Moral compass

This is the text of my talk at the Galle Literary Festival Last week.

What can the history of morality tell us about the nature of morality? And about ourselves as human beings? These are the questions at the heart of what I want to explore today.

For some, the questions themselves might seem absurd. There is a widespread perception of morality as occupying a sphere of its own. We imagine that morality can, and should, be understood in its own terms. After all, if torture is wrong today, then it must have been wrong, too, in the time of Confucius. If charity is a good, then it would have been so in ancient India. What, then, can the history of morality tell us about morality? Ideas and cultures and societies may change, but, many argue, what is morally right and wrong must surely remain the same.

There is a deeper worry, too, about historical accounts of morality. It is not just that history can tell us little about morality. It is also that to view morality through the lens of history seems to be destructive of morality itself. To understand notions of good and bad, of right and wrong, in historical terms, to view them as having transformed over time, and as having been shaped by a myriad social needs, political desires and material constraints, would appear to undermine the very idea of morality. Values become uncertain, moral lines blurred, norms relative to cultures and ages.

Throughout the history of philosophy, there has often been a figure who represented such fears by embodying the assault on morality. One such was Thrasymachus in Plato’s masterpiece The Republic, a dialogue in which he sets his conception of morality and justice. Thrasymachus is Plato’s anti-hero, who rails against the Platonic vision, indeed against any vision of morality. There are, Thrasymachus observes, many kinds of political systems in Greece, each with its own, distinctive conception of morality and justice. ‘Democracy makes democratic laws’, Thrasymachus observes, ‘tyranny makes tyrannical laws’, and so on. And all ‘declare what they have made – what is to their advantage – to be just for their subjects, and they punish anyone who goes against this as lawless and unjust’. Morality is a form of deception, whose sole function, Thrasymachus suggests, is to allow one group to impose its power upon another. The Republic is Plato’s riposte to Thrasymachus, an attempt to elaborate what morality and justice truly are.

The figure that haunts the modern consciousness in the way that Thrasymachus preyed upon the minds of Ancient Greeks is not a fictional character, but a philosopher – Friedrich Nietzsche. Philosophy, for Nietzsche, is a means not of discovering truths but of enforcing power. Philosophers, he wrote, are ‘cunning pleaders for their prejudices which they baptize “truths”.’ Morality, for Nietzsche, as it was for Thasymachus, is an expression of power, power an assertion of morality.

Nietzsche is famous, of course, for declaring that ‘God is dead’. He was contemptuous of religion, and of Christianity in particular, for having, as he saw it, infected the healthy body of civilization with the poison of compassion. Nietzsche produced also in On the Genealogy of Morals one of the first and most striking historical accounts of morality. History affirmed for Nietzsche his belief that the malaise of the modern world lay in a morality that defended the weak and the docile, and deprecated the aristocratic and the strong. ‘The strongest and most evil spirits’, he insisted, ‘have so far done the most to advance humanity’.

For many of his critics, Nietzsche’s amorality, his rejection of God and his historical view of morality are intimately linked. There is for many an existential fear about a godless world, expressed in the Dostoevskyan phrase, ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’.

michaelangelo the creation of adam

Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students in UK who are training to be Anglican priests. It is part of their apologetics course – apologetics in the Christian tradition is the attempt to reason one’s way to God. I am there as the token atheist – a lion in a den of Daniels, as it were – to explain why I don’t believe in God. And each year I get the same response: That without religious faith, there can be no anchor for moral truths. Values become a matter of personal preference or political need. So I, as an atheist, have to pick and choose my values.

And I say to them that that’s true. I do have to pick and choose the values that I hold, though I don’t pick and choose values the way I might pick and choose apples, or a shirt or a holiday. But I’m not the only one who has to pick and choose. They, as believers, have to do so too. Even if you do believe in God, and in divinely sanctioned moral norms, there is still no getting away from humans themselves having to draw the moral boundaries.

Consider the Bible. Leviticus accepts slavery. It tells us that adulterers ‘shall be put to death’. According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. And so on. Few modern day Christians would accept such commands. Others they would. In the past thousands of witches were burnt and millions of people enslaved, because it was believed that God sanctified such practices. Today, virtually no Christian would imagine that such actions are consonant with God’s will. It is not that God has changed his mind, but people have.  Not that even today Christians have an agreed view about God’s commands. Some contemporary Christians believe that the Bible justifies the execution of gays, or the banning of abortion, or the forbidding of the ordination of women. Others, reading the same Bible, come to the opposite conclusions.

