email

View Comments

Reimagining a Global Ethic

By Michael Ignatieff, Joel Rosenthal | Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs | November 30, 2011

Loading the player...

Right-click here to download.

Introduction

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening and welcome to the Carnegie Council. I have the privilege of introducing our guest and good friend, Michael Ignatieff.

Michael will be speaking on a topic chosen specifically for this occasion. It's a theme that has been discussed among our fellows earlier today. The theme is "Re-Imagining a Global Ethic."

To paraphrase George Orwell, every program at the Carnegie Council is special, but some are more special than others. This gathering is in the "more special than others" category, for three reasons.

First, this program is the highlighted event for the inaugural gathering of the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Fellows. We have fellows in attendance from all around the world; fellows with research agendas, teaching interests, and community outreach programs that reach a genuinely global audience of scholars, teachers, students, civic leaders, and concerned citizens. Our fellows are creating a Global Ethics Network linking likeminded thought leaders through face-to-face meetings like this and through the Carnegie Council's digital platform, enabling us to share events like this around the world on an ongoing basis. We have ambitious plans for this new network, and so we're kicking it off with great excitement.

The second more special quality of this program this evening is that it marks the beginning of the Carnegie Council's centennial activities. The Carnegie Council will turn 100 years old in February 2014. Andrew Carnegie founded our Council in 1914 with a specific purpose in mind. He thought it was possible to avoid the great war that was on the horizon. In fact, he approached the project with a great degree of optimism. Carnegie thought that the barbarity of industrial war would become a thing of the past. Humanity was evolving, becoming more civilized with each passing decade. Common interests and common sense led him to believe that large-scale war would go into the dustbin of history, similar to other uncivilized practices, like slavery and dueling.

This was no idle dream. Carnegie rolled up his sleeves, in a very pragmatic fashion. He helped to build the Peace Palace at The Hague and lobbied heavily for the League of Nations. He saw both efforts as practical measures necessary to enable the peaceful resolution of conflict.

As part of our Council centennial, I'm preparing a letter to Mr. Carnegie, a report, 100 years on, which I hope to read at our Council's centennial gathering in 2014. I'm just beginning to draft this letter, so your ideas are most welcome. But I will confess that the outline of this letter is already established. The bad news will have to come first. The failures of the peace movement that began with such optimism in the early 20th century cannot be ignored. The 20th century brought three world wars, if we count the Cold War; it brought the Holocaust, genocide, famine, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism. In short, we are left with many painful questions about man's inhumanity to man.

But I will also report some good news. The very building of international law and organization as a serious normative enterprise shapes international relations today. We have seen remarkable, if not unimaginable, shifts in expected and required behavior, especially in civil rights, human rights, and human security. Many of our aspirations for ethical standards are not yet achieved, and yet the agreement on their importance and relevance is clear. Where we go from here, in large part, will be up to us.

And here is where we reach the third and most important more special quality of this program, our guest speaker himself. When we began to plan our centennial activities, we knew immediately that we would reach out to Michael Ignatieff to provide us with some guidance and inspiration. Michael's professional career is well known. He has taught at Harvard, where he was director of the Carr Center for Human Rights, had various posts in the United Kingdom, and now at the University of Toronto. He has been a commentator, critic, broadcaster for the CBC in Canada and the BBC in the UK.

He is the author of many nonfiction and fiction books. Among my favorites, however—and perennial favorites among my students, some of whom are in the audience today—are his biography of Isaiah Berlin and his books on war, human rights, and nationalism. Michael has been awarded numerous honorary degrees, has won several literary awards, and was selected as the 2003 Gifford Lecturer, where he delivered the lectures that produced his book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror. Until earlier this year, Michael was the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

We study ethics not only to better understand the world, but also to try to make the world a better place. Michael's life and career is exemplary in this way. A man of thought and action, I can think of no more inspirational role model. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest this evening, Michael Ignatieff.

Remarks

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Thank you. Such a pleasure to be back, Joel. Thank you for coming.

I've been at this podium before. I remember going down these steps and having Kishore Mahbubani, then the very distinguished ambassador of Singapore, beat me up for half-an-hour. Whenever I go down those steps, I see Kishore's face.

It's a great pleasure to be here. It's a real honor. I must confess a good deal of apprehension, because I'm an odd bird. I've been a professional politician for six years, having been an academic, intellectual, and writer. I don't advise you to try that. But I did. It means I'm coming back to first loves and first passions—that is, the place of ethics in international affairs. I am by no means a specialist on global ethics. When Joel gave me this arduous assignment, I immediately, like a nervous graduate student, began to read a lot very fast.

What I intend to do today is take off, attain quite a high altitude, and map what I see below. But it's at high altitude. I'm going to only indicate certain contours on the ground. The purpose is purely heuristic—that is, to give you my sense of what the field below of global ethics looks like to me, not as an expert, but as a politician—all the things I've been—and try to give you a sense of what that map looks like.

My map is definitely not going to be your map, but my map may help you to reorient your map a little bit. That's what I'm trying to do.

My title, "Re-Imagining a Global Ethic," is kind of grandiose, but actually my ambitions are quite modest.

I really want to start by asking the simplest question of all, which is, should we be speaking of a global ethic, in the singular, or global ethics, in the plural? Why not start with the most obvious question of all?

