Kenan Lecturer Michael Ignatieff on gun control, the Boston bombings, and Duke’s connection to international human rights

Dr. Michael Ignatieff was recently at the Kenan Institute for Ethics to speak as the 2013 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer in Ethics. He is a Canadian scholar, author, former television and radio broadcaster, and leader of Canada’s Liberal Party (2008-2011). In addition to being short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction, Dr. Ignatieff has published on non-fiction subjects such as the English penal system, the human need for community, modern warfare, and human rights. His most recent publication, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror,  advocated for force against terrorism balanced by restraint.

He currently holds joint appointments at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and is also the Chair for the Carnegie Council Centennial Project, “Ethics for a Connected World,” meant to stimulate current and future generations to consider the role of ethics in an increasingly interconnected world.

Prior to his lecture on “The Ethics of Globalization and the Globalization of Ethics,” Dr. Ignatieff sat down with KIE’s Katherine Scott to talk about global ethics and recent domestic developments. The interview occurred in the same week as both the Boston marathon explosions and the failure to pass proposed gun control legislation in Congress.


Q: You’ve recently been working with the Carnegie Council on the Centennial project, Ethics for a Connected World. Could you speak about your role in that project?

A: They’ve essentially asked me to go around the world and do focused dialogues on difficult moral issues over the next few years. The premise is that you can only see whether universal moral principles have purchase when you look at a specific issue in a specific place. Justice may be universal, but justice is also local, and the conflict between the universal and the local is very important. Corruption and public trust, for example, is a central moral issue in almost all societies, but each society has a different culture of public trust and a different set of frameworks for evaluating what is corruption, what is bribery, what is division between public office and private benefit. We’re going to go to Latin America and not just talk to ethicists or philosophers but talk to prosecutors, lawyers, public officials, and journalists. It’s a kind of applied ethics, and I hope out of that will come some general reflections about the role of local ethical cultures in determining moral conduct within the framework of a global ethic.

Q: Your Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics will be on “The Globalization of Ethics and the Ethics of Globalization”—what does the globalization of ethics look like?

A: The lecture for the Kenan Institute is really a look at the history of the globalization of ethics. We’ve begun talking about globalization in the last forty years, but in fact it has been going on since time began in connection to the history of empire. Almost every imperial system imposed its ethical values on other cultures through force and violence. It’s simultaneously a story of learning, in which both sides change in the encounter between competing ethical systems, and it’s a story of resistance. I want to situate the globalization of ethics within the history of empire and the struggle against empire.

I should say there’s a strong Duke connection, because one of the people I will be talking about is Raphael Lemkin. He was a very distinguished Polish lawyer, Jewish, who fled Nazi-occupied Poland for Sweden and wrote to Professor Malcolm McDermott at Duke Law School. They had collaborated together previously, and Lemkin wrote that he had to get out of Europe because his life was in danger. McDermott was then able to bring him to Duke. Lemkin would become the inventor of the term “genocide” and the author of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. So Duke has a kind of important place in the history of the globalization of ethics. That genocide is a crime is an excellent example of a universal moral value. By giving Lemkin a home at Duke between 1941 and 1942, it also gave him the time to formulate his ideas and get them together.

Q: As your work now is seeking to reconcile the greater goals of ethics with work being done on the ground level, how did your thinking evolve as a politician on how to bring the more abstract notions of ethics into daily governance?

A: Politics is a constant ethical conflict between what you think is right and what you think will win an election, between what you think your constituents want and what you think is the right thing to do. To pick one example, I’m a strong believer in gun control, and in Canada it is much tougher. But it is an issue that divides Canadians as much as it unites them. Rural, farming Canada is 90 percent of our country’s real estate. Even if it’s only ten percent of the population, it represents a lot of legislative seats. This rural population is vehemently opposed to control over long guns, or rifles, in particular. I supported registration of all firearms, and while it wasn’t popular in those districts, I had to say, “I heard you, I respect you, but I think the public interest requires us to take this measure.” You lose seats in those districts, but you just have to choose. Part of the responsibility of a politician is to frame these issues clearly in your mind. You have to at least know what the trade-offs are.

Q: In light of the recent failure on the part of the United States legislature to pass gun control measures, what do you see as the main impediment to more comprehensive regulation in this country?

A: There is a gun industry here, and not in Canada, which leads to a gun lobby that is highly organized. There’s also a different institutional system. In our parliamentary system, once a party leader makes a decision on what the party stance will be, lobbying is no longer effective. Lobbying is much more effective in the U.S. because members of Congress are much more independent of party discipline. I think also you have a different and consistently more hostile attitude towards government. Canada is larger in size but has a tenth of the U.S. population, and we have kept the country together through the institution of government. This produces a different moral climate. When Gabby Giffords says we have to have gun control, many Americans agree, but the institutions, government, and constitution are different, and it produces different results. It is a good example of how people within two hours’ flying time of each other think and act differently on an issue, and we have to respect those differences.

Q: Having just traveled from Boston, I was thinking of your work on “lesser evils”—what sorts of repercussions do you see in balancing personal liberties and security as a consequence of the recent bombings?

A: The bombings tell you a lot about government and the culture we take for granted. I go in Lord and Taylor all the time in Boston. Here’s a tradeoff: they have a lot of footage of me buying my socks, but it doesn’t bother me if it catches a guy who loaded a casserole full of ball bearings to kill citizens peacefully enjoying themselves at a marathon. You look at how fast the police, fire, and EMS crews transported those who were injured to hospitals, and I think a civilized society has to have public goods and services in government like that. There were people running away from the explosion, and there were people running towards it. The people running toward it were public servants. When you hear the ideology about small government, it’s important to remember who was running towards the bomb—the people that keep us safe.