The Quest for a Moral Compass explores the history of moral thought as it has developed over three millennia, from Homer’s Greece to Mao’s China, from ancient India to modern America. It is a history of the world told through the history of moral thought and a history of moral thought that casts new light on global history.

Here are reviews of the book (arranged chronologically). You can read the opening section of the book and a transcript of a talk about it. And you can buy The Quest for a Moral Compass from the Pandaemonium bookshop in Britain or the USA.

Universal Truths
Jonathan Israel, New Humanist, Winter 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirkus Review, 17 September 2014

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

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

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

Miriam Cosic, The Australian, 23 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophia Vasalou, Times Higher Education Supplement,
24 July 2014

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

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

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

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

‘Humanity is a figment of the imagination’
John Gray, New Statesman, 12 June 2014

Histories of morality are rarely written in order to inform the reader. When the Victorian rationalist W E H Lecky produced his immensely popular History of European Morals (1869), his goal was to infuse the book’s readers with a sense of the advancing power of human reason. Lecky’s was a story of improvement – the occasionally stumbling but unfailingly heroic advance of rational inquiry against the stultifying authority of custom and the determined opposition of religion. Anything that did not fit in with this edifying tale was mentioned only in passing as a minor detour in the onward march of humankind, or else was ignored.

It’s an ironic commentary on our faith in intellectual progress that 150 years later Kenan Malik should present what is not much more than an expanded version of Lecky’s rationalist fairy tale. Malik doesn’t mention Lecky, and may not have read him, but something very like Lecky’s story shapes his account of the development of moral thinking. Describing the modern movement that for him embodies the advance of humankind, Malik repeats a liturgy we have heard incanted innumerable times: ‘In the Enlightenment, the intellectual wind of change that blew through Europe in the 18th century, the humanist sensibility that had emerged in the Renaissance found full flower.’

You would never know, from reading Malik’s account, that the Renaissance was a time when belief in magic thrived at the highest levels of the state, with Elizabeth I regularly consulting spirit-seers. You would have no idea that Kepler (a prototypical Renaissance figure Malik doesn’t discuss) was as devoted to horoscope-making as he was to astronomy, or that Machiavelli (another archetypal Renaissance figure who doesn’t even appear in the book’s index) posed fundamental questions about the role of ethics in politics.

Nor would you realise that Immanuel Kant (whom Malik, in a lengthy and reverential discussion, celebrates as having ‘revolutionised moral thinking’) described Jews as ‘a nation of cheaters’; that Voltaire was an ardent adherent of the pre-Adamite theory of human origins, according to which Jews and ‘negroes’ were relics of an inferior pre-human species; that ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ T H Huxley, praised by Malik for his criticisms of evolutionary ethics, developed a detailed classification of racial types; or that the German rationalist, biologist and virulent critic of religion Ernst Haeckel (another vastly influential thinker who is not discussed) defended theories of eugenics and racial inequality that helped shape a pattern of thinking in which Nazi crimes could be claimed to have a basis in science.

The Quest for a Moral Compass is a rationalist history of ethics in which all of the repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism have been airbrushed, Soviet-style, from the record. To be sure, the absence from the book of the sleazy side of rationalism may come in part from mere ignorance. In any event, it’s clear that Malik prefers not to know. From one angle this may be the normal dishonesty of an evangelising ideologue: Malik has a world-view to promote, and he’s not going to let awkward facts get in his way. From another perspective, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a testament to the perplexities of secular faith. Like Lecky, Malik writes in order to prop up a belief in moral progress. The difference is that while the Victorian sage appears to have had few doubts regarding the creed he was promoting, Malik often seems as anxious to persuade himself as to persuade his readers.