I start by saying that a global ethic, in the singular—a perspective that takes all human beings and their habitat as its subject—does exist. It's doing very well and it's flourishing in academic philosophy departments around the world.

Its function is to lay bare the ethical presuppositions that underlie injustice and inequality in a globalized world. It's a critical tool. Its purpose is political: to expose what is unfair and unjust in our world, and expose that from an ideal vantage point, and then to devise the ideal distributions of resources and responsibilities that would make our world fairer. That seems like a very good idea to me.

A global ethic, in the singular, is a response to the injustices of globalization, but I think it would be a mistake to think of a global ethic as something that has been created by globalization. In fact, it seems to me we have always had a global ethic. The truest and deepest roots of our philosophical tradition have always tried to reason for all mankind, and sometimes even all womankind as well, and have tried to reason on behalf of our species and of our habitat.

Globalization has made many of our problems more salient, but the philosophical traditions we draw on are very ancient, very old, and it's one of the reasons that they have become very powerful.

As long as philosophers have been using, for example, the idea of natural law to criticize positive law, as long as they have been using the universal rights of mankind to criticize the privileges of the few—an immemorial function of philosophy—they have used universals to criticize the local ethical partialities of human beings. And that's what a global ethic is basically for.

So while some of our problems are new, the tools we bring to the task are very old. They are as old as philosophy itself.

So that's a global ethic, in the singular.

Now let's shift to global ethics, in the plural. We do have a global ethics, in the plural, and it's enshrined in the structure of international law. We tend to forget how important international law is as the incarnation of ethical systems—settled consensuses by nations about what the basic standards of international conduct at least ought to be.

We have them. We have the UN Charter, we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], we have the Geneva Conventions, and we have the Refugee Convention. All of that is familiar to you. We built it between 1945 and 1952.

The only thing I want to say about this is that these are systems that are purpose-built to solve certain problems. Because they are purpose-built to solve certain problems, they are enclosed in complete ethical systems unto themselves. They are in contradiction. That's why we talk about global ethics in the plural. These systems have a job to do, but these systems contradict, and I will want to talk about that a little.

So we have a global ethic, in the singular, and we have global ethics, in the plural.

One thing, before I go in a little more detail about this, is that I don't think we need to invent the wheel all over again. I don't think we need to start again. Some people think we should. Twenty years ago, a very distinguished theologian, Hans Küng, put together a Universal Declaration of Responsibilities. He has been shopping it around.

It's important work. He puts the emphasis on duties, obviously, because he doesn't like rights talk as the way to cash out or incarnate what we care about with human beings. That's a good thing to do. He's not the only one out there thinking about a global ethic in attempting to find a new language.

Hardly a day goes by without religious groups gathering together to think about what the syncretic common points of view from religious traditions are. Some of that has been very important, because Christianity probably had too much of a look-in in these discussions, so it's extremely important to bring other traditions to the table of a discussion.

Then there is a kind of third side of global ethics discussion, which is to try to grind out a global ethics from an idea of human nature. You base the idea of human nature that you have in the latest findings of neurobiology, psychology, genetics, whatever.

These are all elaborate, important projects. All of these projects—the religious project, the duty project, and the science and human nature project—are ambitious and admirable, but I'm not going to touch them with a ten-foot pole. Too complicated for me, too difficult. I don't want to exclude that. I think they should be part of these conversations. But I want to focus on what we've got.

What we've got is a global ethic, a highly disciplined philosophical subject based on an ancient tradition, on the one hand, and then we have the structure of international law. We ought to figure out how these systems operate. That's what I will try to talk about a little bit.

I take a global ethic, in the singular, to mean an ethics whose object of moral concern is one world, one world in which all human beings are entitled to equal moral concern, in which all of us have a common responsibility to a single habitat, the only home we've got. That sense of equal moral concern for all individuals and that we've only got one home seem to me the core of what we understand by a global ethic

If you start all ethical reflection from those twin starting points, what I would say you are doing—you have to have a particular view, a particular vantage point. I would call that "the view from nowhere." My wife would correct me when I try this out on her. She says "the view from nowhere in particular"—also the view from no time in particular. But that's too complicated. Let's just keep it simple—the view from nowhere, and nowhere in particular.

A global ethic seeks to defend all human beings and our common habitat against the partialities and interests that are grounded in family, community, ethnicity, economic position, and, above all, the nation we belong to.

The view from nowhere is not an easy place to reason from, because we're partial human beings—male, female; rich, poor; black, white; whatever different religion. The view from nowhere is an attempt to shed your partialities and stand up and look up from a high altitude at what we owe mankind and our habitat.

But it's the view we're trying to reach if we, for example, reason behind "a veil of ignorance," to use Rawls's famous phrase, or even if we use a much older view from nowhere, which is natural rights. The oldest and best views from nowhere: What are the natural rights that all human beings possess? You have to get way up to nowhere before you can even see what that might imply.

Once embraced, the view from nowhere allows us to expose the partiality of views from somewhere, especially those that shape our national communities.

Let me just mention a few examples of how philosophers are doing this. Many of you are professionals in the field and will know this stuff much better than I do.

