Michael Ignatieff
Stanford Humanities Center

from Michael Ignatieff’s Work


On Liberalism:

Book cover: The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

Thanks to the rights they entrench, the due process rules they observe, the separation of powers they seek to enforce, and the requirement of democratic consent, liberal democracies are all guided by a constitutional commitment to minimize the use of dubious means — violence, force, coercion, and deception — in the government of citizens. It is because they do so in normal times that they feel constrained to do so in times of emergency. Otherwise, these societies will not be true to who they are. When citizens consent to be ruled, they do so on the condition that the abridgement of their freedom, necessary to maintain a free and secure public realm, must be kept to a minimum. This implies that in a liberal democracy even government based on consent remains coercive. The coercions in question range from collection of taxes and the imposition of fines to punishment for criminal or civil liability. Coercion may be necessary to maintain social order, but in a democratic theory of government it is an evil, and it must be kept to a strict minimum. Why else would a liberal society put such store in rights, if it did not seek to protect individuals from the abusive exercise of coercive power?

This account of a liberal democracy may sound strange to some, because it stresses the coercive powers of government and fails to emphasize its enabling role in creating public goods — schools, roads, public security, hospitals, and welfare services — that allow individuals to exercise their freedom. They are positive goods, created by the consent of the governed. Yet majority consent does not eliminate the problem of minority constraint. These positive goods are paid for by a coercive measure — taxation — which most, but not all, citizens accept for the sake of the greater good. Not all citizens will agree about how much of their private income should be taxed to support this public infrastructure, nor how extensive this infrastructure should be. Disputes about this constitute the largest part of public politics, and the arbitration of these disputes, by legislation and by elections, inevitably leaves some citizens convinced that their freedom has been unduly constrained. There is simply no consensus about the proper extent of public goods or about the proper extent of government’s power. At the margins, the constraint intrinsic to government will be experienced, at least by some citizens, as a lesser evil, to be submitted to as a condition of public life.

It might be asked whether coercive yet necessary uses of government power deserve to be called an evil at all. Taxation may be unpopular but hardly counts as an evil. Yet other acts of government, like punishment, which inflict direct harm on individuals, do raise the specter of evil. Or at least they do in our type of society. Only liberal democracies have a guilty conscience about punishment. Totalitarian societies have enthusiastically embraced coercion as a positive social instrument to create desired social types, ideal workers, obedient citizens, enthusiastic party apparatchiks. Only in liberal societies have people believed that the pain and suffering involved in depriving people of their liberty must make us think twice about imposing this constraint even on those who justly deserve it. The fact that it is necessary and the fact that it is just do not make it any less painful. It is necessary that criminals be punished, but the suffering that punishment causes remains an evil nonetheless.

The Lesser Evil, pp. 16-17

On the Reform of Penitentiaries in 19th-Century Liberal Democracies

While the social doctrine of the new philanthropy was often backward-looking and paternalist in tone, its actual prescriptions represented an attack on the traditional social order for resting on a weak state, tolerance of popular disorder, and a tacit acceptance of popular privileges and customs. The reformers insisted on the fragility of this order, especially its dependence on ritual displays of terror. Such terror, they insisted, could only secure grudging compliance from the poor. In a period of tumultuous economic and social change, coerced compliance was no longer enough. Social order, they argued, had to be guaranteed by something stronger than a frayed and increasingly hollow paternalism, backed by hangings. Social stability had to be founded on popular consent, maintained by guilt at the thought of wrongdoing, rather than by deference and fear.


Book cover: Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850


This approach, articulated best by Bentham, envisaged fortifying the bonds of popular consent by means of enfranchisement, extension of civil and religious rights, and administrative reform, while at the same time tightening the grip of the law over the disobedient. In contrast to a paternalistic conception of order that allowed only a constricted political right, but tolerated a wider range of customary, popular liberties, liberalism extended formal political rights while sharply reducing public tolerance for popular disorder. Hence Bentham’s two personae — the advocate of parliamentary reform, and the publicist for the Panopticon — were not contradictory, but complementary. The extension of rights within civil society had to be compensated for by the abolition of the tacit liberties enjoyed by prisoners and criminals under the ancien régime. In an unequal and increasingly divided society, this was the only way to extend liberty and fortify consent without compromising security.

