Moral compass

My book The Quest for a Moral Compass is published this week. There has already been an early review in the Tablet from the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who compared the book to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy:

This is intellectual history in the grand manner, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, written with the same clarity, accessibility and narrative verve as the master himself. As the subtitle, “a global history of ethics”, makes clear, though, Malik’s scope is wider than Russell’s, extending beyond the West to include Hinduism, Buddhism and two good chapters on Islam, as well as studies of the Chinese masters, Confucius, Mo Tzu and Lao Tzu and their contemporary heirs. These are among the most rewarding sections of the book and the most needed.

Sacks concluded:

We are all in Kenan Malik’s debt. This is a majestic and timely work.

Here’s hoping that the rest of the reviews are equally good… You can buy the book from my Pandaemonium bookshop (the US version comes out in September).

Earlier this month I published the opening section of the book. Here is an extract from the chapter 16, ‘The Unravelling of Morality’, in which, through exploring Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment, I look more closely at the meaning, and problem, of morality in the modern world.


The Quest for a Moral Compass
Extract from Chapter 16: The Unravelling of Morality

bacon tryptich

A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.

Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of dark matter. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed-out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge.

So begins Alasdair MacIntyre’s brilliant, bleak, frustrating and above all provocative 1981 book After Virtue. A work of unleavened academic philosophy, it became a most unlikely bestseller, and highly influential among historians, theologians, political theorists, not to mention policy makers. MacIntyre’s ‘disquieting suggestion’ is that while no calamity of the sort he describes has befallen science, it is exactly what has happed to morality. True, no philosopher has been lynched, no seminar room torched, no riots erupted in response to the disastrous consequences of Kantianism or utilitarianism. Nevertheless, MacIntyre insists, moral thought is in the same state as science was in his fictive account, a state of ‘grave disorder’, and one in which the very disorder blinds us to the moral chaos that surrounds us. Moral thought has been hollowed out; everyone uses moral terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘should’, but no truly understands them. We argue endlessly about the justice of wars, the morality of abortion, the nature of freedom, but we not do not reach agreement; in fact we cannot even agree about what would constitute a satisfactory resolution to these disagreements.

All over After Virtue are the fingerprints of the Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. In 1958 Anscombe, who has claim to be the most important British philosopher of the twentieth century, published a paper called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ which suggested that all contemporary moral theories were without foundation. From Kantianism to utilitarianism, all such theories use concepts such as ‘morally ought’ and ‘morally right’ but in away that is devoid of meaning. In the ancient world the terms ‘should’ or ‘ought’ related to good and bad in the context of making things function better, whether ploughs or humans. The impact of monotheistic religion was to transform morality into a set of laws that had to be obeyed. Laws require a legislator and a police force. God was that legislator, the Church the enforcer. Modernity dethroned God and enfeebled the institutions of faith. New forms of morality, such as Kantianism and consequentialism, still viewed morality in terms of rules or laws, but no longer had any figure that could play the role of legislator. They lacked the proper foundations for the meaningful employment of their moral concepts. All these themes MacIntyre was to develop.

At the time Anscombe published her seminal paper, MacIntyre was a Marxist, though no longer in the Communist Party. By the time he wrote After Virtue, he had been drawn to Aristotelian virtue ethics. Eventually he was, like Anscombe, led to Roman Catholicism. He is today one of the leading Thomist philosophers. Through all these twists and turns, a number of themes have remained constant. Whether as a Marxist or as a Catholic, MacIntyre has always expressed a loathing of liberal individualism, and an insistence on the social embeddedness of the individual. He has insisted, too, that morality can be understood only in its historical context.Yet, he has been equally fierce in his opposition to relativism, emotivism and nihilism. MacIntyre’s critique of modern moral philosophy is insightful. The weaknesses of that critique are equally revealing of how and why morality has unraveled.

picasso charnel house

Why is contemporary morality in such grave disorder? Because of the Enlightenment, MacIntyre argues. The Enlightenment rejected, indeed destroyed, the Aristotelian notion of a virtuous life that had shaped Western thought for nearly two millennia. It rejected, in particular, the notion of the telos – the insistence, not just in Aristotle but in all Ancient thinkers and in the monotheistic religions, that human beings, like all objects in the cosmos, exist for a purpose, and that to be good was to act in a way that enabled them to fulfil that purpose. Enlightenment philosophers imagined humans not as creatures with definite functions that they might fulfil or neglect but as agents who possessed no true purpose apart from that created by their own will; creatures governed, not by an external telos but solely by the dictates of their inner reason or desires. This shift, MacIntyre argues, was corrosive of the very idea of morality. By appealing to a telos, Aristotle and Aquinas had been able to distinguish between the way we actually are and the way we should be. Post-Enlightenment philosophers could no longer coherently do so. As a result they could find no moral anchor, no point of reference against which to adjudicate rival moral claims. And without such a point of reference, moral arguments become interminable and pointless. The end point in this journey comes with emotivism which, for MacIntyre, is not simply a description of the theories produced by Ayer and his followers but of all post-Enlightenment moral theories. Even those moral philosophies, such as Kantianism, that appeal to a rational standard binding on all are deluding themselves because there is no possibility of such a standard, given the Enlightenment view of the sovereignty of the individual moral agent.