But when I look around as an amateur, when I gin up my own teaching, these are the people I turn to. Joseph Carens, Michael Walzer, Michael Blake, Thomas Hurka, just to name a few of these global ethicists, have raised questions like why states should have the right to impose visa and immigration quotas on some human beings, but not all; why states have the right to expel non-citizens; and why they grossly favor their own citizens over people living in other countries in the distribution of global resources.

If you look at other work by Thomas Pogge, Henry Shue, and Peter Singer, they have all argued that allocating global resources to individuals on the basis of the country they happen to have been born in carries "moral luck"—Bernard Williams's wonderful phrase—a little far. Why should our lives be so determined by the moral luck of having had the enormous, great good fortune of being born in Canada, as I was?

It's one of the greatest draws in the global lottery, to be born in my country, as you must feel about being born in the United States. But the question of whether the distributions of resources that then result are just and whether moral luck can adjudicate these distributions is a question raised by the view from nowhere by these very powerful ethicists.

Peter Singer and others have used a global ethic to figure out a morally rational way to apportion responsibility for action on climate change. The global ethic view from nowhere is both a criticism of the views from somewhere, a criticism of ethical partiality, and also a powerful rational tool to figure out a morally rational way to distribute resources more fairly, allocate responsibility for climate change, and figure out what citizens and strangers owe each other.

This one-world perspective has been immensely powerful, and it has been one of the most exciting things to develop in the last 40 years, based, as it is, on these historical roots. It has become a common moral vocabulary, and it drives the activism of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] around the world. I think it maybe drives the consciences of some people in this room and those of you watching on television.

It's a philosophy in service of a sustained critique. I think this is important. The view from nowhere has a powerful politics. It's a cry against injustice, a cry against the unjust ways in which power is exercised and distributed in the world, and it is a sustained critique of the partiality of national communities. So it's a very powerful moral language.

But as a politics, it has to be said, it ain't making much headway. States are no closer to a morally rational way of allocating responsibility for action on climate change. Countries still impose immigration quotas, and few countries have met their global justice obligations to the poorest on earth, including and especially my own. A global ethical discourse flourishes in universities and in civil society, and probably flourishes in this room, but it has made very, very limited progress against the ethical partiality of states.

What I would argue is that I don't think we understand this problem if we simply use a global ethic to castigate the selfishness of nation-states and the selfishness of our own national interests.

I would argue, in fact, that there's another problem here just behind that which is more fundamental: There's a conflict, at least in those states with popular suffrage, between two principles—between democracy and justice. This is one of the most fundamental problems in the whole armature or central claims of a global ethic, a conflict between the value we attach to the self-determination of peoples and the value we attach to abstract justice for all individuals.

Joel kindly referred to the fact that I'm the biographer of Isaiah Berlin. You can't be the biographer of Isaiah Berlin without it affecting you deeply. And it affected me all the way down, as he would have said. He argued, as you know, that some absolute values conflict absolutely and all good things cannot be had at once.

One of the chimeras or illusions that I think Isaiah wants us to focus on when we think about a global ethic is the risk of our seeing the global ethic as a non-contradictory set of goods. I just don't think a global ethic can possibly be a non-contradictory set of goods, because, as I have just said to you, I think there's a substantial conflict between democracy and justice, between the self-determination of communities and what we owe abstractly in terms of justice to individuals.

So if a global ethic cannot be non-self-contradictory, what is it good for? What can we use it for? Here, I would say that it's an ethical perspective that allows us to get up above the view from somewhere—it gives us an ideal perspective—and it becomes, not a doctrine, but a site of argument.

The purpose of a global ethic is to create a site of argument in which claims have to justify themselves; a site of argument in which the particular ethical views, partialities, are called to the bar of justification—if I can kind of mix religious and judicial metaphors for a second. The particular is called to the bar of the universal, but the universal is also called to the bar of justification by the particular. A global ethic creates the possibility of a process of recurrent adversarial justification, but a global ethic is itself not freed of the obligation to justify itself.

What I don't like is any idea of a global ethic as having a kind of status above argument. It's in the argument. It has to justify. It has to explain and justify itself against counterclaims. It's crucial for us to create a field in which that adversarial justification occurs and is clear, because we need to know what we disagree about.

We need to know why we disagree. We're not going to get closer together, which is presumably our political goal, unless we understand deeply the grounds of our disagreement, and even agree to disagree.

One of the most wonderful achievements of human beings is to agree to disagree and to understand what that means. A global ethic makes, I think, it possible for us to agree to disagree about ultimate questions, provided we have the philosophical clarity that comes from that process of adversarial justification.

We can see what this means in relation to justice and democracy. Democratic communities, I would argue, have the right to balance what they owe to their own members against what they owe to strangers. Because politics everywhere is local—incorrigibly local, let me tell you, having done it—a global ethic that privileges the universal over proximate duties will never trump in practical politics. It just won't.

Democratic choice will be ordered by the preference of citizens in free debate. That democratic deliberation will determine the distribution of scarce resources between domestic and international claims.

What this means in practice—and this is an unfamiliar thought, but it's one that we really need to think about—and I owe it to Brad R. Roth, a very good jurisprudential scholar who is at Wayne State. 

He says this very important sentence. He says, in practice, democratic peoples have the right to be wrong about justice. Think about that. Democratic peoples have the right to be wrong about justice.

