Civil Work: Working to Overcome Differences

Nigel Rapport

Nigel Rapport

Professor of Anthropological and Philosophical Studies
and Director, Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies, University of St-Andrews

Introduction: ‘Working towards’

I offer a very particular application of ‘work’. We must ‘work out the social options of our affluent and disenchanted condition’, writes Ernest Gellner (1995:8, my emphasis). This is our predicament and we have no choice about this. He goes on:

You cannot understand the human condition if you ignore or deny its total transformation by the success of the scientific revolution. The recognition of the inequality of cognitive claims in no way involves unequal treatment of people --quite the reverse. The accidental initiators of the scientific revolution have no monopoly on it, and are not necessary its best practitioners. Valid knowledge ignores and does not engender frontiers.

In this situation, Gellner feels that ‘cognitive relativism is nonsense, moral relativism is tragic’. Separate cultures no longer exist, if they ever did, while the scientific revolution has undermined the traditional practice of underwriting values by religion. Cultures remain disputatious, fissiparous and fluid contexts of practices, beliefs and claims. To pretend that science has not transformed the world -- is merely a change from one culture to another-- is simply ‘an irresponsible affectation’.

            Gellner is addressing himself primarily to social scientists but he may as well also be addressing members of the general public. This is my starting point. We must work at our social relations. We must work out a global ethic of morality and justice. If cultural tradition and belief, rhetoric and opinion, now gives way to scientific knowledge in so many spheres of our lives --spheres that emancipate us, potentially, both from material want and from superstitious error-- then there is still work to be done to complement the scientific with modern moral social relations that globally deliver justice and freedom. Equality, mobility, and a free choice of identity, Gellner concludes (1993:3), all have better prospects in the modern world than in the past, and yet our continually advancing scientific knowledge of the world cannot be tied rigidly to moral prescriptions.

            In short: just social relations are a modern work. Through it we may complement the scientific revolution and deliver a global morality. One does not merely tolerate different and incompatible moral claims any more than one does different cognitive claims. One judges them and intends an overcoming of their difference in a moral vision that is universalisable.

            It is not difficult, however, to find commentary which would suggest that such universalism is passé, if not worse: neo-imperialist. A political context dominated by renascent particularisms, militant religions and resurgent ethnicities spells the collapse, it is urged, of any liberal-humanist Enlightenment project (Gray 1992). Be that as it may, this article works towards a vision of  ‘opinion’ grading into ‘knowledge’, ‘cultures’ grading into ‘civilization’ (for want of a better word), and local community or ‘polis’ into global society or ‘cosmos’. Difference becomes a step along the way to a recognition of universal human truths, moral and social and pragmatic as well as epistemological and ontological.

            ‘Work’ in its more normal application can have a role to play here, moreover. Work, like money, is a medium that translates the particular into the universal. There are jobs anyone and everyone can do, irrespective of class, gender, ethnicity, nationality. At the same time, there is an intimacy to work: work translates the impersonal into the personal, difference and distance into the sameness of a shared life-world. To work at a job with a particular other is to enter a contact zone where both self and other are potentially moved from erstwhile identities (Hastrup 1995:2-5). There is, in short, a possible cosmopolitan character to work, effecting connexion between particular and universal, between individual and global human whole.

The world is composed, at its most fundamental of a host of individual agents. Cosmopolitanism would overcome the accident of their birth in different cultural categories --‘woman’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Norwegian’-- and see them instead as all potential citizens of one liberal state, all deserving of the same opportunities to fulfil a life-project. Translating particularities into universalities and universalities into particularities, work offers the potential, too, to overcome accidents of birth, overcome merely conventional, customary ascriptions and achieve identities and ambitions that reflect personality not traditionality. Work can potentially be seen as a medium towards global equality and equivalence: a levelling device, a means of breaking down classificatory boundaries, a freeing of individuals to come into their own.

            This is idealistic, but work in the more specific sense does have a potential role to play in effecting a working out of just social relations on a global scale.

‘On Magnanimity’

Let me continue at the idealist pole of this ‘work dialectic’ with a lecture given at the University of St. Andrews in 1961 by C. P. Snow, ‘On Magnanimity’. Magnanimity, along with courage, Snow explained (1962:6), were the virtues which he most admired, both in both public and private life. Courage had already had its many advocates and so, while not meaning to set himself up as a ‘moral passport officer’, he would take the opportunity to expound publicly on a virtuous vision. For he could not help thinking that were we to take stock of ourselves and others, as individuals and as societies, ‘honestly’ or ‘in our freedom’, as the existentialists put it, and then were we to act ‘generously’ on the basis of our discoveries, the world would benefit.