Having rejected the ancient concept of individuals as embedded in, and constituted by, specific communities, the post-Enlightenment world has come to see individual autonomy as the consummation of humankind’s search for freedom. In fact, MacIntyre argues, such autonomy amounts to an emptiness, a moral vacuum. Because what MacIntyre calls the ‘democratized self’ has ‘no necessary social content and no necessary social identity’, so the self ‘can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing’. The crucial distinction between that which is ‘good’ and that which is ‘believed to be good’ becomes erased. There can now be no rational foundation to moral claims any more than there could be a rational foundation to scientific knowledge if there was no distinction between that which is ‘true’ and that which is ‘believed to be true’. There is now also a new cleavage between facts and values. Facts having been wrenched away from values, nothing is left to temper the wildest flights of the moral imagination.

Ethics, MacIntyre argues, can only have meaning if there is a distinction between ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’. Morality is like a road map taking us from the former condition to the latter, teaching us how to overcome the weaknesses of our human nature and become what we are capable of becoming. If there no such distinction, there can be no road map, and hence no morality. What allowed the Ancients to distinguish between ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ was their belief in telos. Telos was the bridge between the way we are and the way we should be. In the post-Enlightenment world, that bridge, and hence morality itself, crumbled.

Delacroix liberté

It is true that the modernity emerged partly through the overthrow of the Aristotelian conception of telos. Science expunged teleology from the natural world, ‘disenchanting’ it in the process. It is equally true that the liberal individualism deriving from Hobbes and the English social contract theorists viewed humans ‘as though we had been shipwrecked on an uninhabited island with a group of other individuals, each of whom is a stranger to me and to all the others’, every individual engaged not in common struggles to realize shared goal but in working out the ‘rules which will safeguard each one maximally in such a situation’. It is a view that has influenced a diverse set of moral thinkers from John Locke and David Hume to John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

Yet, the relationship between modernity and teleology is more complex than MacIntyre suggests, as was Enlightenment thinking about human nature. Hobbes’ was not the only model of human nature. Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, all of whom while critical of the Enlightenment nevertheless also placed themselves under its wing, developed a distinct tradition, built in part through a critique of the Hobbesian individual. The critics of Hobbes pointed out that humans are not individuals who become social, but social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with others. Through this tradition there developed not simply a distinct concept of human nature but a distinct concept of history, too, and a new vision of humans as historical beings. And this in turn led to a new concept of teleology. Teleological notions, expunged from nature, were introduced into the human world.

It is true that this new historical consciousness found voice in the Romantic challenge to the Enlightenment. Its most radical expression came, however, with those who married the Romantic vision of history to Enlightenment ideas of equality and freedom. Conservatives, such as Burke and Bradley, seized upon history as ‘an idea of continuity’, a means of resisting modernity, an instrument through which an individual could understand and accept his or her place in a long-crafted social order. Radicals viewed history as an idea not of continuity, but of change and transformation, as a means of negating all that which restricted freedom and reason.

There was an ambiguity in the radical vision of history. On the one hand, it expressed the idea of humans as made by history, on the other of humans as making history. Agency was seen both as objective, embodied in impersonal historical forces, and as subjective, the product of human consciousness and activity. This ambiguity was perhaps greatest in Marx. In ‘setting Hegel on his feet’, Marx insisted that history was driven not by a mystical Spirit but by real material forces, and in particular the conflicts that emerged from class antagonisms. This argument could be, and has been, read in two ways. Some have viewed class conflict and the ‘iron laws of history’ as propelling humanity through its various stages to the inevitable, and predestined, triumph of communism. Real, concrete human beings hardly play a role in this process, except as bearers of historical forces. Others have recognized that history has no meaning but as the product of human activity. History may reveal a pattern or even a logic, but it could never be inevitable or inexorable, and only human activity could bring historical change to fruition. ‘Humans make history but not in circumstances of their choosing’, as Marx himself put it, tying the two readings together.

