Why human rights and global ethics are inadequate concepts

In a globalized world, Michael Ignatieff argues, grand moral values have failed. What's left is virtue.

Is globalization drawing us to­gether morally? Canadian professor, broadcaster, and politician Michael Ignatieff sought to answer this question as he embarked on a seven-stop world tour. The answer, it turns out, is no.

Seldom has a travelogue yielded such sagacity. Ignatieff’s introduction is as masterly an overview of the contemporary globe as one could wish for; his reflections on visits to Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, South Africa, New York City, and Los Angeles are as compelling a journal as one could desire; and his conclusions are as convincing as they are controversial. Don’t be deceived by the bland title: this is a formidable argument grounded in wide research, illustrated with global examples, and illuminated by rousing prose. Ambitious but humble, lively but plausible, wide-ranging but gripping, this is a work of a statesman at the height of his powers.

Ignatieff is a liberal internationalist whose life and work speak of transnational institutions, global initiatives, and universal aspirations. One would expect him to be a faithful advocate of human rights and global ethics. He describes how the language of rights arose from Western philosophy but went global when it was adopted by colonial populations to describe their struggle for independence from European sovereignty.