A Global Ethic and the Hybrid Character of the Moral World

| March 2012
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In the lead essay of this symposium, Michael Ignatieff offers a characteristic blend of philosophical acuteness and political good sense on a topic that, we can all agree, is central to many of the most important questions on the contemporary political and international agenda. His analysis is prescient, challenging, and deserves pondering at some length; thus, in this short response I cannot deal with it in anything like the detail it deserves. But the enforced brevity is perhaps an advantage as well, in that it forces me to concentrate on where I differ from Ignatieff and on my own sense of what we might imply when we use such a term as “a global ethic.”

Ignatieff’s basic argument is predicated on the claim that talk of a global ethic brings together two rather different things: a global ethic in the singular and a global ethics in the plural. The former—“a perspective that takes all human beings and their habitat as its subject”—is flourishing, he suggests, in philosophical discussion around the world, has a long and distinguished history, is best seen as a “view from nowhere,” and has, as its central function, the requirement “to justify.” But this will require confronting the problems between, at least in democratic states, the universal and the particular—for example, the conflict between what Ignatieff terms “democracy and justice”; that is, the values inherent in the self-determination of peoples and the values inherent in abstract justice for all individuals. As he puts it in cases such as these “the particular faces off against the universal, but neither plays as trumps; neither is privileged with any authority other than reason and both are obliged to justify themselves.”

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Category: Essay, Global Governance, Issue 26.1, Symposium: In Search of a Global Ethic

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