            Snow’s words have an innocence to them, and would have had then, in the early 1960s, even before post-structuralism urged us to see sophistry and the political-personal in every discursive construction. But Snow was no innocent and no naïf prophet, however much his tone and verbal register in the public lecture were direct.

He elaborates: Magnanimity entails the human capacity and the practice of people seeing themselves ‘as they really are’. Also, one is generous and gives others their due. Also, one is hopeful, and endeavours to see the best in oneself and in others, and then one works to promote that best. Honesty: generosity: hopefulness: fulfilment; as practical virtue, magnanimity entails a complex process of self-awareness, relationality and betterment. It also has complex roots. Magnanimity arises out of a sense of human oneness: that while we are all individual we are also all the same, and we can and should extend a brotherhood or love or compassion or charity to this species-whole. But magnanimity also arises out of a sense of the real, a sense of human weakness and fallibility, and of the moral liabilities, inequities and iniquities of social interaction. Lastly, magnanimity arises out of vanity: a wish and a belief that individually and collectively we may behave better than we might.

            If magnanimity has murky roots, Snow asserts, then so might all human excellence. And yet it is a virtue to which he would look most hopefully as a practical means to ‘sweeten and to glorify human life’ (1962:7). Looking about him in England, however, Snow is saddened. The practice of magnanimity is not widespread and appears even to be on the wane. There is no doubting English tolerance --more so than in the USA, more so than any society ever, in all likelihood-- but England is not a magnanimous society. Malice lurks close beneath the polite surface and frequently breaks cover. Our discursive commonplaces tell their own story. We laud the ‘moral’ but conjure up the ‘censorious’. We claim ‘integrity’ as an English public value but what is implied is not a wholeness to personality so much as a rude refusal to fit in: we boast adopting a nihilistic ‘anti-’ stance to every public policy. It is likely, Snow adjudges, that these discursive tics bespeak a world-power in decline: it is English fear and frustration which breed hardness and hate; and such hatred is easy, while virtue is difficult. Nevertheless, hate and negation ultimately nauseate the soul, Snow insists, demeaning our human dignity and potentiality. Not all human life need be conducted in the narrow terms of envy and consideration merely of one’s own survival. Our human capacities, individual and collaborative, in particular our scientific and technological means (thanks, in part, to the physical and mathematical magnanimity of the likes of Einstein and Rutherford), make the future ours to determine; we can do good or ill with ‘our world’ but we cannot cut ourselves off from it. It should be within our practical capacity, for instance, to banish world hunger before a number of generations. Recall how recently this was the widespread social condition in Scotland and in Ireland: practise the magnanimity to recognise ourselves now in the two-thirds of the world’s population who are poor enough to starve to death.

            Snow sums up: a polite, tolerant veneer is not sufficient. We can work at human improvement. But magnanimity as a public virtue has the same private origin as do all social characteristics and cultural traits. To practise political and social virtue we need first to recognise the truth of ourselves as individuals and to endeavour to make the best of ourselves as individuals. Magnanimity entails the individual, acting in his or her existential freedom, being honestly willing to put himself or herself and his or her human fellows in a position where they might all make the best of themselves (as individual human beings).

Magnanimity and Toleration

What can I take from this for my work? According to Snow: Human beings can hope and expect to gain access to the real: The progress of science provides examples of the kinds of truths to which human beings can aspire: Knowing the nature of things as they are is a public virtue, one to which civil institutions (such as universities) should devote themselves and one in which the student should immerse himself or herself: Civilitude and humanism operate at both a societal and an individual level, but they are individually sourced: By being true to oneself, true with oneself, one can hope magnanimously to open up a liberal space for others: By being true to methods of truth and the discernment of truth, one can hope to avoid sophistry and superstition in one’s own life and also avoid an illiberal treatment of others: From the individual’s authentic selfhood is to be derived an authentic liberality or openness towards others and the world: It is in improving the human condition that our dignity, our dignifying of human life, resides…

            A moral shopping-list is not easy to accept: one rebels against the demagoguery and omniscience. But I still find noteworthy the sense of discomfort I feel even in writing the above phrases, anticipating their skeptical reception: How difficult it is to write ‘truth’, ‘the nature of the human’, even ‘individual self’ in an anthropological essay. I also find that difficulty sad, alienating. Because these are all things which I would yet know --which I yet believe are there to be known by my anthropology. Knowing these things --the truth about the individual and the human whole-- are fundamental to the way in which anthropology serves the public value of charting ways to cosmopolitan justice: to a liberal treatment of the other on a global scale.

