Review: The Quest for a Moral Compass

Review: The Quest for a Moral Compass

Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics is a fascinating volume, and is compulsory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in morality or philosophy. Working his way through the ages from Homer onwards, Malik explores the development of morality around the globe, displaying a deep knowledge of a wide range of ethical traditions.

Studying any area of philosophy can be overwhelming. The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. The more you master one particular view, the more you realise there are many others. This is particularly true in ethics.  There are two and a half thousand years of ethical thought to study, a vast landscape of theories and views, and there’s no way you can cover it all. Some people spend a lifetime becoming experts on just one particular era, or one philosopher such as Nietzsche or Kant.

This is where books such as Malik’s are incredibly useful. He covers all the salient eras in ethics, all the most important philosophers you’ve heard of, and many important ones that have been neglected. And he does them in reasonable depth. It’s great for filling in the inevitable gaps in your own knowledge, often gaps you didn’t realise existed.

Malik inevitably begins with Homer, the pre-Socratics and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Jewish and Christian ethics follow, but he subsequently doesn’t just cover Western religions and philosophy. He provides chapters on Hinduism and Confucianism, as well as Buddhism and its spread to China. Malik explains how the influence of Daoism on Buddhism in China produced Zen Buddhism, and how this eventually led to the reworking of Confucianism by Zhu Xi as a response in the ninth to twelfth centuries. Islam is also well represented, from its origins to its split into Sunni and Shia factions. Malik details how the Arabs rediscovered the Greeks, and translated Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy into Arabic, and how this led to a Rationalist tradition that valued reason and human responsibility as well as revelation. The two most important Muslim philosophers, Avicenna and Averroes, come from the Islamic Rationalist tradition. Al-Ghazali, who embraced the mysticism of Sufism, was the Rationalists’ most significant critic, and eventually the Traditionalists prevailed. Ironically, Christian Europe then embraced their Greek heritage which had been preserved by Islamic scholars, translating them from Arabic into Latin. There were two important factors that helped this transition: the invention of the university and Thomas Aquinas, medieval philosophy’s most famous figure.

The story moves on to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Malik explains how at its heart is the tension between fate and individual moral responsibility, which is essential for moral judgement. Dante believed in free will; Martin Luther did not. His famous declaration to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ in his defense of his challenge to the Pope’s authority is actually a statement of his inability to do otherwise, not an endorsement of personal conscience.

According to Malik, the Reformation was a conservative reaction against Aquinas’ spirit of reason as well as a reaction against the abuses of the Catholic Church. Paradoxically, a movement that deprecated individual autonomy ‘helped create a world that came to celebrate individualism’ by tearing religious authority away from institutions. One result was the 1524 Peasants’ War in which peasants cited the Bible to support their grievances about oppressive taxes against the aristocracy. Both Luther and Calvin were unsympathetic and defended the right of princes to suppress the revolt.

There’s much, much more to absorb. Descartes’ dualism and mechanistic universe, and Hobbes’ social contract theory. Spinoza’s vision of human transformation, and Hume’s empiricism and view that desires motivate reason. Kant’s belief that moral agents themselves are the source of morality, and that the measure of the good is duty. The two sides of the Enlightenment – the public face of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume, and the radical side of Spinoza, which was the actual driving force that rejected tradition and aimed to sweep away traditional structures. Bentham’s consequentialism, and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, and the question of how much influence Nietzsche’s ideas had on the Nazis. There’s a good chapter on the existentialists, including Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus, and a fascinating account of how Toussaint L’Ouverture justified the Haitian slave revolution using Enlightenment values of equality for all.