The same is true of Muslims. Muslims read the same Qur’an today as they did 1400 years ago. Yet they read it very differently, even those who think they read it ‘literally’. Contemporary Islamic values are not the same as those of Muhammad’s time. Nor are they the same for all Muslims today. Jihadis, moderates and liberals all read the same book and come to startlingly different moral conclusions. Each interprets the Holy Book differently. ‘To interpret it differently’ means bringing to their reading already formed moral views about women’s rights, homosexuality, apostasy, just war and punishments, and finding in the Qur’an values that justify those views. Without possessing an already-formed moral view, it would be impossible to interpret the book in the first place. This is true not just of the monotheistic faiths but also of those who follow non-monotheistic faiths – Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Jains, faiths for which traditions and loves matter as much as sacred texts.

All religious believers read their Holy Books, or look upon their sacred traditions, in a way that allows them to fit it into their own moral universe, a universe that exists independently of that Holy Book or that tradition, and leads every believer to interpret it in his or her own fashion. As societies change so do moral values, and believers’ interpretations of God’s will. Religious injunctions may appear absolute and inviolable but how humans understand them has shifted and changed over time. There is no escaping history.

Not only is there no escaping history, but there is no time more important than the present to tell the historical story of morality or to think about its meaning. We live in an age in which the moral power of old sources of authority – traditional religious institutions, mainstream political organizations, established social networks – has eroded. In an age of blurred moral lines, many desperately yearn for the restoration of strong identities and moral injunctions. It is in the literal readings of the Holy Books, and in religious fundamentalism, that many have discovered the certainties that they seek. From Creationism to jihadism, the desire for such certainties often have terrible consequences.


The contemporary world is defined not just by blurred moral lines. It is characterized, too, by a shift in the centre of gravity of global power. The emergence of China and India as new global players has helped unsettle not just economic and political relations but intellectual and moral debate too. For the past half millennium, Western thinkers and ideas have dominated such debates. Now, the East is beginning to take centre stage, with growing interest in philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism. The result has been to exacerbate moral anxieties and uncertainties, particularly in the West.

History is a useful, indeed necessary, guide to help us navigate through this age of turbulence, by placing it in within a frame. From the perspective of global history, we can see that change and disruption have been constant companions through the moral story. In the ancient world, Greece, Israel, Persia, India and China were all sources of civilization and of distinctive moral philosophies. The rise of monotheism, and in particular of Christianity, transformed the discussion of ethics in Europe. The emergence of Islam, and its expansion, created a new centre of intellectual gravity, and helped shape the Judeo-Christian tradition itself. From the early modern period the power of China, and its ability to shape intellectual and moral debate, began to decline. And from the early modern period on, the power and influence of first Europe, and then of the USA, spectacularly rose.

The West came to be at the heart of philosophical, cultural and scientific progress. Through first colonialism, and subsequently globalization, the West was able to spread its ideas worldwide and to force other intellectual traditions to understand themselves against the background of Western thought. In allowing us to understand how we have arrived at where we are today, the history of moral thought allows us also to understand better the predicament in which we find ourselves.

If a global historical perspective allows us to place contemporary moral turmoil in context, it allows us also to rethink how we might find new sources of moral authority. From such a perspective, we can, for instance, see how parochial is the insistence that without God, morality must fray. Buddhism and Confucianism have both been able to establish a strong moral codes without having to call upon a deity. Whatever the moral problems faced by modern Western societies, they cannot arise solely from the ‘Death of God’.

To begin to unpack the history of morality, let me begin with an observation by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. A Marxist-turned-Catholic, he is now one of the most important Thomist philosophers of the day. Ethics, he  argues, finds its meaning in the distinction between what he called ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’. What he meant was that morality is like a map guiding us from the way humans are to the way we think humans ought to be.

Insofar as it is a map, it is, though, a most unusual one. Most maps help you locate the starting point of the journey and the destination, and pinpoint the routes that could take you from the one to the other. If you are travelling from Galle to Jaffna, you open the map, look for Galle, look for Jaffna, and look for the roads that connect the one with the other. Not so morality. On the moral map the starting point, the destination and the route are all, I want to argue, created during the journey itself.

