It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely.

Largely unknown these days, even in his hometown of Liverpool, Edward Rushton was a poet, bookseller and radical activist who, in the late 18th century, founded the School for the Blind in Liverpool – the first such school in the country -and, in a city grown rich on the slave trade, campaigned ceaselessly against the slave trade.

He was blind himself. In 1773, as a sailor on a slave ship bound for Dominica, Rushton became so sickened with the brutality meted out to the slaves by the captain that he was charged with mutiny and confined below decks with the slaves, almost all of whom had fallen victim to contagious ophthalmia which spread rapidly in the appalling conditions. Rushton took pity on them and tried to bring what relief he could with the result that he too caught the disease. His left eye was completely destroyed and the right so badly damaged that he became blind.

Back home in Liverpool with campaigning and poetry, he fought against the slave trade. These verses are from his long poem, ‘Coromantees’, the English name originally given to Ashanti slaves in Jamaica (itself derived from the name of the Ghanaian slave fort of Fort Kormantine in Ghana):

Oh Britons ! behold in these Coromantees
The fate of an agonized world,
Where, in peace, a few lordlings hold millions in chains,
Where, in war, for those lordlings men open their veins,
And again to their dungeons are hurl’d !

But the period approaches when poor prostrate man
Shall enjoy what the Deity gave ;
When the oculist Reason shall touch his dim eyes,
With a soul all abhorrence the sufferer shall rise,
And undauntedly throw off the slave.

‘The oculist Reason’: there it is, the promise of the Radical Enlightenment, the axis around which Kenan Malik’s book turns. He distinguishes the mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume from ‘the new meaning of humanity’ articulated by Radical Enlightenment figures such as Diderot and Spinoza. The two divided, Malik writes, ‘on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the Radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition.’

The radicals were driven to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions, Malik argues, because, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, there was no meaningful alternative. Consequentially, their morality and concepts of political and social order had to be grounded on a radical egalitarianism that extended across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons. The basic values of modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – are all derived principally from the thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment.

Malik recognises that the intellectual and political divide between the two enlightenment currents was never as sharp as this with the roots of the revolutionary idea of equality lying also in religiously-shaped movements such as the Levellers. Nevertheless, ‘only those who followed in the footsteps of the Radicals’ accepted that ‘a root and branch transformation’ of society would be required to turn the moral compass toward modern values:

They helped shape modern moral philosophy because they helped shape new ways of thinking of what it is to be human.

Before this, Malik has traced the story of how humans have grappled with moral questions far back in time to the ancient Greeks, to a world in which people were bound in their behaviour by myth and to a time when human beings were conscious of their powerlessness against vast and capricious forces that played havoc with their intentions and desires.

Malik begins with poetry, with Homer’s Iliad, and this tendency to draw upon ideas that develop beyond the confines of ethics or philosophy will be characteristic, since ‘moral thought does not inhabit a sealed-off universe:

It cannot but be closely related to the social structure of a community and to the perceptions within it of what it is to be human. Homeric values emerged from the structure of heroic society, shaped by its needs and constrained by its particular conception of human nature. As society changed, and as new languages developed through which to understand the human soul, the human mind and humanity’s place in the cosmos, so inevitably moral ideas also evolved.

I like this aspect of Malik’s approach: setting moral thought in the wider context of cultural, social and political changes. Here is an extract from the opening section in which he considers the morality of the Iliad, and contrasts it with the concept of morality in the modern world:

The Iliad is clearly a moral tale. But it describes an alien moral world, not simply because its moral rules are so different from those of our world but also because its very notion of what constitutes a moral rule is alien to us. When, as modern readers, we enter Homer’s world, it is almost inevitable that we pass judgements upon his characters that are different from those of Homer himself. Paris is a kidnapper, a shirker, a man whom we would probably describe as morally dissolute. Homer would not portray him as such. Even though Paris fails to perform the actions of a good man, he remains good, in Homer’s eyes, because his hereditary gifts, social background and material advantages embody such an important part of his agathos.

Agamemnon’s pride and arrogance led to the tragedy of the Trojan war. To a modern reader, this places upon him a moral responsibility for the conflict. To Homer, Agamemnon’s pride and arrogance is a matter not of morality but of fate. ‘I am not to blame’, Agamemnon insists, the gods ‘put a cruel blindness in my mind at the assembly on that day when by my own act I took away his prize from Achilleus.’

