Moral compass

These are the early reviews of The Quest for a Moral Compass – and very heartening they are too. You can read the opening section of the book, and a talk I gave about it at the Glasgow Aye Write Festival. And you can buy the book from the Pandaemonium bookshop. I will publish later reviews in time.


Anthony Kenny, Literary Review , May 2014

Kenan Malik invites his readers to consider the following questions. Can the mind be understood scientifically, and morality objectively? Can morality be reduced to the pursuit of rational self interest? Are desires and dispositions naturally given or socially created? Do humans possess moral choice? Can we transform human nature?

In The Quest for a Moral Compass Malik offers a guided tour of the moral systems of the past. As a guide he is informative and in general accurate, though some controversial statements are made deadpan and specialists will find points of detail to query. Each past moralist is treated in obituary style. First he is placed with an initial lively story or literary allusion (for example, The Name of the Rose for Aristotle, Free Fall for Hegel) and then we are given the main facts of his life, with an account of his teachings and importance. Finally, we are offered a critical evaluation, which is almost always pertinent, sober and humane.

Malik’s style is lucid and engaging. As an illustration of his gift for illuminating comparison we may quote his comment on Kant’s famous dictum ‘Concepts without percepts are empty . . . percepts without concepts are blind’, which is glossed as follows:

The empiricist mind was like an old drawer into which all manner of odds and ends had been thrown without thought. The rationalist mind was akin to a beautiful museum exhibition case but without any objects. Only a Kantian mind was both rich in treasure and well ordered.

During 14 of the chapters we are taken on a path well trodden by standard histories of Western philosophy, such as those by Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston. The commentary however, is more sober than Russell’s and more sparkling than Copleston’s. On our journey we meet familiar figures: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre (this last given favoured treatment).There are some surprising gaps in the narrative. Duns Scotus, for instance, for all his closeness in time to Aquinas, differed from him at Ieast as much as Aristotle did from Plato and had a much greater influence on subsequent moral philosophy. In a book devoted to Eastern as well as Western philosophy we might have expected to read more about Schopenhauer, who did his best to marry the two.

Nonetheless, there are half a dozen chapters that entitle the book to its claim of being a global history Chapter 5 introduces us to the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha. Chapter 6 deals with Confucius (whom we are encouraged to call Kong), Mo Tzu, Lao Tzu and Zhu Xi. Rational, reforming worldly Confucianism is contrasted with mystical, quietist, otherworldly Buddhism.

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Malik observes that in the middle centuries of the first millennium BC – Karl Jaspers’s ‘Axial Age’ – social turbulences of a comparable kind occurred in China, India, Persia, Israel and Greece, crises in which ‘the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently’ in each of these regions-. He makes an interesting comparison between Hinduism and Christianity. In each religion, he points out, ‘free will in the past becomes an explanation for fatedness in the present’. That is to say, present constraints on our freedom explained in Christianity by the past sin of our first ancestors and in Hinduism by the karma transmitted from those in whom we were incarnate before our birth.

Two chapters are devoted to Islam and to the two main strands of its philosophy – the traditional (propounded by al-Ghazali) and rationalist (al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd). We are introduced to Al-Ma’arri, called the ‘Eastern Lucretius’ because of his ‘unflinching religious scepticism’. Later in the book, there are illuminating chapters on the ethics of colonial liberation and on the philosophical history of recent China. There is a particularly instructive account of the work neo-Confucian Jiang Qing (born in 1953).

In his narrative Malik devotes as much attention to religion as to ethics. But he resolutely denies that ethics has to be based on religion. ‘There was no burning bush on Mount Sinai. There was no resurrection three days after the crucifixion. And there was no Angel Gibreel in a cave on Mount Hira. But the belief that there was has, in each case, helped shape not just a faith but a moral outlook too.’

In the course of a panoramic vision so many horizons, it is inevitable that there should be distortions of perspective. Malik overemphasises what he calls ‘the chasm between the ancient concept of the primacy of the polis and the modern view of individual liberty’. It can well be argued that the state has a greater primacy in Hegel it does in Aristotle. Again, it is wrong that virtue theory was the dominant ethical view in the West from classical times until Bentham and Kant. That is made clear by the author himself in his chapter on the law morality of the Jewish and Christian Bible. Likewise it is incorrect to say that the idea of individual happiness as the supreme concept was first challenged by Kant’s ethics of duty. Anselm and Scotus in the Middle Ages had already done so.

