The Banality of Virtue

By Madhav KhoslaNovember 5, 2017

The Banality of Virtue

The Ordinary Virtues by Michael Ignatieff

THE POLITICAL THEORIST Michael Ignatieff has had a notable and unusual career, spanning academic positions at several universities, including a long-term appointment at Harvard University, a role in Canadian politics, and his current position as the rector and president of the Central European University in Budapest. His publications are equally wide-ranging, and include academic scholarship, biography (his life of Isaiah Berlin was published in 1988), fiction, and even screenplays. Ignatieff’s new book, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, shares sentiments and themes with some of his earlier writings, but it has an even wider scope: it attempts nothing less than a comprehensive moral philosophy for the era of globalization. By exploring the common qualities that influence disparate persons situated in radically different corners of the world, Ignatieff hopes to uncover “ethics in action,” to escape isolated seminar rooms and witness how people actually behave in their ordinary lives. What ethical orientation do individuals in different societies bring to the familiar challenges of social life? Do they speak the same language when they resist corruption, create trust, and express toleration?

The title of Ignatieff’s book draws on Michel de Montaigne, who described acts like “treachery, disloyalty, cruelty, tyranny” as “our ordinary vices,” and spoke of vice and virtue as often coexisting and competing with one another. The “ordinary vices” were given philosophical texture in a 1984 book Ordinary Vices by the theorist Judith N. Shklar. The book that Shklar wrote was an effort to make political theory more sensitive to the lived reality of human life. Part of the ambition of Ordinary Vices was to see what could be said about matters like hypocrisy, snobbery, and betrayal. An experience of such vices was familiar to everyone — perhaps all too familiar — and yet little had been stated about how they shaped human agency. A study of ordinary vices might not be ripe for systematic study, as Shklar noted, but their prevalence seemed to warrant at least some form of theoretical self-reflection. In another way, Ordinary Vices had perhaps an even more ambitious objective. The vices that Shklar studied were at work in both the public and the private domain. As such, they had real political implications. The effort was not to make us better husbands or wives (though that might be a good idea, too) but rather to locate a new agenda for citizenship.

The Ordinary Virtues attempts a similar project for a world that has been, in significant ways, transformed in the three decades since Shklar’s book was published. The need to study “moral globalization,” Ignatieff argues, is driven by the changed circumstances in which we live. Globalization, he says (rather reductively), has traditionally been understood in one of two ways: either as “Christianity, commerce, the cash nexus, and imperial administration […] inexorably uniting mankind in a shared story of technological and moral progress” or as a “crushing [of] the local, the traditional, and the vernacular in favor of an alienating modernity organized around wage labor and imperial domination.” There is something to each of these narratives, Ignatieff acknowledges, but neither one of them fully captures our post-imperial reality, where the forces of political and economic power and the agents of social change are sprawling and diverse. Even though the global order that emerged in the mid-20th century is littered with injustice and inequity, the present is special in its pledge to equality. For the first time in human history, “we live in a postimperial world premised on the equality of peoples.” To illustrate this, Ignatieff adduces what he calls the “moral premise of equality” — a “normative commitment to equal voice” across regions and peoples — in the global architecture of human rights. He points out that nearly two hundred countries are now part of the United Nations, that self-determination has become a norm even if it is one that is often unrealized, and that international legal instruments and organizations speak the language of equality.

But what occupies Ignatieff in The Ordinary Virtues is not so much the international construction of “a morally flat world” but the impact of these universal ideals of equality on quotidian local interactions. He has little interest in how people around the world ought to behave by the lights of global institutions like the United Nations. Instead, he undertakes “an exercise in the intimate sociology and anthropology of ethics”: a study of how people do behave, in practice. His inquiry is spread across three years and takes him to seven locations: New York, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima (Japan), and South Africa. Each of the book’s seven chapters are devoted to one of these settings. The reader is offered short, occasionally telling, descriptions of each place that explain the reason for its inclusion. (The 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, with the breakdown in civic ties following the beating of Rodney King and the gradual re-creation of harmony, offer “a story of how moral operating systems collapse into violence and how they are slowly rebuilt from the ruins.”) Ignatieff then presents observations from his encounters, whether with school children or law enforcement officials, and underlines how ethical orders are produced and sustained. We are told of the value of communal spaces, the importance of the impersonal character of the rule of law, the implications of policing methods, and so forth. Acts of mutual reciprocity are presented alongside darker truths about urban life, such as de facto patterns of segregation. In Jackson Heights, New York, where residential neighborhoods are neatly divided on grounds of ethnicity, race, and income, we see how people can live “side by side” rather than “together.” The aspiration toward “living together” exists alongside “the actual practice of living apart.”

At times, the ordinary virtues Ignatieff encounters occur in the context of profound tragedy and violence. In the chapter on Bosnia, for example, we are exposed to men and women whose lives have been undone, their families abducted, their houses burnt. Globalization has hardly benefited such people, and their stories evidence a deep frustration with the international community. Consider the following account by a local guide in Srebrenica:

In ’93, the French general Morillon came […] and he told us the UN would come and protect us. First there was a French battalion and then a Canadian one […] The internationals were here too — Médecins sans Frontières, International Red Cross, UNHCR. Then the Dutch came […] We turned our weapons into the UN, but the Serbs didn’t. They were up in the hills and they could see us through their sniper scopes and they began picking us off in the streets. Then food began to go short. The UN sent convoys to feed us, but the Serbs stopped them and the UN did nothing. Then in July the Serbs moved in and the Dutch stood by and watched.

