Michael Ignatieff's The Ordinary Virtues explores the idea of a common moralityby / November 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Michael Ignatieff’s career can be divided into two halves. For the first, he was a well-known writer and broadcaster, writing an acclaimed biography of Isaiah Berlin in 1998—and contributing regularly to Prospect, among other publications. Then came the rather different second half, where he ended up trying his hand at politics, becoming leader of the Liberal Party in Canada from 2008 to 2011. He is now the Rector and President of the Central European University in Budapest, coping with an increasingly authoritarian regime in Hungary. Throughout, his reputation as a serious thinker has remained intact. He 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 globalisation has brought different economies closer together, it has also made our ethical codes more similar. With improvements in transport and connectivity, he asks whether we are seeing the “globalisation of morals.”
This is a huge question, but Ignatieff goes about answering it in the right way—not merely theoretically but also practically. Alongside a team from the Carnegie Council for Ethics, he sets out across the globe to speak to people and test his thesis. He visits Myanmar, the setting of such tragedy of late, slums in Rio, and post-apartheid South Africa, mixing philosophy and reportage.
His conclusion? Moral globalisation is not happening. At least, not in the way he thought that it might be. Moral codes from one place have not, for the most part, taken root in another. But there are values that have always united people and continue to do so—these are the “Ordinary Virtues” of the book’s title. He lists some of them: “Trust, honesty, politeness, forbearance, respect.” The naive vision of globalisation—that it’s an unambiguously good thing, bringing us closer together all the time—has been questioned in the wake of recent political events and sensibly, Ignatieff does not to try to resurrect it.
Given the book’s ambition, his conclusion is a little watery. Nonetheless, the exceptional storytelling makes it worth reading.
The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff is published by Harvard (£22.95)