Historians of philosophy, like other historians, may be tempted to take a Whiggish view, seeing the past as a story of progress towards a present that is superior to and supersedes all that has preceded it. There are moments when Malik appears to succumb to this temptation. For instance, he says that Bentham transformed ethical thinking in two ways: by insisting that right and should be defined by consequence, and by denying that certain kinds of action are intrinsically wrong. At first it looks as if he thinks this transformation was an improvement, but he soon makes clear that he does not believe these were changes for the better. The subsequent history of consequentialism, he says, ‘reveals the difficulty in thinking about moral acts without passing judgement on the intrinsic worth of those acts’.

There are, we are told, ‘no historically transcendent civilizational values’: ‘What today we describe as “Western” values would leave Aquinas and Dante bewildered, even more so Augustine and Plato.On the other hand Aquinas and Dante would have understood the Islamic values ofl Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd.’ Nonetheless, Malik is no moral relativist, He accepts, of course, that ends and goods vary from place to place, from time to time and from problem to problem. But he does not deny the possibility of universal moral principles and values. Historical shifts in moral concepts do not reveal moral ideas to be merely subjective or arbitrary. For instance, there are no circumstances in which it is right for one human being to enslave another.

We may ask finally: does the global history of ethics exhibit any progress, or only contingent variation consequent on social change? Kenan Malik answers that we cannot see in history any moral progress in the sense that we can witness scientific or technological progress. But what we can see, he claims, is ‘the maturing development and deepening of moral philosophy’. But as we put down this fascinating book we are left wondering: is it really so obvious that Bentham was a more profound moral philosopher than Aristotle or Aquinas?


Jonathan Sacks, The Tablet, 26 April 2014

Anthony McCall

Morality has become the great unspeakable. Pass a moral judgement and you will be accused of judgmentalism. Defend a traditional institution like marriage and you will be branded either a relic or a fanatic. More than 30 years ago, in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that we were all living, unaware, among the wreckage of multiple moral systems, some ancient, others formulated in the wake of the Enlightenment, each incompatible with the others. Robert Bellah lamented in the words of John Donne, ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.’

Three cheers therefore for Kenan Malik’s impressive new survey The Quest for a Moral Compass. 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. I was once present at a global forum on the economic future when the former head of the World Bank, Sir James Wolfensohn, was asked what advice he would give his grandchildren. ‘Learn Mandarin’ was his blunt answer. After reading this book we would probably add, ‘And read the neo-Confucians’.

Malik’s judgements are generous and the broad thrust of his narrative is surely right. It begins with the pre-Socratics in an age when human beings were conscious of their powerlessness against vast and capricious forces that played havoc with human devices and desires. It was their achievement to create a space for human dignity and honour in the face of blind and inexorable fate. Then came the two approaches that between them created the matrix of Western civilisation until the modern age: the Greek philosophers’ attempt to ground morality in reason and nature, and the Judaeo-Christian location of authority in the word and will of God.

Both were undermined by the Enlightenment. Natural science cast doubt on Aristotelian physics and the idea that purposes were discernible in nature. And after a century of religious wars in the wake of the Reformation, philosophers sought a foundation for morality that did not rest on contentious religious presuppositions. Some, like Hume, sought it in emotion and the ‘moral sense’. Others, notably Kant, found it in reason and duty. Bentham and Mill argued in favour of judging acts by their consequences. But Kant had unwittingly placed an explosive device in the moral landscape. By insisting on autonomy – self-legislation – he introduced a fateful ambiguity into Western intellectual discourse. This could mean that to be moral we have to internalise the norms of the society or community of which we are a part. But it could also be taken to mean that we are each to become our own moral legislators, with the predictable result that we would end with the chaos described at the end of the Book of Judges: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’

It would eventually be Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who took Western thought down the second road, Nietzsche by his assault on the Judaeo-Christian ethic as the revenge of the powerless against the powerful, Kierkegaard by his ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’, arguing that obedience to God might take precedence over morality itself. These were hazardous ideas and the result was disarray. Dewey’s pragmatism, Moore’s intuitionism, Ayer and Stevenson’s emotivism were all in their way confessions of failure to find an objective basis for ethics in reason or revelation. The late Philip Rieff summarised this entire history as the journey from fate to faith to fiction.

