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Human Rights, Global Ethics, and the Ordinary Virtues

  • Michael Ignatieff

In a 1958 speech at the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt took stock of the progress that human rights had made since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ten years before. Mrs. Roosevelt had chaired the UN committee that drafted the Universal Declaration and had hoped that, in time, it would become “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” Her answer to the question of how to measure human rights progress has become one of the most frequently quoted remarks of the former First Lady:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

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1 Roosevelt, Eleanor, quoted in “In Your Hands: A Guide for Community Action on the 10th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (New York: Church Peace Union, 1958).

2 Simmons, Beth, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

3 Ron, James and Crow, David, “Who Trusts Local Human Rights Organizations? Evidence from Three World Regions,” Human Rights Quarterly 37, no.1 (2015), pp. 188239 .

4 For a full account of the Carnegie project see Ignatieff, Michael, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Operating Systems in a Post-Imperial World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017).

5 For more on this observation, see Boo, Katherine, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012); and Steinberg, Jonny, Man of Good Hope (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2015).

6 Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 1998).

7 Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature, Selby-Bigge, L. A., ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956 [1896]), p. 481 .

8 Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken, 2004 [1948]), p. 381 .

9 Marx, Karl, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: Dover, 2012).

10 de Montaigne, Michel, “On Cruelty,” in The Complete Works, Frame, Donald M., trans. (New York: Everyman's Library, 2003 [1948]), pp. 372–86.

11 Rodrik, Dani, in Institutions, Development, and Economic Growth, Eicher, Theo S. and García-Peñalosa, Cecilia, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006); and Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown, 2012).

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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