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 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.