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Ordinary virtues in an extraordinary world

posted 29 Apr 2019, 20:08 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 29 Apr 2019, 22:23 ]

Our divided world

Every where we look these days there are signs of disunity and division. As I write, less than a week has passed since the horrific bombings of Christians and tourists in Sri Lanka. A month before that New Zealand was rocked to its foundations by the mass murder of innocent Muslims in two mosques. A quick glance at social media reveals just how close to the surface discord operates in our society: men abuse and demean women, political foes hurl insults at each other, racial and other forms of vilification based on religion or sexuality appear to be the daily routine for many social media users. The old values of politeness and respect seem to have disappeared – at least on-line. So, in these fractious times, what is it that holds communities, nations and humanity together? Do we have values in common across borders, religions, social groups and races? What happened to the post World War II optimism embodied in the values of global institutions such as the UN and UNESCO?

Such weighty questions are explored in a challenging yet accessible book by Michael Ignatieff titled “The Ordinary Virtues”. Ignatieff has taught at the Kennedy School of Government, was the Leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and is now President of the Central European University. His findings, based on case studies drawn from several countries, should be of interest to everyone from governments to leadership teams, boards to families, employers and educational institutions.

Are there global values?

For those of us who grew up in the liberal west it is easy to assume that human rights such as the dignity of the individual, free speech, the rule of law and democracy are global values. But they are not. Nations such as China do not necessarily see democracy and human rights, as evidenced in the West, as a priority. Neither do some leaders in Muslim majority countries. Whatever the power of the 21st century nation state it is often dwarfed by that of multinational corporations. Large cross border companies can seem to operate outside any kind of value framework other than the profit motive. Their sophisticated supply chains tie the world together in complex webs as they shift products rapidly across the globe. But at the heart of an innocent transaction such as buying a piece of clothing or a pair of shoes can be a life of misery and low wages for the factory workers who made them.

There are mighty forces at work around us such as globalisation, the rampant growth of technology, cheap travel, religion, business, race and gender. In the face of such powerful and often conflicting drivers the world has developed two key responses, according to Ignatieff: the doctrines of human rights and international law. But as he toured the globe searching for universal values amongst the poor, in conflict zones and multicultural cities, Ignatieff concluded that global values do not exist. What he found ordinary people had in common across geographies were not the global values espoused by professional, educated elites and large Western-funded NGOs, but ordinary virtues. And values and virtues are not the same thing.


The ordinary virtues

Ordinary virtues include tolerance, forgiveness, trust and resilience. Ordinary virtues – and virtue is defined as “acquired practical skills in moral conduct and discernment” - are local, not universal. Virtues are imbibed in communities as we grow up, they are caught as much as taught. As such, virtue “favours family and friends over strangers and other citizens”. Controversially for some, Ignatieff does not see diversity, for example, as an ordinary virtue, pointing to the fact that even in the most multinational cities, national and religious groups tend to live side by side rather than co-mingle. Intermarriage, for example, has grown but not hugely so, in our multi-ethnic mega cities.

It is easy to dismiss Ignatieff’s views as conservative or reactionary. Some may dub him a racist or even worse, an academic theoretician! I don’t think any of these scenarios bear scrutiny. He would no doubt respond that he is a realist. If all politics is local, it may well be that our virtues and allegiances are local too. Be what may, the case studies he himself carries out with a team from the Carnegie Foundation are sensitive and insightful. He writes beautifully, wistfully even, as he situates himself amongst day to day citizens in a range of places from multicultural New York to the shanty towns of Brazil, South Africa and the uneasy truce that is post conflict Bosnia. He is not afraid to be confounded or perplexed as to how ordinary virtues do and don’t function under pressure - such as in rebuilding Bosnia after the mass killings of the 90s. He embraces paradox and contradiction and does not easily come to simple solutions.

What can we learn from this book?

There are no quick learnings here, no four leadership truths to be applied from 9am tomorrow. I found myself in dialogue with this book rather than easy agreement. Some things are clear, however. For example, the rule of law and equal treatment by government entities are the day to day underpinning of functioning multicultural, diverse communities. People of different backgrounds and beliefs get on better when they experience the police as trustworthy and not adversarial, the government as impartial and the courts as fair. When all of these are in place there will be some (imperfect) semblance of equality in economic and social opportunity which, in turn, lubricates social cohesion.

Ignatieff’s findings emphasise that local communities, small groups and families shape us morally and ethically as much or more than global influences. In addition, there may in fact be limits to the capacity of many of us to see, think and act globally as we are wired to the local. I am not saying this is a good thing, but it is probably a reality. Therefore, high-minded appeals to universal values will not always fall on fertile ground. Finally, ordinary virtues are not such a bad thing. I for one would be happy to live in a society that has tolerance, forgiveness, trust and resilience in abundance.

Philip Pogson FAICD 

Director, The Leading Partnership