What MacIntyre calls ‘Man-as-he-happens-to-be’ is not a given. The understanding of what it is to be human, of human nature, has changed over time. And it has changed as the vision of ‘man-as-he-could-be’ has also transformed. The kind of being we can be depends partly on the kind of being that we are. But the kind of being we imagine we can be also, paradoxically perhaps, shapes how we see ourselves as we are.

It is the relationship between these two conceptions of the human – the relationship between how we imagine humans are and how we envision they could be – and how that relationship has changed over time, that I want to explore here. So, over the next half an hour or so, I am going to whip through around 3000 years of history. Inevitably I will skate over much, and some of my broad-brush assessment will miss out the nuances. But I hope that such an approach will also provide a framework within which to think about morality.

To allow us to navigate the vastness of history, and to make the journey comprehensible, there are three major historical shifts on which I am going to focus. The first is the breakdown of heroic societies and the rise of what the German scholar Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the period when across the globe a phalanx of new moral thinkers emerged, and much of the foundations of later philosophical and spiritual belief was laid. The second is the rise of monotheistic religions, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And third, and perhaps the most important shift, is the coming of modernity.

confucius teaching

In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structure of the community, a structure that was a given. Societies changed, of course – the Greece in which Aristotle taught was different to that in which in which Homer had written, the India in which the original Aryan tribes arrived was different to that in which the Buddha lived – but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change.

In the ancient world fate was seen as a social reality and there was no evading it. Whether in the Iliad of the Homeric Greeks or the Vedas of Aryan Indians, human life was defined by the inevitability of death, the universality of sorrow and suffering, the tragedy of being answerable for one’s actions and yet imprisoned by fate.

Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties.

From the sixth century BCE, the heroic world gave way to more settled, productive and innovative societies. This was true across the world, whether in Greece, Persia, India or China. And in this shift, the idea of human dignity acquired new meaning. For Socrates and Buddha, Confucius and Mo Tzu, the starting point of moral discussion was the idea of humans as rational beings; all, to a greater or lesser degree, looked to reason as a means of finding answers in a world constrained by fate. Previously morality had been implicitly understood through myths and legends. The stories of the Homeric epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey – or the great Indian epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – implicitly contained within them notions of right and wrong behaviours and their consequences. Now, philosophers started self-consciously reflecting upon moral norms.

The gods of the Ancients were not seen as wise and judicious as were the later gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They were, rather, capricious, vain, vicious, deceitful and immoral. They were also immensely powerful. It was in part a reflection of the world as the Ancients saw it: messy, chaotic, largely unpredictable, barely controllable, and yet inescapable.

The tragedy of being human was to desire freedom, and be tortured by a sense of autonomy, and yet be imprisoned by forces beyond our control. Some major Ancient traditions – Buddhism, for instance, and Confucianism – were not rooted in belief in gods. Yet the notion of tragedy as the human condition, and of humans as caught between the desire for freedom and the imperatives of fate, was central to these traditions, too.

With tragedy, however, came dignity. Ancient gods acted according to whim; only humans were truly accountable for their actions. Human life was framed by the gods and yet humans could not rely upon them. They had to depend upon their own wit and resources. It was human reason and human morality that imposed order upon an unpredictable world, and carved out dignity and honour within it.

The coming of monotheism – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – transformed the vision of human nature and the character of moral thinking. For the monotheists there was, of course, but one God, all-powerful and constrained by nothing. This new vision of God had an immense impact on our moral vision. Ancient Gods were very human – in fact all too human. The monotheistic God was terrifying divine. Monotheism created a chasm between human world and the divine world as had not existed before.

blake god

Through this new vision of God, monotheism made humans both greater and lesser than they had been before. The notion of God as having created humans in His own image helped monotheistic thinkers enlarge the meaning of ‘humanity’. The dignity of the individual, in principle at least, derived not from his or her participation in a specific community but through their God-created nature. In practice, of course, it was very different, but this principle of a more universalist vision of humanity was, historically, highly significant.

Similarly, the idea of God’s will, and of a being acting freely and without constraint, helped monotheists develop new ways of thinking about human agency. In the Ancient world, fate ruled all. Not so for monotheists with their idea of an all-powerful God, unconstrained even by fate. In recasting the relationship between God and fate, monotheism recast also the relationship between humans and free will, in a way that became significant for subsequent moral debate.