In common with generations of rationalist writers, Malik begins the history of moral thought with the Greeks. A more reflective writer might have asked whether these ancient thinkers had the same conception of morality as we do. After all, it’s incontestable that the idea of morality we have today – a set of principles or laws aiming to protect a uniquely precious type of human value – derives from monotheism. Nothing like this can be found among the polytheistic Greeks, who when they talked of ethics meant the art of life, including aesthetics and politics as well as what we think of as prudence or self-interest. In fact, in the sense that we understand the term, the ancient Greeks did not have a ‘morality’ at all. Starting with the Greeks creates a problem if you want to present the history of morality as a single, continuing story – and one that ends in some version of the modern secular assertion of universal human values. Greek ethics weren’t meant to be universal, and they can’t be wrenched apart from the metaphysical framework accepted by the most influential Greek philosophers.

Aristotle may have talked of the good life for human beings, but he never meant to include most of humankind. Women and ‘barbarians’ (non-Greeks) were excluded, while slaves achieved the good life by being instruments of their masters. This wasn’t just prejudice on Aristotle’s part: it reflected the metaphysics that underpinned his ethics. ‘Aristotle was a different kind of philosopher to those that had gone before’, Malik writes. ‘There was in him none of the poetical, speculative or mystical.’ This is, at best, a half-truth. Aristotle may have valued careful observation, but his view of the world as a whole was far from empirical; everything that existed had a purpose and a function in a cosmic hierarchy of value. At the top was the ‘unmoved Mover’, a godlike entity that devoted itself to perpetual contemplation. It was this mystical vision, more than any kind of empirical investigation, which supported Aristotle’s belief that human beings are rational animals. If the good life for human beings – or a few favoured specimens among them – consisted in contemplation, it was because such a life connected them with something of supreme value beyond the human world.

In contrast to the loving attention he lavishes on the ancient Greeks, Malik’s account of monotheism is largely hostile. When he gets round to discussing the contribution of Judaism in the fourth chapter, he focuses on Deuteronomy, ‘an angry work’ that advocates ‘the brutal suppression of those who worship other gods, and, indeed, the slaughter of other ethnic groups’. He notes the existence of other biblical injunctions urging ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’; but he says little about Job’s questioning of divine justice – a contribution to moral thinking more profound, to my mind, than anything in Greek philosophy. When he considers the birth of Christianity, he tells us that there was ‘little new’ in the teachings of Jesus; any positive elements in Christianity are owed to Augustine, who for all his faults was ‘the last classical philosopher’. When he turns to Islam, the story is the same: he praises the religion mainly for preserving ‘the rationalist spirit that had been first carried by the Greeks’ and for transmitting that spirit to Europe.

Malik is keen to stress the global reach of his account, and rightly points out that what today are considered ‘western values’ would have been unrecognisable to canonical western thinkers of the past. Yet when he discusses the Hindu Vedas and the Buddha, Confucius and Taoism, it is as stages on the way to a higher form of moral consciousness that the modern west exemplifies. Buddhism is not bad as far as it goes, we learn, but lacks the world-transforming sense of agency of modern thinking. Taoism may have one or two points to its credit, but it suggests that unexamined lives may be worth living – a sacrilegious idea, for devout rationalists such as Malik. Other non-western traditions receive similarly patronising treatment. Presented in a style that is at times reminiscent of 1930s agitprop – one of the book’s central chapters is entitled ‘The Revolutionary Spirit and the Reactionary Soul’ – what Malik gives us is not a history of moral thinking, with its many divergences and deep discontinuities, but a self-admiring fable.

In writing the history of morality in this way, Malik shows the formative influence of his own history as a one-time Trotskyist activist. The Socialist Workers Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party may be as thoroughly defunct, in terms of political influence, as the now-proverbial dead parrot. But it wasn’t the tens of millions of casualties Trotskyism incurred in faraway countries where revolution was serious business rather than an adolescent hobby that led Malik to move on from the beliefs of his youth. Instead, what produced the shift seems to have been a parochial intra-left debate about multiculturalism, which he opposed not because it involves compromising liberal freedoms, but because it tainted the purity of the revolutionary enterprise. Malik clings to a view of history, and humanity, that is essentially Marxian; yet he does so without being able to draw on any of the metaphysical and religious traditions that made Marx’s thinking such a powerful system of ideas. The result is a view of morality that is not so much erroneous – though Malik’s account contains numerous rudimentary mistakes – as basically incoherent.

