Moral compass

This is a round-up of the latest reviews of The Quest for a Moral Compass. On my Books page are all the reviews so far. You can buy the book from the Pandaemonium bookshop in Britain and the USA.

Jonathan Israel
New Humanist,
Winter 2014

There could be no more daunting intellectual task than setting out to write a history of moral thought from the ancient Greeks until now. Yet there is no neater way of combining philosophy, religion, intellectual history, general history and just about everything imaginable relating to the human condition. To bring it off you need to know a lot in many fields, be up-to-date in your reading and have the ambition to be a true philosopher. Finally, you must be sufficiently familiar with non-European contexts and perspectives to be able to consider whether any scheme of universal basic values, rights and ordering of right and wrong can overcome the disabling charge of ‘Eurocentrism’.

Central to the story, of course, is the strained relationship of moral thought to religion. In his new book The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, during a brief but incisive passage on the medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Kenan Malik remarks that this fascinating thinker’s philosophy, which made a profound impact on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for all its novelty and originality, returns us to a perennial dilemma originally highlighted by Plato: ‘either goodness is divinely defined but arbitrary, or it is rational but exists independently of the gods.’

That dilemma is what ties the preoccupation with moral thought together in ancient, medieval and modern philosophy and, equally, connects the quest to understand goodness in the West, the East and everywhere else. However much this is an essentially philosophical and theological question, moreover, it exudes vast practical implications and consequences for everyone. Traditionalists had no difficulty with the arbitrariness of god’s demands, and his privileging of believers over unbelievers, as long as there were enough believers who unquestioningly accepted the dictates of religious authority to impose it on everyone, whether they liked it or not. But what happens when this ceases to be the case, or the believers are successfully challenged and checked by unbelievers? New forms of compulsion and censorship become necessary in the view of many, or most, but are opposed by others. Philosophically, the rationalists could never accept the notion of god imposing irrational and arbitrary moral and social demands. But what do they do in their everyday life and conversation when society tells them that they must submit to this idea, willingly or not? In Ibn Rushd’s time and elsewhere, it produced clandestine underground movements of subversive ideas – in his case, rather ironically, more in Christian Europe than in the Islamic world.

The backbone of Malik’s book consists of brief, but not too brief, outlines of all the key philosophers’ moral strivings and quests, and the pithy outlines he provides of the moral engines of great world religions like Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. In each case, the account is centred on that creed’s ethical and social distinctiveness and legacy to mankind generally, showing how differently each not so much created afresh as creatively reconfigured the world moral order out of previous elements. The result is a philosophical-theological drama that is thoroughly absorbing, has much to say to everyone and is generally useful to young and old, learned and not so learned alike, in a way that very few books are. That is quite an achievement.

The modern dominance of Western thought is dealt with in a refreshingly novel manner. There have always been shifting centres of intellectual gravity in the history of moral thought. Greece, ancient Palestine, Persia, India and China have all at different times been focal points that exerted a wide influence beyond their borders. Each tradition of moral thought was distinctively shaped by local conditions, but then went on to exert a compelling attraction over much wider areas, and continues to do so. Buddhism has many advocates in the West today, as does Islam. Each tradition seeks to present its rationality, cultural richness, humanism and social forms in an increasingly advantageous light to the moral explorer.

As new centres of intellectual gravity emerged, older ones were not so much pushed aside as obliged to recede. so there is nothing inherently perverse, distorted or imperialistic about the fact that in recent ages the ‘key thinkers, ideas and movements came primarily from the West’. This is why the second half of Malik’s book ‘does not hop across the globe as the first half does’. Undeniably, it was the West’s economic expansion – colonialism, imperialism and finally globalisation – that rapidly spread modern Western ideas across the face of the globe, but it is equally true that it is precisely this expansion of the West that brought India, China and the West face to face, and forced all our religious, moral and philosophical traditions to consider each other, and at the same time en- counter themselves afresh, re-evaluating their own moral messages in relation to the ‘other’. If it is true that Indian thinkers today, even when powerfully affirming their own traditions and orientations, cannot free themselves from the challenge of the West, it is equally true that the West today cannot escape its entanglement with the great ethical and social systems of the non-European world.