Yet what God giveth with one hand, one might say, He taketh away with the other. The diminished view of the human within monotheism restricted the significance of the expanded idea both of equality and of agency. Both were constrained by the very nature of faith. Equality was equality in the eyes of a Christian or Islamic or Jewish God. Hence the long and fractious debates among Christians, for instance, about whether non-Christians  were equal, or even possessed souls. Muslims, too, saw non-Muslims as fundamentally unequal. Other premodern traditions, the Greek Stoics, for instance, or Buddhists, or the philosophy of Mo Tzu in China, faced no such constraints. They possessed, in many ways, a more revolutionary vision than that of monotheists.

Similarly, the concept of agency or will in the Christian tradition, for instance, could be understood only in the context of belief in the Fall and in Original Sin, the insistence that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

If the all-powerful, unconstrained monotheistic God had introduced a revolutionary notion of agency, the Christian concept of the Fall ensured that human agency was viewed in a very different way. It is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Where the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Chinese, where Confucians and Buddhists, had seen humans as carving out a space for dignity and honour within an unpredictable universe, and in the face of capricious and often immoral gods, the monotheists insisted that humans could not be good on their own but only through God. God had created humans in His image. Yet, humans were now seen as weak, corrupt, flawed and broken, to a far greater degree than previously.

And yet, the monotheistic religions were historically significant for the development of morality. Buddhism, Mohism, stoicism, may have been more revolutionary than the monotheistic faiths in their conceptions of equality and humanity, but they were still constrained, as were all Ancient faiths and philosophies, by the notion of fate. It was fate was that which ruled the universe, and framed human action. Monotheism jettisoned the idea of fate. The omnipotent God, not fate, governed all. From the perspective of the twenty-first century this may not seem a great step forward, or a step forward at all. But in dispensing with fate, monotheism opened up new ways of thinking about agency, and of humans as moral agents, though the revolutionary implications of this would only become manifest in the European Enlightenment.

One final point about monotheism: the real innovation of monotheistic religions was in establishing not so much a new moral code as a new reason for abiding by that code: God tells you to. Why should one do as God demands? Not simply because God was all-powerful and all-knowing, but also because only through Him could humans, who are fundamentally morally frail, be rescued from their own wickedness and weakness.

All moral codes possess two elements: a set of values to pursue and a reason for pursuing those values. Or, to put it another way, they both elucidate the means of being good and demonstrate the end to which the means take us. The importance of the monotheistic faiths is that they developed a novel way of thinking about relationship between means and ends. The end was God. God also the means to that end. The consequence was that morality became far more rule-bound. Morality emerged less out of wisdom and reason than out of faith, submission and law.

Vermeer Astronomer

The emergence of the modern world brought with it major changes that transformed the language of morality. In Europe, these changes took place from about the sixteenth century onwards. For the peoples of Africa and Asia modernity could come only through challenging colonialism, an issue of which I will talk of shortly.

So what were the changes brought about by modernity that are of particular interest to the history of morality? First, the idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Not only did religious belief erode over time, but even devout thinkers (Immanuel Kant, for instance) were less likely to look to God to set moral boundaries.

Second came the dissolution of traditional communities. Social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society.

Third, the concept of individual autonomy became far more important. In the premodern world, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up almost entirely with the community in which he or she lived. By the seventeenth century, the individual was emerging as a new kind of social actor, and one detached from the specifics of a community.

The recognition that society could be transformed, and the emergence of social mechanisms for effecting such transformation, transformed also the meaning of morality. As people rejected the idea of society as a given, so ought became a political, rather than merely moral, demand: how society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Enlightenment, and in particular of the Radical Enlightenment. The historian Jonathan israel, in his wonderful trilogy of books on the history of the Enlightenment – Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, Democratic Enlightenment – observes that there were really two Enlightenments.  The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know, which provides the public face of the Enlightenment, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, the great Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.

A key issue for the Radical Enlightenment was to establish on what basis society could construct moral norms in a world without God. Their answer was equality, the belief that all humans are moral agents, of equal worth and dignity. It was an idea that was implicit in both monotheism – especially Christianity – and in certain Ancient traditions – Stoicism, Buddhism, Mohism. But only with modernity, and the crumbling of a social order defined by God, could that implicit moral principle become explicit. What was important was not simply making that moral principle explicit, but also insisting, quite unlike the monotheistic faiths, that humans, and only humans, infused the world with meaning, and values only had meaning through human thought and activity. It was this idea that was truly revolutionary.