The depth of his confusion is clear in his garbled discussion of the objectivity of values. He accepts that values change over time; as he says, this is the theme of his book. But such changes aren’t arbitrary, he declares: ‘There is a certain logic to historical change.’ Now it is true that historical developments can have a kind of inherent rationality, in which one situation emerges from another in a series of intelligible steps. However, unless you think of history in teleological terms, as a story that may not be inevitable in its outcome but that has a built-in goal or purpose of some desirable kind, there is no reason to think this process need be in any way benign. As can be seen in the emerging catastrophe in Ukraine, where spiralling conflict on the ground is leading to another ruinous war, events may well have a certain logic; but it is logic of a kind that has nothing to do with ethics.

At this point, Malik will splutter that neither he nor Marx ever believed that history is governed by inexorable laws. It is human agency that shapes events, he will insist: as he puts it in the book’s final sentence, ‘The choice is ours’. Yet who are ‘we’, precisely? Marx was able to draw on an understanding of humanity as a kind of universal subject engaged in a struggle for freedom and redemption from the past, which he inherited from Judaism and Christianity. Nothing like this can be found among Malik’s beloved Greeks, who viewed history as a succession of natural cycles that had no overall meaning. In the absence of Marx’s Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity and history, or some other religious/metaphysical underpinning, ‘we’ means whatever anyone wants it to mean.

If you strip away religion and metaphysics and think of the human species in strictly naturalistic terms, you will see that ‘humanity’ – the universal subject, together with Marx, that Malik inherits from monotheism – is a figment of the imagination. ‘Science cannot determine values’, Malik writes, ‘because one cannot determine what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the data.’ True enough; but if you cannot call on any conception of humanity from an area of knowledge outside science, what reason could there be for thinking that one and only one system of values is peculiarly human? Or for thinking of history as a process in which these values are gradually unfolding?

Marx was able to assert that some values were quintessentially human, even as he denied that there was any constant human nature, because he believed history had an internal logic that was somehow inherently good. Without that comforting conviction – which Marx borrowed illicitly from religion – Malik’s universal values are left hanging in empty space. Once you have really given up monotheism, you have to say goodbye to the idea that human values can be universal or objective in the sense that rationalists such as Malik want to believe. You are left with the existing human animal, with its many different histories and perpetually warring moralities.

Malik’s inability to accept this inescapable truth gives his constant invocation of ‘humanity’ a kind of comic poignancy. Here below, on the conflict-ridden earth, human beings are raucously diverse and often savagely divided in their values, and vanishingly few of them have any interest in Malik’s inchoate post-Marxian visions. But somewhere in the heavens, far above the stale air of the Trotskyist meeting room, floats universal humankind – a serene, Cheshire-cat-like being, more nebulous and chimerical than the gods of the past, but seemingly still capable of casting a glimmer of meaning into the lives of disoriented ex-members of extinct revolutionary sects.

(My response to this review)

Anthony Kenny, Literary Review, May 2014

Kenan Malik invites his readers to consider the following questions. Can the mind be understood scientifically, and morality objectively? Can morality be reduced to the pursuit of rational self interest? Are desires and dispositions naturally given or socially created? Do humans possess moral choice? Can we transform human nature?

In The Quest for a Moral Compass Malik offers a guided tour of the moral systems of the past. As a guide he is informative and in general accurate, though some controversial statements are made deadpan and specialists will find points of detail to query. Each past moralist is treated in obituary style. First he is placed with an initial lively story or literary allusion (for example, The Name of the Rose for Aristotle, Free Fall for Hegel) and then we are given the main facts of his life, with an account of his teachings and importance. Finally, we are offered a critical evaluation, which is almost always pertinent, sober and humane.

