The Ordinary Virtues

Michael Ignatieff’s The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World identifies a moral truth of general relevance, especially in globalizing times. This book argues basic habits of human decency -the ordinary virtues-, are what people use to navigate moral questions in globalized contexts of divided communities, with mixing strangers, different cultural practices, and unpredictable insecurities.

The story of the book is about the discovery of the importance of such ordinary virtues at the limits of universal human rights discourse. It is Ignatieff’s realization that the human rights revolution has only established a language for self-assertion, not real solidarities. It suggests world order needs the support of ordinary virtues to grapple with nationalism and inhumane governance in current affairs.

By ordinary moral virtues, Ignatieff means, ‘commonplace and everyday as opposed to heroic and exceptional’, a mix of, ‘trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resilience’ (p. 26-27). They are contextual, pragmatic, local, taken-for-granted, gut-feeling ethics, I think 4176dm+tVOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_best expressed as basic human decencies. As a part of the Carnegie Centennial Project, Ignatieff discovered these virtues in a multi-glocal tour of moral life in globalizing times, from Hispanic neighborhoods in L.A., immigrant communities in Queens, Rio favelas, illegal settlements in Pretoria, and poor villages in Mandalay, Bosnia, and elsewhere, in an exploration how people make sense of their moral lives in complicated globalizing times.

Basic human decencies, Ignatieff observes, are in high demand today, and he is right to explore and defend them. Basic decency to strangers is an ancient moral norm, but in globalizing times it is needed in the normal everyday more than in exceptional circumstance. In the Odyssey, what made the Cyclops a “savage” was more to do with his inhospitality than his monstrous features. When Odysseus and is comrades, starving wayward sailors, found themselves in the homeland of the Cyclops, their host ate them. The Cyclops is a figure of moral vices, greed and cruelty. In Homer’s tale, Penelope, at home in Greece, is the figure of ordinary moral virtues, perhaps even to a fault, nearly allowing her guests to eat her out of house and home. In a globalizing world, these virtues and vices are in contest on a daily basis, and defending the ordinary virtues can contribute to alleviating suffering and misery at an everyday level but also on a global scale.

Part of the importance of The Ordinary Virtues, is its critique of the practical limits of human right universalism, the acknowledgement of their inadequacy, perhaps an admission of their decline. But, Ignatieff also suggests liberal societies are more conducive to ordinary virtues than authoritarian societies. What gestures towards world order this book makes will inevitably be politically contested, but its defence of basic human decencies is always worthwhile, in any context. Surely, any world order built on moral vices, greed, domination, etc., will eventually collapse in war or revolution.

There may or may not be larger forms of belonging beyond the horizons of the liberal world order, but basic human decencies are nonetheless always and increasingly important in the times of globalizing disorder.

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The Emergence of Globalism

How did the ‘globe’ become political? The idea of a globular world order has shaped international political thought for up to a century. Or Rosenboim’s The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 tells the story of the early debates over how to reimagine world order in a ‘global’ world. It provides a wealth of learning about the writings of such major thinkers in these debates as Raymond Aron and David Mitrany, E.H. Carr, F.A. Hayek and H.G. Well’s. Rosenboim distinguishes political globalism, as a political space, from trans-nationalism and cosmopolitanism and suggests, ‘The main normative claim of the discourse of “globalism” was that the existing political system should be revised and reorganized with reference to the world as a whole, and not only to national, regional, or imperial interests’ (p.278). This is a timely book in a moment when political globalism seems more and more out of reach and out of touch, but the world seems more and more globalized.

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A merit of this book is that it leaves the reader wanting more. It suggests the question, for instance, of global thought beyond the Anglo-American world. What of the “global” south? It also suggests the question, are similar debates being held today around the emergence of “planetary” politics? The globe, as a spherical geography, can be distinguished from the planet, as the total system of earth systems and orbital space. How is world order being reconciled with the emergence of planetary politics? Lastly, it this book also raises the question of the preconditions of global thought. For instance, modern conceptions of time as linear and space as empty have shaped the way the globe could be imagined.

This book will reward reading by early and advanced students interested in ‘global’ politics.

A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason leaves larger questions unanswered, but points 978-1-77614-050-3-critique_1200the way. It examines the changing use of ‘blackness’ as a category in an increasingly post-Western world order, and it raises the concept of ‘black reason’ as the thinking around the category that shapes its use. The book provides a history of the category in practice, its origins in the needs of capital, Atlantic then global diffusion, and moments of its change in practice: abolition, decolonization, and Apartheid. This drives the analysis to the crux of today, where the relation of West and the world is being reworked, enabling both new racism and a search for a ‘common world’ beyond black reason. Mbembe suggests ‘Europe’s twilight has arrived, and the Euro-American world has not yet figured out what it wants to know about, or to do with, the Black Man’ (p.7).

Continue reading “A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason”

*Reflections on John Gray on Living Together in this World

If the folly of this world is interminable, so too is the search for a better world. A portion of a lecture by English philosopher John Gray recently emerged on the internet. In it, the former LSE professor speaks on the question ‘can we live together in the world’, a question this blog has touched on before. Gray suggests the answer, yes.

Continue reading “*Reflections on John Gray on Living Together in this World”

Myopic Global Futures Past at Davos

The question of belonging has emerged as a central concern of our times, but it entails the question of global as well as national belonging. The question of belonging somewhere in the world necessarily raises the question of belonging as a part of the world, not apart from it. The 2017 World Economic Forum fumbled this question. Although it was asked, it went wildly unanswered.

The forum, on the whole, was a wash, adding nothing new, but neither conceding globalist pretences. Over the past few days, Continue reading “Myopic Global Futures Past at Davos”

Cosmopolitansim After Globalization

Gianpiero Petriglieri’s thoughtful essay makes a helpful distinction between cosmopolitanism and globalization. He argues:

If we want to fend off the globalization of ultra-nationalism, now is the time to take a stand for cosmopolitanism—extricating its broadminded attitude from its elitist parody, and putting it to work to temper nationalism and humanize globalization.

In the technologically ‘shrunk’ globe of the 21st century, it is challenging but important to re-imagine the ways in which humankind does not need a ‘global village’ to be ‘one’.