Rothko Red, Blue over Black

Postmodernism is disposed of incisively. ‘Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, postcolonial theorists argue, so Western intellectuals impose their knowledge on the rest of the world’, Malik writes. But Western philosophy does not replicate the ways and methods of Western imperialism. its criteria and methods, but also its values, are completely different. So is its relationship to the non-European world, which is not one of subjugation and annexation, but of interaction and accommodation. The key concepts of Western secular modernity that are hardest to contest – universalism, democracy and individual liberty – were not, in reality, products of Western imperialism, and are actually not compatible with it. Anti-colonialism in modern times is as much a product of Western philosophy as of non-European thought, or more so. There are also other key Western ideas, such as Marx’s critique of capitalism, that have demonstrated an impressively wide appeal in every part of the globe but remain as much contested today in the West as anywhere else.

For those many readers in the West and East reluctant to see the Enlightenment as the source of those modern Western values that are most universal and hardest to challenge – democracy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, racial and gender equality and sexual emancipation – this book will present a formidable problem. For the entire force and logic of Malik’s account of mankind’s ‘quest for a moral compass’ stands or falls on his division between a moderate Enlightenment that compromised with faith and tradition, but also endorsed the monarchical-aristocratic social systems that powered the economic and military expansion of the West, and a radical Enlightenment that made no such compromises and was therefore the only kind of Enlightenment that was truly universal. Matthew Stewart recently demonstrated the universality, as well as the subversive character, of the democratic tendency within the American revolution in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2014). Malik is surely justified in insisting that ‘what made Enlightenment ideas truly universal was that they became weapons in the hands of those who fought Western imperialism, as Toussaint L’Ouverture and many others recognised. The ideals of liberty, equality, democracy and rights are not specific to the West.’

François Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803) is one of Malik’s heroes. A black slave born in Haiti under French colonial rule who obtained his freedom and some education before the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789, he began by leading a black revolt against the French from September 1791, but later allied with the democrats of the French Revolution in spreading universalist ideas of liberty and helping fight off the invading Spanish and British monarchist foes of the Haitian (and the French) revolution. It was only after Napoleon tried to reintroduce slavery into the French Caribbean in 1802 that Toussaint resumed full-scale war against the French. He was eventually captured and died in France, but not before he had been instrumental in securing Haiti’s independence and founding her Euro-African-Caribbean tradition of equality, liberty and human dignity. The key point that postmodernists regularly forget is that Toussaint’s revolution was ‘fuelled by the moral claims of the French revolution, the Rights of Man, and the universalist philosophy of the [Radical] Enlightenment’, but carried through by slaves of African descent. Malik is undoubtedly right about this. it is difficult to object, either historically or philosophically, to the argument that the Radical Enlightenment is the source of modern moral universalism; democracy and human rights for Africa and Asia no less than America and Europe. Malik affirms that where all enlighteners ‘recognised that to create a more moral society one had to create a more rational one’, only those embracing the principles of the Radical Enlightenment ‘accepted that to create such a rational society would require root and branch transformation’. It is central to Malik’s argument that the ‘revolutionary egalitarianism that arose out of the Enlightenment was positive and forward-looking’.

Admittedly, this pivotal idea has met a great deal of resistance recently from often eminent philosophers and historians. A surprisingly large number have tried to torpedo the notion of a Radical Enlightenment that is key to the genesis of democratic modernity, but one can hardly say their arguments make much sense. Anthony Pagden, for instance, recently published a work entitled The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (Oxford, 2013), in which democrats and conservative monarchists and defenders of aristocracy are all blithely and indiscriminately lumped together. The Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94) is held up as a hero but without differentiating Condorcet’s egalitarian, democratic Enlightenment from other sorts of Enlightenment, which merely creates a seriously unhelpful intellectual muddle. Many key enlighteners, like Voltaire and Hume, were opposed to democratic revolutions and defended the then dominant monarchical-aristocratic social systems and the morality of deference and submission that went with it.

