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This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

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 The Quest for a Moral Compass. And these are the questions I want to explore tonight.

For some, the questions themselves might seem absurd. It is striking that there are thousands of books about the history of ideas, hundreds of histories of philosophy, but only a handful of books about the history of morality.

One reason is that 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 his 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 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 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 most 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’.

Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students in the UK – people 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.

bosch garden of earthly delights

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 adulterers ‘shall be put to death’. According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. 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. 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.

This is true not just of the monotheistic faiths – the peoples of the book – but also of those who follow non-monotheistic faiths: Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Jains. All religious believers read their Holy Books, or 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.

While some have been drawn to a black and white view of the world, seemingly to rediscover lost moral certainties, others have become deeply suspicious of the very idea of morality. Science, many believe, provides a better guide to human action than morality.

The American philosopher Sam Harris, for instance, argues that values are in essence facts about the world, and so can be studied by science, in particular by neuroscience. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, Harris insists, ‘science will… decide’ which view is right.

Such thinkers are as desperate for moral certainties as believers; but they seen such certainties as anchored not in God’s law but in scientific fact. 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.

Vermeer Astronomer

The West came to be at the heart of philosophical, cultural and scientific progress. Through colonialism, imperialism and 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’.

So, how do we begin to think about morality from a historical perspective, without losing the essential sense of what morality is? Ethics, observed Alasdair MacIntyre, the Marxist-turned-Catholic philosopher, 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.

It is, though, a most unusual kind of map. 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 Sydney to Melbourne, you open the map, look for Sydney, look for Melbourne, and look for the roads that connect the one with the other. Not so with morality. On the moral map the starting point, the destination and the route are all 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 journeycomprehensible, there are three major historical shifts on which I am going to focus. The first is the breakdown of what has come to be called heroic society and the rise of what the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the period when across the globe a phalanx of new moral thinkers emerged. The second is the rise of monotheistic religions, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And third, the coming of modernity.

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, what has come to be called 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.


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. 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. If 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 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, 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. Other premodern traditions, the Greek Stoics, for instance, or certain strands of Buddhism, 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.

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, ruled the universe. 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.

blake god

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 was 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.

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 to which I will come 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.

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 – ‘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.

Both developments were expressed in the figure of Nietzsche. If Nietzsche was the high priest at God’s funeral, he was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake. His brilliance in giving voice to the growing disaffection of the age with both faith and reason. would eventually turn him into a key figure of the postmodern assault on the Enlightenment.

picasso charnel house

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.

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 the West, 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. 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.

pierre soulages

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 were 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.

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 making 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 judgment. 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.

Giacometti Head of a Man on a Rod
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. Not a great philosophical tract by Aristotle or Confucius or Kant. But 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.’

‘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 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 he have Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Columbine. 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.

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. Being human, the choice is ours.


To buy a copy of The Quest for a Moral Compass, click on the cover.


The artworks are, from top down, from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer’; a statue of the Buddah from the Dambulla caves, Sri Lanka (my photo); William Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’; Pablo Picasso, ‘The Charnel House’; Pierre Soulages, Untitled; Alberto Giacometti, ‘Man’s Head on a Rod’.


  1. Clinton Davidson

    Re slavery and witchcraft: on the one hand, this smells like an example for secularists; the religious might feel that they have been beaten with the same stick many times. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that slavery could be considered the ‘true’ religious position as it lasted for most of their history: until the 19th century for much of Christian Europe, and until the 20th century in many Muslim countries. It would probably be easy to find religious conservatives who considered the abolition of slavery a surrender to godless secularists.
    Another example, probably too long for your talk, would be the changing attitude towards authority. Luther puts it eloquently in “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants”:
    The peasants …have sworn to be true and faithful, submissive and obedient, to their rulers, as Christ commands when he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” [Luke 20:25]. And Romans 13 [:1] says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Since they are now deliberately and violently breaking this oath of obedience and setting themselves in opposition to their masters, they have forfeited body and soul, as faithless, perjured, lying, dis­obedient rascals and scoundrels usually do. St. Paul passed this judgment on them in Romans 13 [:2] when he said that those who resist the authorities will bring a judgment upon themselves. This saying will smite the peasants sooner or later, for God wants people to be loyal and to do their duty…
    It does not help the peasants when they pretend that accord­ing to Genesis 1 and 2 all things were created free and common, and that all of us alike have been baptized. For under the New Testament, Moses does not count; for there stands our Master, Christ, and subjects us, along with our bodies and our property, to the emperor and the law of this world, when he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” [Luke 20:25]. Paul, too, speaking in Romans 12 [13:1] to all baptized Christians, says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” And Peter says, “Be subject to every ordinance of man” [I Pet. 2:13].