Ancient Greeks had seen humans as using reason to carve out, within an unpredictable universe, a space for dignity and honour. But they were able to do so only within a framework that accepted the idea of irresistible fate and of individual interests as sublimated to those of the community. To judge an individual good was to judge him as manifesting dispositions, or virtues, that enabled him to play a particular of role in a particular kind of social life. For monotheists, God provided the moral framework, and infused it with meaning. Morality was about making choices within that framework. It was that framework that was now being unpicked.

david jeu de paume

The new moral vision may have been nourished by the crumbling of the God-ordained order. It was also, however, rooted in faith, but a faith of a different kind – faith that humans were capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond. It was that faith that drove Enlightenment humanism and the optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

It was through the nineteenth century that religious faith truly crumbled. But by the end of nineteenth century the faith in the human capacity to act without God had begun to be eaten away, too. There began to develop a much darker view of what it meant to be human as optimism about human capacities began to ebb away.

The late nineteenth century experienced not simply a crisis of faith – what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’ – but also what has been called ‘the crisis of reason’, the beginnings of a set of trends that were to become highly significant in the twentieth century – the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, a disenchantment with ideas of progress, a disbelief in concepts of truth.

The history of the twentieth century – of two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further shatter the old sense of hope and optimism about human capacities. We no longer believe, as the Canadian writer and philosopher Michael Ignatieff has observed, that ‘material progress entails or enables moral progress’. We eat well, we drink well, we live well but we do not have good dreams’.

What of the non-European world? Europe was not simply the birthplace of the Enlightenment. The Europe of the Enlightenment was also the Europe of racism, of imperialism, of slavery. The Europe of acts and movements that ran entirely contrary to the impulse of moral universalism. It was in opposition to European rule that moral universalism fully developed.

When we think of revolutions of the 18th century: we think of the French and the American Revolutions. The third great revolution is almost forgotten, yet it was one that shaped history almost as deeply as those of 1776 and 1789 – the Haitian revolution in which slaves led by Tousaint L’Ouverture defeated, over the course of twelve years, the most powerful European nations of their day, including the French, Spanish and the British. In 1803, the only successful slave revolt in history gave Haiti its independence.

It was out of the French Revolution that the Declaration of the Rights of Man emerged. But, however, much French revolutionaries might have accepted that Declaration in the abstract, in practice France neither abolished slavery nor dispensed with its imperial possessions. The social and economic needs of the French bourgeoisie dictated grave limits in its attachment to any form of moral universalism. The Haitian Revolution, on the other hand, embodied at its heart the moral claim that the Rights of Man applied to all. And it was through the Revolution that concrete political and social expression was, for the first time, given to that moral ideal.

Haitian Revolution

For much of the twentieth century, the progressive impulse that is embodied in moral universalism was carried primarily by revolutionary, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements.

‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity’, Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary, wrote, ‘have at different times, existed in European thought’. The problem was that ‘Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them.’ The non-European world will have to ‘start a new history of Man’, a new history that, while not forgetting ‘Europe’s crimes’, will nevertheless ‘have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward’.

But many, most notably Fanon himself, also began to ask what worth there could be in European political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent the enslavement of much of the world, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding? Did not those challenging European imperialism, they asked, also need to challenge its ideas?

Over time, opposition to European rule came increasingly to mean opposition to European ideas, too. The ideals that flowed out of the Enlightenment, however progressive they might seem, could not, the critics insisted, be wielded by those challenging European rule. They grew out of a particular culture, history, and tradition, they spoke to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Non-Europeans had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions. Out of these claims came a host of separatist movements that set out to hew political, cultural and moral traditions distinct from those of Europeans, movements that ranged from Garveyism to Negritude to Black Power to Islamism.

In the post-independence period as, throughout the global South, from Algeria to India, from Egypt to South Africa, the organizations that led struggles for freedom from colonialism, or the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, have become senile or corrupted, so people have become, increasingly disaffected. The new opposition movements that have emerged to give voice to that disaffection are often separatist or sectarian in form, often rooted in ethnic or religious identity.

Here, as in Europe, the old sense of hope and optimism about human capacities have shattered. The organizations that once embodied that hope have withered away, the ideologies have crumbled. And as progressive, secularist ideologies have waned, as traditional identities have eroded, as moral lines have become blurred, so many have looked to religion as providing the certainties that often seem lacking. We can see this most clearly with the rise of Islamism. And the character of contemporary Islamism expresses so clearly how once the universalist moral impulse has been expunged, anti-imperialist or anti-Western sentiment can acquire such reactionary or nihilist forms.