The closing chapters chart the extraordinarily rich development of ethics in the twentieth century and beyond. Malik covers the rise of Dewey’s moral pragmatism, and intuitionism, based on G.E. Moore’s argument that moral truths were self-evident intuitions. Ayer’s emotivism, which saw moral claims as personal preferences, was a reaction, while Mackie’s Ethics provided an argument against the existence of moral facts. Meanwhile Anscombe and MacIntyre reinvented virtue ethics, while evolutionary ethics, rejected after the horrors of Nazism, began to see a resurgence with ideas such as reciprocal altruism. Malik also provides a thorough critique of Sam Harris’ ill-founded claim that science can determine moral values. Curiously, given he is charting the gradual abandonment of the concept of universal, objective moral values, Malik doesn’t mention the recent interest in non-natural, non-theistic moral realism espoused by Erik Wielenberg. He also omits the impact of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.

There’s a brief but absorbing account of how China’s relationship with Confucianism has recently been transformed. When the Qing Dynasty collapsed half a century after the Opium Wars, the central role of Confucianism in the social order disintegrated as well.  Mao’s rejection of tradition and embrace of modernity had disastrous consequences, resulting in the deaths of many millions of Chinese. But once again, China has recommitted itself to traditional Confucianism, led by philosopher Jiang Qing.

The Quest for a Moral Compass is an immensely enjoyable and informative read. Malik writes clearly and elegantly, and provides deep insights on many philosophers and eras. His analysis of how our understanding of morality has developed over the ages equips readers to place different moral theories in context. It’s an ideal starting point for anyone wishing a broad overview of ethics, but has something even for those familiar with the field.




UN: restricting abortion is ‘violence against women’

UN: restricting abortion is ‘violence against women’

It is well known that Northern Ireland has very restrictive abortion laws, as does the Republic of Ireland. In 2015/16, there were only 13 induced abortions recorded in Northern Ireland, and it is a good example of how restrictive laws can significantly reduce abortion rates. Even accounting for 724 women who travelled to England and Wales for abortions in that year, the abortion rate in Northern Ireland is approximately 8 times lower than the rate in England and Wales.

Now, the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has gone hyperbolic in its support for ‘women’s rights’ in Northern Ireland. Apparently, restricting abortion now amounts to ‘violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’. Given that abortion is the most violent act possible against an unborn human being, calling restrictions on abortion ‘unjustifiable State-sanctioned violence’ seems absurd. Strict abortion laws are intended to prevent violence.

It seems what the United Nations has in mind is what is called structural violence, which is really another term for social injustice. Normally, this term is applied to social structures that result in injustice and inequity. They may be economic, political, legal, religious, or cultural structures; examples include caste systems, apartheid, and colonialism. As Rylko-Bauer and Paul Farmer point out, these structures are violent because ‘they result in avoidable deaths, illness, and injury’.

But to label restrictive abortion laws as violent is to dehumanise the unborn, to say that they do not matter. Yes, pregnant women can find themselves in incredibly difficult and distressing situations, sometimes as a result of physical violence. Restrictive abortion laws can deepen their suffering. But to claim these laws are violent is to ignore the greater violence that abortion does to the unborn.

Another thoughtful discussion on this issue is here, which points out that ‘not one universal human rights treaty recognises a right to abortion’, and questions why a UN human rights committee is lobbying to liberalise abortion laws.


Beyond Infanticide

Beyond Infanticide

Our new paper Beyond infanticide: How psychological accounts of persons justify harming infants has finally been published in The New Bioethics journal. Written by Daniel Rodger, the PA, and Calum Miller, it consists of a reductio ad absurdum argument against certain philosophical definitions of what it means to be a person.

Definitions of persons are important in ethics, because unlike our everyday idea of what a person is, here persons are those entities to which we assign high moral value. This includes granting certain rights, such as the right to life. In the abortion debate, this is crucial – if fetuses are persons and have a right to life, then obviously justifying their death is very difficult (J.J.Thomson attempts to do this in her seminal paper A Defense of Abortion).

Psychological accounts of persons require certain cognitive capacities for recognition as a person, such as self-awareness and being able to value your future. If you don’t satisfy the criteria, you aren’t a person – in fact there is no you. Fetuses definitely don’t satisfy the criteria, and so this is commonly used to argue that abortion is permissible, as they don’t have a right to life.

