30 June 2003

Michael Ignatieff

A recent issue of Macleans carried a cover story about Michael Ignatieff, Canada's foremost public intellectual who has nevertheless spent most of his adult life in Britain and the United States. Currently he is Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice and Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

Ignatieff is a professed liberal -- a fifth stage liberal adhering to the choice-enhancement state, as I put it in my book. In 2000 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, which were subsequently published as The Rights Revolution by Toronto's Anansi Press. Though his earlier books showed a fair degree of insight and offered a more nuanced interpretation of liberalism, this book is deeply flawed. It is difficult to imagine a more stereotypical and less careful account of the liberal creed than the following:

Communities are valuable to the degree that they articulate individual goals and aspirations, to the degree that they allow individuals to accomplish goals they could not accomplish alone. Group rights -- to language, culture, religious expression, and land -- are valuable to the degree that they enhance the freedom of individuals. This suggests that when group rights and individual rights conflict, individual rights should prevail. The basic intuition of rights talk is that each of us is an end in ourselves, not a means to an end. This is because each of us wishes to frame our own purposes and achieve them in so far as we can. These purposes are valuable to us because they are expressive as well as instrumental. When we achieve them, we express our identities as well as serve our interests. That's why agency is so valuable to us. I don't think this individualism is Western or time-bound. It's just a fact about us as a species: we frame purposes individually, in ways that other creatures do not (p. 24).

In his Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Ignatieff makes a similar, equally revealing statement:

Rights are meaningful only if they confer entitlements and immunities on individuals; they are worth having only if they can be enforced against institutions like the family, the state, and the church. . . . There will always be conflicts between individuals and groups, and rights exist to protect individuals. Rights language cannot be parsed or translated into a nonindividualistic, communitarian famework. It presumes moral individualism and is nonsensical outside that assumption (pp. 66-67).

It is difficult to imagine an approach less conducive to the doing of justice to the full complexity of human social life in God's world. Rather than hearing and weighing carefully the conflicting claims in the political arena, Ignatieff has already made up his mind before the claims have even been made. Someone less charitable than I might well see fit to label this prejudice.

No comments:


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Contact at: dtkoyzis at gmail dot com