So, where does all this leave the questions with which I began this talk? What can the history of morality tell us about the nature of morality? And about ourselves as human beings?

Looking upon morality historically shows us that ethics does not occupy a sphere of its own, distinct from the rest of life. Our understanding of good and bad, or right and wrong, have transformed over times, shaped by a myriad social needs, political desires and material constraints.

So, are moral answers merely subjective, a matter of taste? Or were Thrasymachus and Nietzsche right that morality is but an expression of power? In my view, no. Moral questions may not have objective answers, whether revealed by God or by science, but they do have rational ones, answers rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need.

To understand this better we need to look again at the transformation wrought by modernity. In the premodern world, social structures appeared to be given. The moral question people asked themselves was ‘What moral claims are rational given the social structure?’ With the coming of modernity, new possibilities of social transformation were opened up. Ought became a political, as much as a moral, demand. People 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?

The capacity to ask and to answer such questions has been nourished by two kinds of developments. The first has been the creation of new forms of social conversation. Political and moral debate moved out from the confines of a small elite and became central to the very functioning of societies. From the printing press to the mass media, from political parties to social networking, a range of mechanisms has helped transform who is able to engage in such debates and the kinds of debates in which they can engage.

Delacroix liberté

At the same time, new tools have been fashioned, from the democratic process to revolutionary movements, from labour strikes to national liberation struggles, to enable people to act upon those social conversations to transform social conditions, to try to lever the world from the way it was to the way it should be.

These two developments helped take moral claims beyond the subjective and the relative. The new kinds of social conversations flourished not just within societies but between societies too. They became more universal, detached from specific social structures. At the same time, the mechanisms of social transformation enhanced the universalist possibilities inherent in the new social conversations. Social change had meaning beyond the boundaries of a particular community or society. The idea of democracy had universal significance. The reverberations of the French Revolution were felt throughout Europe and, indeed, well beyond Europe. A protest movement in Tunisia helped provoke the ‘Arab Spring’ throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

Questions of morality do not have objective answers in the way that scientific questions do, but neither are they merely expressions of subjective desire or taste. To say that torture is wrong or truthfulness is good is qualitatively different from saying that the light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second or that DNA is a double helix. It is also qualitatively different from saying that ice cream is good or Justin Bieber awful. If everyone thinks that ice cream is bad or Justin Bieber good, I might privately despair. But if everyone were to believe that truthfulness is bad and torture good, then there would be a tear in the very fabric of society.

What makes values non-arbitrary is not that they are fixed in some transcendental sphere or that they are defined objectively by science but that they emerge through humanity’s collective judgement. To bring reason to bear upon social relations, to define a rational answer to a moral question, requires social engagement and collective action. It is the breakdown over the past century of such engagement and such action that has proved so devastating for moral thinking.

I want to finish by talking about a book that has had a profound influence on my moral thinking, and that helps address some of the dilemmas I have raised – Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl had spent three years incarcerated in German concentration camps, including six months in Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning is a meditation on that experience, a reflection on the ability of human beings to survive even the most degrading and tormenting of circumstances. At the heart of it is his insistence that ‘Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.’

chagall creation du monde 1971

‘This is a profoundly religious book’, suggested the rabbi Howard Kushner in the foreword to the second edition. In one sense it is.

‘We have come to know Man as he really is’, wrote Frankl at the very end of his book. ‘After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.’

It is, however, a very different kind of faith to that embodied in religious faith. Frankl’s book is a hymn not to a transcendent deity but to the human spirit. Humans, he suggests, find themselves only through creating meaning in the world. But meaning is not something to be discovered. It is something that humans, and only humans, create. They do so by acting upon the world. ‘Man is ultimately self-determining’, Frankl wrote. ‘Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be.’

The human condition, in other words, is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That is why we have Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Paris and Jakarta. But humans are also beings that can bring reason and empathy to bear upon their collective lives, recognize right and wrong, and create social movements to challenge injustice and establish laws and institutions to allow lives to flourish.

Morality should not be seen as a set of rules or laws or pre-determined boundaries. It is rather more akin to a constant, never-ending conversation, that we as human beings have with each other, in the present and with our past. These conversations are not necessarily straightforward or friendly or productive. But is through this patchwork of conversations, and only through this patchwork of conversations, that we begin to define how we should relate to each other. And the question of how we should relate to each other is what lies  at the heart of the quest for a moral compass.

