Human Rights, Global Ethics, and the Ordinary Virtues

By Ignatieff, Michael | Journal of International Law & International Relations, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Human Rights, Global Ethics, and the Ordinary Virtues


Ignatieff, Michael, Journal of International Law & International Relations


It is touching, meaningful, and important to me being here. I look across the room and see friends, I see students I have taught, I see professors from whom I have learned. It means a great deal to me to be welcomed back as a Fellow at the Munk School, and it means that I am a bad penny--I'm going to keep coming back. I am trying out something new today, and some of its conclusions will bother you, but they also bother me. My subject is human rights, global ethics and the ordinary virtues. I guess the headline is, "Have human rights--international human rights--since the Second World War become consolidated as global ethics? And, specifically, have they begun to inform or structure the ordinary virtues? That is, the virtues that we all use every day to live a moral life. This is not the standard question about human rights. The standard question about human rights is about how human rights have transformed the conduct of states. When we measure the product and progress of human rights, we ask about how many states have ratified human rights instruments, and we ask how widely these instruments are observed by states. I am asking a different question, which is a question about how it has worked its way into our moral instincts and reflexes. And that, as you will soon see, is a pertinent, but extremely difficult question to answer.

And so I am taking a step into the unknown, but I am guided by a great woman. Eleanor Roosevelt--who, as you know, presided over the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948--said something which has become a very famous sentence about human rights. She apparently gave this remark extemporaneously in 1958, and it goes like this:

   Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places
   close to home; so close and so small that they cannot be seen on
   any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual
   person, the neighborhood he lives in, the school or colleges he
   attends, the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the
   places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal
   opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these
   rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

The test of whether human rights have become a global ethic is not, she's saying, state practice. The test is us. The test is what it has done to our moral apparatus, instincts, and moral reflexes. And her presumption is--and it's an important one--that unless human rights anchors itself in the ordinary virtues, they are not going to have purchase on state practice. That is, unless law is anchored in opinion, and opinion, particularly democratic opinion, is pushing states to act, then human rights will be one of those forms of official hypocrisy that do not actually structure the conduct of states.

That leads to the questions that drove my research for three years: was Eleanor, or her vision, right? Have human rights become anchored in these places close to the human heart, or not? Have they become a global ethic in that sense of influencing ordinary human conduct? And then I began to see that I had a choice here. Have human rights become simply the discourse of public policy elites--that is, government officials, presidents, NGOs, Amnesty human rights, the students I taught at the Kennedy School, the students I taught at the Munk School? Or, have they become more widely implanted? And how do we even ask that question appropriately? How do you go about finding answers? What influences have human rights had in shaping ordinary virtues? By ordinary virtues, I mean obvious things: trust, tolerance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and resilience. These are not the only ordinary virtues we could talk about, but they were the ones that I ended up talking about in this piece of field research. And then my final question has a policy implication. If human rights have not penetrated the ordinary virtues, what are the public policy implications? …

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