If that's the case, that's a deep thought. It suggests a conflict between principles of abstract justice and principles of democracy. This is why, in my view, a global ethic, if it's fair to democracy and fair to conceptions of abstract justice, has a contradiction at its heart, which it is the duty of philosophy and the duty of practical ethicists to think about and take us forward on.

While the present distribution of global resources grossly privileges citizens at the expense of strangers, it does not follow that it would be just to privilege strangers at the expense of citizens. This is a matter of balance between duties and between democratic self-determination and universal justice.

Finding that balance is the business of politics. Having done some politics, we could certainly use some philosophic clarification of what's at stake. I hope that the global ethic initiative of the Carnegie Council will help the politicians who have to make these choices and the citizens who have to make these choices know what the heck they are disagreeing about. That, it seems to me, is one of the functions of a global ethic.

It's a fact of politics that the interests of democratic citizens will be shaped primarily, though not exclusively, by the view from where they sit—that is, the view from somewhere—and only secondarily, if at all, by the view from nowhere. Challenging this will take time.

Global ethicists have sought to respond to the claims of national self-interest by casting their arguments in terms of what John Stuart Mill called self-interest properly understood. What has to be properly understood, the global ethicists would claim, is that there will be no view from anywhere unless we begin to think more seriously about the view from nowhere—unless governments, that is, factor in, to an important degree, the universal interests of our habitat, for one thing.

That's true at the level of theory. Self-interest properly understood, for all countries, has to mean collective action to protect the habitat. But the political obstacle, the climate change with which you are all familiar, is no longer an impasse over whether it's happening—look at the weather outside—or even whether states have a duty to do something about it, but rather to solve a lower-order problem, which is to solve the problem of the penalties in economic competitiveness that first-mover states believe they will pay if they take leadership.

So an appropriate further task for a global ethic, in the singular, is to reason out the incentives necessary to solve these first-mover problems. If you are into this business, you have to help the first mover. You can't keep appealing for leadership. You have to solve the leaders' first-mover problems, because there are penalties for first moving here. That's another task for a global ethic, which I think is important.

And there are no trump cards of justice to play in politics. But the entry of a global ethic into political debate will subject all particularistic claims—nationalist claims, local claims—to a demand of justification. Hopefully, this will set in train a process by which national policy becomes more globally justifiable over time.

That's, I think, my recurring theme, this theme of justification. The view from nowhere puts everyone's self-justifications to the test. If the powerful sleep less well because of it, so much the better, because that's how change does occur.

That's why Carnegie believes in ethics. It makes people sleep badly at night, and they change because of it. I'm Presbyterian enough to believe that. The sense of sin, the sense of that you failed to justify a claim, is an important lever of change. That's one of the important roles, it seems to me, of a global ethic.

To summarize at this point, the first function of the view from nowhere is to force the view from somewhere to justify, and when it fails, this, I think, initiates the process by which policy becomes more cognizant of the negative consequences that follow from selfish behavior beyond our borders and makes us more globally minded in the framing of national responsibility. So the first function of a global ethic is to criticize the ethical partiality of states.

The second function, it seems to me, is to evaluate the ethical partiality of faiths and groups, sub-state groups. Religious, ethnic, and linguistic differences help constitute our moral loyalties. We are not disembodied people.

One of the problems with the view from nowhere is that it sometimes appears to forget that we come in genders, we come in races, we come in faiths. Our moral views are deeply embedded in those loyalties and commitments. Then the question becomes, how does a global ethic, the view from nowhere, negotiate with the moral partiality which makes us human beings? This is a deep and difficult question.

In a plural moral universe, the particular faces off against the universal. But, I would argue, neither plays as trumps. Neither is privilege. Both are obliged to justify. One thing to say about this encounter between the particular and the universal is that we don't live in separate bell jars. This is what it does mean to live in one moral world.

The reality is not that we live in bell jars, but we are in membranes that are constantly in contact—rural, urban; north, south; poor, rich; Islam, the West; Christianity, the secular. These are not separate bell jars. They are constantly in interaction and in a process of mutual self-justification. Moral universes are no longer closed, if they ever were.

One of the tasks that I was talking to Joel about before we came down here is that a global ethic, I think, needs a sociology of this encounter between the universal and the particular. It's especially fascinating—and I have taught this stuff a bit. I'll give you one example of what I mean, that's relating to health and voice rights for women.

Western NGOs who promote health and voice rights for women have learned over time in developing societies that they have to get local buy-in. What I want us to focus on is what buy-in means.

How does that work? I contrast it very grossly with conversion.

When missionaries came to Africa, they weren't looking for buy-in; they were looking for the soul, the whole of the soul. They wanted the soul. Conversion is an absolute experience.

Buy-in is much more political. That's why I like the word "buy-in." Buy-in is emphatically not about the soul. It's an exchange in which one side offers to change a practice in return for respecting all the stuff they don't want to change. Buy-in is a long negotiation between the particular and the universal, village community by community, as anybody knows who has talked to a Western health worker who goes to work in small village communities. That's what you're doing. What you're doing is not medicine; you're doing politics.

That sociology of buy-in, I think, is especially fascinating because we may assume that the universal, the global ethic, comes to the table with the power and the influence and the prestige, but the power on the ground is with the particular—it's with the tribe, it's with the community, it's with the village women, it's with the people on the ground. If you don't understand that, you don't get buy-in, and nothing changes.