Malik’s style is lucid and engaging. As an illustration of his gift for illuminating comparison we may quote his comment on Kant’s famous dictum ‘Concepts without percepts are empty . . . percepts without concepts are blind’, which is glossed as follows:

The empiricist mind was like an old drawer into which all manner of odds and ends had been thrown without thought. The rationalist mind was akin to a beautiful museum exhibition case but without any objects. Only a Kantian mind was both rich in treasure and well ordered.

During 14 of the chapters we are taken on a path well trodden by standard histories of Western philosophy, such as those by Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston. The commentary however, is more sober than Russell’s and more sparkling than Copleston’s. On our journey we meet familiar figures: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre (this last given favoured treatment).There are some surprising gaps in the narrative. Duns Scotus, for instance, for all his closeness in time to Aquinas, differed from him at Ieast as much as Aristotle did from Plato and had a much greater influence on subsequent moral philosophy. In a book devoted to Eastern as well as Western philosophy we might have expected to read more about Schopenhauer, who did his best to marry the two.

Nonetheless, there are half a dozen chapters that entitle the book to its claim of being a global history Chapter 5 introduces us to the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha. Chapter 6 deals with Confucius (whom we are encouraged to call Kong), Mo Tzu, Lao Tzu and Zhu Xi. Rational, reforming worldly Confucianism is contrasted with mystical, quietist, otherworldly Buddhism.

Malik observes that in the middle centuries of the first millennium BC – Karl Jaspers’s ‘Axial Age’ – social turbulences of a comparable kind occurred in China, India, Persia, Israel and Greece, crises in which ‘the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently’ in each of these regions-. He makes an interesting comparison between Hinduism and Christianity. In each religion, he points out, ‘free will in the past becomes an explanation for fatedness in the present’. That is to say, present constraints on our freedom explained in Christianity by the past sin of our first ancestors and in Hinduism by the karma transmitted from those in whom we were incarnate before our birth.

Two chapters are devoted to Islam and to the two main strands of its philosophy – the traditional (propounded by al-Ghazali) and rationalist (al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd). We are introduced to Al-Ma’arri, called the ‘Eastern Lucretius’ because of his ‘unflinching religious scepticism’. Later in the book, there are illuminating chapters on the ethics of colonial liberation and on the philosophical history of recent China. There is a particularly instructive account of the work neo-Confucian Jiang Qing (born in 1953).

In his narrative Malik devotes as much attention to religion as to ethics. But he resolutely denies that ethics has to be based on religion. ‘There was no burning bush on Mount Sinai. There was no resurrection three days after the crucifixion. And there was no Angel Gibreel in a cave on Mount Hira. But the belief that there was has, in each case, helped shape not just a faith but a moral outlook too.’

In the course of a panoramic vision so many horizons, it is inevitable that there should be distortions of perspective. Malik overemphasises what he calls ‘the chasm between the ancient concept of the primacy of the polis and the modern view of individual liberty’. It can well be argued that the state has a greater primacy in Hegel it does in Aristotle. Again, it is wrong that virtue theory was the dominant ethical view in the West from classical times until Bentham and Kant. That is made clear by the author himself in his chapter on the law morality of the Jewish and Christian Bible. Likewise it is incorrect to say that the idea of individual happiness as the supreme concept was first challenged by Kant’s ethics of duty. Anselm and Scotus in the Middle Ages had already done so.

Historians of philosophy, like other historians, may be tempted to take a Whiggish view, seeing the past as a story of progress towards a present that is superior to and supersedes all that has preceded it. There are moments when Malik appears to succumb to this temptation. For instance, he says that Bentham transformed ethical thinking in two ways: by insisting that right and should be defined by consequence, and by denying that certain kinds of action are intrinsically wrong. At first it looks as if he thinks this transformation was an improvement, but he soon makes clear that he does not believe these were changes for the better. The subsequent history of consequentialism, he says, ‘reveals the difficulty in thinking about moral acts without passing judgement on the intrinsic worth of those acts’.

