I first heard about Michael Ignatieff on the Philosophy Bites podcast a few years ago, and found his story of transforming himself from an intellectual to a politician and back again very intriguing. Just last week, I was very interested to hear a discussion between him and David Edmonds, co-host of Philosophy Bites and now host of his own podcast Philosophy 24/7.
This time, Ignatieff talks about human rights, a topic he’s been working on deeply for many years. As part of his preparation and research, he traveled the world to uncover people’s actual and expressed beliefs about human rights. What he says about what he learned really struck me:
‘The Human Rights edifice created since 1945 has had a huge effect on the world in the sense of powering the democratic revolution, the self-determination revolution, the civil rights revolution… On the one hand, you get people saying ‘my voice should be heard’… [The idea of] human rights has been influential in creating the tacit presumption… that their voice mattered… I don’t think without the human rights revolution that would have anchored itself in their souls and conscience as much as it is.
On the other hand… human rights is a form of universalism. It says that all human beings matter, and that we have duties to human beings outside our borders, and that it is the human identity that counts in moral judgment. What struck me very much is that people thought they wanted to make a claim of equality for themselves as citizens but not for other people, so equality of voice within the nation state, but no very strong or increased development of a universalist obligation to people beyond states. And that I think is a surprising result, because if human rights means anything, it is, we have this idea of transnational solidarity to people who are not fellow citizens, and so equality for us, not so much equality for strangers.
And this has, needless to say, huge political implications for a whole range of issues, notably refugees and migration…’
Igniateff then goes on to discuss how this great moral innovation, the idea of universal human rights, squares with what Ignatieff calls ‘ordinary virtues’: those interpersonal moral instincts which impel us to deal justly and kindly with those nearest to us, with those we encounter directly and those who share our culture, our language, our belief system, and our family and local community ties. Ignatieff believes that the ordinary virtues are not only compatible with, but necessary for realizing the ideal of human rights in the world. That’s because localism and the ordinary virtues provide us with a key element, that of triage, which makes these great human rights projects scalable, manageable, and effective within localities in a way that the application of universalist principles can’t on their own.
Does Ignatieff succeed in his attempt to reconcile the universalist conception of human rights with localism and the ordinary virtues? What do you think? Find out by listening to this fascinating and informative discussion at Philosophy 24/7
And learn more about the widely accomplished and ever-energetic Michael Ignatieff at:
Michael Ignatieff: Biography – at his website
Michael Ignatieff – by Michael Ray for Encyclopædia Britannica
Michael Ignatieff on Political Theory and Political Practice – discussion at Philosophy Bites podcast
“I Don’t See the President As An Intellectual at All”: A Q&A with Michael Ignatieff – by Isaac Chotiner for The New Republic, February 20, 2014
Michael Ignatieff, The Intellectual Who Wanted to Be a Politician – by Jordan Michael Smith
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