ISBN: 9780674976276

Morten Bergsmo

Centre for International Law Research and Policy

Read more about this book at

This book comes out of a project by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to mark the centenary of Andrew Carnegie’s 1914 bequest. Ignatieff examines three ‘moral systems’: human rights, global ethics, and ‘ordinary virtues’. By ‘virtue’ he means ‘acquired practical skills in moral conduct and discernment’, and he lists ‘ordinary virtues’ as trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resilience. Given his background in human rights, it may surprise that Ignatieff is struck by the primacy of the local and the limitation of human rights as a global language. He argues that human rights are best seen as a ‘rational thought experiment, as a critical discourse whose purpose is to force the ordinary virtues to enlarge and expand their circle of moral concern’. The book is a study of how people ‘reproduce virtue – and moral order – in arduous circumstances’, focusing on seven case studies: Jackson Heights (New York), Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. He claims that the test of a ‘decent society is that it allows people to display these virtues easily’. The book is important in the way Ignatieff brings age-old concepts back into what is now a global discourse, by rooting it in real struggles that people face around the world, and by challenging each of us: ‘displaying the virtues, as best you can, is the point and purpose of a human life’. Harvard University Press should not misspell Žepa, date the Dayton Accords to 2005, and reduce the pre-war Bosnian Muslim population in Prijedor from 43.7 to 20 percent. Ignatieff should perhaps choose an open access academic publisher next time.