Ignatieff: The ordinary virtues are things like trust, forgiveness, resilience, the basic honesty of ordinary life, a certain basic decency and civility that you see in ordinary life. These are the not-heroic virtues. Courage would be a heroic virtue. Self-sacrifice would be a heroic virtue. In a decent society we shouldn’t ask people to be heroes.
Globalization impacts every second of our daily lives. But the people we justify ourselves to, the people we care about when we exercise these virtues, are very local: Mom, Dad, family, kin, our neighbors, our workmates. When you display the virtues of decency, you’re not displaying an abstract commitment to treat all human beings decently. All you’re doing is treating the human beings you interact with every day decently. The ordinary virtues don’t generalize, they particularize. They don’t universalize. They are all very local.
Klaus: Your book uses Los Angeles to demonstrate this concept of the moral operating system. Why is that city such a useful example?
Ignatieff: Part of why I was so interested in spending time in L.A. is that it’s the locus classicus of the breakdown of a moral operating system, in 1965 and then in the Rodney King riots in 1992. If L.A. is the symbol of breakdown, it is also the symbol of recovery and repair. We can’t restore order simply with Marines and National Guard. Over 20 years, they have stitched a moral operating system back together. The final point about a moral operating system: It’s tremendously dependent on community political leadership. It’s a political thing. If communities don’t have political connections with each other, when bad stuff happens it can flare just like that.
Klaus: In a global city, you argue, command and control doesn’t work anymore. Leadership and politics are operating everywhere all the time.
Ignatieff: Absolutely. Who runs L.A.? Boy, that’s a complicated question. The mayor would be the first to tell you, “I’ve been elected by the people,” but then there’s the city council, the LAPD, the big employers, the foundations, the cultural leaders, Hollywood. And all of it has to be held together by a network and the network is a constant work in progress. It’s getting stitched together. And that seems to me to be premised on a moral idea: We don’t want this to blow up. We have competing interests. We have difficulties of trust, particularly across racial and religious lines. But the one thing we know is we don’t want this to blow.
Good policing is so important to this whole structure. If you get beaten up for your race, the violation is a moral violation in the sense that cities are very unequal places. They are mixtures of very rich people and very poor people, very connected people and very disconnected people, people with a big inheritance and people that are utterly disinherited.