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The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen

by Mark Kingwell

Mark Kingwell – political and cultural theorist, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto – has authored four previous learned books, including Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac. In The World We Want he continues urging us to keep the faith with our better selves and each other. Kingwell argues that in this late-modern world, where wealth-generating globalism co-exists with growing poverty and ethnic bloodbaths, our experience of who we are and where we belong has so fundamentally shape-shifted we are in danger of losing ourselves.

The panacea, according to Kingwell, is a re-examination of our identity as citizens, which he undertakes within the context of the history of Western ethics. In particular he explores not just the ideas but the characters of Socrates, Montaigne, and Walter Benjamin, pointing out the emptiness of merely universalist or individualist ways of thinking. He rescues the notion of civility from the degraded dog-and-pony show today’s neo-conservatives have put it through, and asserts the primacy of the imagination as a political tool, since it allows us to escape self-absorption and fosters empathy and tolerance.

Kingwell, who clearly prizes aphoristic wit in other writers, is also no stranger to the delights of lively, high-mettled polemic; the result is a work with considerable tang. So it’s not hard to forgive the occasional unreflective feint, such as a stereotyped swipe at the Old Testament god. Or a section in which Kingwell, having scorned some of the usual kick-me targets of consumer monoculture, indulges in shopping snobbery as he approvingly tours us through Paris’s Place des Vosges, with its costly handmade paper and Issey Miyake outfits. (No doubt couture beats Kenneth Cole any old day, but who among us can afford it?) But forgive we do, because more than anything Kingwell wants us, as politically charged beings, to dream with our eyes open, to care about the state of our souls as they exist in this tendentious world, in the company of other souls.