The Impossibility of Global Ethics – A Review of Michael Ignatieff’s ‘The Ordinary Virtues’

By Oskari Mantere.

Michael Ignatieff’s The Ordinary Virtues takes the reader on a safari through some of the most fragile moral economies of the world. The scenery of this tour is detailed in a prose that is clear and easy to read. The first stop is the Jackson Heights neighbourhood in New York where the reality of diversity is shown to the tourist. For those who are part of the global elite, it is common to value diversity. It is a way to publicly articulate commitment to the postcolonial moral order. But to the people living in Jackson Heights, diversity is not a value; it is a fact of life. Diversity is a modus vivendi.

Other destinations of the exhibition are as vividly detailed as Jackson Heights is. In Los Angeles, Ignatieff shows a community that cannot forget the violent division that is tearing it apart. In Fukushima, the shadow of the nuclear disaster is blocking the sun. In Myanmar, the creeping sense of ethnic cleansing can be heard in the background, like music in an elevator, when we get to meet militant Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. In Rio de Janeiro, we are shown the viciousness of corruption. In South Africa, the reader becomes painfully aware of the fact that even the most progressive constitution in the world can be just a powerless piece of paper. In Bosnia, Ignatieff returns to a landscape that he had lost in the ethnic wars of the 1990s. There are no weak chapters in the book, but the discussion on Bosnia is arguably the strongest one. In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, many humanitarians arrived to the former Yugoslavia to teach techniques of rebuilding and reconciliation. Two decades later, Ignatieff reflects on this universalist urge. With what right did outsiders come to preach for forgiveness and reconciliation? What even is reconciliation? And why should Shahida Rakmanovic who lost her husband and her former life reconcile? In Bosnia, people live side by side, not together. Answers to the questions asked in the post-genocidal country are not human rights.

This is exactly Ignatieff’s underlining argument. The powerless of the world do not frame their issues in the human rights language. In fact, most of them do not hear or use the phrase “human rights” ever. This does not mean that the subaltern classes of the world do not think morally or take moral stances. Human beings do need to think and act in a moral manner. But unlike the canon of western philosophy assumes, morality is a highly flexible and ever-varying category. Human rights are the product of particular historical events and trajectories. As such, they answer to particular questions. Human rights help us to find common ground and act as a convention on what is the minimum requirement of human existence. Beyond this bare minimum, human rights and their partner concept “fundamental freedoms” are rarely useful.

Human rights and other global moral projects fail to capture the essence of the moral universe. Instead the common denominator of human moralities is what Ignatieff calls “ordinary virtues.” They are virtues because they are learned practices, not the outcome of conscious moral deliberations. They are ordinary because they are everyday practices and not heroic stories. Trust, hope, forgiveness, and resilience are prime examples of ordinary virtues. Without these and other ordinary virtues, no human community can function. This is even truer in moral communities that are balancing on a tightrope.

Ordinary virtues are not theoretical nor universal. They apply in a certain moral context and favour friends over enemies. From the standpoint of ordinary virtues, there is no Archimedean point. It is easy to do moral calculations or demands on others. And, often it is others who are supposed to bear the responsibilities of our moral convictions.

Overemphasising the ordinary virtues might lead to fatalism. Sometimes ordinary virtues are not enough. In times of terror or against inequality ordinary virtues are powerless. But this is also the point. Ordinary virtues are a requirement for a functioning moral community. But they are not our only moral language. Our moral universe is too plural to be reduced into one category such as human rights or ordinary virtues. When Major Pricilla fights against corruption and gangs in the favelas of the Rio de Janeiro, she asks and answers particular questions. The same is true for the perpetrators and victims living side by side in the former Yugoslavia.

The Ordinary Virtues does not propose any revolutionary philosophical treaties, nor does it provide any new factual information to those who are interested in the policy evaluation. What it does is that it details the plurality of our world in an elegant manner. As such, The Ordinary Virtues is an outstanding book. It is not a modern classic, but it is the best book I have read this year.

Reviewed work: Ignatieff, M. (2017) The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

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