Moral compass

The Quest for a Moral Compass is now out in paperback. And, to accompany the new edition. I am publishing a number of extracts from the book. This extract, from Chapter 19, ‘Confucianism, Communism and the Clash of Civilizations’, sets out many of the themes of the book against the background of the changing balance of power between China and the West. You can buy The Quest for a Moral Compass in most bookshops, through Amazon or from my Pandaemonium bookstore.

nine dragons scroll

From The Quest for a Moral Compass, pp 329-335

‘With the rise of China’, Martin Jacques writes in his book When China Rules the World, ‘Western universalism will cease to be universal – and its values and outlook will become steadily less influential. The emergence of China as a global power in effect relativizes everything.’ The transformation of China into an economic superpower raises important and challenging questions about how we perceive the world. Our understanding of history and culture will unquestionably change. The Era of the Warring States may come to be seen as significant as the Peloponnesian War, or 1911, the end of the dynastic era, as important a date as 1789, and the fall of the French monarchy. Kongzi, Mo Tzu and Zhu Xi may become as well known as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. Lu Xun could be regarded as fine a writer as James Joyce.

But what about our understanding of morality? To what extent will the rise of China and the decline of Europe and America transform the way we understand moral values? Will universalism be seen merely as a form of Western particularism? To what extent will ‘everything be relativised’?

The story of this book is the story of how the centre of gravity of moral thinking has historically shifted. In the ancient world, Greece, Israel, Persia, India and China were all sources of civilization and of distinctive moral philosophies. The concepts that developed at each source were shaped by the particularities of the local culture and social needs; there were, nevertheless, also common themes that spanned continents, from the idea of virtue to the Golden Rule. The rise of monotheism, and in particular of Christianity, transformed the discussion of ethics in Europe, establishing the idea of rule-based morality, guided and anchored by a divine intelligence, and developing ideas of universalism. The emergence of Islam at the end of the first millennium CE, and its expansion through the beginning of the second, created a new centre of intellectual gravity. Drawing upon the heritage of Greece, Persia and India, as well as the Judaic and Christian traditions, the Islamic Empire came to be a bridge both between the Ancient world and early modernity and between East and West. The only empire that in its day could challenge the philosophical and technological supremacy of the Islamic Empire was China, where the arrival of Buddhism from India triggered a renaissance in Confucian thinking. What we can see in this history is not moral progress, in the sense we can witness scientific or technological progress, but the maturing, development and deepening of moral philosophy.

mf husain indian festivals

In the millennia either side of the birth of Christ, the development of moral thought ranged across the world. In the second millennium CE, however, it became increasingly focused upon the West. There have certainly been major moral thinkers from outside Europe and America in the second millennium, from Zhu Xi to Ibn Rushd, from Anton Wilhelm Amo to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, from Frantz Fanon to Fung Yu Lan. Nevertheless, the key thinkers, ideas and movements came to a large degree from the West.

In part, Western influence on moral development reflected the economic and political power of the West. Not only was Europe (and later America) at the heart of philosophical, cultural and scientific progress, but colonialism, imperialism and globalization spread these ideas across the globe and forced all other intellectual traditions to be understood against the background of Western thought. As the great student of Indian thought Wilhelm Halbfass writes, Europe ‘brought about the historical situation within which India and Europe came to face each other… to speak and listen to one another’. As a result ‘even in their rejection of, or their self-affirmation against, European ideas and orientations, modern Indian thinkers are not free from such ideas. Explicit or implicit reference to the West, and membership in a Westernized world, is an irreversible premise of modern Indian thought.’

For some contemporary thinkers it is only because of Western power that Western ideas have lodged in the global imagination. Over the past three decades, postcolonial theory has made the link between the physical subjugation of the Third World through colonialism and the intellectual subordination of non-Western ideas, history and values. Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, postcolonial theorists argue, so Western intellectuals impose their knowledge upon the rest of the world. Western thought, the historian Robert Young believes, ‘articulates a philosophical structure which uncannily stimulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism’. Western knowledge ‘mimics… the geographic and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West.’

It is, however, implausible to imagine the ascendency of Western philosophy as the result of nothing more than naked power. Ideas themselves possess power. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Locke’s concept of liberty, Kant’s categorical imperative, Marx’s critique of capitalism – such ideas caught the global imagination not simply because they could hitch a ride on the back of empire but also because they provided a plausible explanation about how the natural world might work, or because they addressed urgent social or political needs. Consider the concept of universalism. This was not the product of Western imperialism. Its origins lie in the Ancient world, elements to be found in Stoicism, Buddhism and Mohism. Greek notions of universalism and cosmopolitanism became filtered through Christianity and Islam before being secularized in the Enlightenment. What made Enlightenment universalism different was not simply the intellectual content (though the concept became transformed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) but also the social context. In the Ancient world universalism could be nothing more than a dream or a desire because social constraints precluded the possibility of realizing it. Modernity brought with it the possibility of breaking such constraints.

Vermeer Astronomer

The intellectual, economic, social and political revolutions that swept through Europe from the seventeenth century onwards laid the foundations for the soaring power of a handful of European nations. They made possible a new kind of empire with unprecedented global reach. At the same time, these changes created also the intellectual and social mechanisms for challenging that power and that empire, conjuring up new kinds of collectives, new forms of collective action, and new moral and political ideals, such as those of liberty, equality, democracy and rights. Or, to put it another way, what made Enlightenment ideas truly universal was that they became weapons in the hands of those that fought Western imperialism, as Toussaint L’Ouverture and many others recognized. The ideals of liberty, equality, democracy and rights are not specific to the West. They were applicable to Haitians, to Indians and to South Africans. They are applicable to the Chinese today.