A Just Measure of Pain, p. 211

On the Threat of Terrorism to Liberalism:

We should remember, in fact, that liberal democracy has been crafted over centuries precisely in order to combat the temptation of nihilism, to prevent violence from becoming an end in itself. Thus terrorism does not present us with a distinctively new temptation. This is what our institutions were designed for, back in the seventeenth century: to regulate evil means and control evil people. The chief ethical challenge with relation to terrorism is relatively simple — to discharge duties to those who have violated their duties to us. We have to do this because we are fighting a war whose essential prize is preserving the identity of liberal society itself and preventing it from becoming what terrorists believe it to be. Terrorists seek to strip off the mask of law to reveal the nihilist heart of coercion within, and we have to show ourselves and the populations whose loyalty we seek that the rule of law is not a mask but the true image of our nature.

The Lesser Evil, p. 144

On Human Rights

Book cover: Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

This is a prophecy not of the end of the human rights movement but of its belated coming of age, its recognition that we live in a plural world of cultures that have a right to equal consideration in the argument about what we can and cannot, should and should not, do to human beings. Indeed, this may be the central historical importance of human rights in the history of human progress: it has abolished the hierarchy of civilizations and cultures. As late as 1945, it was normative to think of European civilization as inherently superior to the civilizations it ruled. Many Europeans continue to believe this, but they know that they have no right to do so. More to the point, many non-Western peoples also took the civilizational superiority of their rulers for granted. They no longer have any reason to continue believing this. One reason why this is so is the global diffusion of human rights. It is the language that most consistently articulates the moral equality of all the individuals on the face of the earth. But to the degree that it does, it simultaneously increases the level of conflict over the meaning, application, and legitimacy of rights claims. Rights language says: all human beings belong at the table, in the essential conversation about how we should treat each other. But once this universal right to speak and be heard is granted, there is bound to be tumult. There is bound to be discord. Why? Because the European voices that once took it upon themselves to silence the babble with a peremptory ruling no longer take it as their privilege to do so, and those who sit with them at the table no longer grant them the right to do so. All this counts as progress, as a step toward a world imagined for millennia in different cultures and religions: a world of genuine moral equality among human beings. But if so, a world of moral equality is a world of conflict, deliberation, argument, and contention.

To repeat a point made earlier: We need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation. In this argument, the ground we share may actually be quite limited: not much more than the basic intuition that what is pain and humiliation for you is bound to be pain and humiliation for me. But this is already something. In such a future, shared among equals, rights are not the universal credo of a global society, not a secular religion, but something much more limited and yet just as valuable: the shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin, and the bare minimum from which differing ideas of human flourishing can take root.

Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, pp. 94-95

On Isaiah Berlin

Book cover: Isaiah Berlin: a life

These were indeed the core beliefs — in moral pluralism, liberal freedom and their mutual entailment. A huge literature has ensued on Berlin’s pluralism, for reasons that left him bemused, but which in retrospect seem clear enough. In a post-imperial world, cultural world views — religious, secular, Western, Eastern, Christian, Islamic — compete for allegiance in conditions of increasing equality. Working out how these ethical world views can inhabit the same political space has given especial salience to the problem of moral pluralism. Then there has been the fragmentation within Western values themselves. The re-emergence of moral disagreement within liberal politics as previously suppressed or non-enfranchised groups (women, children, homosexuals) secured a political voice, all helped to make Berlin’s question — how to mediate between opposing moral worlds — the central issue of late modern politics. Berlin himself had never given much thought to these features of late Western society. Indeed, the burden of his argument was that moral conflict was a feature of the human situation tout court, not just of modern times. He had never sought to make his work ‘relevant,’ but now it suddenly spoke to his times in ways he never intended.

He never claimed to have been the first to think about pluralism. But Berlin had reason to believe that he was the first to argue that pluralism entailed liberalism — that is, if human beings disagreed about ultimate ends, the political system that best enabled them to adjudicate these conflicts was one which privileged their liberty, for only conditions of liberty could enable them to make the compromises between values necessary to maintain a free social life.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 286

On Biographical Research Meetings with Isaiah Berlin

He answers the bell himself and allows himself to be kissed, in the Russian fashion, once on each cheek and once for good measure. It is a declaration of our common Russian ancestry, the formal beginning and ending of all our meetings.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 1

To love thinking as he does, you must be quick, but you must also be sociable. He hates thinking alone and regards it as a monstrosity. With him, thinking is indistinguishable from talking, from striking sparks, from bantering, parrying and playing. His talk is famous, not only because it is quick and acute, but because it implies that thought is a joint sortie into the unknown. What people remember about his conversation is not what he said — he is no wit and no epigrams have attached themselves to his name — but the experience of having been drawn into the salon of his mind. This is why his conversation is never a performance. It is not his way of putting on a show; it is his way of being in company.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 4

