Moral compass

This is the text of a talk about my book The Quest for a Moral Compass that I gave at the Glasgow Aye Write festival last month.  You can buy the book from my Pandaemonium bookshop. For other talks that I am giving see the Events page.

What can the history of morality tell us about the nature of morality? And about ourselves as human beings? Those are the questions at the heart of my book. And those are the questions that I want to address today.

Ethics, the Marxist-turned-Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, finds its meaning in the distinction between what he called ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’. 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. Not so morality. On the moral map the starting point, the destination and the route are all created during the journey itself.

‘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.

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. 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.

confucius teaching

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, 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, an argument taken furthest in the Ancient world possibly by Aristotle.

The gods of the Ancients were not wise and judicious like 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. Not only have human choices to be made against the background of divinely ordered fate, but the gods often force humans to act against their wishes. Perhaps no figure more expresses the conundrum of human choice than Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus whose abduction by Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, launched the Trojan War. The story of that war is told in Homer’s Iliad, the most celebrated work of Greek poetry, the earliest expression of European literature, and, to some, its greatest too; and a wonderfully wrought account of the moral world of the Ancients. Trojans hold Helen responsible for the war. Helen herself accepts responsibility for the tragedy. And yet she, and Homer, recognize that she has been manipulated by divine forces, and in particular by Aphrodite, who had engineered Helen’s initial seduction by Paris.

In one poignant passage, Aphrodite forces Helen into Paris’ bed against her will, to comfort the Trojan prince. ‘Go sit by him yourself’, Helen retorts:

Abandon the paths of the gods, never again turn your feet back to Olympos; no, stay with him, for ever whimpering around him and watching over him, until he makes you his wife – or else his slave.

‘I will not go to him’, Helen insists for ‘that would bring shame on me’ and ‘I have misery enough in my heart’. Yet, however much she detests the goddess’ imperatives, Helen knows that she is powerless to resist them. She follows Aphrodite to Paris’ bedroom.

This is, for Homer, as it was for most Ancient thinkers, whether in Greece, India or China, the tragedy of being human: to desire freedom, and be tortured by a sense of autonomy, and yet be imprisoned by forces beyond our control. 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, especially for the Greeks, that imposed order upon an unpredictable world, and carved out dignity and honour within it.

Ancient Greek culture is, to a modern sensibility, both an alien moral world and one upon which we draw for our moral insights. It is alien because many of the concepts that are at the heart of modern moral thought – the individual, the mind, conscience, choice – barely existed in the ancient world, or possessed very different meanings. Yet we draw upon the ancient world because the Greeks wrestled with many of the fundamental moral conundrums that we still wrestle with today – fate, free will, human choice, the individual and the community – and attempted to apply reason to try to resolve them.

michaelangelo the creation of adam

It was monotheism – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that transformed the vision of human nature and the character of moral thinking. For the Ancients, there were hundreds of gods, but all were constrained by the structure of reality. Fate was more powerful even than the gods themselves. For the monotheists there was but one God, all-powerful and constrained by nothing. He could act as He chose. 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. The new God, whether Judaic, Christian or Islamic, insisted on humans keeping their distance, quite literally: ‘Draw not nigh hither’, as God tells Moses when He first appears before him on the slopes of Mount Horeb.

At the same time, the notion of God creating 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.

Yet what God giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other. Within the monotheistic traditions, the idea of a universal humanity was 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. Theirs were, in certain senses, more revolutionary visions than that of Christian theologians.

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, too. But here too the concept was constrained by the faith. ‘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. It is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Only through God’s grace can humans achieve salvation. The doctrine of Original Sin is perhaps the most original and profound contribution of Christianity to the ‘Western’ tradition. It is also perhaps its most pernicious. A bleak view of human nature that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place.

The real innovation of monotheistic religions was, however, 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.

Cranach Adam and Eve

Monotheism made humans both greater and lesser than they had been before. Humans had been created by God in His image. Yet, humans were now seen as weak, corrupt, flawed and broken. 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.

The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it major changes that transformed the language 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.

A whole host of economic, social and political changes accompanied the transformation of a feudal to a capitalist economy. The new individual arrived on the scene both as the consequence of the dissolution of old social and economic forms and as an agent of that dissolution. The relationship between the individual and the community became framed increasingly by politics rather than morality, while ethics became less about fidelity to God-given community-defined rules than about the individual making the right personal choices.

And fourth, there came also a new distinction between the public and the private spheres. In the premodern world, since it was only through the community that the individual discovered his identity and integrity, so there could be no such distinction. With the rise of the individual as an actor in his own right, there was carved out also a private sphere separate from the public arena. This distinction helped redefine ideas of freedom and liberty, restrain the coercive power and scope of the state, and made political equality possible.

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.

Delacroix liberté

Not just the meaning of morality, but its rootedness, too, transformed. The crumbling of belief in a God-ordained order helped develop a new, radical, inclusive form of egalitarianism. Having dispensed with God, there was, as the historian Jonathan Israel has put it in his monumental trilogy tracing the history of the Enlightenment,

no ‘meaningful alternative’ to grounding morality in a ‘generalized radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’ Equality, radical equality, in other words, was not simply the consequence of a particular moral outlook. It was also the grounding of a new moral vision.

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.

By the end of nineteenth century, that faith, too, had begun to be eaten away. There began to develop a much darker view of what it meant to be human as the optimism about human capacities that had originally suffused the humanist impulse 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.

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 so-called Enlightenment project.

