‘The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics’ reviewed by Dr Thomas Lawrence Long

‘The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics’ by Kenan Malik (Atlantic Books, 2014)

QMCIn the final chapter of this global survey of ethical systems written for a popular audience, Kenan Malik recalls T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, which admonishes us that ‘to make an end is to make a beginning’. So I begin this review by turning to the book’s end in order to understand Malik’s purpose and the paths along which he leads his readers.

Malik reflects in the last two chapters on the rise of communist China, the resurgence of ancient Confucian themes, post-colonial Western triumphalism and the proliferation of a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative. While for two millennia in the ancient and medieval world the narrative of moral thought ranged across the world, in the last millennium the West had come to dominate the development of ethical thinking. In the past quarter century, a Western triumphalist narrative has asserted the inevitability of liberalism and free-market capitalism (think of Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the ‘end of history’ or Margaret Thatcher’s denial of ‘society’), claiming an innate superiority of Western values, including social ethics and legal norms. Critics of this narrative, however, respond that the triumph of Western liberalism with its emphasis on individualism and autonomy has only been the product of Western political and economic power.

Malik counters by asserting that there ‘are no historically transcendent civilizational values’ and that ‘the real conflict is not between the ideas of Europe and those of China’ but ‘between those philosophies, some of which have developed in Europe, some in China, that view human flourishing in more universalist terms, and those . . . that understand it in a narrower, more parochial way’ (p. 334). He also observes that ‘Questions of morality do not have objective answers in the way that scientific questions do, but neither are they merely expressions of subjective desire or taste’ (p. 341). Morality is grounded in an understanding of what it means to be human, but the unsettling experience of twentieth-century modernity since Wallace and Darwin in the nineteenth is the growing uncertainty about how distinct the human is from other animal life forms. (See de Waal http://youtu.be/GcJxRqTs5nk ) It is not so much the ‘Abolition of Man’ as it is the ‘Fall of Man’.

While ending with this ambiguity and an ambivalence about this ambiguity, Malik begins his journey with ‘the capriciousness of the gods and the tragedy of Man’ (p. 1). The Greek epic and dramatic traditions depict gods who seem to us less transcendental and more peevish. Their demands on humans are idiosyncratic and arbitrary. However, these mythic reflections set the stage for the emergence of an intellectual tradition with the Sophists and Socrates over what constitutes knowledge: contingent and provisional for the Sophists, necessary and universal for Socrates. The debate between Euthyphro and Socrates asks, is something moral because the gods approve it, or do the gods approve it because it is moral? I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s aphorism that, ‘the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’ (p. 39). This conundrum – are ethics universal or merely situational? – will serve as the path to the rest of Malik’s book. In chapters on Plato and Aristotle, Malik provides his own footnotes to the history of Western philosophy.

By moving beyond traditional rationalist philosophy, however, to include theistic religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) and ethical traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Confucianism), Malik strives for a more comprehensive and multicultural survey of a global history of ethics. He situates Christianity in its Jewish matrix, but, since Christianity’s later moral theology borrows heavily from Greek Platonism and Aristotelianism and Roman Stoic philosophy and law, Malik draws those connections as well, paying careful attention to Patristic writers like Augustine whose notions of morality are based on divine law and human freedom to obey or disobey that law. Most clearly developed in Augustine, Christian theodicy predicates evil (e.g., sickness, violence, pain, death) on Original Sin, Adam and Eve’s first violation of a divine law, the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Suddenly, however, Malik takes us away from the Western tradition to that of Hinduism and Buddhism. He observes that the Hindu concept of karma paradoxically ‘embodies the sense both of free will and of fate’, while at the same time providing ‘an explanation for one of the most troubling questions within monotheistic faiths: why do bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people?’ (p. 82). Buddhism’s Eightfold Path constituting a Middle Way both ‘democratized’ spiritual ethics and avoided the extremes of asceticism and hedonism while acknowledging the universality of suffering and loss. Remaining in the Asian world, Malik next turns to China and Confucianism, a product of China’s ‘process of continuity and change, of political fragmentation and cultural stability’ (pp. 95-96), themes that still appear in contemporary China. Unlike the Western insistence on universal ethical principles, Confucianism is interested in ‘precisely how one individual ought to behave towards another given their respective social role’ (p. 98) in a generalized principle of ‘humaneness’, which produces the Golden Rule.