Female genital cutting, to take the particular example I had in mind, will not stop simply because Western health nurses point out the septicemia statistics or point out the equal worth of women. Cutting stops, as we have discovered, when village women decide that they can substitute an initiation ritual that safeguards their girls' health without lowering their value to the family as brides.

When there is successful buy-in, the particular practice changes—fewer girls die of septicemia because they don't do cutting—but the universal changes, too. The female Western health nurse discovers the importance for women of supporting local marriage customs, even when they fall a little short of Western gender equality. Buy-in implies tradeoffs on both sides. Female mortality declines, which surely is a victory for the global ethic, but polygamy and patriarchy may well remain.

Yet that's not the end of the story in this buy-in thing, because it's an iterative process. First, you reduce female mortality and genital cutting, and then it starts to roll. That iteration between the particular and the universal begins to generate change, if you get the incentives right.

I would urge the Council to think about the sociology of buy-in, how the universal gets bought in here and how that works, because it seems to me very important for the future of a global ethic on the ground, which is where we want it to be. We don't want it in the classroom; we want it on the ground.

To summarize so far, a global ethic defends the universal interests of mankind and the planet. Its purpose is to engage all forms of ethical particulars in an adversarial justification. The rules of these encounters, flowing as they do from the starting premise of human equality, preclude coercion and mandate tolerance, which is what happens down in the village.

You've got to persuade. You can't coerce. You've got to persuade, because there's nothing else you can do down there.

So the first two functions of a global ethic are to interrogate the particularism of a nation-state and custom at the community level.

The third function is to interrogate universalism itself. Here I'm trying to set up a contrast between the global ethic we have been talking about and now the global ethics, and the ways in which global ethic, in the singular, is a critique of global ethics, in the plural.

What is the global ethics I'm talking about? I'm talking about four basic pillars of law put into place between 1945 and 1952: the UN Charter, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the Refugee Convention. If you ask me, "What is the moral structure of the postwar world?" it's those four pillars. That's why I say we don't have to reinvent the wheel in ethical terms.

We have an incredible historical achievement here, imperfect as it is. But it's a legally codified fabric of ethical conventions that have been ratified by peoples around the world and that, to some degree—and I teach this stuff Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—constrain the behavior of states—not so much, but some, a little bit.

The one point I want to make about these four pillars—and that's why the pillar metaphor doesn't work so well—is that they conflict with each other. They support a framework, but there's something about these pillars that needs to be noticed.

The Charter priority on sovereign equality of states contradicts the UDHR priority on human rights. The Geneva Conventions—this is a contradiction not often discussed—prioritize civilian protection in war, while the UDHR prioritizes the right to life and has basically a pacific set of moral assumptions, where the Geneva Conventions basically say the boys are going to fight, and our moral problem is to keep this from being too destructive. They are two very different approaches to the issues of human conflict.

The third one is the Refugee Convention, which insists on rights for refugees, but the quid pro quo is accepting the privileged status of citizens, which doesn't sit very easily with a global ethic which says, why should we privilege citizens over strangers?

These are familiar ethical contradictions, and I'm not going to explore them in detail but I just want to put them out there lest we think we live in a non-contradictory ethical world. The basic framework we live is in conflict, constant conflict. It's important to understand that and respect that.

Pluralism is not just the phenomenon of different faiths, different classes, different religions. The pluralism is built into universalism itself. The conflict in the basic founding structure, ethical structure, of our world is important. That's one of the functions of the global ethic, to elucidate these contradictions in the ethical systems.

The most obvious of these conflicts—and I'll just say a few more words about this, because it used to be my daily bread—the most obvious ethical contradiction in our systems is between sovereign equality and human rights. The exercise of sovereignty is a venal affair, and a global ethic is universally scornful about sovereignty.

But we forget that sovereignty incarnates a moral value—which is extremely precious to us—which is the sovereign equality of peoples, the sovereign equality of states, and the protection that the sovereign system provides weak states against the might of the strong. Those are moral values. They are not simply contingent surrenders to the unfortunate necessity that we live in states.

The Charter incarnates very important values, which presumably we want to defend. We don't want a world in which the weak are at the mercy of the strong.

If we want a world in which strong states do not have the right to dictate to the weak, we have to guarantee the inviolability of states in law, and if we do this, we have to accept the likelihood—indeed, the certainty—that some will exploit sovereignty to oppress their own people.

So we have an international legal system with two competing ethical goals, and a morally adequate international system, I would argue, has to do both. But the values are in fundamental conflict.

What you then do about it is what we tried to do in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, on which I had the honor to be both a member and a drafter. We sought to address that fundamental conflict, and to do so by proposing that sovereignty be made conditional on two basic responsibilities: respect for the sovereignty of other states and the responsibility to provide basic security for a population; that is, to refrain from subjecting them to massacre, genocide, or ethnic cleansing.

We set the bar pretty low. The responsibility-to-protect doctrine is an attempt to bridge this fundamental ethical divide between sovereign equality on the one hand and the Charter and the UDHR guarantees of human rights.

But the contradiction will endure, and it will force choices on all of us in the international systems. Ethicists have an important role. I think Ethics & International Affairs probably spends one issue in five exclusively devoted to this question. And god bless them. It's not as if this thing is going to go away, this fundamental conflict at the heart of the ethical systems that govern our world.

