The Banality of Virtue


Madhav Khosla in the LA Review of Books:

The Ordinary Virtues lacks the psychological sophistication of a work like Shklar’s Ordinary Vices. Many readers are likely to find the book unsatisfying in important ways. Parts of it seem like a work of political theory, though its contribution in this regard is not fully clear. On other occasions, it appears as a collection of pieces in political journalism without the dramatic insights into human behavior to which narrative nonfiction writing aspires.

None of this, to be fair, is lost on Ignatieff. He regards the book as an anthropological and sociological inquiry into ethical behavior. This ambition is, alas, poorly served by the book’s sweeping character. Yet its animating theme — that what human beings share is “a common desire, in their own vernacular, for moral order” that can infuse their lives with meaning — is a significant one. It forces us to notice that we are meaning-generating creatures, and that any study of human behavior must not only acknowledge this fact but also try to understand how meaning is generated.

Two valuable reminders, in particular, emerge from Ignatieff’s study. The first is that successful societies, which is to say societies that manage to avoid severe forms of violence and disorder, often rest on prosaic social practices. There is a temptation — how could there not be? — to present the success or failure of societies in the grandest of terms, as evidence for the rightness or wrongness of this or that ideology or worldview. But whether or not our social world is likely to implode is more often than not determined by small acts between individuals. Communal bonds, exchanges between neighbors, the attitudes of employers toward employees, silent forms of understanding, and predictable forms of state action are all matters that may seem beneath the theorist’s notice, but Ignatieff asks that we remember their significance, and their fragility. Moreover, a society that is well ordered is one in which virtue is made banal. Its quiet practices become so deeply entrenched that it does not require heroes to triumph.

More here.