So despite the protests against his approach, Malik is on firm ground. In explaining the origins of the Radical Enlightenment tendency, he briefly considers the pivotal role of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77): ‘More than any other moral philosopher before him, more even than Aristotle, Spinoza saw human nature as malleable, and emotions and desires not as given but as transformable. The most significant transformation, for Spinoza, was from being a slave to one’s passions to being an agent of one’s change.’ This opened the door to redefining the moral order as a system of good and bad that is relative to what is socially ‘good’ and ‘bad’, thereby simultaneously encouraging the development of the growing individual’s powers as a moral agent and the fundamental transformation of society to a more open and a more equal system. In this way, for the first time, the individual quest and the social quest for a moral compass become interconnected, interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Others, such as Bayle, Diderot, d’Holbach and Condorcet, then carried this philosophical-social project further into democratic modernity.

tantric painting

But along with much that is persuasive, it seems to me that there are two mistakes in Malik’s account of how we got to the modern, secular, free-thinking morality of the emancipated individual and of the Enlightenment, which need to be clearly identified. Malik sees the root of the modern ‘revolutionary idea of equality’ as lying earlier, in religiously shaped movements, such as that of the Levellers in England, that were associated with the radical Reformation. Some of the German Anabaptists, and the English Levellers, were certainly revolutionary, and undoubtedly developed some notion of equality. But their arguments were theological, and the revolutionary impulse in their movements is disconnected from any theory of individual liberty, equality of believers and non-believers, or freedom of expression and lifestyle. Lots of movements have been revolutionary, and lots have been egalitarian in authoritarian ways, without this necessarily lending itself to the emergence of a set of values capable of underpinning democracy, freedom of expression and universal human rights.

The other error that I see pertains to the relationship between Marxism and the Radical Enlightenment, to Malik’s bracketing Marx with radical enlighteners like Condorcet. To discuss Marxism in a history of moral thought, as Malik admits, is in itself somewhat paradoxical as many have concluded that Marx noticeably lacks a theory of ethics. Malik quotes Sombart as affirming, ‘Marxism is distinguished from all other socialist systems by its anti-ethical tendency’. This may not be strictly correct but it is certainly true that in Marxism, the need for the individual to develop his or her own powers of personal fulfilment, and to make basic choices affecting their pursuit of happiness, is marginalised. In several places, Malik describes Marxism as one of the ‘heirs’ to the radical Enlightenment, but it seems to me that this is misleading. During the 1830s and 1840s, and even more after the 1848 revolutions, the democratic republicans in France and elsewhere – men like Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin – felt themselves more and more under threat, not just from Marxism but the other socialist movements too. The problem was not just the political rivalry that developed between competing movements, nor that the radicals were uninterested in root-and-branch social reform. The tension lay, rather, in a major difference of emphasis.

For Marxists and other socialists, the source of human misery, oppression and wretchedness is a wrong economic system; the way to set things right is to change the economic system. At bottom, individual study and self-improvement are irrelevant. For the radical Enlightenment, by contrast, economic changes and especially better regulation may be and are needed, but the source of human misery and oppression is not the economic system but ignorance, bigotry, religious authority and trust in tradition. The way to set things right is through enlightened education, eliminating religious authority and changing the laws and institutions of society so as to strip out the theology and reflect the revolutionary new concept of justice based on racial and gender equality, freedom of thought and liberty of the individual. This is surely a fundamental difference.

But despite one or two possible errors of interpretation, Malik’s book is an admirable tour de force and there is little available to compare with it. Anyone with a serious interest in the history and nature of modernity and the human condition would be the poorer for not reading it.

hodgkin big lawn

Kirkus Review
17 September 2014

God is dead, says Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead, says God. Dead or not, Nietzsche is wrong, writes British neurobiologist and philosopher Malik – and so is sophist Thrasymachus, for that matter.

