Human rights in the absence of virtue.

Author:Moyn, Samuel
Position:Response to article by Michael Ignatieff in this issue, p. 1

In his excellent and thought-provoking essay, Michael Ignatieff plays Aristotle to his own former Plato. Aristotle felt his teacher Plato had aimed too high in believing in a singular and transcendent good. Not only are goods plural, however, Aristotle contended. They are practically realized through virtues of character, rather than discerned by philosophers who theoretically rise to a vision beyond deceptive appearance and lived excellence.

Of course, the human rights movement has long known that goods are plural: it disaggregates the different fundamental entitlements so as to enumerate a list of high-priority expectations that are independently demanding, not supposed to be traded off against one another, let alone against other values. Rather, it is the notion that human rights are transcendent norms to displace local practical activity and the personal excellence of character that now seems unconvincing to Ignatieff, once perhaps the most visible spokesman for the importance of human rights in global affairs. "Side by side," he writes, "sits a very different moral system that is not easily squared with human rights principles, because these virtues privilege the local over the universal; the citizen over the stranger; and the community over the cosmopolitan."

It is not at all that Ignatieff is giving up on human rights, any more than Aristotle gave up on moral philosophy or high expectations. But after his world travels, it does not seem to Ignatieff that human rights are likely to be much more widely shared and popularly lived than they now are. So at the price of accepting some limits, human rights must coexist with more local and practical ethical systems that reach the ground and run deep in people's behavior. Cosmopolitanism cannot displace the difference of community and states but must live with them and keep them in bounds. The global faces the challenge of inevitable local variation that it can never unify around one selfsame set of expectations.

But how big a concession the move from global universalism to local virtue involves really depends on how big the gap is between them. Virtue from Aristotle onward has generally been understood as the attempt to live out the universal in particular settings and situations, not to leave it behind altogether. The transactional ethics that Ignatieff describes as "taking people one at a time" does not necessarily rule out the application of universal principles. It may just imply that...

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