Human beings, as Jean Paul Sartre once put it, are condemned to be free. Condemned because having a choice is a thing about which we have no choice. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Inevitably, it is usually a mixture of both. Being human, the choice of how to look upon our moral responsibilities is ours, and ours alone.


The images are, from top down, Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’; a statue of the Buddah from the Dambulla caves (my photo); Sri Lanka, traditional Chinese painting of Confucius teaching; William Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’; Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer’; an 1845 French engraving of the Battle of Vertières during the Haitian Revolution; Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’; Marc Chagall’s ‘Création du Monde’.


  1. ggt75

    a reasoned view of atheism based on a historical perspective, and anchored in an assmption of free choice, which keeps responsibility in the present. Thank you

  2. KM unwittingly proves the need for what he deplores – a creed, a set of rules, set by a human authority acting on God’s behalf.

    The alternative is, as he correctly says, a conversation – which in practice means a chaos, where everyone flounders around unavailingly, trying to agree what is moral, guided only by the dim and flickering lights of human reason (!), human wisdom (!!) and human goodness (!!!).

    This writhing, roiling mass of indecision is, of course, of precisely zero value in a crisis; personal, social or global.

    Which is why atheism and humanism will perish in the global storm we can all see approaching us.

  3. Any morality must have rewards and punishments attached, otherwise who will bother to heed, let alone obey it ?

    Buddhism does (Nirvana v. The Wheel of Sorrow, of Rebirth). Confucianism doesn’t, which is why China has never – for practical purposes – been a Confucian country.

    As for the Radical Enlightenment – despite its high and sincere hopes, it has led – inevitably – to a West ruled by selfishness; since virtually no human beings will trouble to be generous or compassionate in obedience to a set of philosophers.

    How empty any merely human ideals are in practice, has been exposed by the West’s current meltdown in the face of economic decline, then the refugee crisis. Generous talk abounded in the Noughties, when the living was easy, but the USA has now turned its back on the refugees, leaving Europe to fend for itself, with generous sentiments towards refugees and other migrants in increasingly short supply.

    Because any morality worthy of the name requires painful self-sacrifice, something any humanistic morality can rarely, if ever, supply.

  4. It is unclear whether human beings – if we aren’t God’s creatures – have any value whatever, or at least any more than insects.

    One of Nietzsche’s zealous disciples, who was German Chancellor from 1933-45, toyed (at the hour of his greatest triumph, the summer of 1941) with the idea that human beings were mere worms or bacilli.

    And indeed, from a purely naturalistic point of view, he was largely correct. Hence Frankl’s fervent theism as the only answer to the annihilators, the only possible and effective riposte to their philosophy.

  5. Since neither we, nor our abilities, would exist if God didn’t, and since God is the sole source of Good, God can’t be left out of any discussion – on morality, economics, politics, philosophy.

    • Fi

      Thank you for this piece Kenan. I enjoyed reading it very much. These christians are to be commended for at least trying to pit themselves against someone with a good argument, and for recognizing one when they see it.

      In my view we ponder metaphysics for all kinds of important reasons but am not sure that metaphysics are important much at all to issues of ethics and I think it is for this very reason that secular societies are no more inherently full of civil strife than ones that take a side on this.. I am not sure I see a genuine crisis here. What I see is a manufactured crisis between two types of authoritarians who would like to institutionalise our attitude to the question of first causes under the guise of public morality. I maintain the right to ponder these questions free of coercion. To me it is the final human right, the last thing that should be taken from an individual when all else is.

      Whether we emphasize God given or self creating morality , we are still left with the arguments about who gets to decide on the collective rules of conscience god given or otherwise and how we judge each other as moral beings. The sliding scale of determinism v free will exists within monotheism as much as it does within atheist.anti-theist circles. If ongoing discussion is important in how our collective conscience evolves, this can be viewed as godless or it’s opposite. Many christian friends I have would couch this in terms of an objective morality that is ‘out there’ or already in existence in the mind of God, but see humanity as being on a journey to understand the mind of god, a journey of perfectibility. I might agree more with your stance. Both of us look very different to fundamentalist theists with a right wing fascistic agenda who see no journey but think someone, inevitably from their own historical tradition, had it perfectly nailed hundreds of years ago. We also look very different to some of the more militant and simplistic atheists who oppose them..

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