            Let me return to a distinction that Snow found significant between ‘magnanimity’ and ‘tolerance’. England, Snow suggested, was history’s most tolerant society but not so magnanimous a one as the USA. Magnanimity began with being honest in one’s perceptions of self and other and then in promoting the best in oneself and the other. Knowledge would seem key here, both self-knowledge and that of proximate and general others. One looks askance at the status-quo, ironically, critically, truthfully, in order to see what is actually there and how it might be bettered. Tolerance, however, might be said to begin and to end also in a certain distance. One does not presume to know the other, not merely because it is not oneself but because one accords difference an a priori moral status in its own right, a difference one need not, and should not, seek to overcome. My understanding of Snow’s emphasis on magnanimity, however, is that it is based in an aspiration towards true knowledge of other as of self, rather than simply a toleration of a perceived or imagined difference, and that a civil society could be envisaged in which knowledge was a common treasury. Being open to truth, endeavouring always to be discriminatory in ascertaining true knowledge and to subject claims to the court of scientific criticism, were the processes by which the life of individual human beings and the species whole were dignified and elevated alike.

Opinion and Truth

Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.

The above passage appears in the famous essay ‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill (1963[1859]:172), a treatise on the relationship between opinion on the one hand and orthodoxy, norm and law on the other; also between opinion on one side and knowledge, fact and truth on another. Opinion was contrastive by nature, Mill asserted, and opposing opinions were necessary for a vital, free and progressing society. But opinion also graded into true knowledge: diversity and contrast were part of a process which culminated in the truth. As ‘opinion’ grades into ‘knowledge’, so likewise, I would assert, might ‘culture’ grade into ‘civilization’, and local community or ‘polis’ into global society or ‘cosmos’. I shall examine in more detail how, for Mill, it is possible for difference to become a step along the way to a recognition of universal human truths.

It is the case, Mill begins (1963:192), that different human beings require different conditions for their development, both physical and moral. Human nature is individual in nature:

Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.

Sadly, however it is the case that the ‘despotism of custom’ and a ‘tyranny of opinion’ often crush individuality, and so hinder human advancement. ‘Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and right mean conformity to custom’ (1963:195). It was Mill’s opinion that England represented less of a threat to liberty in this respect than ‘the East’, but even here individuals were wont to lose themselves in the crowd: pressures on and opportunities for a collective sameness meant that human beings ‘wear down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves’ (1963:187). Instead of cultivating their individuality and inviting it forth, bringing themselves nearer to ‘the best things they can be’ (1963:188), mediocrity, weak energies and weak feelings prevailed.

            The point, for Mill, was that for an individual to use and interpret experience in his or her own way was the ‘proper condition’ of a human being who was in mature command of his or her faculties. Tradition and custom may evidence what others’ experience had taught them, but this experience may be narrow or old or have been misinterpreted; even if interpreted aright, it may be unsuitable for the individual’s own nature or circumstance. And even if correct and suitable, the individual does not develop or educate himself or herself if a tradition or custom is merely accepted without it being personally discerned. Truth had to be personally lived: perceived, judged, thought, felt and chosen. Here all the faculties were employed and not merely the imitative. To be best and most fully human was for the individual to arrive at his or her own life-plan or life-project. The individual used, ‘observation to see, reasoning and judgement to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and (...) firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision’ (1963:183). The benefit of this to the species, to the progress of human civilization, was the creation, experimentation or discovery of wise, good and noble things: ‘a greater fullness of life’ in the individual brings about ‘more in the mass which is composed of them’ (1963:187).

            Truth is a difficult and continuous work, nevertheless. The complexity of the real, the fallibility of the human and the dead hand of habit were major difficulties to overcome. One-sidedness was something of a rule in human practice, Mill observed: the recourse to partial judgments. ‘Progress’, so-called, was often merely the substitute of one partial truth with another partial truth more suited to the needs of the time; revolutions in opinion did not always ‘superadd’ truthfulness so much as swap. Alongside partiality there was sectarianism: truth was often rejected or not recognised because it was propagated by persons regarded as opponents. The partial truths of collective tradition thus hardened into contrarian exaggeration, bigotry and prejudice.

It was nevertheless the case, Mill was happy to conclude that, on the calmer and more disinterested by-stander even if not on the more impassioned partisan, a collision of diverse individual opinions worked a salutary effect. False surmises and practices gradually yielded to fact and argument. Humankind did progress, becoming more capable of discerning the truth in all its difficulty and complexity. There was growing unanimity concerning true and important knowledge: difference of opinion consolidated into unity. This was not to say that progress was necessarily linear or consistent or even particularly assured: it is worth quoting Mill (1963:153-4) at length here:

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error (...). The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.

Humankind was able to progress, therefore, and its history assumed a certain shape:

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. [1963:168]

A narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion was inevitable and indispensable, Mill concluded, even though ‘contrivances’ (such as Socratic dialectics) continued to be necessary in the realm of public culture to ensure that truth continued to be a live issue (for the maturing and the matured alike) and never simply customary or doctrinal.

