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.




Are there objective moral values?

Are there objective moral values?

Objective moral values are moral values that are “independent of human desires, perceptions, beliefs and practices”. Those who hold that moral values are objective are known as moral realists, and they believe that statements such as “slavery is wrong” are true or false regardless of who says them, and where and when they were said.

Atheists such as Nietzsche, Hume and Mackie all agreed that there are no objective moral values in a godless universe. Although this is a common position, not all atheists hold to it, and a recent post concluded that it is possible to maintain that objective moral values could exist without God. This involves accepting that brute moral facts just happen to exist in our universe, and that they match our moral beliefs.

By contrast, theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God, which neatly explains moral obligation and why moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs. The theistic view seems more persuasive, but of course the theistic worldview entails many other commitments which atheists find untenable.

Why do atheists like Wielenberg even think objective moral values exist? Given their commitment to an evolutionary account for our existence, it seems logical to attribute our moral beliefs and our intuitions about these beliefs to natural selection, at least indirectly. But doing so makes it difficult to be a realist about moral values, as it leads to Sharon Street’s “Darwinian dilemma” – either evolutionary forces have somehow conspired to produce moral beliefs that match these objective moral values, or our moral beliefs don’t coincide with whatever objective moral values exist at all. If objective moral values are jettisoned, the Darwinian dilemma dissolves, so why hold to this position?

Interestingly, it’s a very common position. In fact the majority of philosophers surveyed  are moral realists. Given that over two thirds have a preference for atheism, it seems moral realism is widespread even amongst atheists.


David Enoch contends that believing morality is objective has considerable appeal to us, and he gives three reasons why this is so.

Firstly, Enoch uses a joke to illustrate what he calls the spinach test. A child who hates spinach says “I’m glad I hate spinach, because otherwise I might have eaten it, and it’s yucky!”.  It’s funny because the only reason for not eating it is because of personal preference. If you did like it, it wouldn’t be yucky.

But it isn’t funny when it’s about a moral position. It seems quite reasonable to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t born in an era when slavery was acceptable, because I would have accepted it, and I think slavery is wrong”. This sentiment seems reasonable because we are thinking beyond our personal preferences. We think slavery is objectively wrong.

Enoch’s second test is about how moral disagreement feels – the phenomenology of disagreement. When we have an argument about a topic such as abortion, or some other issue we care deeply about, it doesn’t feel like an argument about personal preferences  such as the taste of chocolate.  It feels like an argument about something objective. Enoch compares it to a debate on global warming, which we know to be an objective matter irrespective of our position on it.

The third test is the “what if?” – or counterfactual – test for objectivity. If our beliefs or practices were very different, would it still be true that so-and-so? Enoch gives the example of smoking causing cancer. If we believed smoking was harmless, would it still be true that smoking causes cancer? Of course – it is an objective fact that smoking causes cancer, no matter what we believe. We can apply the same test to moral beliefs. If  we believed slavery is acceptable, would it still be wrong? It seems clear that the answer is yes, slavery would still be wrong. We would want a society that believes slavery is acceptable to change their views.

Enoch contends that these tests demonstrate that we very much want to regard morality as being objective. We want to be able to say that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong no matter what some people may think.

But we are still left with the Darwinian dilemma and consequently have at least one good reason to think that morality is not objective. Of course, some sort of theistic evolution can counter this, but are there any good arguments for objective morality other than our intuitions?

Yes, and they will be explored in part two, coming soon!

Can objective moral values exist without God?

Can objective moral values exist without God?

In a recent post it was argued that to have objective meaning in life, it is sufficient that there be intrinsically good activities we can pursue. Naturally, for theists the question arises, how can there be intrinsically good things without God? Doesn’t the very concept of goodness require grounding in God?

Most Christians would say yes, we can’t make sense of goodness, or indeed any objective moral values* without God. Even many atheists are happy to concede that moral realism (as it is known) seems to require a transcendent source. Moore’s Open Question Argument showed that moral properties could not be natural properties, leading atheists to deny moral properties exist. For example, Mackie states that “moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them”. As an atheist, Mackie concludes that there are no objective moral values .

In recent years, though, some philosophers have put forward non-natural, non-theistic versions of moral realism. For example, Erik J. Wielenberg believes that some ethical truths are necessary truths, that they are “fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths”. According to Wielenberg, some ethical truths don’t need to be grounded in God. They are simply brute facts – facts without explanation – that we have to accept. As non-natural facts, they are sui generis, in a class of their own.

Surprisingly, this view also finds some support from theists. For example, philosopher Richard Swinburne states that “fundamental moral principles must be (logically) necessary”. William Lane Craig concurs: “I agree wholeheartedly with Swinburne that some moral truths are necessary truths”.

Craig’s statement is initially puzzling, given that he is the champion of the moral argument that has as its basis the premise that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. But how can this be the case if there are necessary moral truths? Surely necessary moral truths are not dependent on the existence of God?