It's time to come to a conclusion. I've just started. I'm now descending from the high mapping phase down to the ground. I hope we'll have time for questions.

This high-altitude view of the field tells us there's a global ethic as a philosophical discourse and there's a global ethics, in the plural, as an institutional practice. The former exists primarily to criticize the latter. We don't need to invent a new global ethics so much as to understand the deeper contradictions within the ethical systems that already guide the actions of states, individuals, and leaders.

Professional ethics has a job to do to understand these contradictions—I have alluded to some of them—between democracy and justice, between the self-determination of peoples and the survival of the planet, the value of sovereignty versus human rights.

My key point, I think, is that the most important function of a global ethic is to force such contradictions out into the open light of public debate and to force political excuses for injustice and ethical partiality to justify themselves.

I just make a general concluding point about moral life as I have known it. Moral life is a process of justification, giving reasons for opinions and conduct to those who do not agree with you and then altering both your opinions and your conduct as you discover that your justifications fail—fail either to convince the person opposite or, most importantly, convince the person looking at you in the mirror.

The essence of moral life is this process of recurrent, repeated behavior-changing justification. It's inherently adversarial. This process needs standards. A global ethic provides the view from nowhere and global ethics provides a view of somewhere. If sides in the disputes that we have accept that standard, they argue with each other, not past each other. If they accept the standard, they are more likely to accept the obligation to change when justification fails.

It's very important to create a common site of argument and a common discursive space, because it creates the basis for changing behavior when justification according to that system fails. It's vital for philosophers and Global Ethics Fellows to elaborate further the view from nowhere. Without it, the view from somewhere will not be faced with the burden of justification, and without that burden, without the test of argument, we will not change. And it's change that matters.

Thank you for listening.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: David Rodin. I'm one of the members of the Global Ethics Network.

Thank you so much for an incredibly exhilarating talk.

I just want to push you a little bit on the claim that you made that this global ethic—and I think your characterization of it was wonderful—is entirely impartial in the way that it approaches things.

Here's a trivial example. I'm at the beach and there are two children drowning, and I can only save one of them. One of them is my daughter. If I flipped a coin, that would be monstrous.

What I think examples like that show is that there is a role for partiality even within the global ethic itself. You pose the tension as very much one between the global ethic and a local politics, where partiality was embedded in the politics. That's clearly right; it is embedded in there. But what I think examples like that show is that there's a role for partiality even within our best understanding of the global ethic.

There's much more space for that partiality in an action to assist than there is in harming.

Do you think that that's right, that there is a role there within the ethic itself?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: That's a very good point. Save your kid. You would be a monster if you didn't. But don't leave the other kid in the water if you possibly can. You know, we can kind of work this out.

I'm not a philosopher. I read this stuff, frankly, as an amateur. But I do read a lot of these discussions of forcing partiality to justify itself according to universal standards.

I see the universal beginning to bend under the force of examples like that, but lots of other ones. I'm trying to give partiality the benefit of democracy here and saying one of the reasons that we are partial—we have really good reason to be partial, which is that we choose as we choose. That's the force, and the bitter force, of "democratic societies have the right to be wrong about justice." Then the question is, how wrong? For how long? In what degree?

I'm trying to set up a scheme in which partiality defends itself, universality defends itself, and they are called to the bar, as I say, of adversarial justification. This stuff moves around here.

What I don't like is the idea of—I think we have very deeply religious views about a global ethic. We have a Ten Commandments view of these systems, basically. That's what I'm trying to argue against. The frame of moral life that I see is, you just give me a good example and I begin to move, and I push you back, and we're moving this thing around constantly. The key thing is, we both have ownership of it. It's this sense of ownership and that we're talking to each other, and not past each other.

Your example is absolutely pertinent. It didn't hit the wall up here. It hit me right here. That's what philosophical discussion is trying to achieve. Then, when it moves into politics, when the arrow hits home to a political actor, it then begins to create the possibility of change.

QUESTION: Michael Smith. I'm also in the same group.

I would like to ask almost a similar question from the opposite point of view, about your notion of dialogue. When you quote this Wayne State person who says democratic polities have the right to be wrong about justice, that suggests that's a trumping value. Why should that be true? What is the justification of that right to be wrong? So really it is a permanent dialogue, in a sense.

My question is, in your varied life, are you persuaded that argument is going to be enough to call that conviction—that because I'm democratic and I'm wrong, I have the right to be wrong?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Brad Roth is a jurisprudential scholar. The right to be wrong about justice is essentially the Charter rights of sovereign states in the international system. It's a trump only because international law says it is, and then responsibility to protect, another doctrine, says not to the point at which you begin to massacre your own people—engage in genocide, engage in ethnic cleansing. So the right to be wrong about justice is bounded—even Roth would think it's bounded, not only by international law, but just by natural justice itself.

I think that's what I would say in direct reply. I'm just struck, as a political matter, by the ways in which over time this process of adversarial justification is moving the boundaries of sovereignty. Sovereign inviolability meant one thing in 1970. In 2010, because of this process of back-and-forward, it's in a very, very different place normatively. It just is.