One problem for psychological accounts has been long recognised – infants don’t satisfy the criteria either. Self-awareness is typically not reached until perhaps 18 months of age, and being able to value your own future, even longer. The implication is that if abortion is grounded on fetuses not being persons, then infanticide is likewise permissible. Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why infanticide should not be allowed, but it is nonetheless a troublesome implication of psychological accounts.

Some ethicists have bitten the bullet and accepted that some limited form of infanticide should be legalised – Peter Singer for example. Famously,  Giubilini and Minerva argue that in all circumstances abortion is permissible, infanticide is also permissible. Given the growing acceptance amongst ethicists of infanticide, the reductio has become less persuasive.

In this paper, we seek to re-establish the reductio by pushing it beyond infanticide, discussing other ‘pre-personal acts’ that psychological accounts also imply are permissible. These include organ harvesting, live experimentation, sexual interference, and discriminatory killing. We argue that our very strong intuitions against the permissibility of these pre-personal (and horrible) acts allow us to re-establish a comprehensive and persuasive reductio against psychological accounts of persons.

Here’s a quote from the conclusion of the paper:

many contemporary defences of abortion depend on denying foetuses (and often infants) the status of personhood on the basis of psychological accounts of rights, value and personhood. If, as we suggest, those accounts are made implausible by the reductios described above, defenders of the permissibility of abortion will have to appeal to alternative arguments




Why arguments against infanticide remain convincing

Why arguments against infanticide remain convincing

There’s an infamous bioethics paper by Giubilini and Minerva called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Published in 2013, it explains their view that in all circumstances that abortion is permissible, infanticide is also permissible. This is because they believe that both fetuses and infants are not what philosophers call persons. What is a person? The definition of a person is disputed in ethics, but we use it to mean an entity we grant certain rights to, such as the right to life. Giubilini and Minerva require certain cognitive capacities for recognition as a person, such as self-awareness and being able to value your future.

There have been many replies to Giubilini and Minerva, and amongst them Christopher Kaczor presents four brief objections in his excellent book The Ethics of Abortion. Recently, Joona Räsänen has argued that Kaczor’s arguments are not persuasive in his paper Pro-life arguments against infanticide and why they are not convincing.

Upon reading Räsänen’s paper, we (the PA, Daniel Rodger and Clinton Wilcox) realised that Räsänen had largely ignored Kaczor’s strongest arguments against infanticide, which were not detailed in his criticism of Giubilini and Minerva early in his book. Rather, Kaczor’s case against abortion (which the entire book is concerned with) is equally applicable against infanticide.

Accordingly, we wrote a reply to Räsänen which was accepted by Bioethics and published online in January 2018. In Why arguments against infanticide remain convincing: A reply to Räsänen, we counter each of his criticisms of Kaczor, using the full range of Kaczor’s arguments as well as adding our own thoughts. Please contact the PA if you would like the full paper.

It’s well worth noting that Kaczor has also replied in his recently published paper A dubious defense of ‘after‐birth abortion’: A reply to Räsänen.



A critical look at Intelligent Design

A critical look at Intelligent Design

Intelligent design is defined by the Discovery Institute as a theory holding ‘that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection’ (Discovery Institute, 2016).

The Philosophical Apologist has spent considerable effort evaluating whether Intelligent Design (ID) should be regarded as science, and it failed to meet the suggested criteria. ID should not be regarded as science, at least at this stage of its development. We’ve noted that this doesn’t necessarily matter, and this verdict has little bearing on whether ID’s arguments are sound. It’s now time to examine them.

Initial objections

It’s common for opponents to dismiss ID as religion, often because it has creationist roots, and creationism is certainly religious in nature. This is a lazy option, as ID explicitly avoids identifying its designer, and this approach does not address ID’s arguments.

