What moral values do human beings hold in common? As globalization draws us together economically, are our values converging or diverging? In particular, are human rights becoming a global ethic? These were the questions that led Michael Ignatieff to embark on a three-year, eight-nation journey in search of answers. The Ordinary Virtues presents Ignatieff’s discoveries and his interpretation of what globalization—and resistance to it—is doing to our conscience and our moral understanding.
Through dialogues with favela dwellers in Brazil, South Africans and Zimbabweans living in shacks, Japanese farmers, gang leaders in Los Angeles, and monks in Myanmar, Ignatieff found that while human rights may be the language of states and liberal elites, the moral language that resonates with most people is that of everyday virtues: tolerance, forgiveness, trust, and resilience. These ordinary virtues are the moral operating system in global cities and obscure shantytowns alike, the glue that makes the multicultural experiment work. Ignatieff seeks to understand the moral structure and psychology of these core values, which privilege the local over the universal, and citizens’ claims over those of strangers.
Ordinary virtues, he concludes, are antitheoretical and anti-ideological. They can be cheerfully inconsistent. When order breaks down and conflicts break out, they are easily exploited for a politics of fear and exclusion—reserved for one’s own group and denied to others. But they are also the key to healing, reconciliation, and solidarity on both a local and a global scale.
[This] is a selective moral progress report, an ‘intimate sociology and anthropology of ethics’ that is engaging, articulate and richly descriptive… Ignatieff’s deft histories, vivid sketches, and fascinating interviews are the soul of this important book. They take us from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, to Bosnia, Myanmar, South Africa and Japan; and they inform his answer to its guiding question. For Ignatieff, the ideology of human rights has fallen short. What sustains the fragile flourishing of global cities and diverse communities is not faith in human rights but the ‘ordinary virtues’ of tolerance, forgiveness, resilience and trust, made possible by adequate maintenance of the rule of law. The ordinary virtues are an open-source operating system, a moral vernacular by which members of different ethnic and religious groups are able to live, if not together, then side by side.
Makes for illuminating reading.
[An] admirable little book.
Ignatieff combines powerful moral arguments with superb storytelling. There are unforgettable accounts of the massacres in the former Yugoslavia and how people try to live with memories of loss and—perhaps even harder—with neighbors who were among the perpetrators…What is perhaps most interesting about The Ordinary Virtues is the contrast between the hopes and aspirations of the 1990s and the realities of the early 21st century.
This is a work of a statesman at the height of his powers…Ignatieff makes his case, lucidly, vividly, persuasively…This book has the potential to make as big a wave in the field of human rights and global ethics as After Virtue did in the philosophical and theological academy. At a time of much confusion, paralysis, and despair, few hands on the global tiller are as sure as those of Ignatieff.
Michael Ignatieff has long served as a bellwether of liberal internationalism, and what he has to say is important in itself and a reflection of a temperament evolving in time. Ignatieff’s writerly gifts make reading The Ordinary Virtues a wonderful experience, whether one agrees or not with the contentious thesis he advances about virtue ethics and human rights. Readers interested in global politics cannot afford to miss this intervention.
Michael Ignatieff has written his most important book. It speaks to the moral dilemmas of our times in a language that grapples with the profound contradictions between the universal languages that many global elites speak and the ‘ordinary virtues’ of ordinary citizens that come to life in local contexts in local languages. It is not hard to extend Ignatieff’s reasoning to the contemporary crisis in liberal democracies in the developed world.
In this extraordinary book, Michael Ignatieff travels across the globe to explore two apparently opposite things: what divides us from each other, and what enables communities of strangers to live side by side. He doubts whether a single legal, religious, or philosophical code can unite us. Globalization in our economies does not produce globalization in our hearts. He emphasizes the role of ordinary virtues, not grand principles, in guiding us through the maze of competing ideas and obligations. At a time when liberal and democratic principles are widely challenged, and funeral orations are being delivered prematurely for the international order that has lasted since 1945, this book provides a much-needed reminder that societies can, somehow, not just muddle through, but create a moral order of sorts that actually works.
Michael Ignatieff is an exceptionally distinguished historian, journalist, and thinker. The Ordinary Virtues is an engrossing, creative, and elegantly written addition to his other excellent books. Considering a globalizing world troubled by terrible inequality, Ignatieff makes a moral argument by illustration, with sophistication enough for trained political theorists as well as a real-world engagement that gives the work heft.
Ignatieff long has been seen as one of the principal theoreticians of human rights, a task to which he has devoted his career since reporting on the Bosnian Civil War in the late 1990s… He deserves praise for wrestling with the devolution of our moral worlds over recent decades… [In] The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, Ignatieff betrays an admirable recognition of the poverty of our moral politics today.
[Ignatieff] has never been afraid to ask the big questions. And as his new book The Ordinary Virtues shows, he is no less willing to take them on today. His question is whether, just as globalization has brought different economies closer together, it has also made our ethical codes more similar.
A book of considerable style and substance…There is much wisdom in this book.
- 2018, Winner of the Zócalo Public Square Book Prize
- 272 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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