How the idea of history was read, and not just by Marxists, depended upon which side of that equation – humans making history or the circumstances not of their choosing – seemed more compelling. While the possibilities of social transformation seemed real, and while revolutionary movements and liberation organizations possessed social significance, so the idea of humans making history seemed persuasive. As these movements and organizations disintegrated, and as the prospects of alternatives to capitalism receded, so the idea that we inhabit circumstances not of our choosing became more credible. Over time, not just the notion of humans making history but the very idea of historical progress itself came to be seen as suspect. Romantic communitarians, liberal empiricists and postmodern relativists – from very different philosophical starting points – all converged upon the point at which the human subject seemed to disappear, and history, agency, free will and progress all appeared as illusions.

Modernity did not destroy telos but transformed it. The distinction between ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ came to be understood not in moral but in political terms. To be-as-one-could-be was also to make society-as-it-should-be. This was a step forward, not a step back. In the premodern world telos could be understood only in moral terms because there existed little possibility of willed social change. Modernity opened up new possibilities of social transformation, possibilities that refashioned the concept of ought. As people rejected the idea of society as a given, so ought became a political demand: how society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change. Once those possibilities crumbled, so ought became dispossessed of meaning. Shorn of wider social significance, ought slowly became seen by many as a matter of individual desire. From pragmatism to emotivism, from relativism to nihilism, it is the breakdown of collective movements for social change that has been so corrosive of the idea of morality.

gauguin where

Humans, MacIntyre suggests, are ‘story telling animals’, and it is through telling stories that they discover themselves. ‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?”’, he suggests, ‘if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”.’ That story links the past, the present and the future, not just of that individual but also of the community of which he lives, and in so doing gives a conception of his life as a unified whole. That is why ‘The unity of a human is the unity of a narrative quest’.

Through participation in a communal quest, MacIntyre argues, moral claims become more than merely subjective. The narrative quest consists not just in the goals that I set myself and the goods that I desire. It consists also in the goals and the goods of the community in which I am embedded. It is that social embeddedness that allows me to rise above my own desires and to understand those desires in broader, more objective terms.

MacIntyre’s view of morality as emerging through collective endeavour is important, as is his insistence that through such collective endeavour morality rises above the subjective and the relative. His concept of the collective is, however, flawed. For MacIntyre, as it was for Burke, and Bradley, a tradition is a collective bound primarily by its past, and one whose social relationships are enforced through authority. What is significant about a tradition, for MacIntyre, is that its history imposes a claim upon the present. ‘What I am’, MacIntyre insists, ‘is in key part what I inherit’. I always exist as ‘part of a history’ and ‘whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not’, even if I reject the burden, I remain always ‘one of the bearers of a tradition.’

The problem with Enlightenment conceptions of morality, MacIntyre argues, is the insistence that the moral agent has ‘to be able to able to stand back from any and every situation… and to pass judgement on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view’. But, MacIntyre insists, such a God’s eye view is impossible. Moral clarity comes not through detachment from society or tradition but through embeddedness in it. Not only can one not be detached from society or tradition, any more than one can be detached from one’s body, but anyone who was so detached would possess no moral clarity because her moral sense would have nothing to ground it and so would float as free as her supposed detached self.

But if an individual cannot tear himself away from his social grounding, if he cannot rise above ‘the family, the neighbourhood, the city, the tribe’ and look upon them in a more objective fashion untainted by the relationships that have fashioned him, how can he be critical of the society, community or culture in which he is embedded? How can he challenge its ways of thinking and being? And how can there be any form of social or moral progress, or even change?

bosch garden of earthly delights

The problem faced by MacIntyre is the mirror image of that faced by a liberal individualist. The one seems incapable of acknowledging the social roots of moral agency, the other unable to explain how individual agency emerges out of social grounding. We can, however, while rejecting the idea of morality as being created by isolated individuals, also think of social embeddedness in a different way to MacIntyre, in terms not of tradition but of transformation. Movements for social transformation are defined less by a sense of a shared past (though most draw upon historical traditions) than by the ambition of a common future. They represent a social journey shaped not by the demands of the point of departure but by the hopes invested in the destination. With the coming of modernity, as the necessity of traditions gave way to the possibilities of collective change, so a new question was posed. People now asked themselves not simply ‘What moral claims are rational given the social structure?’, but also ‘What social structures are rational?’ What kind of society, what types of social institutions, what forms of social relations, will best allow moral lives to flourish?

In thinking neither of isolated individuals, nor of fixed traditions, but of social transformation, we also avoid the polarization between the God’s eye view and the worm’s eye view, between morality as abstract and universal and morality as concrete and contingent. Consider, for instance, slavery. There are no circumstances in which it is right for one human being to enslave another. Slavery is universally wrong. Yet, the social conditions of the premodern world, the inability of such societies to raise their productive capacities, ensured that slavery remained woven into the social fabric. Not until the emergence of capitalism did the social and economic conditions for the abolition of slavery come into being. There were certainly arguments against slavery in the premodern world. Such opposition to slavery was rational from a God’s eye view, but not necessarily when viewed against the background of the societies in which the critics lived. Aristotle and Augustine were wrong in their support for slavery. And yet, there was something rational in their arguments given the social conditions of their time.

