The Ordinary Virtues | Michael Ignatieff

Summary of: The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World
By: Michael Ignatieff


In ‘The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World’, author Michael Ignatieff explores the idea of a global moral operating system and dissects what virtues are shared between different cultures and communities in an increasingly interconnected world. By investigating diverse cities and examining the effects of globalization, the book brings to light how the ordinary virtues of trust, honesty, politeness, forbearance, and respect serve as the foundation for peaceful communities. As you dive into the summary, you will witness how these virtues play a crucial role in navigating ethnic, social, and economic divisions, and in fostering a moral order in an evolving global context.

Searching for Global Morality

In search of common human morality, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs launched the Carnegie Centennial Project to travel the world and explore the values that unite us. The project discovered that virtue, defined as acquired practical skills in moral conduct and discernment, rather than shared values, is common to all of us. The project explored diverse cities where globalization converges and places of conflict, catastrophe, and transition to unearth the moral operating system that unites humanity today.

Tolerance and Coexistence in New York and Los Angeles

New York’s peaceful coexistence between people of differing cultural backgrounds is not due to cultural intermingling but rather functioning public institutions, fair policing, and social support. On the other hand, Los Angeles’ leadership employs a network of community and business leaders to nurture ordinary virtues such as trust between ethnic communities.

The neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, offers a contrasting depiction of diversity from nearby Manhattan’s globalized elite marked by wealth and privilege. New York’s immigrants live secluded from other cultures, but peaceable coexistence with those of differing cultural backgrounds occurs due to functional public institutions, fair policing, and social support. These institutions promote economic opportunities and reinforce the local value of tolerance.

Conversely, Los Angeles faced tensions between ethnic populations in the past; however, its leadership has employed a power-sharing structure to nurture ordinary virtues such as trust between ethnic communities. Community and business leaders are given a voice, enforcing the idea of fair play and economic opportunities for everyone.

In conclusion, while New York’s self-segregated neighborhoods promote peaceful coexistence, Los Angeles’s leadership nurtures trust between ethnic communities to overcome tensions and promote economic opportunities through fair play.

Rio’s Favelas: A Microcosm of Brazil’s Unequal Society

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s largest city, poverty and crime are rampant, and the poor often reside in favelas on the hills. Despite gaining access to municipal services in the 1970s, favelas remain controlled by drug cartels and plagued with violence. To combat crime, the government created a specialized police force in 2008, but corruption within the political elite has left the people with little faith in their institutions. Without trust in the government, progress towards a more equal society is limited. As a result, Brazil’s social and economic divisions continue to persist alongside ethnic ones.

The Balkan Tragedy

After the collapse of Josip Broz Tito’s regime, Bosnia became a case study on the disastrous consequences of the absence of ordinary virtue. The collapse of moral globalization and outside interventions only succeeded in restoring the status quo of different groups existing together without reconciliation. Today, deep-seated hatreds continue to linger, and the healing process of the scars of war must happen locally over an extended period.

The Complexities of Burma

Burma’s ethnic diversity and complex societal challenges are often misunderstood and oversimplified by international human rights organizations. The country’s transition to democracy has not resolved the issue of who Myanmar belongs to, especially with the Rohingya Muslim population facing ethnic violence. Despite criticisms, Aung San Suu Kyi believes the Burmese people must use new democratic norms to address ethnic tension, highlighting the failure of civil society development under colonialism and dictatorship. The absence of trust in people and institutions and the sense that all voices count in Burma illustrates the challenges of democratization in a diverse nation.

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