The afternoons at Albany continued for a decade. Beneath the low murmur of his voice, the tape recorder on the low coffee table also picked up the click of almonds in their tins and registered the chimes of the French clock on the mantelpiece as it sounded the hours. One question from me would send him talking for an hour as he roved back and forward, telling and re-telling the old stories, sweeping across decades, past famous faces, pausing over obscure people for the simple pleasure of proving to himself that they had not been forgotten. The ambition was to enfold all his experience — literally every last letter and bus-ticket, every remembered joke and remark — into a crisp, economical story which, once elaborated, polished and given its punch-line, could then be filed away in the labyrinthine archive of his mind, safe from the ruin of time. It was a virtuoso display of a great intelligence doing battle with loss.

I heard the same stories many times, as if repetition proved that he had mastered his life, penetrated its darkest corners and dispelled its silences. It became obvious why he never wrote an autobiography: his stories had done the trick. They both saved the past and saved him from introspection.

His candour about his past, like the candour about his illnesses, was very Russian. He told me everything, but only when I learned to ask the right questions.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life, pp. 6-7

In the last week of October, Isaiah asked to see me. He was seated in the easy chair by the door of the downstairs study in Headington House, books and journals scattered unread on the table by his elbow. He was gaunt and pale, and his immaculate tweed suit hung loosely about him. At one point I helped him shift his weight in the chair, and as I lifted him, I was shocked to feel the bones of his ribcage beneath his suit. He was weak but lucid, with a feverish intensity I could not remember in previous meetings. He reviewed the more or less grim options that lay before him. The doctors were saying that the constriction of his œsophagus and the loss of weight left them no option but to insert a feeding tube into his stomach. He thought this was a dreary possibility, but he was resigned to it: there were no good choices left, he said, with a little shrug. But this was not what he really wanted to say. I drew my chair up until our knees were almost touching and he leaned forward and talked in a hectic whisper, ranging back and forward across the whole expanse of his life, correcting possible misapprehensions about this or that detail, worrying that I might have misunderstood certain confessions and asides. It pained me to think that he had been worrying about biographical truth. He needed all his strength for more important things. But I couldn’t get him to change the subject. He wanted to leave the record straight. This too was painful, because it was out of character. All along, he had said he didn’t mind what sense I made of his life. This had freed both of us. His carefully cultivated indifference to my project had been a form of generosity, an attempt to lighten the weight of our friendship. But now we were both facing the moment of closure, when suddenly words took on an urgency they had never had before. Time, which had stretched out before us over so many afternoons in the past, when the clock on the mantelpiece sounded the hours and the talk ranged over the whole of his life, now seemed fearfully short. His strength was ebbing away before my eyes. He had just enough energy for one more thought. In a voice just above a whisper, he said how much he loved Aline and how much she had been the centre of his life. This was what he most wanted me to understand. I said I did understand. And then I took his hands and tried to reassure him that I would do my best. What I meant — though I did not manage to say it — was that I would do my best not to betray him. I would repay the trust he had placed in me so easily, with so little calculation, ten years before. I wonder to this day whether he knew what I was trying to say. When I left, I bent over his chair and kissed him once on each cheek and once for good measure as we had always done.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life, pp. 298-299

On Michael Ignatieff

Book cover: Bloood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism

Anyone whose father was born in Russia, whose mother was born in England, whose education was in America, and whose working life has been spent in Canada, Great Britain, and France, cannot be expected to be much of an ethnic nationalist. If anyone has a claim to being a cosmopolitan, it must be me.

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, p. 11

[C]osmopolitans like myself are not beyond the nation; and a cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation-states to provide security and civility for their citizens. In that sense alone, I am a civic nationalist, someone who believes in the necessity of nations and in the duty of citizens to defend the capacity of nations to provide the security and the rights we all need in order to live cosmopolitan lives. At the very least, cosmopolitan disdain and astonishment at the ferocity with which people will fight to win a nation-state of their own is misplaced. They are, after all, only fighting for a privilege cosmopolitans have long taken for granted.

Blood and Belonging, pp. 13-14


Selections by Matthew Marostica, Curator for Political Science and Economics,
Stanford University Libraries ©2012




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