Looking for a Decent Society

Review: 'The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World' by Michael Ignatieff

Gilbert Keith Chesterton / Getty Images


A modest thought, a gentle faith, a quiet cultivation: There is a line of modern thought that seems to slip from view every other generation, only to reappear here and there among the in-between cohorts. The English cleric Sydney Smith (1771–1845) was of this kind, and perhaps his only generally remembered line is the maxim, "Take short views, hope for the best, and trust in God."

The 20th-century poet W.H. Auden was another, at least in certain of his better moods—and it is perhaps worth remembering that Auden loved the fine pleasures of Sydney Smith's work. G.K. Chesterton, too, although Chesterton's prose was so loudly and wonderfully paradoxical that—in, say, his Little Englandism—Chesterton could seem quite immodest about his descriptions of the necessity for human modesty. The mid-century political theorist Isaiah Berlin was another, in a highly intellectualized way: a man less than confident about the great moral sanitations of the politics of the modern age, even while he counted himself a modern. And Michael Ignatieff is yet another who would be a gentle soul, did personal temperament and the tenor of the age allow.

What we discover, by the end of The Ordinary Virtues, Ignatieff's latest book, is that the temperament and tenor of our time does not allow room for much gentleness, old-fashioned liberalism, or universal civility. The world is full of virtues, as Chesterton once remarked, but they are virtues gone mad—virtues broken free from any constraint, modesty, or coherence with other virtues. As it happens, Isaiah Berlin would often speak of the chance he had, as a young man, to meet with G.K. Chesterton, and Michael Ignatieff is the author of a biography of Berlin, from whom he absorbed much of his sense of the civilities of the modern liberal order. The trail of influence is well-drawn, and the essential sadness of The Ordinary Virtues is a sign of the snares and stumbling-blocks that beset any continuation of that line.

The idea for the book came in 2014, while Ignatieff was centennial chairman of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The Carnegie Council posed for itself the question "Is globalization drawing us together morally?" And Ignatieff (then at Harvard, now rector of the Central European University in Budapest) set out to answer the question with the resources of the council behind him. He traveled with a team of Carnegie fellows to Brazil and Bosnia, Japan and the United States, Myanmar and South Africa, meeting with civic organizations, local politicians, and the everyday people of the city neighborhoods.

And the answer he finds to the question? One of the desired moral results of globalization is surely an appreciation for human rights, but "Human rights remains an elite discourse," Ignatieff concludes—and, worse, that discourse is often attacked as Western intellectual colonialism. ("Liberalism is white supremacy," as William & Mary students chanted recently, shouting down a speech by an ACLU official.) Globalization as economics has had some effect, but globalization as the advance of the liberal democratic order remains more tenuous. The world possesses no "shared narrative," and universal morality breaks down in "contextual singularity."

Still, globalization has produced at least some spread of the idea of democracy and some sharing of the notion of human rights. Whether in Brazil or Japan, Bosnia or the United States, Ignatieff finds a claim of ordinary equality and decline in belief in the reality of noble bloodlines. Unfortunately, the new democracy does not always produce human rights. Myanmar saw military dictators give way to the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi—who now is widely and democratically supported in her campaign against the nation's Muslim minority. A democratic impulse driven by globalizing liberalism produced a nation that believes Buddhism and Islam are necessarily at war. And post-apartheid South Africa, Ignatieff discovers, is a miserable failure to fulfill the high expectations of its joyous foundation.

With his fellows from the Carnegie Council, Ignatieff discovered that antagonisms in Bosnia are not as bad as they once were—but reconciliation is impossible. The Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs inform him: "We live side by side, but we do not live together." This self-segregation he finds again in American cities, where "a commitment to equality, diversity, and tolerance—that is, living together—goes hand in hand with the actual practice of living apart." And one effect of globalization is that many people are steeped not in in the language of Western liberalism but in the language of Western radicalism. Protesters claim to be fighting widespread "white supremacy" rather than a particular instance of police brutality. Muslims cheer globalization, which they define as worldwide Islam.

Given the failure of globalization to bring about universal liberalism—the end of history—Ignatieff retreats to Chesterton's "ordinary virtues": generosity, kindness, a sense of neighborhood, loyalty, trust. At best, moralists must seek to turn "the global back into the local," giving up on the grand virtues of Immanuel Kant's vision of universal morality. In Rio, in Fukushima, South Africa, even in Bosnia, this is the best for which we can hope—while recognizing that ordinary virtues are always matched by ordinary vices: venality, class hatred, and all the rest.

And so Ignatieff asks, "If the test of a decent society is that it allows people to display these virtues easily, what policies and institutions do we need to create so that virtue can remain ordinary?"

Even by asking that question, The Ordinary Virtues continues to assume there is an elite sense of liberalism that is still working toward the worldwide spread of morality. The virtues it seeks may be more humble than they used to be, but the seeking remains a grand global project.

That's not Sydney Smith's modest thought, gentle faith, and quiet cultivation. Nor is it G.K. Chesterton's breezy optimism of small things. Neither is it quite Isaiah Berlin—with his ability, a kind of "negative capability," both to embrace and to refuse the certainties of modern thought. The ordinary virtues require one more step from Michael Ignatieff: a step into the kind of humility of short views that is difficult for an elite world intellectual whose experience is shaped by the globetrotter's abstract view of the human condition.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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