There are, we are told, ‘no historically transcendent civilizational values’: ‘What today we describe as “Western” values would leave Aquinas and Dante bewildered, even more so Augustine and Plato.On the other hand Aquinas and Dante would have understood the Islamic values ofl Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd.’ Nonetheless, Malik is no moral relativist, He accepts, of course, that ends and goods vary from place to place, from time to time and from problem to problem. But he does not deny the possibility of universal moral principles and values. Historical shifts in moral concepts do not reveal moral ideas to be merely subjective or arbitrary. For instance, there are no circumstances in which it is right for one human being to enslave another.

We may ask finally: does the global history of ethics exhibit any progress, or only contingent variation consequent on social change? Kenan Malik answers that we cannot see in history any moral progress in the sense that we can witness scientific or technological progress. But what we can see, he claims, is ‘the maturing development and deepening of moral philosophy’. But as we put down this fascinating book we are left wondering: is it really so obvious that Bentham was a more profound moral philosopher than Aristotle or Aquinas?

On living a good life in a bad world
Jonathan Sacks, The Tablet, 26 April 2014

Morality has become the great unspeakable. Pass a moral judgement and you will be accused of judgmentalism. Defend a traditional institution like marriage and you will be branded either a relic or a fanatic. More than 30 years ago, in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that we were all living, unaware, among the wreckage of multiple moral systems, some ancient, others formulated in the wake of the Enlightenment, each incompatible with the others. Robert Bellah lamented in the words of John Donne, ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.’

Three cheers therefore for Kenan Malik’s impressive new survey The Quest for a Moral Compass. This is intellectual history in the grand manner, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy written with the same clarity, accessibility and narrative verve as the master himself. As the subtitle, ‘a global history of ethics’, makes clear, though, Malik’s scope is wider than Russell’s, extending beyond the West to include Hinduism, Buddhism and two good chapters on Islam, as well as studies of the Chinese masters, Confucius, Mo Tzu and Lao Tzu and their contemporary heirs. These are among the most rewarding sections of the book and the most needed. I was once present at a global forum on the economic future when the former head of the World Bank, Sir James Wolfensohn, was asked what advice he would give his grandchildren. ‘Learn Mandarin’ was his blunt answer. After reading this book we would probably add, ‘And read the neo-Confucians’.

Malik’s judgements are generous and the broad thrust of his narrative is surely right. It begins with the pre-Socratics in an age when human beings were conscious of their powerlessness against vast and capricious forces that played havoc with human devices and desires. It was their achievement to create a space for human dignity and honour in the face of blind and inexorable fate. Then came the two approaches that between them created the matrix of Western civilisation until the modern age: the Greek philosophers’ attempt to ground morality in reason and nature, and the Judaeo-Christian location of authority in the word and will of God.

Both were undermined by the Enlightenment. Natural science cast doubt on Aristotelian physics and the idea that purposes were discernible in nature. And after a century of religious wars in the wake of the Reformation, philosophers sought a foundation for morality that did not rest on contentious religious presuppositions. Some, like Hume, sought it in emotion and the ‘moral sense’. Others, notably Kant, found it in reason and duty. Bentham and Mill argued in favour of judging acts by their consequences. But Kant had unwittingly placed an explosive device in the moral landscape. By insisting on autonomy – self-legislation – he introduced a fateful ambiguity into Western intellectual discourse. This could mean that to be moral we have to internalise the norms of the society or community of which we are a part. But it could also be taken to mean that we are each to become our own moral legislators, with the predictable result that we would end with the chaos described at the end of the Book of Judges: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’

It would eventually be Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who took Western thought down the second road, Nietzsche by his assault on the Judaeo-Christian ethic as the revenge of the powerless against the powerful, Kierkegaard by his ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’, arguing that obedience to God might take precedence over morality itself. These were hazardous ideas and the result was disarray. Dewey’s pragmatism, Moore’s intuitionism, Ayer and Stevenson’s emotivism were all in their way confessions of failure to find an objective basis for ethics in reason or revelation. The late Philip Rieff summarised this entire history as the journey from fate to faith to fiction.