The Conditions of Debate

Key to Mill’s notion of civil advance is the understanding that the free expression of a diversity of opinions will result not only in an initial collision but in an eventual consolidation as truth. Certain conditions must be met, however, for this to occur. For ‘those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage’, Mill admits (1963:136), free and equal discussion is unlikely to convince or persuade. ‘The greater part of the world’, he feels, ‘has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete’ (1963:195): over ‘the whole East’, the capacity to guide oneself through deliberation to one’s own improvement has not yet evolved. (Improvement of the barbarian has only succeeded, in the past, under the aegis of a benevolent despot such as an Akbar or Charlemagne.)

            But it has become difficult to apply such conditions, so to speak. Mill’s language is open to easy caricature as ‘orientalist’, ethnocentric and imperialist: it is no longer politically or even intellectually feasible to dichotomize and evaluate as he would. In a globalized circumstance, with ‘the East’ coming west, ‘the barbarian’ is more likely nominated to be ‘the subaltern’ or ‘postcolonial’, the ‘third-‘ or fourth-worlder’, or member of the ‘Global South’. An expectation of custom evolving into civilization is more often replaced by an assertion of a cultural right to adhere to a traditionalist orientation, made in the name of a collective deemed to be an organic unit of homogeneous membership and inheritance. ‘Cultures are not options’, as Bhikhu Parekh (1998:212) presumptively legislates. ‘Cultural communities’ now anticipate the sovereign right to fix individuals in a matrix of essential classes: as ‘Bosnian’, ‘Serb’ and ‘Slovene’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Jew’, ‘infidel’ and ‘apostate’, ‘woman’ and ‘modest’ and ‘pure’. ‘Survivance’ of cultural tradition, as Charles Taylor (1992:54) phrases it in connexion with the recognition of ‘Quebecois’ difference, is to be deemed a collective goal and a right taking legitimate precedence over individual desires (of natives of Quebec or elsewhere).

But nor would it be true to say that the idea of consolidating opinion into truth has become a wholly foreign project since Mill. C. P. Snow’s vision of magnanimity --including the existential freedom to move forward with an honest and generous appraisal of people and things-- finds its place in a twentieth-century liberal tradition (albeit that Snow writes before the political watershed of 1968) which also boasts eminent contributions from L. T. Hobhouse, H. L. A. Hart, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Brian Barry, in particular from the ‘discourse ethics’ of Jűrgen Habermas, claiming a kind of communicative rationality whose consequences are moral.

            Nor, finally, would it be true to say that there have not been resonances of liberal propositions (after Mill) within anthropology. Most forthright, perhaps, has been the voice of Ernest Gellner, as we have already heard, and his dichotomisation between culture and science:

A collectivity united in a belief is a culture. That is what the term means. More particularly, a collectivity united in a false belief is a culture. Truths, especially demonstrable truths, are available to all and sundry, and do not define any continuity of faith. But errors, especially dramatic errors, are culture-specific. They do tend to be the badges of community and loyalty. Assent to an absurdity is an intellectual rite de passage, a gateway to the community defined by that commitment to that conviction. [1995:6]

            In my own writing, I have wanted to address the totalizing, even totalitarian, tendencies of communities as containers of identity and matrices of meaning (Amit and Rapport 2002), and urged that anthropology beware conflating the cultural symbolization and classification of the world with its truth. Working to see beyond difference might be described as intrinsic to a cosmopolitan project of anthropology (Rapport 2010).



Amit, V. and Rapport, N. 2002 The Trouble with Community: Anthropological Reflections on             Movement, Identity and Collectivity, London: Pluto.

Gellner, E. 1993 'The mightier pen? Edward Said and the double standards of inside-out             colonialism', Times Literary Supplement February 19: 3-4.

----      1995 'Anything goes: The carnival of cheap relativism which threatens to  swamp the             coming fin de millenaire', Times Literary Supplement June 16: 6-8.

Gray, J. 1992 'Against the new liberalism: Rawls, Dworkin and the emptying of political life',             Times Literary Supplement July 3: 13-15.

Hastrup, K. 1995 A Passage to Anthropology, London: Routledge.

Mill, J. S. 1963 The Six Great Humanistic Essays of John Stuart Mill, New York: Washington          Square.

Parekh, B. 1998 'Cultural Diversity and Liberal Democracy' in G. Mahajan (ed.) Democracy,   Difference and Social Justice, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rapport, N. 2010 ‘Apprehending Anyone: The Non-Indexical, Post-Cultural and Cosmopolitan            Human Actor’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16(1).

Snow, C. P. 1962 On Magnanimity, St. Andrews: Students’ Representative Council.

Taylor, C. 1992 'The Politics of Recognition', in A. Gutmann (ed.) Multiculturalism, Princeton: Princeton University Press.