Returning westward, Malik then examines the rise of Islam and the development of its sense of morality. Malik observes that Islam, like its Jewish and Christian predecessors, did not so much create new moral principles as much as redefine the reason for moral behavior, namely Allah’s will. Although today people in the West may be inclined to stereotype Islam as a fundamentalist faith, Malik reminds us that Moslem translators of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy made the Greek intellectual tradition available to the Christian West. The result, not surprisingly, was an intellectual conflict between Moslem traditionalists and Moslem rationalists.

Enabled by Arabic translations the Aristotelian revival became the foundation for medieval Roman Catholic moral theology, in its appropriation by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.  The Thomistic God is utterly rational, with rationally devised laws (physical and moral) that are knowable from reason in the Aristotelian analysis of causality. For Aquinas the final cause (the telos or end for which something is made) of a thing or phenomenon determines our moral use of it. Malik also devotes some attention to the greatest Thomistic artist of the Middle Ages, Dante, who reminded readers in the ‘Divine Comedy’ that the Inferno was not some frenzied work of passionate retribution. Instead, as the carving above the entrance to Hell instructed the poet: ‘reason made me’.

A survey of early-modern and modern ethics occupies the second half of the book, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, which Malik characterizes as a conservative reaction to Thomistic rationality. Paradoxically, the Reformation created intellectual and cultural spaces for secularism and individualism that became the ground for Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Kant. In addition to Kant, Malik also devotes attention to Hume, Bentham, and Mill as philosophers introducing modern ethical reflection detached from religious moralizing. Likewise, Marx and Nietzsche receive Malik’s attention as practitioners of what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, but really another set of footnotes on Plato, namely the tendency in Western philosophy to question appearances in order to discern the underlying truth beneath to superficial illusion. In the case of Marx, economic motives and structures are the occult drivers of ethical systems; for Nietzsche, the will to power.

Malik is perhaps most comfortable in his analysis of twentieth-century currents in global ethics. This includes post-colonial critiques and existentialism. However, for Malik, American John Dewey’s pragmatism is also significant: ‘Ends and goods vary from place to place, from time to time, from problem to problem. In one sense, this is my argument in this book’ (p. 287). Moreover, modernity’s post-Enlightenment emphasis on individual autonomy and its rejection of Aristotelian teleology, in the critique of Alasdair MacIntyre, has abstracted humans from a social context and its attendant obligations. Even post-Darwinian attempts to marshal the claims of science as a foundation for ethics have tended to be reductionistic.

Although Malik is a secular humanist, this commitment does not prevent his survey from acknowledging the contribution of religious thought or the limitations of modern rationalism. ‘The Quest for a Moral Compass’ is not a scholarly book, and its scope is so wide (in both time and place) that Malik can only paint with very broad strokes. However, the book will be valuable for informed laypersons or undergraduates, providing the background for conversations about biomedical ethics.


Reviewed by Dr Thomas Lawrence Long, associate professor-in-residence in the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing, who is the author of ‘AIDS and American Apocalypticism: The Cultural Semiotics of an Epidemic’ and co-editor of ‘The Meaning Management Challenge: Making Sense of Health, Illness, and Disease’.  He serves on the editorial board of the journal ‘Literature and Medicine’ and has published in it, as well as in the British Medical Journals ‘Medical Humanities’ and in ‘Journal of Medical Humanities’.  He earned the doctorate in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a master’s in theology from the Catholic University of America, and a master’s in English from the University of Illinois.

Correspondence to Dr Thomas Long



De Waal, Frans. ‘Moral Behavior in Animals.’ TED Talks, 2012. http://youtu.be/GcJxRqTs5nk.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1978). ‘Process and Reality’ (corrected ed). David Ray Griffin & Donald W. Sherburne, eds. Free Press, 1978.

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