In a text that takes in well-known students of the topic and any number of obscurities (and even obscurantists), the author looks closely into the sticky business of ethics, both as distinct from and as adjunct to morals. In both, he approvingly quotes Alasdair MacIntyre as observing there’s a difference between humans as they are and humans as they could (and should) be. Cultures through time have differed markedly in their conceptions of the latter: The Greeks saw their gods as being ‘capricious, vain, vicious, and deceitful’—in short, much like us though much more powerful. Their vision of a messy, chaotic, violent world took on a more orderly mien in the worldview of Christians such as Augustine, who, Malik notes, found ways to justify slavery theologically. Malik takes care to distinguish moral universes in which humans are thought to have choice from those in which they do not, matters that feed into clashing ideologies today. Yet, as he writes, agency notwithstanding, all cultures have some notion of right and wrong, and all of us are naked, without protection, and in eminent danger of ‘falling off the moral tightrope that we are condemned to walk as human beings’. In a text that moves comfortably among cultures, continents and centuries, Malik delivers some of the best of what has been thought about ethical matters and some of the worst as well. Fans of Nietzsche (or perhaps of Leopold and Loeb, for that matter) won’t appreciate some of the author’s conclusions, but Malik is admirably evenhanded in considering the history of ethical thought.

An excellent survey for intermediate students of philosophy and a fine course in self-education for general readers.


Miriam Cosic
The Australian
23 August 2014

Several histories of philosophy aimed at the general reader have been published recently, with varying degrees of success. Most were organised in defence of a position: cosmopolitanism, say, or atheism. All were involved in some way with ethics, even if they purported to be about metaphysics, telling how we ought to behave as well as what we ought to believe. None, however, is as on-point yet as bracingly open-minded as Kenan Malik’s elegantly written The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics.

The title says it all. This is a history of philosophy, rather than a philosophy book as such, oriented to a precise question: how do we find moral systems for ourselves? Malik begins with the Greeks, and works his way conventionally through the history of Western moral philosophy, era by era, with illuminating detours through the moral philosophy of other cultures.

Yet Malik’s questions are not historical: they are absolutely of the moment. Do we require a deity to deliver, ratify and police morality? Is morality hardwired in humans? Is it a product of the political and social needs of the society in which it develops? Is there an ultimate morality we are reaching towards – the Western ideal of progress – or is morality an eternal work in progress? How do physical environment, politics, psychology, metaphysical belief, even intellectual fashion, affect it?

Malik makes historical moments come alive, demonstrating that all human inquiry is inquiry for all times. Christians who consider themselves religious today in the West think they fit firmly into a millennia-long tradition, hallowed by time, which is why they hold their beliefs with such certainty. If they returned to medieval times, however, when religion saturated every aspect of people’s lives and humans lived in terror of the devil and for the future of their souls, they would find themselves visiting a foreign country. Even more so in the 4th century, when the Nicene Creed was written, just before Christianity became Rome’s official ­religion, reinforcing the doctrine of the newly established Christian church in the face of a jostling marketplace of oppositional interpretations of Christ’s word.

All historical periods contain important messages for future generations. A bit of time travel, easy enough through the written word, might show those who hold moral certainties that their beliefs are tenuous at best. And that makes Malik’s journey not only fascinating as an intellectual exercise but compelling for anyone who thinks about the meaning and purpose of life, given the dangerous fissures in moral understanding in our globalised world. He shows us how morality is contingent and temporary, sometimes consciously provisional, mostly not, and eventually superseded by something else entirely.

He begins with the radical shift in thinking in Greek literature, in the centuries between Homer and Herodotus, between the recitation of the great mythical deeds of the past, when heroes and gods acted within the constraints of fate, the subject of tragedy, and the first glimmer of forensically gathered empirical history. By the time we get to Plato and Aristotle, human reason trumps gods, fate, tradition and the irresistible force of human emotions in the study of ethics.

