The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World
by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I wish I could rush into an ethics classroom and teach this book. It is excellent. I devoured it quickly.
Ignatieff, both an academic and political leader, explores the impact that human rights have had upon the globe, shaping the moral order. A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.
He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, LA, Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with poor women living in shanties and prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes. A brilliant model for how to do academic work in our time.
What he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. Trust, tolerance, and resilience are among them. And key to promoting these virtues are well run public institutions and civil society. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. He writes, "The whole point of a liberal society is to create laws and institutions that make virtue ordinary."
The most brilliant chapter is that on Fukushima, and I would recommend it as reading right now in our moment of global pandemic. He writes that the triple disaster in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, meltdown--was the unimaginable and that we moderns are not well prepared for the unimaginable to happen. Yet, the unimaginable has consistently been occurring the last twenty years eroding our trust in our institutions which keep failing us and eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. He writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management." This breakdown has made humans more individualistic in their resilience strategies.
Here is the final paragraph of that brilliant chapter, where he discusses hope:
The hope I am talking about is an ordinary virtue: it is free of hubris, and so it takes for granted, that we will not always be able to avoid the worst. At the same time, it is not misanthropic: it prepares for the worst but does not think the worst of human beings. It is anti-utopian: while it believes that over time we get better at learning from our mistakes, it does not have any faith that we can fundamentally change; it is rationalist but questions that History, with a capital H, is knowable. It draws faith from the past, from the memory of the samurai, but it also knows that sometimes all you can do is to keep moving, keep going toward the future, no matter how uncertain the destination. But resilience has an unshakeable, physical element of faith. It affirms that we do learn and that we are not condemned to endless repetition of our folly. This complex hope is, I believe, what underpins human resilience, more than an attitude of responsibility toward others. It is also a metaphysical commitment, deep inside, usually left unspoken, to the future continuity of human life itself, no matter what, a commitment best expressed by the belief that we will not only survive but prevail.
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