now trying to force our conception of how women and men should behave upon them. We speak of women’s rights. We make treaties enshrining these rights. And then we want their governments to enforce them.
as the bearer of some bottles of Dutch schnapps (for several centuries now an appropriate gift for a West African royal)
I live a long way away from the home of my earliest memories. Like many, I return there from time to time, to visit family and friends. And, again like many, when I am there I feel both that I do and that I don’t belong.
Cosmopolitans think human variety matters because people are entitled to the options they need to shape their lives in partnership with others.
The problem for Mali is not that it doesn’t have enough Malian art. The problem is that it doesn’t have enough money.
There is no good reason, however, to think that public ownership is the ideal fate of every important art object.
However self-serving it may seem, the British Museum’s claim to be a repository of the heritage not of Britain but of the world seems to me exactly right.
It is a fine gesture to return things to the descendants of their makers—or to offer it to them for sale—but it certainly isn’t a duty. You might also show your respect for the culture it came from by holding on to it because you value it yourself. Furthermore, because cultural property has a value for all of us, it can be reasonable to insist that those to whom it is returned are in a position to take trusteeship; repatriation of some objects to poor countries whose priorities cannot be with their museum budgets might just lead to their decay. Were I advising a poor community pressing for the return of many ritual objects, I might urge it to consider whether leaving some of them to be respectfully displayed in other countries might not be part of its contribution to the cosmopolitan enterprise of cross-cultural understanding as well as a way to ensure their survival for later generations.
My people—human beings—made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination. I do not have those skills, and my imagination spins different dreams. Nevertheless, that potential is also in me.
Uncle Aviv, though, seemed to be equally open to people of all faiths. Perhaps that made him, by the standards of some of today’s noisiest preachers of Islam, a bad Muslim. But it also made him quite typical of many Muslims in many nations and at many times.
Those we think of as willing to claim that not everyone matters—the Nazis, the racists, the chauvinists of one sort and another—don’t stop with saying, “Those people don’t matter.” They tell you why. Jews are destroying our nation. Black people are inferior. Tutsi are cockroaches. The Aztecs are enemies of the faith. It’s not that they don’t matter; it’s that they have earned our hatred or contempt. They deserve what we are doing to them.
So-called realists about international relations often say that our foreign policy should pursue only our own national interest. They sound as though they’re saying that nobody matters but our own fellow countrymen. But if you ask them whether they think that we should engage in genocide if it is in our national interest, they typically deny that it could be in our national interest, because our national interest is somehow internally connected with certain values. To this line of response, I say, “Good. Then one of our values is that other people matter at least enough that we shouldn’t kill them just because it suits us.”
Still, if people really do think some people don’t matter at all, there is only one thing to do: try to change their minds, and, if you fail, make sure that they can’t put their ideas into action.
This constraint is another that the Shallow Pond theorists are indifferent toward. They think that it is so important to avoid the bad things in other lives that we should be willing to accept for ourselves, our families and friends, lives that are barely worth living.
For if so many people in the world are not doing their share—and they clearly are not—it seems to me I cannot be required to derail my life to take up the slack.
Part of the strategy of Unger’s argument is to persuade us that not intervening to save someone because we have something else worth doing is morally equivalent to killing him in the name of those other values. We should resist the equation.
But responding to the crisis of a child dying because her frail body cannot absorb fluids faster than they pour out of her is not really saving her, if tomorrow she will eat the same poor food, drink the same infected water, and live in a country with the same incompetent government; if the government’s economic policies continue to block real development for her family and her community; if her country is still trapped in poverty in part because our government has imposed tariffs on some of their exports to protect American manufacturers with a well-organized lobbying group in Washington