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 Michael Ignatieff has observed, that ‘material progress entails or enables moral progress’. We eat well, we drink well, we live well, Ignatieff observed, ‘but we do not have good dreams’.

picasso charnel house

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.

This, however, seemingly leads to a troubling conclusion. To view morality in this fashion appears to undermine the very idea of morality. You seem to destined to view morality in the manner of Thrasymachus, a figure in Plato’s dialogue The Republic. There are, Thrasymachus observes, many kinds of political systems in Greece – democracies, oligarchies, military dictatorships, tyrannies. Each had a different conception of justice, but all benefited the ruling class. ‘Democracy makes democratic laws, 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’.

Conventional morality, for Thrasymachus, is a scam, a set of rules invented by the ruling class to promote its own interests and to keep everyone else in check. Reject the scam, is Thrasymachus’ advice, pursue your interests rather than the interests of others, and disregard justice whenever you can get away with it.

The modern version of Thrasymachus is Nietzsche. Philosophy, for Nietzsche, is not the will to truth but the will to power. Philosophers are ‘cunning pleaders for their prejudices which they baptize “truths”.’ Morality is an expression of power, power is an assertion of morality.

For many of his critics, the amorality of Nietzsche’s ideas are intimately linked to his rejection of God. The death of God, for many, also means the death of morality. ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. We will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism with everyone simply picking and choosing which values they accept and which they reject.

goya saturn devouring son

The trouble with this argument is that even if you believe in God, you still have to pick and choose your values. Take, for instance, the Bible. Leviticus sanctifies slavery.It tells us that If a ‘man commiteth adultery’, then both ‘the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’ It instructs believers to ‘chase your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword.’ According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. It also insists that those who work on the Sabbath may be put to death. And so on.

Few modern day Christians would accept such commands. Other commands they would. It is not that God has changed His mind but that humans have. As societies transform so do moral values. Even today, some Christians, reading passages in Leviticus and in Paul, think that the Bible justifies the execution of gays. Others, reading the Bible differently, insist that practising homosexuals are committing no sin at all. Each reads the Bible in a way that allows them to fit it into their own moral universe, a universe that necessarily exists independently of the Bible, and allows every believer to interpret their Holy Book.

The same is true of Muslims. Jihadi literalists, ‘bridge builders’ like Tariq Ramadan and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur’an. Each brings to their reading already formed moral views about women’s rights, homosexuality, apostasy, criminal punishments, and so on. Each finds in the Qur’an values that justify that particular moral framework. Belief in God, in other words, does not obviate the need for every believer to make up their minds about what is right and what is wrong, independently of the Holy Books.

The fundamental problem with such an approach was expressed 2000 years ago by Plato in the so-called Euthyphro dilemma. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato sets up a discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro, who is about to prosecute his father for the murder of one of his servants. Socrates is shocked by Euthyphro’s action, which appears to disregard both convention and his obligations to kin, and wants to know how Euthyphro distinguishes between the pious and the impious, the good and the bad.

Euthyphro provides a series of definitions each of which Socrates knocks down. Socrates’ key question is this: ‘Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods?’ Unless the gods love something for no good reason, then they must love something as pious because it inherently possesses value. But if it inherently possesses value, then it does so independently of the gods.

el issitzky composition

One response in recent years to this dilemma is to suggest that moral codes are revealed not by God but by science. The American philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, argues that science is not simply means of making sense of facts about the world, but also about values, because values are in essence facts in another form.‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.  Moral values can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. A Christian might look to the Bible, a Muslim the Qu’ran to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.

But the Euthyphro dilemma applies here too. Harris argues that good values are those that promote wellbeing, and that wellbeing can be objectively defined through data gained from fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, etc. Hence scientific measurements can define good and bad values.

The problem, however, is this. Scientific studies may be able tell us which brain states calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those brain states are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends upon whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or neurotransmitter level correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently of the science.

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?

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?

alexander rodchenko poster 1925

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.

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.

The consequence has been the growth of a secular version of the Fall. In the Christian tradition, the Fall comes with Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God. In the secular world, The Fall is the product of the sapping of optimism, a disenchantment with the possibilities of social transformation and the growth of a much darker view of human nature.

The consequence of all this is that the relationship between what Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ has become obscured, indeed broken. The secular ‘Fall of Man’, the loss of faith in the human capacity to act rationally and morally, and to collectively transform their world, has narrowed the conception of what humans could be, confined our notion of what we are and eroded the link between the two.


‘Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is’, Viktor Frankl wrote in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning , ‘but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.’ 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.

‘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 can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.


The paintings are, from top down, traditional Chinese painting of Confucius teaching, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Pablo Picasso’s The Charnel House, Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, El Lissitzky’s Composition, poster by Aleksander Rodchenko, Felix Nussbaum’s The Triumph of Death.

One comment

  1. There were in the sixteenth century, just when church-wide morality in ‘the west’ was fragmenting into enlightened states, one or two small bands of christian believers that proliferated into several more groups called anabaptists whom Luther accused of swallowing the Holy Spirit feathers and all. Their crime, as defined by Luther’s and other emergent principalities, was to dissociate from state churches and to rely for moral guidance on themselves as a community governed by the Spirit. They were neither individualist nor catholic. They fastened onto a thread of teaching in the gospels that gave moral authority to the community of Jesus followers. Moral decision-making by mutual agreement among the followers of Jesus is what they recognized as the work of the Spirit. God bound to the community of love for neighbours (anyone, everywhere), unarmed, not a state.

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