Similarly, we shouldn’t dismiss ID on the grounds of it being supernatural. If there really is reason to believe there is a designer, it must be extraordinarily capable, orders of magnitude more so than humans. That certainly sounds non-natural, and even God-like. If it is God as conceived by theists, we’d surely want to know.

The design inference

We seem quite capable at reliably inferring design produced by intelligent agents, almost without thinking. By experience we’ve learnt how to discriminate between artifacts produced by natural processes, and artifacts produced by human intelligence. It seems an almost intuitive process.

What about biological artifacts? We have a theory of how they might be produced by natural means. But they seem incredibly complex, and evolutionary theory hasn’t yet produced a convincing step-by-step explanation of how many (even most) biological features could have arisen.

ID is an attempt to apply our design intuitions to (primarily) biological artifacts to decide if they were intelligently designed, or if they merely display the appearance of design but are produced naturally.

So far this sounds reasonable, if rather vague. We need some kind of rigorous, clearly defined evaluation method if the conclusions are to be convincing. Obviously confirmation bias means theists are going to be easier to persuade than atheists, so this process needs to be as objective as possible.

ID’s general approach is to try determine what properties of artifacts are associated only with design, and then identify these properties in biological features. The argument is as follows:

  1. A property is identified as a marker of ID based on our own experience of that property and our understanding of its nature. For example, the purposeful arrangement of parts and functional information.
  2. Biological organisms display many of these properties.
  3. There are no credible natural explanations for these properties of organisms, and so design is the most credible explanation.

This seems a reasonable approach – providing such properties can be found. ID proponents focus on two properties that are closely related.


Complexity seems a good candidate as a design marker. Many of our human artifacts (e.g. a computer) are extremely complex.  But there are three major problems.

Firstly, we don’t have an objective, language independent way of assigning complexity to any artifact that captures our intuitions. Until we can do so, complexity isn’t a viable candidate.

Secondly, even if we decided upon a complexity measure (e.g. Kolmogorov complexity), we don’t have a technique allowing us to calculate this for a given biological feature. I’m not aware of any complexity calculations performed in ID so far.

Finally, it is unclear how we could demonstrate only intelligent agents can produce such complexity.

Irreducible complexity

Enter irreducible complexity (IC), which tries to address the third issue above. ID’s claim is that there are certain biological structures unable to be produced by natural processes, only by intelligence. A system is IC if it is “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning” (Behe, 1996).

This sounds promising, but in practice only restates the issue. Demonstrating that a feature is IC seems very difficult (e.g. co-opting of systems for purposes other than their original function is claimed to generate apparently IC structures), and is subject to accusations of a lack of imagination. There’s no broad consensus on any IC features – examples such as the bacterial flagellum and the blood clotting cascade are disputed by most biologists. Recasting the argument as a probabilistic one runs into the thorny issue of how to calculate the probabilities involved when we don’t know what the process is.

The analogy problem

ID works by analogy with human intelligent design.  It assumes human intelligence is representative of all advanced intelligence.  But it seems optimistic to assert that the intelligence required to create life (and perhaps the universe) is analogous to human intelligence. Do we really have any idea what the characteristic design trail of a superhuman intelligence would be like? Would they create IC structures, for example?

We can reliably infer human design as we know a lot about humans. We know far less about super-intelligent designers – and ID proponents are reluctant to provide any details. Crucially, super-intelligent designers can’t be alive in the sense that we are familiar with, because they can’t have designed themselves. So why assume their minds have anything in common with our own? 

Inference to best explanation

It has become common for ID proponents (initiated by Stephen Meyers) to frame their method of enquiry as an Inference to Best Explanation (IBE), largely (I think) to build a case for ID being a scientific explanation. IBE involves taking competing explanations (e.g. evolution vs ID) and deciding which one best fits the empirical data. It is particularly suitable for comparing hypotheses for non-repeatable events from the past.