It is true that philosophers like Jiang Qing and many of his supporters in the West suggest that China’s specific history and culture requires that it tread its own path to modernity. The Chinese, Martin Jacques insists, ‘live in and through their history, however distant it may be, to a degree which is quite different from other societies’. China is not a nation state but a ‘civilization state’. The distinctiveness of Chinese culture and history, Jacques argues, has afforded it a distinctive set of ideals and it cannot be expected either to adopt ‘Western values’ or to follow the ‘Western path’ to modernity.

These are not new arguments. They ironically echo ones heard in Europe two centuries ago as Romantics and conservatives railed against the revolutionary aims of Enlightenment philosophes. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder insisted that what each people or nation unique was its culture: the language, literature, history and modes of living that expressed the unchanging spirit of a people. The values, beliefs and histories of different peoples were incommensurate, each culture authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment. ‘Let us follow our own path’, Herder beseeched, ‘let men speak of our nation, our literature, our language: they are ours, they are ourselves, let that be enough.’

Herder was no conservative. Critical he may have been of many Enlightenment beliefs, but at the heart of Herder’s philosophy remained a deep-seated belief in equality and in universal human capacities. Not so for the conservatives, such as Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, who used arguments about cultural authenticity and difference to make a case against democracy and equality, to defend tradition and hierarchy, and to demonize the racial Other.

It is, in other words, not the specialness of Chinese civilization that leads Jiang and Jacques to suggest that it should reject universalist ideas, or that such ideas are merely European. Rather, the idea that a particular culture or civilization is special has historically been used to challenge universalist claims, including in Europe.

Romantic ideas of cultural distinctiveness have recently been recycled through the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. First coined by the historian Bernard Lewis, the idea was popularized in the 1990s by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. Such struggles would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The ‘people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy’. Huntingdon identified a number of distinct civilizations, including Confucian, Japanese, Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox, Latin American and African. The primary struggle would, he thought, be between the Christian West and the Islamic East. It is, indeed, as part of the ‘war on terror’ that the thesis has primarily been deployed over the past decade. But, as the arguments of Jiang and Jacques show, it may soon become a key theme in discussions about China.

Bosch The Garden of Earthly Delights

Civilizations, however, are not self-enclosed entities. They are ‘civilizations’ precisely because they are porous, fluid, open to wider influences. There are no historically transcendent civilizational values. What today we describe as ‘Western’ values would leave Aquinas and Dante bewildered, and even more so Augustine and Plato. On the other hand, Aquinas and Dante would have understood the Islamic values of Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd. They would probably have understood the values of Konzi better than they would those of Bentham or Mill, Nietzsche or Sartre, Dewey or Moore. It is equally questionable whether Kong would recognize his philosophy in the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi, the New Confucianism of Fung Yu Lan, or even the return to ‘authentic’ Confucian thought of Jiang Qing. In any case, Chinese moral philosophy is not synonymous with Confucianism. Certainly, Confucianism has dominated the public sphere and has been indispensible in securing social order. But there have been many other philosophies that have also shaped Chinese culture – Mohism, Daoism, and Buddhism to name but three. Equally, there are a number of Western conservative, communitarian, even radical traditions that accept, in part or in whole, Jiang’s critique of democracy, his excoriation of rampant individualism, his desire to restore the ethical importance of the community.

The real conflict is not between the ideas of Europe and those of China. It is between those philosophies, some that have developed in Europe, some in China, that view human flourishing in more universalist terms, and those, again that are present in both European and Chinese traditions, that understand it in a more narrow, parochial way.

One of the key problems in contemporary discussions of the ‘war on terror’ has been the view, held by both jihadis and by many in the West, that what we are witnessing is a global struggle between the West and Islam, a clash of civilizations between two monolithic blocs. The consequence has been, on both sides, a demonization of the Other. We should be wary of a similar polarization in the discussions about the relationship between China and the West. The rise of China as a world power will inevitably unsettle the debate about morality. But it will not simply set up a clash of civilizations between the ideals of China and those of the West – unless we choose to frame it so.



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

Buy The Quest for a Moral Compass through the Pandaemonium bookstore.


The paintings are, from top down, detail of the Nine Dragons scroll by Chen Rong; a triptych from MF Husain’s ‘Indian Civilizations’ series; Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer’; and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’.

One comment

  1. My problem with arguments about the moral non-comensurability of civilisations is simply that they invariably boil down someone insisting that society should recognise and enforce some sort of commensurability of people, a commensurability that is almost always to the advantage of the insister (or, more peculiarly, defending someone else’s right to do this). The historical innovation of liberalism, and what makes it morally distinctive, is that it condemns any political system predicated on the commensurability of human beings as immoral and unacceptable, and the historical progress of liberalism is essentially the history of the broadening recognition of various ‘others’ as belonging to that category of non-comensurable human beings. It’s not clear to me why this is an ontologically western idea any more than newtonian physics is an ontologically western idea. It is just, like newtonian physics, an idea that needed historical time to emerge.

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