The black-letter law of international law hasn't moved an iota, but I think many fewer states, as a matter of state practice, think they can get away with anything. It's partly because of this process of —it's not merely dialogue. There was also coercive action. The dialogue is often accompanied by force.

One of the things I hate in philosophical discussion is that everything is a conversation. Not everything is a conversation. Sometimes the hammer has to come down, and sometimes there has to be closure. That I did learn in politics. It's not all talk. And it can't be.

QUESTION: Christian Barry, Global Ethics Fellow.

It was very interesting when you were mentioning the four pillars of the normative order, in addition to the global ethic. It occurred to me that there's a lot to work with there. There are at least ways to build and re-imagine a global ethic away from those pillars about some issues. But one thing that seems very much missing is anything of comparable sophistication and complexity that has anything to do with the organization of international economic life, where certainly strong Westphalian principle seems to reign.

I was just going to get your view on whether you thought it was a plausible or an interesting project to try to articulate some sort of normative order—obviously you can't get anything comparable to what was constructed in the immediate aftermath of the postwar order, but something that had some sort of bite, that wouldn't simply be what Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge say, but that actually is something that could be woven together with these other normative orders.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: That's a great point. In those pillars, the economic and social rights convention—even the UDHR itself has stipulations, which are purely aspirational, about a just international order, with a clear implication that they are talking about a globally just economic order. That language has been very productive. It has led to the right to development and all kinds of stuff.

There are a lot of rights there. It's a little fuzzy at the edges. Who is the rights holder? Who is the duty holder? What obligations are entailed by a right to development? All that kind of stuff.

What I would say in direct answer to your question is that that normative order created between 1945 and 1952 was deeply conscious of your question and sought to put in, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and then the conventions that followed, some quite strong ethical language about a more just economic order.

But we are now living through the reality that the sanctioned actor in the international system on international economic matters is actually the sovereign state—sovereign debt, sovereign risk, sovereign default. You watch the language. It's absolutely amazing.

We have had 35 years of this market theology, and economists steadily whittling down the appropriate ambit of the state and economists being steadily more scathing about rights to development and social and economic justice on a global scale and steadily more scathing about the dysfunctional impact of government on markets. And when the stuff hits the fan, whom do you call? Whom do you call? You call the sovereign. That's a real piece of learning for us all.

That's one of the other reasons why, when I think about the ethics we're trying to balance here, I want strong states. I want strong, capable states, because they are the only ultimate guarantor of the equality of peoples, on the one hand, and the capacity of peoples to have some mastery over their economic destiny, as opposed to being playthings of global economic forces.

That may not be the answer you expect, but that, boy, is what I take home here—every tub on its own bottom, sovereigns exercising their appropriate regulatory control over economies. That's why, in a curious way, I think sovereignty is making a moral comeback.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

When you talk about the right to be wrong, could we say perhaps that that's subject to limitations of process, that process can establish a certain credibility for being wrong—it was a product of a fair election, say, in the case of Hamas on the West Bank or it was the product of a well-established judicial system?

But if you do say that, does that privilege developed states at the expense of less developed states that don't have these processes in place, but still may be entitled to enjoy the right to be wrong?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: It's a troubling question. You put it very well. As you were talking, I thought of two contrasting examples, the Texas death penalty, on the one hand, or the death penalty practice in many American states, which, for a Canadian and many Europeans, is the classic example of the right to be wrong about justice—these are democratic convictions of citizens.

All the process requirements have been met. The courts have looked at this stuff 14 ways to Sunday. There's no process problem. It's just that the taking of life by the state strikes many people, on rational grounds, as being wrong. But these national preferences, settled democratic preferences, by Americans are absolutely unbudgeable. Nothing international is going to make a darned bit of difference.

If you contrast that with a weaker state, a less prestigious state in the international system—Uganda, attempting to pass laws which are discriminatory against gays, came under massive external pressure. These were the settled preferences of many Ugandans. It's not clear that they have the right to be wrong about justice.

You want to have more consistency here. If Americans can keep their death penalty—and I don't like where this is going, since I'm a passionate defender of equality of rights for all people, especially for gay fellow citizens—then this is a world in which stronger states have a greater capacity to be wrong about justice than weaker ones. That should trouble us.

As I say, I don't like where having the right to be wrong about justice takes you. I was part of a commission that sought to directly limit that right to be wrong where it comes with gross physical harms. The American death penalty is the classic case where the process is unassailable, it seems to me, and it's a settled democratic preference.

QUESTION: Craig Charney.

I would like to push you a little bit more on the question of the sociology of the global ethic, because that fascinates me. My colleague John Zogby has written about what he calls the "First Globals" in this country. We also see the emergence in the Arab world of young people who are demanding more democracy.

Even in places like China and India, young people are questioning the role that their countries are playing in terms of endangering the global climate. In other countries as well, various sorts of convergences seem to be happening.

What's going on here?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I think what you're pointing out, in the nicest possible way by putting it as a question rather than a comment, is that I'm missing a crucial dimension, which is the globalization of citizenship and consciousness among particularly educated people through some of these societies.

My sociology—I think you put your finger on a problem—kind of implies that we have some global thinking in universities in the West and then everybody else is local, tribal, primitive, defending reaction. Clearly that isn't a sociology; that's a joke.