Craig’s position is that necessary truths still require an explanation. He quotes Shelly Kagan’s The Limits of Morality: “unless we have a coherent explanation of our moral principles, we don’t have a satisfactory ground for believing them to be true”. So Craig is arguing that Wielenberg needs to explain why there are some necessary ethical truths. Without such an explanation, we have no reason to believe these truths.

In effect, Craig’s argument is that while there are necessary ethical truths, there are no necessary ethical truths that have no explanation, i.e. brute facts.

This is redolent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which states that for every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.

There are two issues for Craig, though, regarding the PSR. The first is that the PSR is usually restricted to contingent truths, not necessary truths. Contingent truths are those truths that could have been false. If the PSR does not apply to necessary truths, then we can’t insist that necessary ethical truths require an explanation. Secondly, the PSR is controversial and is not accepted by many philosophers. Consequently, it is not particularly helpful in strengthening Craig’s demand for explanation, as it requires its own detailed justification.

Craig does, however, seem to have a point. If the necessity of certain ethical truths can be better explained with theism, perhaps this view should be preferred over non-theistic alternatives such as Wielenberg’s. Craig uses the example of “2+2=4” being a necessary truth that is grounded in Peano’s axioms, the set of statements that define the properties of natural numbers.

What then is Craig’s explanation for necessary ethical truths? Unsurprisingly, he thinks they are grounded in the necessary existence of God. Because God necessarily exists, certain ethical truths also necessarily exist. There are complications with this relationship,  though, and there is considerable debate about its nature.

Additionally, God’s necessary existence is considered by some theists to be “the ultimate brute fact”, as Swinburne puts it. Swinburne thinks God’s existence is contingent and has no explanation. This allows Wielenberg to claim that grounding necessary ethical truths in God still terminates in a brute fact, and so it is no more explanatory than regarding ethical truths themselves as brute facts. However many philosophers of religion disagree with Swinburne’s views here, regarding God’s existence as logically necessary. The explanation for God’s existence is generally regarded as lying within his own divine nature, i.e. God’s existence is self-explanatory. Wielenberg certainly makes no suggestion that necessary ethical truths are self-explanatory.

An issue for Wielenberg’s view is the correspondence between moral facts and our moral beliefs. If the universe contains basic moral facts, and these moral facts are causally inert, how do they become correlated with our beliefs? This is what Terence Cuneo calls the “remarkable coincidence”, and which Sharon Street considers is enough to reject moral realism – what she calls the Darwinian dilemma. Evolution is aimed at survival and fitness only. If it has also shaped the cognitive faculties that produce our moral beliefs, why should we think these moral beliefs have any relation to moral facts? This is really an argument about moral knowledge. Moral facts may exist, but how could we ever know what they are?

Rather than postulating a direct connection, both David Enoch and Wielenberg argue that there is a third factor responsible for binding moral facts to moral beliefs. This third factor is adaptive, but has only an indirect correlation with moral facts – our fitness enhancing beliefs also happen to produce our moral beliefs.

In Enoch’s view, survival is good, and since evolution is directed to survival, we develop beliefs about what is good. This is not particularly convincing, as it seems that Enoch has replaced one coincidence with another – how the results of natural selection just happen to align with moral truth. Wielenberg’s more nuanced argument is that we developed certain cognitive faculties that produce basic motivational tendencies that are adaptive. He focuses on tendencies that protect personal boundaries, as they will increase survivability. These cognitive faculties also allow us to develop beliefs about our rights.

Such arguments still seem to be question-begging. We believe survival is good, and that we have certain rights, but these are moral beliefs called into question by Street’s argument. Enoch and Wielenberg have not completely defused the evolutionary debunking argument, as it is known.

Another concern is what is known as the Anscombe intuition about moral obligations. In her famous paper Modern Moral Philosophy,  Anscombe argues that the unique authoritative character of moral obligations requires a law-giver. It is difficult to see how moral facts (even if they are obligations) provide the robust obligation that a divine command theory supplies, and Wielenberg struggles to justify this.


Recent non-theistic accounts of moral facts such those of Wielenberg and Enoch do provide an account for objective moral values without God. On these views, moral facts exist without explanation. It is a puzzle how moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs, given that evolution aims at survival and fitness, and why we are obligated to pay attention to these moral facts is unclear.

Theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God. On the theistic view, moral obligation is also explained, and there is an account of why moral facts are correlated with moral beliefs.

There seems little reason to accept Wielenberg or Enoch’s view that brute moral facts just happen to exist and happily match our moral beliefs. Street’s Darwinian dilemma is persuasive, and on an atheistic view, it seems more realistic to attribute our intuitions about moral facts to evolutionary advantage rather than defend moral realism together with our moral knowledge.


*Moral facts and moral properties are often used interchangeably. For example, it is a moral fact that inflicting unnecessary pain on conscious beings is wrong. This can be restated as inflicting unnecessary pain on conscious beings has the property of being morally wrong. What about objective moral values? Moral facts are facts about objective moral values.