For Aristotle, the study of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, concerned the whole man: his economic and social status, his temperament, self-discipline and more. It also concerned his own, self-directed actions towards others, and remains the basis of ‘virtue’ ethics today. (And remember that only the very few Greeks who were citizens of their state were involved in this: women and slaves didn’t count.) The successive affronts and honourable angers that fuelled the Trojan War were no longer interesting in any but theatrical terms.

Malik threads his way through the early monotheisms – Judaism and Christianity – and their various contributions to concepts of personal responsibility and universality. The Christian message was radically new: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Yet, as Malik points out, it was soon diluted: ‘In the space of four centuries, Christianity had transformed itself from a faith for the dispossessed to a “religion fit for gentlemen”.’

Next, Malik circles back to Hinduism. The Mahabharata is a monumental work, many times the size of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bible combined. It was codified, Malik writes, somewhere between ‘the creation of the Oresteia and the transformation of the Bible into a canonical text’ and, like both of those, was an attempt to bring order to chaos in transitional times. ‘(M)any of the moral quandaries at the heart of the Mahabharata echo those to be found in the Oresteia or the Book of Job. What is it to be good? Why do the righteous suffer? Is it possible to evade fate?’

liang quan sea of ancestors

Malik finds echoes everywhere – not only in anthropological terms, which is conventional ground, but also in spiritual and aesthetic terms too, in those illuminating moments that make moods electric. He describes the textual and textural differences between Islam and the other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, that it builds on: the way the Koran takes stories from both previous traditions but doesn’t weave them into a narrative.

The result, he explains, is a series of ‘episodic meditations’ on people’s relationship to God and to each other. Yet also it contains those similarly ecstatic moments that so mystify unbelievers in all religions. ‘The idea of the Qur’an as the perfect uncorrupted word of God’, he writes, ‘is, for Muslims, strengthened by the fact that Muhammad was illiterate, a condition that possesses the same emotional charge in the Islamic tradition that Mary’s virginity does in Christian belief: it is both ­evidence of a divine miracle and an expression of the Prophet’s personal purity.’

It was Muslims, of course, who preserved the texts of Greek philosophy while medieval Christianity was stoking the fires of the Inquisition. It was thanks to the Arabs that the Renaissance – the Western rebirth of learning, of science and philosophy – and the later Enlightenment, with its renewed emphasis on rational thought, were even possible. In two chapters devoted to Islam, Malik teases out the ethical ramifications of the religion and of its different sects, of its legalistic and its mystical wings, of rationalist Shia insistence on human responsibility and free will and their denial of predestination. Mediation between these traditions in Islam has been the preserve of legal scholars who were concerned with ‘moral action and religious duty rather than individual flourishing and human happiness’, Malik writes.

This finds its echo in the deontological branch of Enlightenment ethics, most especially in Kant, who placed duty above sentiment as the driver of morality. Kant is also seen as the poster boy for Enlightenment freedom, his words Sapare aude! (Dare to know!) its catchphrase. Malik’s narrative is idiosyncratic, however, and that is part of its charm. Rather than Kant, it is Spinoza, not one of the usual suspects, who was ‘arguably the philosopher who more than most has shaped modern thinking about freedom and equality and the possibility of a secular morality’.

Spinoza saw evil rooted not in some external demon-figure, capable of capturing the human soul, but in our own ignorance. Wisdom, he thought, brought knowledge of the human condition: that we love and hate, not by choice, but as a result of historical accident, chance association and previous conditioning. Like Buddhists, though it is unlikely he read their texts, Spinoza believed that blaming ­others and ourselves was pointless if actions are part of a vast, interconnected system of necessity.

How did this pop out of the Judeo-Christian tradition? And where does freedom come in? ‘The importance of Spinoza lies not in his claim that things cannot be otherwise’, Malik writes, ‘but in his belief that the human condition can be rationally understood and that out of this understanding emerge the tools with which we can transform ourselves.’ Cognitive behavioural therapy avant la lettre.

