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The whole of chapter 3, on Rio de Janeiro, consists of a conversation with one cop. Ignatieff is interested in Major Priscilla de Oliveira because her federal police unit, Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (UPP), is “one of the most closely watched experiments in global policing”. After pages and pages on her various career moves, as well as a long account of accompanying Priscilla on the beat, Ignatieff ends with the pronouncement, “Ordinary virtues don’t stand a chance of sustaining moral order in Santa Marta unless police turn honest.” We can agree, indeed, that law and order is significant. But what are those virtues of which he speaks? Tell us about them. What is the scope of forgiveness? How do people define courage as opposed to foolhardiness? Is justice conceived of as a private virtue?

The conclusion to The Ordinary Virtues feels like one the author penned on the plane out. It’s indistinguishable from the introduction. Ignatieff tells us about why, despite the rights revolutions post 1945, “everywhere a gap remains between what the norm prescribes and what social life allows . . . everywhere, the voices of the rich and propertied have greater weight than the poor.” A Lonely Planet guide could have told me that. What I wanted was what I was told I would get: a moral phenomenology; how people from diverse cultures act despite the reality of great injustice; and how they think about how they act. The Ordinary Virtues is an ordinary book because it doesn’t deliver on its promises.

One Another’s Equals and The Ordinary Virtues are both difficult reads. Though Waldron’s book were originally lectures, and he writes with greater clarity than many analytic philosophers, the book is at times indigestible. Ignatieff’s style is more engaging, certainly, but his infuriating habit of constantly qualifying almost every claim he makes (“nevertheless”, “albeit”, “that said”) leaves the reader at a loss in terms of comprehending (and remembering) the overall argument.

In the end, the greatest service of these books is to highlight the kind of book we need but at the moment don’t have. Waldron’s treatment of the basis of equality is abstract, drained of humanity, divorced from actual encounter. But even if he was successful at explaining why someone is our equal, he has given us grounds only for why we should acknowledge their rights, not why we should love them. The work of professional philosophers American Talbot Brewer and the Australian Raimond Gaita come closer. Their respective Retrieval of Ethics and A Common Humanity both explore the rupture with the world that occurs when we come to see the inalienable preciousness of a particular human being. Yet they are professional not popular philosophers. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s intriguing reflection on the dynamics of mutual recognition in Faith in the Public Square is limited to one essay (“Human Rights and Religious Faith”). What we need is a robust yet sustained study, a resonant yet thorough account of what it means to say we are one another’s equal, and the immense ethical implications which follow from that.
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