    Most modern Christians would say that Luther was terrible. Luther would (hypothetically) reply that modern Christians want to keep calling themselves Christians while ignoring the scripture quoted above. But this makes your point: people still need to choose which part of the scriptures and traditions are part of their religion.

  2. Clinton Davidson

    One could also argue, as William Blake did in The Everlasting Gospel, that morality is not the core of religion:
    “There is not one Moral Virtue that Jesus Inculcated but Plato & Cicero did Inculcate before him what then did Christ Inculcate. Forgiveness of Sins This alone is the Gospel & this is the Life & Immortality brought to light by Jesus.”

    If Moral Virtue was Christianity
    Christs Pretensions were all Vanity

    The Moral Christian is the Cause
    Of the Unbeliever & his Laws

  3. Dag Vegger

    I understand your purpose, but to bunch the there monotheistic religions together with a similar idea of an all powerful god that you have to obey is a grave simplification. Christianity has the interesting concept of Trinity, which is why many muslims does not accept Christianity as a monotheistic religion. In Christianity through what became the New Testament, Jesus is in many aspects questioning family, traditions and authorities. He also reject the idea of revenge that was so important for the patriarchal power in traditional clan societies. Paul says somewhere (Letter to Corinthians 6.7) that we should rather ignore humiliation than to seek revenge or punish humiliators. It seems as Christianity spread among ordinary people just because it questioned traditional authorities and gave self confidence. It was a new approach to power that might well have gotten inspiration from the east, from Buddhism. Therefore bishops like Marion of Sinope (85-160) wanted the Old Testament to be abolished from the Bible. However, as we know, Constantin took command over Christianity and sort of merged the teaching of an wrathful punishing God of the Old Testament with with more of love your neighbor, listen to your heart in The New Testament. The concept of individuality was therefore encouraged (with a lot of backlash throughout history). All monotheistic belief systems got problem with dogmas you are not allowed to question (the same in communism).

  4. Every person is free insofar that they have adequate resources to live. Therefore every person’s freedom is constrained by the ecological resources that they can access. This constraint on freedom not only exist on an ecological dimension but also a social one since if every person is free then the field of freedom as each exercises their individual freedom can be used to facilitate or constrain another person’s freedom. Therefore there is no direct link between what is perceived as objective universalist moral perceptions and what is perceived as subjective particularist moral perceptions when based on freedom. All is subjective and all is particularist except that a grouping or community or society even can decide, on an individual level, to align or misalign their subjective particularist moral perspectives. Hence it is not the break down of social engagement and social action that has led to less collectivist universalist moral perspectives but the deepening of social engagement and social action that has led to less collectivist universalist moral perspectives in that greater freedom to engage and act has created a greater diversity of moral perspectives. In a sense we have come full circle or have completed a full cycle of the spiral and now we live in that chaotic moral universe whereby greater individual freedoms leads to more varied and diverse belief systems. This is the result of greater freedoms from the constraints of ecology, the constraints of community, the constraints of religion and the constraints of rationality.

  5. The West teems with people with an overweening sense of the rightness of their own views on public morality. It’s running increasingly short of people with any private morality beyond “Do anything as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

    But no society can survive on such a basis; its sexual morality – thus its marriage and family structures – will go to pieces. That’s what brought down the Classical world, the post-Christian Europe that fell into the world wars; and is now bringing down our own.

    No philosopher can persuade people to be moral in sexual matters – only taboo or religion can.

  6. Morality comes from ordinary people; hence Plato didn’t change the course of the classical world – but the powerless and impoverished early Christians did.

    Marx changed history ? Only because a huge and desperate industrial working-class heeded him.

    Nietzsche (much influenced by the philosophical writings of de Sade) gave the Nazis (and later, Mick Jagger) some ideas. But no one can say that Nietzsche did anything to bring about Hitler’s climb to power or the Dionysian revolution (Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll) of the Sixties and since.

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