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.