A Brief Response to Michael Ignatieff

By Smith, Michael Joseph | Ethics & International Affairs, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

A Brief Response to Michael Ignatieff


Smith, Michael Joseph, Ethics & International Affairs


In his elegant essay on the tension between a singular global ethic and global ethics in the plural, Michael Ignatieff invites us to "think harder about the conflicts of principle between them." (1) He is certainly right that harder thinking is needed: advocates of both versions of a global ethic sometimes seem locked into mutual self-righteousness. What we might call singular, or universal, ethicists often accuse pluralists of parochial atavism, while the partisans of plural, usually national, ethics think that the universalists are naive at best, arrogant at worst. Both are utterly convinced that they are right.

Ignatieff is surely correct when he points out that the philosophical success of the singular universalists, who have so skillfully outlined persuasive positions on global justice from the "view from nowhere," has not been matched in the political arena. Indeed, the American election process seems peculiarly designed to work against the acceptance of the responsibilities of a truly global ethic. The Republican Party today seems determined both to deny the science of climate change and to insist on the superiority of its singular version of ethics--global or national. And the democratic electoral processes in states all over the world place advocates of a singular global ethic at a permanent disadvantage. In elections, if not ethics, the view from a specific somewhere almost always blocks the view from nowhere.

Drawing on his deep knowledge of the work of Isaiah Berlin, Ignatieff reminds us of Berlin's insight that "some absolute values conflict absolutely, and all good things cannot be had at once." For Ignatieff, the global ethic challenges "all the forms of ethical partiality that are rooted in attachments to class, identity, nation, or religion." Yet he recognizes the force of this ethical partiality and cites the legal scholar Brad Roth, who suggests that "democratic peoples have the right to be wrong about justice." But does this right actually exist, even in the way Ignatieff goes on to limit it? He tells us that "the right to be wrong about justice will be constrained by the rights guarantees that constrain all constitutional exercises of power." But even if this right does exist, and certainly states claim it, I wonder whether approaching the issue as a democratic "right to be wrong," however limited or constrained, is helpful. The language itself seems to encourage a standoff rather than a dialogue. If a sovereign claim to be right refuses to recognize a higher arbiter (and that would seem to be the point of claiming the right to be wrong), then we have a stalemate. We come close to the way Berlin memorably describes the relativist position when two ethics conflict: "My values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right." (2)

Rather than think of a right to be wrong, however (theoretically) limited, perhaps we should reorient the discussion to the costs of insisting on this right. For one could surely argue that the "good things" lost by favoring parochial national choices over global imperatives are far greater in both their moral and material consequences than any losses that might result from adherence to a singular global ethic. Global climate change, profligate energy use, the chronic misdistribution of wealth and resources, the fragile and endangered status of disempowered people everywhere--all these are largely the result of insisting on the priority of the value of states over that of human beings. As one of the founders of modern realism, Hans Morgenthau, put it in 1946, "The state has indeed become a 'mortal God,' and for an age that believes no longer in an immortal god, the state becomes the only God there is." This attitude lingers to the present day, judging at least by political rhetoric; but even Morgenthau recognized toward the end of his life that "in the atomic age nationalism and the nation-state must make way for a political principle of larger dimensions, in tune with the world-wide configuration of interest and power of the age.

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