When I reached this point in my own quest for a moral compass – after being tutored by some of the world’s leading thinkers, among them Bernard Williams, Philippa Foot and Roger Scruton – I recognised the blind alley philosophy had wandered into and I turned instead to religion. An accidental encounter a decade later with MacIntyre’s After Virtue renewed my love of philosophy. MacIntyre did for ethics what Isaiah Berlin did for political thought: gave it back its history and dignity.

The person who saw this first, as Malik rightly notes, was the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in the late 1950s. She was the first in the English-speaking academy fully to realise that the moral language we were using presupposed an Aristotelian understanding of nature and a Judaeo-Christian faith that no longer shaped the shared culture of late modernity. We were using words that had lost their setting in life. That is now our tragedy and challenge. This, Malik concludes, can be either disconcerting or exhilarating. Eras of great civilisational change tend to produce new thinking about ways in which we can live justly and graciously together, the task of ethics through the ages. We are living through such a time today, and in terms of ethical reflection we have hardly begun. New discoveries about the structure of the universe, the nature of the human genome, the plasticity of the brain and the rapidly escalating power of artificial intelligence are forcing us to think again about what it is to be human in the company of others in a world full of danger and diversity.

Inevitably, in a study of this scope there are omissions. I would have liked to have seen more on love and forgiveness, on the difference between shame- and guilt-cultures, on Michael Walzer’s distinction between thin and thick moral concepts – those that express our universal humanity and those that embody the particularities of our traditions – as well as something on that most resonant of all contributions of the Bible to moral thought, the idea that we are each, despite our differences, in the image and likeness of God. These though are minor cavils. We are all in Kenan Malik’s debt. This is a majestic and timely work.

The Independent, 20 April 2014

If you happen to be cogitating on the possibility of a degree course in philosophy, you must read this book. If you are not, you probably ought to read it anyway: it will do you moral good. As a survey of philosophical thought, Kenan Malik’s narrative is a terrific achievement. Ranging from Socrates to Richard Dawkins, from China to Haiti, from dry ethics to poetry, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a work of highly readable history much more than it is a philosophical treatise.

Malik takes a chronological approach to his subject, illuminating how successive generations of thinkers have sought to reconcile the perennial paradoxes which underscore human existence. There are the usual themes: free will versus fate; individualism within society; reason against desire; the relativism of truth. As men and women have struggled to understand the purpose of their lives, so philosophers down the ages have attempted to provide explanations and enable progress. Yet Malik does more than simply summarise what key figures have said at various stages. Throughout the book he highlights connections between key strands of thought over time. In discussing the development of Mohism, Malik glances ahead to western utilitarians. When we arrive at 20th-century cultural relativism, there are neat reminders of how some of the relativists’ key ideas had been foreshadowed in the writing of Herodotus.

All this is done with a deft touch. Even where there is repetition of major points, it feels helpful rather than irritating. There are also flashes of humour: Aristotle may have been the most influential figure in the history of philosophy but, as Malik puts it, he could occasionally be pretty trite: ‘No one could disagree with the advice but one would hardly need to be Aristotle to give it.’

Malik rightly endeavours to understand philosophical theories – and their development, both short- and long-term – by reference to their historical contexts. As he notes: ‘… notions of right and wrong are historically flexible. That, after all, is the story of this book. But … moral changes do not happen on a whim; they are not arbitrary or random. Changes in notions of right and wrong do not merely follow their own course but are related to broader social, economic, political and intellectual shifts.’

If there is a criticism of The Quest for a Moral Compass it is that this central ‘story’ is hardly novel. While it might not be the starting point for a philosopher, it certainly is for academic history. Indeed, most serious contemporary historians would surely regard it as little more than a statement of the obvious, which suggests that Malik’s critique of Aristotle might occasionally apply to himself.

Ultimately, says Malik, the quest for a moral compass remains ongoing and should be embraced. It remains to be seen whether a recent article on the entertainment website Buzzfeed headlined ‘19 Philosophers Ranked by Hotness’ is a demonstration that humankind’s attempts to synthesise the ‘man as he is’ and ‘man as he could be’ dialectic have finally reached the mainstream.

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