Much can be said about such accounts, but what is most germane to Ignatieff’s broader narrative is the uneventful way in which those who suffer manage and understand their reality. For Ignatieff, one recurring theme is that of belonging. It appears in his study of Los Angeles, as a reminder of the role that elective communities like churches and temples play toward social inclusion. In Bosnia and Myanmar, by contrast, one is reminded of how conflicts over who belongs can have devastating consequence for order and peace.


The Ordinary Virtues lacks the psychological sophistication of a work like Shklar’s Ordinary Vices. Many readers are likely to find the book unsatisfying in important ways. Parts of it seem like a work of political theory, though its contribution in this regard is not fully clear. On other occasions, it appears as a collection of pieces in political journalism without the dramatic insights into human behavior to which narrative nonfiction writing aspires.

None of this, to be fair, is lost on Ignatieff. He regards the book as an anthropological and sociological inquiry into ethical behavior. This ambition is, alas, poorly served by the book’s sweeping character. Yet its animating theme — that what human beings share is “a common desire, in their own vernacular, for moral order” that can infuse their lives with meaning — is a significant one. It forces us to notice that we are meaning-generating creatures, and that any study of human behavior must not only acknowledge this fact but also try to understand how meaning is generated.

Two valuable reminders, in particular, emerge from Ignatieff’s study. The first is that successful societies, which is to say societies that manage to avoid severe forms of violence and disorder, often rest on prosaic social practices. There is a temptation — how could there not be? — to present the success or failure of societies in the grandest of terms, as evidence for the rightness or wrongness of this or that ideology or worldview. But whether or not our social world is likely to implode is more often than not determined by small acts between individuals. Communal bonds, exchanges between neighbors, the attitudes of employers toward employees, silent forms of understanding, and predictable forms of state action are all matters that may seem beneath the theorist’s notice, but Ignatieff asks that we remember their significance, and their fragility. Moreover, a society that is well ordered is one in which virtue is made banal. Its quiet practices become so deeply entrenched that it does not require heroes to triumph.

What it does require is institutions, and The Ordinary Virtues is right to emphasize the “dynamic relationship between institutions and ordinary virtues.” This dynamic may not always create the results we expect. In Brazil, for example, Ignatieff notes that “the transition from military to democratic rule in the 1980s had led to the creation of independent courts, NGOs, and a free press, and these institutions, by shining the light of democratic transparency on the culture of corruption, had actually made the problem more visible and more politically explosive.” In other words, the outcome was paradoxical: “courts and a free press made it possible for whistle-blowers to go public, but the avalanche of disclosures seemed only to convince the general public that Brazil’s political culture was incorrigible.” Yet what remains crucial is the commitment to public institutions. That commitment matters not simply because it is a way to channel passions, but also because social practices are often contingent on institutional faith. When Ignatieff explores the resilience of those in Fukushima in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, he highlights the Japanese public’s strong belief in institutions, which helped municipal workers not only maintain order and provide relief but also create the atmosphere for broader civic participation and support. The “unseen metaphysics at work here” is a shared sense of community and public faith. “Resilience,” he points out, “rises to virtue when it expresses itself as responsibility for others.”

Of course, public belief in institutions ultimately depends on how well those institutions perform. Although it is tempting to worry about democratic institutions falling prey to authoritarian tendencies, Ignatieff rightly fears that such institutions might decay in a host of less momentous ways. “[B]elievers in liberal freedom,” he observes, “should worry not whether their regime can prevail in competition with authoritarian ones, but whether they can prevail against their own forms of institutional entropy: elite capture, corruption, and inequality.” Our societies are, in a peculiar way, both stronger and weaker than we typically suppose. The people that Ignatieff studies display a striking ability to be constituted and reconstituted. Such acts of constitution and re-constitution are subtly performed by institutions and practices feeding into one another, and blindness toward either misses something important.

The Ordinary Virtues is about the qualities that allow people to persevere in spite of suffering, but one cannot help but notice that many of the people Ignatieff studies only survive rather than thrive. Ignatieff understands this distinction between mere survival and human flourishing: it was central to The Needs of Strangers, his most imaginative previous work. Whether one turns to immigrant groups in New York and Los Angeles, the “teeming populations of poor people left behind” in Rio de Janeiro, Bosnians involved in a “glacial reconciliation, not with the enemy, not with ‘the other,’ not with ‘them,’ but simply with the fact that the past is past, over and done with,” or those neglected by South Africa’s political elite, one sees individuals leading harsh and challenging lives. Ignatieff shows how their acts of resilience and toleration often lead them to manage trying circumstances with decency and courage. But this does not mean that they live with any real sense of physical and emotional security. Some of this has to do with globalization, some of it has to do with modernity, and some of it has to do with simply being human. The individuals described in The Ordinary Virtues display a capacity to shift the goalposts from aspiration to consolation. To embrace consolation may seem tragic, but it is not a form of defeat. To accept our lives is, after all, to accept that there is only so much meaning to be found in the world. It is to acknowledge that some aspects of our well-being are beyond the power of the virtues we have, regardless of how ordinary or extraordinary those virtues might be.


Madhav Khosla is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

LARB Contributor

Madhav Khosla is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.


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