The Quest For A Moral Compass – A Global History of EthicsBy Kenan Malik

This book was a Father’s Day present, and I had high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed. I had browsed Mr Malik’s website, and knew him to be a serious, modern thinker. So I was expecting more than the usual run through of the philosophical history books with the usual suspects. They (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Kant, Augustine, Kongzi, Aquinas, Dante, Luther, Kierkegaard, Descartes, Satre, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Bentham, Mill, Singer, Hegel, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, Moore, MacIntyre, Anscombe, Rawls) are all there, but so are some less expected characters: Scruton, C. S. Lewis, Pinker, Harris, C. L. R. James, and Mr Malik ranges both East and West, through time, drawing out the continuous thread that has been the search for a moral compass. How should we behave? What is good (and what is the good life?)? What are the important things in life?

This journey through philosophical time makes it clear that morality at any point in time and space is significantly affected by where Society is, at that point. In ancient times, for example, someone’s role was determined by their place in their community, and moral philosophy at the time was heavily influenced by that. Technological change leading to societal change also led to a shift in the understanding of individuality. Changes in Religion also had a profound effect on moral philosophy, as did the Enlightenment. Loss of spiritual certainty also led to loss of moral certainty. If there is no sacred, then what is the source of morals?
Mr Malik appears not to believe in the spiritual, but also appears not to be satisfied with any of the morality frameworks set out by the philosophers over the last 200 years as they sought to replace the sacred. In his view, Science doesn’t cut it, as a source of, or methodology for the derivation of moral values, nor does utility or individualism. Essentially, the value-assigners assigning of values is determined by their own pre-existing moral/ethical position – they aren’t in a position to derive a moral/ethical position from scratch (or reason). How then, can we determine what is right? Mr Malik doesn’t give a direct answer to this question, although he does take a position on the issue at the end of the book.
Now, I find Mr Malik’s final position on this refreshing and persuasive (I’ll come back to this). However, in the spirit of the book, I should reveal some of my own fight through the thicket of morality: Scientist, convert to Christianity in early 20’s whilst at Uni, Russell, Pinker, C. S. Lewis, Hitchens, McGrath, Fukuyama. And others. For me, the sacred doesn’t so much define morality in great detail, but rather establishes a framework within which to understand Self and the world. If Mankind is made in God’s image, then this has a profound influence on what is good, and how life should be lived. If choice is a prerequisite for a relationship with God, then freedom of moral agency follows. How we choose to behave is our responsibility; which is also Mr Malik’s view: 
“[there is]….no moral safety net. No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off the moral tightrope….”
The book is expansive, and easy to read. It ranges widely, but always with the main enquiry in view. I highly recommend it.


One thought on “The Quest For A Moral Compass – A Global History of EthicsBy Kenan Malik

  1. Pingback: Worm, Sand, Time | chemistrypoet

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