And so Malik goes on, through the abandonment of religion, even by those who still believed, as the motive force of moral philosophy, up to and including Marx, Nietzsche, Mao, Franz Fanon and the debates of different 20th-century schools of ethics. He prescribes nothing, just invites us to look and to consider. And he constantly asks us to take a step back and look at the equipment we use for orienting ourselves in the world: the moral compass of his title.

And so we find ourselves in the middle of a journey, not at or nearing its end as some ­Hegelian thinkers or believers in the conclusive and indisputable value of Western liberalism presume. Malik quotes TS Eliot as the epigraph for his concluding chapter: ‘We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all of our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’

‘Moral questions may not have objective answers but they do have rational ones’, Malik writes, ‘answers that are rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need.’ Rationality can barely keep up with the shape-shifting of social need and political organisation and newly insistent religious demands; demands that only seems to be speeding up.

Pierre Soulages

Sophia Vasalou
Times Higher Education Supplement
24 July 2014

We need ethics because we live in an imperfect world: this is one of the motifs of Kenan Malik’s ambitious history, which charts the rise and fall of ethical views from Homeric Greece and ancient Athens, to China, India and the Islamic world, and up to the present day. Moral codes, Malik tells us, grow out of social structures, and it is thus social changes that make moral changes possible. This is what makes the difference between bold ideals – such as the universalism espoused by pre-modern thinkers including the Stoics and the Mohists in China – that remain utopian dreams and those that successfully translate into social realities. Moral codes, conversely, often emerge in periods of social dislocation, when moral life has broken down and values must be regrounded. We may think of the transition from heroic society to more settled forms of civil life, which in the ancient Greek context provided the conditions for the ethical masterpieces of Plato and Aristotle. Similar stories can be told about the emergence of religious ethics, not only in the Abrahamic religions but also in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism.

The few histories of ethics we have often focus monocularly on the West, and some of the best known (such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue) tell the story of ethics in pursuit of specific arguments. Malik’s history is different in being more inclusive and less mobilised, and these features contribute not only to its strengths but also to its weaknesses.

The sheer sweep of The Quest for a Moral Compass, coupled with its interest in situating ethical ideas within their larger historical background, means it spreads itself extremely thin, and it often reads like a broad-brushstroke intellectual history of the world. This results, inevitably, in simplifications. One of Malik’s chapters on Islam, for example, is marred by the conflation of two distinct groupings under the moniker of ‘Rationalists’: Mu’tazilite theologians and Muslim thinkers inspired by Greek philosophy; it also says little about the significance of Sufism or Islamic law for Islamic ethics. Closer to the themes of the book, Malik overplays the ‘collectivism’ of ancient Greek ethics and its way of anchoring ethical judgements in social roles. Given the book’s scope, moreover, its failure to define its own storytelling quest – indeed, it plunges into its first topic without so much as an introductory word – is disconcerting, especially as the first chapters are the choppiest and the book’s themes take time to emerge.

In fact, the sense of morality as a quest, as Malik’s account suggests, is one that adheres to the latest stages of this long history. Will readers who come to the book with a sense of quest go away satisfied? One of the author’s claims is that the social changes of the modern period opened up possibilities of social transformation that displaced the ‘moral ought’ through a ‘political ought’ and made the key question how society should be changed. Except that – in the denouement of this history – the optimism of Enlightenment humanism has ceded, in our own times, to despair over the prospects of social transformation. Malik quotes Michael Ignatieff: we eat well, we drink well, but ‘we do not have good dreams’. What would it take for us to dream? Despite the vague gesture towards possibilities of meaning-making at the end of the book, this is not a question it answers.


The paintings are, from top down, Mark Rothko’s ‘Red and Blue over Black’; an anonymous Tantric painting from 17th century Rajasthan; Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Big Lawn’; Untitled by Koorosh Shihegaran; Liang Quan’s Ancestors’ Sea; and Untitled by Pierre Soulage. 

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