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When I reached this point in my own quest for a moral compass – after being tutored by some of the world’s leading thinkers, among them Bernard Williams, Philippa Foot and Roger Scruton – I recognised the blind alley philosophy had wandered into and I turned instead to religion. An accidental encounter a decade later with MacIntyre’s After Virtue renewed my love of philosophy. MacIntyre did for ethics what Isaiah Berlin did for political thought: gave it back its history and dignity.

The person who saw this first, as Malik rightly notes, was the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in the late 1950s. She was the first in the English-speaking academy fully to realise that the moral language we were using presupposed an Aristotelian understanding of nature and a Judaeo-Christian faith that no longer shaped the shared culture of late modernity. We were using words that had lost their setting in life. That is now our tragedy and challenge. This, Malik concludes, can be either disconcerting or exhilarating. Eras of great civilisational change tend to produce new thinking about ways in which we can live justly and graciously together, the task of ethics through the ages. We are living through such a time today, and in terms of ethical reflection we have hardly begun. New discoveries about the structure of the universe, the nature of the human genome, the plasticity of the brain and the rapidly escalating power of artificial intelligence are forcing us to think again about what it is to be human in the company of others in a world full of danger and diversity.

Inevitably, in a study of this scope there are omissions. I would have liked to have seen more on love and forgiveness, on the difference between shame- and guilt-cultures, on Michael Walzer’s distinction between thin and thick moral concepts – those that express our universal humanity and those that embody the particularities of our traditions – as well as something on that most resonant of all contributions of the Bible to moral thought, the idea that we are each, despite our differences, in the image and likeness of God. These though are minor cavils. We are all in Kenan Malik’s debt. This is a majestic and timely work.


The Independent, 20 April 2014

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If you happen to be cogitating on the possibility of a degree course in philosophy, you must read this book. If you are not, you probably ought to read it anyway: it will do you moral good. As a survey of philosophical thought, Kenan Malik’s narrative is a terrific achievement. Ranging from Socrates to Richard Dawkins, from China to Haiti, from dry ethics to poetry, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a work of highly readable history much more than it is a philosophical treatise.

Malik takes a chronological approach to his subject, illuminating how successive generations of thinkers have sought to reconcile the perennial paradoxes which underscore human existence. There are the usual themes: free will versus fate; individualism within society; reason against desire; the relativism of truth. As men and women have struggled to understand the purpose of their lives, so philosophers down the ages have attempted to provide explanations and enable progress. Yet Malik does more than simply summarise what key figures have said at various stages. Throughout the book he highlights connections between key strands of thought over time. In discussing the development of Mohism, Malik glances ahead to western utilitarians. When we arrive at 20th-century cultural relativism, there are neat reminders of how some of the relativists’ key ideas had been foreshadowed in the writing of Herodotus.

All this is done with a deft touch. Even where there is repetition of major points, it feels helpful rather than irritating. There are also flashes of humour: Aristotle may have been the most influential figure in the history of philosophy but, as Malik puts it, he could occasionally be pretty trite: ‘No one could disagree with the advice but one would hardly need to be Aristotle to give it.’

Malik rightly endeavours to understand philosophical theories – and their development, both short- and long-term – by reference to their historical contexts. As he notes: ‘… notions of right and wrong are historically flexible. That, after all, is the story of this book. But … moral changes do not happen on a whim; they are not arbitrary or random. Changes in notions of right and wrong do not merely follow their own course but are related to broader social, economic, political and intellectual shifts.’

If there is a criticism of The Quest for a Moral Compass it is that this central ‘story’ is hardly novel. While it might not be the starting point for a philosopher, it certainly is for academic history. Indeed, most serious contemporary historians would surely regard it as little more than a statement of the obvious, which suggests that Malik’s critique of Aristotle might occasionally apply to himself.

Ultimately, says Malik, the quest for a moral compass remains ongoing and should be embraced. It remains to be seen whether a recent article on the entertainment website Buzzfeed headlined ‘19 Philosophers Ranked by Hotness’ is a demonstration that humankind’s attempts to synthesise the ‘man as he is’ and ‘man as he could be’ dialectic have finally reached the mainstream.


The photos are from the 2013 Light Show at London’s Hayward Gallery.

One comment

  1. Congratulations! It’s great to see your significant efforts appreciated. Looking forward to reading this when it is released in the US.

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