The Moral Fabric of Cities

The writer and politician Michael Ignatieff discusses the “moral operating systems” that bind urban communities.

A man walks along a canal next to skyscrapers
Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

For those monitoring the headlines, the Age of Morality hardly seems a likely title historians will use for the current period. But look closer—in the world’s neighborhood, workplace, or school—and what’s there are countless honest exchanges resting upon mutual trust. “We are all moral code writers,” writes Michael Ignatieff in his new book, The Ordinary Virtues.

Ignatieff, a writer, politician, academic, ex-journalist, and former head of Canada’s Liberal Party, has turned his restless gaze to cities, which he sees as the essential sites of this moral and ethical work. Urbanists talk about vertical policy integration—the way international, national, and local policies interact. Ignatieff, meanwhile, takes on the question of the vertical integration of morality: How do international humanitarian law and universal norms interact with local traditions and codes?

To answer that, Ignatieff embarked on trips to New York, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, and Fukushima—our new moral arenas and stages, he argues. “Moral life in the global city,” he writes, “should be seen as one of the most consequential experiments in mankind’s history.” This experiment is not abstract. It’s a question of jobs and policing, neighborly behavior and basic decency, unlocked doors and six-packs of beer. I spoke with with Ignatieff to learn more. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Ian Klaus: It was just about 50 years ago that Abel Wolman wrote his now famous article in Scientific American about the metabolism of cities, and people now think of the ecosystems of cities—cities as complex, organic structures. You introduce the concept of a “city’s moral operating system.”

Michael Ignatieff: I grew up in Toronto. Guess who was in Toronto when I was 21? Jane Jacobs. I grew up on The Life and Death of American Cities, and I grew up with her sense of this kind of micro-order of the street, the neighborhood, the sense of eyes looking out for one another. I owe a tremendous amount to her vision of the downtown urban neighborhood and what was strong about it. It was partly through her that you see it as a moral order.

Commerce depends on trust, civility, people doing favors. The bodega on the corner is not just a retail outlet. It’s a place where people in the neighborhood slowly get to know each other. They nod, exchanging glances. Over time you start to feel, weirdly, that you belong somewhere just because when you went to buy a six-pack of beer at the corner and the guy who is selling it to you recognizes you. You begin to create this sense of a community, and over the years that community can become very important.

As you get old and you lose your partner, suddenly your neighborhood becomes all you’ve got. You see it in New York City. Some of the biggest maintainers of the moral order of the neighborhood are the retirees who are out and about every day, because that becomes their world.

The moral operating system is kind of like that. You can call it an operating system because it is like a computer. It has a whole sense of protocols and rules you almost never stop to think about. It’s dependent on a kind of tacit [understanding].

Klaus: You suggest that more than ever, we’re living on our own, by our own wits. Who’s in charge?

Ignatieff: Well, we have got a rough-and-ready framework of nation-states. And we’ve got a rough-and-ready framework of an international order of competing states. That’s at the highest level. But at the level where ordinary people live, we are living in extremely damaged and compromised institutions that we can’t fully trust.

And yet we have to get up and go to work every day. We have to count on people. We have to get on the highway and make sure that people obey the traffic rules. We have to assume when we’re walking down the street that there’s some minimal kind of order there.

Klaus: You’re addressing the moral effects of globalization, which sounds very philosophical, but in fact, like driving on a highway, your description is very practical. What are these so-called ordinary virtues?

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.

The interesting question is why—despite extreme, structural, long-term, ongoing inequalities—these places cohere in some fashion. They cohere so long as a basic premise doesn’t get violated. That’s one of the things that L.A. shows so sharply. It was very unequal in 1965 and very unequal in 1992, but the revolt was caused when law and order was shown to be racially biased, and hence morally biased. That’s why cities are moral orders: There’s a limit past which you can’t push, because people rise essentially for moral reasons. Who do you think I am? Am I a citizen of this bloody country or not?

Klaus: You use the example of people living in extreme poverty in Rio de Janeiro to show how physical spaces—like an open window or unlocked door—can reveal the state of a moral operating system.

Ignatieff: You watch this kind of microscopic creation of order. People leave their doors open. You watch kids doing their homework. You watch kids caring for aging grandparents. You can see that people are kind of looking out for one another, because there’s one thing that worse than being poor and that’s living in a jungle. There’s nothing romantic or cute about living in a favela, but as long as the favela has a little micro-order, it can make life bearable.

That little happy moral order of people looking after each other in the favela, that depends on the cops, it depends on the gangs, and it depends on a middle class in Brazil that thinks it’s in their fundamental interest that the favelas don’t turn into jungles. The whole thing has to come together, and all of it is fragile. It’s this constant feeling among the wealthy middle classes, both in South Africa and Brazil and quite possibly in the United States: What business is it of ours what happens in these poor communities? We take the moral operating system of cities for granted at our peril.

Klaus: You once stopped being a spectator and put on your skates, to use your phrase, by becoming a politician. What, if instead of being a member of Parliament, this time you were a mayor. How do you do this practically?

Ignatieff: A good city mayor has got to be sure they have somebody right down at the block level, neighborhood level, the precinct level, that can tell them what the hell is going on. You’ve got to get moral order from the bottom up. You can’t do this top down. A good mayor has a huge network. You’ve got to spend a lot of time working and strengthening community associations.  They have got to see you there. The idea that you can run a city like a business is nonsense: It’s a political job requiring that you understand just how fragile networks are, and just how much work they take to keep going.

Klaus: If you want to see how hard many locals elected officials work, you just need follow them on Twitter or Instagram. They are perpetually at just the events you describe.

Ignatieff: Yes. Everyone has been saying that the best government in America is in the cities, and I’m inclined to think that might be true. The downtown’s come back. The public spaces have come back. There’s a level of innovation, and use of public space, and creation of community fabrics that I think is a good story in a terrible time politically. I guess my book is trying to say this is the good news in a bad old world.

Klaus: Since you’re from Toronto: Your city has recently announced an agreement with Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, to create a very ambitious new waterfront neighborhood development. There is a long history of utopian city ideas, from Ebenezer Howard to Frank Lloyd Wright. James Scott has done great work on the risks of massive urban planning efforts. Thoughts on the intersections of digital operating systems and moral operating systems?

Ignatieff: Hell, let’s try everything. Let’s understand that it will be iterative. There will be mistakes. I think there’s no doubt there are privacy issues. Huge amounts of data will be sucked up in this process. I think we need to try all these new technologies. The only thing I would say is the object here must never be lost sight of—people having the sense of delight and pleasure that cities can give, number one.

Number two, there’s a big issue of inclusion. You don’t want to create civic spaces that are only going to be enjoyed by the middle- and upper-middle class. One of the things you really want to fight for is a city where rich and poor, upper and lower, everybody feels they are sharing world-class public goods. You can get fancy with the technology. You can get fancy with the corporate links with the municipality. I’ve got nothing against it, provided you remember what the objective is—to have inclusive public spaces that build trust.

This post appears courtesy of CityLab.