God of the gaps?

ID is often accused of being a “God-of-the-gaps” argument, which means invoking God for natural phenomena that science hasn’t explained.

Although this is a pejorative, it’s worth noting that there might well be genuine gaps in nature that could be empirically detectable. If so, these would suggest a supernatural designer.  The existence of such gaps is a legitimate question – the problem being demonstrating that such gaps exist as illustrated by the concept of irreducible complexity. Historically, many gaps have been closed, which has discredited this approach, and of course the supernatural element helps discredit gaps as science.

ID’s use of IBE neatly avoids the charge of being God-of-the-gaps. Rather, it is a comparison of competing hypotheses based on available empirical evidence.

Some issues with IBE

There are some issues with IBE both as a method, and more specifically as applied to ID.

Best of a poor lot?

The first is that the outcome of using IBE is only as good as the explanations being compared. What if we settle on the best of a poor lot? Typically, ID is compared against evolutionary theory.  Are there any other options? And what do we mean by ID? Are there different theories of how this designer operated?

What if God programmed the laws of evolution so they can produce IC structures? What if God has programmed the laws of the universe to make human life inevitable? In this case, evolution does create IC structures – but the process is intelligently designed.

What makes a good explanation?

Is an “intelligent designer” really an explanation of anything? The theory seems to lack any empirical content. When and how did this designer act? What are its characteristics?

Conspiracy theories

The frustrating thing about conspiracy theories are that they are infinitely malleable, and are always able to explain all the facts. They can be made to explain circumstances perfectly. But (much of the time!), they are wrong. If the intelligent designer is not specified to some degree, it too may become a malleable explanation that can account for any evidence.

With IBE we must cull the most unlikely explanations. One way of doing this is to examine if there are independent reasons to believe the hypothesis. Are there independent reasons to believe that there is an intelligent designer? It is difficult for IDers to answer yes when they trying to be “scientific” and are avoiding saying they think the designer is God.

Setting the bar higher

Finally, a super-intelligent designer is akin to a supernatural designer. We don’t want to rule out the supernatural by fiat, but it seems reasonable to set the bar higher for what is the “best explanation” if it involves something that might be supernatural.


There’s clearly some merit to the design inference, as shown by our intuitions about human designs. The problem is distilling these intuitions into a rigorous method that applies to biological features and only selects intelligent agency. 

A major issue is the reluctance of ID proponents to identify the designer. I suspect this is to partly to avoid being tarred with the YEC brush, as well as an attempt to appear more scientific. It’s a catch-22, as without more details on the designer, there is little content to an ID theory and it fails most tests for science.

It may be best for ID proponents to propose a rigorously defined supernatural designer, and argue that this does not preclude ID being science (if being science is that important to them).

The IBE approach is promising, but it needs these details for ID to have any chance of being the best explanation. We also need theories about what the designer has done and when. We might get more detailed predictions that are falsifiable.

Donald Prothero’s observation on the current state of ID seems rather apt for now:  “they don’t offer any new scientific ideas or a true alternative theory competing with evolution. All they argue is that some parts of nature seem too complex for them to imagine an evolutionary explanation” (Prothero, 2010, 418). 


Behe, Michael J. 1996: Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free.

Discovery Institute, 2016: Frequently Asked Questions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2016].

Prothero, Donald, 2010: Science and Creationism. In Rosenberg, A. and Arp, R. (eds). Philosophy of biology. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Robin Collins on ID

Robin Collins on ID

Robin Collins is a prominent defender of the fine tuning argument for the existence of God, which points to the extraordinary precision required for the initial conditions of the universe and the parameters of physics to support life.