Not till modernity could slavery be seen as wrong not just from a universal perspective but from the local perspective, too. And not till modernity did opposition to slavery become rational from both a universal and a local perspective. The significance of modernity was that it made it possible to align that which was rational from the viewpoint of both the universal and the contingent by making possible social transformation. Here is the ‘something more’ that takes moral claims above subjective desires or local needs without at the same time making them objective in the way of a scientific truth.


The paintings are, from top down, Francis Bacon’s ‘Second Version of Tryptich’, Pablo Picasso’s ‘The Charnel House’, Eugène Delacrois’ ‘Liberty Leading the People’, Paul Gaugin’s ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ and Hieronymus Bosch’s’ The Garden of Earthly Delights’.


  1. Excellent extract, thanks and great choice of paintings …I’m looking forward to your “Moral Compass” which I have pre-ordered. I follow your blogs which I value and wonder if you are prompted to blog with your “take” on lobbying? – As you will guess I am currently reading Tamasin Cave & Andy Rowell’s recent book …

    • Thank you. I haven’t read the Cave and Rowell book yet. However, I am wary of the campaign against lobbying – I would not wish to give the state powers that could too easily become a means of restricting wider political activity.

  2. michaelfugate

    In MacIntyre’s view why would purpose be any easier for humans to determine than morality is? Both seem to be entirely inventions of organisms living in groups.

    • MacIntyre’s point is not that purpose is easier to determine than morality. It is rather that without an externally-defined goal to which humans can aspire, morality becomes meaningless, because, he argues, it becomes impossible to distinguish between the way that we actually are and the way that we should be. I agree that such goals are, and can only be, established by humans (though that does not necessarily undermine MacIntyre’s argument).

  3. LT

    I loved your article. It’s wonderful. I would just include one additional perspective:
    Morality of transcendence (with a view to telos) can be contrasted to morality of preservation (seeking to guard us from falling prey or being manipulated by our “instincts” or genetics). One new piece of information is information about the different moral systems operating in ape societies. These moralities evolve socially and perhaps even genetically, as shown by evidence from Bonobo vs. Chimpanzee differences (see the book Demonic Males).
    A morality of preservation can also be forward looking but 1. it focuses on the good that we know we have in us, seeking to preserve and enhance that part and 1. it is forward looking with a view to balance which only a science like biology/ecology can give. For instance, too much enhancement of a particular disposition may knock a system out of balance. In a way the telos of a morality of preservation is instinctual balance or health. Any other type of telos is exogenous.

  4. Manoj

    I shall purchase this books several times for my reading and as a gift for family and friends. Thanks for creating a platform .

  5. Hi Kenan

    I think ‘After Virtue’ does indeed show a possible way out of the current morality quagmire, and that it is possible for the individual to transcend his or her own individual circumstances and arrive at a more objective morality by means of a social transformation project. I also agree wholeheartedly with your criticism of MacIntyre and his past-oriented outlook. It is fairly clear that no tradition currently exists that could immediately be used to cohere a majority around a social purpose. However, I’m not entirely convinced that purpose, and therefore morality, should be defined purely in relation to the ambition of a common future. A purely future-oriented outlook may be equally difficult to cohere people around, and the battle of competing visions of the future may not be enough for moral authority to gain purchase on the collective imagination.

    I think the missing element here is the present. Not so much in terms of what is obviously in the here and now, but in terms of the positive, progressive forces that are latent in society and very often misinterpreted when experienced. These forces point to the future, but they exist very much in the present, and could come to the fore through a socially transformative movement or act. In proving these forces politically (ie. through a social process involving people, discussion of ideas, etc) and coming to understand them and what they imply about the structure of society, we thereby gain the authority that comes from knowledge. Not just knowledge of facts, but a much deeper knowledge of the present, and from this comes the authority connected with the moral ought, linking the individual to a more objective morality.

    So MacIntyre’s weakness is not that he looks to the past but that he strays from the present. The social purpose that MacIntyre seeks but ultimately determines somewhat arbitrarily (as highlighted by michaelfulgate in the comment above) stems from his not seeking a profounder grasp of present realities.

    Notwithstanding that, I think The Quest for a Moral Compass will possibly be the most significant publication since After Virtue, possibly since Summa Contra Gentiles.

    • Thank you – though even in my most optimistic moments I would not wish to compare The Quest for a Moral Compass with Summa Contra Gentiles. As for the point about the importance of the present, I wouldn’t disagree with you. I would add, though, that it is not possible to conceive of ‘social transformation’ without having a social vision of the future.

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