If you are saying there is the emergence of what could be called a global middle class—you can't understand Tunisia, Libya, Egypt without understanding all the kids who went away to work in Europe and came back. You can't understand the importance of those revolutions without the diasporic experience and coming back. You can't understand that without the social media stuff that's happening.

When I said in the paper that we don't live in bell jars, I think that's where I was going. We live in worlds where the global and local are inter-penetrated to an incredible degree. And the inter-penetration is very, very complex.

Let me tell you just one story about this. I remember doing a class at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, about women's rights. A lot of castigation about arranged marriages, and human freedom has to mean free marriage choice. It's such an important aspect of what we think freedom is.

I talked about the Universal Declaration commitments on free marriage choice and talked about the Nuremburg Laws and the ways in which the UDHR came out of this terrible experience in the 1930s of forbidding Jews and Aryans to marry and all this stuff. My student TA [teaching assistant], a very, very nice woman from Pakistan, extremely sophisticated, lived in the States for many years—we had a discussion that came out saying we thought arranged marriages were extremely problematic in human rights terms.

She came up to me in a state of genuine alarm and said, "My marriage was arranged."

She lives in a highly globalized world, and she lives in a world in which she gives respect to a marital custom that she finds difficult to justify as a TA in a global human rights class. That's our world.

When we get to the sociology, that woman is fascinating to me. She has put together a moral world which is extremely complex. She's a passionate supporter of women's equality, women's rights, human rights, but her marriage is arranged. Go figure. But she's figuring.

The moral sociology of this is, I think we haven't begun to understand what it means that we live in these membranes that are constantly touching and inter-penetrating. We need to understand it better, because there are these moments when you walk into the wall of difference.

With this woman, I felt somehow that I should have known. I had this weird feeling that I should have known. I didn't want to make her choices problematic. That's her life. It's her culture. It's her religion.

QUESTIONER: We have had the rise of educated middle class before, for example, throughout Europe. The interesting thing was that these were the vehicles of nationalism and conflict. I guess one of the things that I find quite striking is that, in addition to the social phenomenon that more people are getting more education in more places than ever before, there seems to be some kind of common content, and some kind of common content which, despite all the particularistic forces you talked about, actually points them, in many issues, in similar sorts of directions.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Yes, that's true, although I think it's important, again, to get this right. Your challenges are excellent ones.

I think it's wrong to get global ethic equals cosmopolitanism, equals global citizen, equals "I haven't got time for national, tribal, or religious allegiance."

That may be the point of my story about this woman. She's all these things. It's all complicated. She's as cosmopolitan as you could wish. She speaks more languages than I'll ever begin to. But she's fiercely Pakistani, and she's also Muslim in any important way to her. She is a member of a particular family logic and culture. It's all of those things.

Then it's a matter of highly complex overlapping moral identities, to which we need to give some sociological—and then not be surprised when these cosmopolitan sophisticates go home and become passionate nationalists and passionate defenders of certain kinds of particularism—"get those Americans out of here," and all that stuff. You shouldn't be puzzled that it's a Kennedy School graduate who is giving the Americans the hardest time.

Do you see what I'm saying? That's the kind of puzzle.

QUESTION: Jon Gage.

I'm not one of the philosophers; I'm just on the board, so I won't be able to ask this question lucidly. First, thank you for that last answer. As a married man, I never thought of marriage as having much to do with freedom. So that was actually eye-opening.

This is the view from nowhere in particular. My question really is aimed at asking if there is another way to frame, if you will, the definitions about a global ethic and global ethics to discuss the contradictions in a more productive way, perhaps, to resolve some of those contradictions.

The global ethic is the view from nowhere and the global ethics is the view from someplace. But suppose global ethic was thought of as being the view from everywhere. Then it should somehow take into account some resolution of a debate in a better sense between some of those contradictions.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The view from everywhere would make it sound easier to get the kind of ethical syncretism that I think we're looking for. I pushed it to the view from nowhere, and nowhere in particular, because I wanted to emphasize the weirdness, the human weirdness, of this philosophical exercise that has been going on for millennia, because we really are partial beings. We just really are.

I'm what I am. I've got the helmet on. It's too late to take it off. You know what I'm saying? That's what makes the philosophical enterprise kind of Martian to me. I'm a historian by training. The view from nowhere expresses what a struggle it is to get up and out of ethical partiality and the embeddedness of being who you are and who I am and all that stuff. I'm sure the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs would be much happier if I retitled it "the view from everywhere." There is no question. And I will have to think about that.

But I'm sticking with "view from nowhere" to emphasize that the move from embedded ethical partiality of a sociological kind to universality is enormously difficult, in fact, and it then gets involved in dialogue. There are some forms of universality which are just inhuman, like saying, "I'm going to run the trolley experiment before I fish a particular kid out of the water."

I will think about that. But I'm still sticking with "the view from nowhere."

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I'm going to have to intervene now. I just want to thank you, Michael, for this talk.

The Carnegie Council, as I said, is going to be 100 years old. I guarantee you that this talk this evening is one of the more important historical events in the Carnegie Council's history, because what you said is going to set the agenda for what we're going to be doing in the next several years. So thank you very much.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Thank you.

Creative Commons License
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Please read our usage policy.

Read More: Democracy, Ethics, Governance, Human Rights, Global

blog comments powered by Disqus
varietal-attraction