Individual will sacrificed for a greater good

Human rights expert Michael Ignatieff examines the concept of ‘ordinary virtue’ and the human capacity to subjugate personal desire for social cohesion in a globalised world. Matthew Adams takes a closer look

TOPSHOT - View of Rocinha (L) favela, in the background of a building of Sao Conrado neighborhood, the closest and one of the richest areas of Rio de Janeiro on Septemper 27, 2017. 
Residents of chic neighborhoods nearby Rocinha -and within Rocinha's gun range- are feeling anxious and resigned following last week's outbreak of violence in this favela, where the army had to intervene after the police admitted being unable to control the situation. / AFP PHOTO / Mauro PIMENTEL / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Pascale TROUILLAUD
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Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
Harvard University Press

The concept of virtue has often been associated with the endurance of circumstances, or the taking of actions, that are inimical to one's nature or interests.

Plato used to say that the rectitude of Socrates could be seen in his forbearance of his terrible wife. Metellus thought that the mark of a virtuous man could be found not in his preparedness to act well day-to-day, but to do so in the face of danger.

Milton thought your opinions could not be considered virtuous unless you had exposed them to positions violently – perhaps even woundingly – at variance with your own.

These were elevated ways of doing virtue, yet they had, and have, a counterpart – that of ordinary virtue, which flourishes in opposition to the notion of the ordinary vice (greed, lust, envy, hatred). Ordinary Virtues is concerned with the practical, inconsistent, compromised ways in which we are able, as beings with different origins, tastes, traditions, beliefs, yet often living in the same place, to do a reasonable job of getting along with one another – perhaps even helping one another out once in a while.

It’s not a particularly glamorous idea. Yet it is one to which, over the course of his academic and political career, human rights specialist Michael Ignatieff has increasingly been drawn.

The most recent ignition of this interest, as he writes in the opening pages of his new book, arrived in 2014 when he was asked by the council of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to act as a chair for its centennial celebrations, and to produce for them a report on the nature of morality in a modern, globalised world.

In order to pursue this objective, Ignatieff established a small team composed of himself, “programme director Devin Stewart, a translator and a researcher”. Together they would “set out on a journey of moral discovery that” would take them, over a period of three years, to four continents. 

By undertaking this journey – the shape and the findings of which are chronicled in the present volume – Ignatieff and his cohort hoped to address a number of questions.

Do the global moral languages used by intellectuals have any purchase on the lives of people living in poorer communities? Is globalisation encouraging humanity to adopt a shared moral language? How similarly – or variously – do different communities behave when faced with disaster? “How did the battle between the local and the universal, the contextual and the global, play out in the lives of ordinary people?” Have secular moral imperatives, as exemplified by the language of human rights, supplanted the religious? What happens when religions and rights collide?

The trips Ignatieff makes in pursuit of these objectives take him to variety of largely beleaguered, yet in some instances, functioning, places.

We visit Bosnia and South Africa (areas in which Ignatieff has some expertise, and on which he has written before). We travel to Fukushima in Japan. We are given a tour of Jackson Heights in the district of Queens, New York (one of the most cooperatively miscegenated ares of the United States). We land in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. We haunt the streets of South-Central Los Angeles.  

Almost all of these excursions are riveting, even when – and perhaps because – Ignatieff’s conclusions can be near bottomlessly depressing. While he is travelling in Eastern Europe, for example, he talks to a young Bosnian by the name of Subdun who, along with most of his family, was rescued from conflict by Serb militia - the ‘same’ forces that killed his father.

Such stories are not unique, and Ignatieff asks around to see if they have encouraged the groups who inhabit the area – Serbs, Croats, Bosnians – to live cooperatively and forget their former differences. The answers he gets are terse, firm, bristling: “‘We live side-by-side’, but we do not ‘live together’.” 

This is just one of the experiences that leads Ignatieff to conclude that self-segregation might be the best way of securing a peaceful future for neighbouring, yet conflicting, groups. Which doesn’t sound much (talk about ordinary virtue). Until one considers the violent alternative. Indeed, almost every sortie Ignatieff makes confronts him with social arrangements in which people have adopted a moral code that is adhered to only because it allows its adherents to live as well (again, given the alternatives) as possible. When he visits the favelas of Rio he finds, unsurprisingly, little evidence of the elevated cadences of human rights. What he encounters instead is an extemporised society that requires from its inhabitants extreme sensitivity to social hierarchy and a willingness to tolerate radical self-denial and corruption. With this practical morality – or ordinary virtue – in place, those who reside in the favelas can get on with leading relatively (a word one ought to stress) peaceful lives. 

One needn’t doubt that Ignatieff is correct about this (that such societies need to adopt an improvised practical ethics of their own in order to achieve some sense of social cohesion).

For him, in order to feel a little unrest at the sense that, the necessity of these ways of being somehow recommends them – that they represent a kind of radical morality-from-the-margins, one that plays by its own rules, doesn’t bow to western liberal-democratic ideas about human rights, lies outside the system, places the functioning of the community over the will of the individual. 

And one needn’t dispense with Ignatieff’s assessment wholesale to offer the observation that it does risk reducing the idea of virtue to a kind of conflict management.

This is, after all, in part where the story of religious toleration and the enshrining of natural and human rights comes from. But that that story was told, in the main, by those who celebrated and pursued the elevated virtue while acknowledging the day-to-day necessity of its ordinary counterpart.

There are many shortcomings to so grand and all-encompassing a vision. But that is not to say we settle for the workaday solution.


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Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
Harvard University Press