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David Park on ‘Hearth­lands’ by Mar­i­anne El­liott


There’s a type of globe-trot­ting ex­pert who loves to put him­self at the cen­tre of ev­ery anec­dote and who projects univer­sal mean­ing into triv­ial in­ter­ac­tions with cab driv­ers and ho­tel concierges. Michael Ignatieff is ex­actly not that sort of com­men­ta­tor, and in The Or­di­nary Virtues: Moral Or­der in a

Di­vided World he has writ­ten a book of con­sid­er­able style and sub­stance.

An am­bi­tious project, he has sought to es­tab­lish what moral val­ues – if any – hu­man be­ings have in com­mon. For­get about pro­claimed val­ues: doc­trines, holy texts and hu­man rights in­stru­ments. How does moral rea­son­ing man­i­fest it­self in real life?

There’s bad news here for lib­er­als as, in the course of a three-year and eight na­tion jour­ney, Ignatieff found or­di­nary peo­ple largely un­moved by the “elite dis­course” of hu­man rights and in­ter­na­tional law. “Gen­er­al­i­ties about hu­man obli­ga­tions and moral rea­son­ing meant lit­tle to them: con­text was all.” Of course, that’s bad news for re­li­gious preach­ers and other ide­o­logues. But it’s lib­er­als who will take par­tic­u­lar um­brage at this book, which is all the more rea­son why they should read it.

In coun­tries as di­verse as Brazil, the United States and Japan, Ignatieff – an aca­demic, for­mer politi­cian and ac­claimed au­thor in fic­tion and non­fic­tion – is drawn to the con­clu­sion that peo­ple don’t share spe­cific val­ues but what they do have in com­mon is “virtue”, de­fined as “ac­quired prac­ti­cal skills in moral con­duct and dis­cern­ment”.

Virtue de­vel­ops from the cra­dle to grave, as a habit within closed com­mu­ni­ties. It’s non-ide­o­log­i­cal, and thus sub­verts “isms” of all sorts, from na­tion­al­ism to cos­mopoli­tanism. Since virtue is rooted in lo­cal ex­changes, it “favours fam­ily and friends over strangers and other cit­i­zens”.


From the virtue per­spec­tive, di­ver­sity is of du­bi­ous value, and no amount of moral lec­tur­ing will change that. The US is a case in point. Even in cities where there are no eco­nomic or in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers to in­te­gra­tion, dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups choose to live apart. He cites a 2007 study which “found that neigh­bour­hoods in larger US cities have a crit­i­cal mi­nor­ity thresh­old – typ­i­cally from 5-15 per cent – be­yond which white fam­i­lies leave for res­i­den­tial ar­eas that are pre­dom­i­nantly white”. It is to Ignatieff’s credit that he takes on this ta­boo sub­ject, ask­ing “what ac­tu­ally is so good about [di­ver­sity] if we live side by side, but not to­gether, if tol­er­ance goes hand in hand with self-seg­re­ga­tion and avoid­ance…?”

As he hops from one lo­ca­tion to another, there is a touch of mis­ery tourism and the coun­tries cho­sen are rather ran­dom but Ignatieff is acutely aware of his priv­i­leged sta­tus and is up­front about the lim­its of his re­search. His visit to Myanmar is par­tic­u­larly timely as he as­sesses Aung San Suu Kyi’s han­dling of the Ro­hingya pogroms. While he un­der­stands why she is the fo­cal point of western at­tacks, he chal­lenges us to look be­yond her – and the very western nar­ra­tive of “the fallen hero” – to see what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground. In a coun­try tran­si­tion­ing from mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­racy, there’s a key ques­tion that needs to be an­swered: “Whose place is this?”

The ques­tion has echoed across Europe in re­cent decades. In for­mer Yu­goslavia where sep­a­ratists drew bor­ders in blood. In Bri­tain, dur­ing the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. In Cat­alo­nia, where be­long­ing means a cry for in­de­pen­dence. “Whose place is this?” is the sort of ques­tion that sounds racist but Ignatieff cau­tions against gen­er­al­i­sa­tion.

Moral co­nun­drum

He quotes David Hume’s maxim that there’s no such thing as “love for mankind” – only love for this per­son or that. Lib­er­als and pro­gres­sives must try harder to un­der­stand how ev­ery­day ethics work; so runs the ar­gu­ment. From a hu­man rights per­spec­tive, Ignatieff notes, there should be no limit on the num­ber of peo­ple who meet the cri­te­ria for asy­lum be­ing ad­mit­ted to a coun­try. But from the virtue per­spec­tive, “this idea re­moves from a po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity its very sovereignty. It equalises the ci­ti­zen and the stranger, re­moves the power of the ci­ti­zen to de­ter­mine who is wor­thy of the gift”.

On this moral co­nun­drum, he be­lieves his home coun­try of Canada (whose Lib­eral Party he once led) pro­duced the ideal so­lu­tion with a refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gramme that en­cour­aged com­mu­ni­ties to in­vite mi­grants into their neigh­bour­hoods. A pub­lic fund was set up from which vol­un­teer groups could draw down money. Its suc­cess has not gone un­no­ticed by other gov­ern­ments.

There is much wis­dom in this book and a few ba­sic point­ers for pro­gres­sives: rein in the right­eous­ness; go easy on iden­tity politics; and ap­peal to the bet­ter nature in ev­ery­one. As Ignatieff puts it, with some un­der­state­ment, “it is pos­si­ble that pure pity has done more real work to save vic­tims than the lan­guage of rights”.


Michael Ignatieff: ‘Writ­ten a book of con­sid­er­able style and sub­stance.’

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