Collins has recently published a paper on what he calls methodological theism, and in it makes some interesting comments on the status of Intelligent Design as science that bear repeating:

On the other hand, the major problem I see with ID’s claim that we should include the hypothesis of a transcendent or generic designer as part of science is that it is not what I have called scientifically tractable. Typically, when scientists propose an explanation of some set of phenomena, that explanation can be filled in using other branches of science. For example, consider the big bang theory. The postulated “fireball” that resulted in our current universe provides a detailed explanation of such things as the microwave background radiation and the abundance of elements because we can use current particle physics to elaborate this fireball’s internal dynamics. If its internal workings were forever beyond the realm of current science to investigate, it is doubtful such an hypothesis would be of much scientific interest. Ditto for the theory of evolution and other scientific theories.

Insofar as the hypothesis of ID invokes a transcendent or generic designer, it lacks this characteristic. One cannot use current science to elaborate the internal dynamics of a transcendent or generic designer (though one might for a specific sort of non-transcendent designer, such as an extraterrestrial intelligence). Yet, lacking this characteristic is no small matter, since it is what allows scientific hypotheses to provide detailed explanations and predictions, and it gives scientists something to work with. It is not sufficient for advocates of ID to reply that intelligent design is the best explanation of various features of the natural world: many theists argue that God is the best explanation of the big bang and the laws of nature and many platonists argue that the existence of an immaterial realm of mathematical truths is the best explanation of the success of mathematics in science, but clearly this is insufficient to make the God hypothesis or platonic hypothesis part of science. So, whether or not one wants to consider ID as part of science, this significant and relevant difference between it and regular scientific hypotheses should be acknowledged.

Collins’ conclusion is very similar to that of the Philosophical Apologist, which was covered in a series of essays here.  Essentially, ID’s conception of an intelligent designer lacks sufficient content to provide the detailed predictions necessary to qualify as science.


Yet Another Benedict Option Review

Yet Another Benedict Option Review

It’s amazing to see the attention Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been receiving lately. Book reviews abound, both critical and sympathetic. So the Philosophical Apologist decided to join the fray, mainly because he’s just finished reading it and wanted to clarify his thoughts – briefly.

At its heart it’s a rant against modernity and its evils. Consumerism and technology are reshaping society, mostly in negative ways. In America, Christians are losing political influence and the tide has turned against faith. Persecution is coming, and so we need to prepare for the storm.  The “Benedict Option” is Dreher’s solution – a call for Christians to separate themselves into Christian communities and rediscover deep, meaningful faith in the manner of Benedictine monks.

There’s plenty to criticize. In Dreher’s historical survey, he points to the replacement of replacement of metaphysical realism by Ockham’s nominalism as a pivotal point that removed the link between “the transcendent and the material worlds”. Frustratingly, he never clearly explains what these two positions are (see here for a good overview).

It’s also not very clear whether Dreher means Christians should cut themselves off from the world or merely be more intentional about Christian community. For example, he suggests the dramatic step of withdrawing our children from schools, both public and Christian, to establish “classical Christian schools”. What’s a classical Christian school? A school based around a Christian world-view, but with a strong emphasis on Greco-Roman literature. Bizarrely, Dreher makes little attempt to justify this approach – one which would require enormous commitment from Christian parents.

Dreher also thinks that coming persecution will drive Christians out of professions such as law and medicine, and suggests rediscovering working with one’s hands. He doesn’t suggest how his concept of a classical education will prepare young adults for working in a trade – a curious omission.

There are some useful nuggets, though. While it is probably unrealistic for most Christians to live in distinct communities, in busy times many churches have neglected the importance of intentionally building community – “thickening” our ties with each other. There’s a welcome reminder of how both liturgy and asceticism can help us focus on God. Dreher suggests a weekly Sabbath rest from technology, a helpful idea that might help us discipline our minds from the myriad distractions of the Internet.

I finished the book feeling slightly disappointed, though. Dreher writes well, but the apocalyptic tone felt overdone for a non-American Christian. Also, I couldn’t see how his touted Benedict Option differed significantly from what I’ve always thought Christianity should look like – a close-knit, loving community much like the New Testament church.