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The Morality of the City

In his new book The Ordinary Virtues, the writer and politician Michael Ignatieff reveals the “moral operating systems” that keep cities together.
A girl jumps rope in the City of God slum in Rio de Janeiro, one of several global cities profiled in Michael Ignatieff's new book, "The Ordinary Virtues."
A girl jumps rope in the City of God slum in Rio de Janeiro, one of several global cities profiled in Michael Ignatieff's new book, "The Ordinary Virtues."Leo Correa/AP

For those monitoring the headlines, the Age of Morality can hardly seem a likely title historians will use for our current period. But look closer—in your neighborhood, workplace, or school—and you’ll (hopefully) find 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?