In the modern world, morality is inseparable from choice. Homer’s warriors cannot choose to be moral or not. Each is simply good or bad at performing the duties of his or her role. Human choice adds texture to the cloth already woven on the loom of fate, but cannot unpick the threads. There is in the Iliad and the Odyssey only the faintest glimmer of what we would recognize as free will or choice. Indeed, it is not clear that any of Homer’s characters possesses a ‘mind’ as we understand it, nor an interior life. In Homer’s epics, the psychologist David Olson observes, ‘there is an absence of such terms as “decided”, “thought”, “believed”, “doubted” or “equivocated”.’ Homer’s characters do all of these things, but not in the self-conscious way that we do them. Agamemnon’s wrath and Achilles’ pride describe not emotions inside their selves, but their actions and the actions of the gods that determine their fate.

Deftly and engagingly, Malik guides the reader through the millennia, never losing sight of the big themes: free will versus fate; individualism within society; reason against desire; the relativism of truth. This does not read like a textbook, and Malik does more than simply summarise what key figures have said at various times.


Despite the yawning gulf that separates us from those who sought answers to perennial questions centuries or millennia ago, Malik sometimes says something that makes you stop and think about the here and now. Here he is summing up the legacy of the Stoics who had their thinking hats on some three centuries before Christ:

Perhaps the most important Stoic legacy to the history of moral thought was the concept of universal humanity. In his famous Elements of Ethics, the second-century Stoic philosopher Hierocles imagines every individual as standing at the centre of a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the individual, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, the local community, the country, and finally the entire human race. To be virtuous, Hierocles suggested, is to draw these circles together, constantly to transfer people from the outer circles to the inner circles, to treat strangers as cousins and cousins as brothers and sisters, making all human beings part of our concern. The Stoics called this process of drawing the circles together oikeiosis, a word that is almost untranslatable but means something like the process by which everything is made into your home.

Malik is a secular humanist, but this does not prevent his survey from acknowledging the contribution of religious thought to the history of ethics (how could it not?). There are informative discussions of the ethical foundations Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism – and Malik always reminds us of how matters unfolded historically. So, for instance, when discussing the Sermon on the Mount, he notes how it has been seen both as compliantly passive (telling us that Nietzsche described the idea that the meek shall inherit the earth as expressing the slave mentality of Christianity) and defiantly subversive:

Jesus reveals salvation, as the Marxist critic and occasional atheist Terry Eagleton observes, to be a matter not ‘of cult, law and ritual’, but of ‘feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich’.


I was reading Malik’s chapter on ‘the ethics of liberation’ at the same time as watching David Olusoga’s excellent BBC 2 series, Black and British: A Forgotten History which forcefully demonstrated that the history of black people in Britain (and in places like the Caribbean or West Africa) is not something separate from the story of this land but absolutely central to it, a history shared. Olosuga recounted many stories Britons won’t have been taught at school, and the series was a timely corrective against poisonous notions of racial otherness.

This chimed with Malik’s account of the response of Asian, African and Caribbean intellectuals to Western racism and imperialism, at the heart of which, he argued, lay the question, ‘If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of half the world… what worth could there be to its political and moral ideas, which at best had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst provided its intellectual grounding?’

That contradiction was seen most sharply in the ideas of Toussaint L’Ouverture who, four years after the French Revolution with its ringing Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, led the slaves of the French colony of Haiti to freedom and independence. The Haitian revolution might have been forgotten, writes Malik, were it not for the work of CLR James, a ‘towering figure of the 20th century’, the novelist, historian, philosopher and cricketer born in Trinidad.

L’Ouverture was significant to James not just because he had led the first great slave revolution, but, writes Malik, ‘because he had made the distinction between the immorality of European colonialism and the moral necessity of many of the ideas that flowed out of the Enlightenment culture.’

As Malik observes, the issue of imperialism and the struggle against it rarely makes an appearance in discussions about morality. Yet, in the last two centuries, it was the central event for the majority of the world’s population, challenging the immorality of an ideology – the white Western view of the ‘Other’ – which insisted, in the words of a 1910 Times editorial, that ‘the brown, black and yellow races of the world’ had to accept that ‘inequality is inevitable … not due to inferior status but to facts of race’.

The answer from CLR James was clear: ‘We live in one world,’ he wrote in his 1969 essay ‘Discovering Literature in Trinidad’, and we have to find out what is taking place in the world’. As Malik explains, for CLR James meant immersing himself in Western history, literature and philosophy. ‘I denounce European colonialism,’ James wrote, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’

Or, as the Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, wrote: ‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have at different times, existed in European thought’. The problem, as Fanon pointed out, was that ‘Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them.’ The non-European world will have to ‘start a new history … that, while not forgetting Europe’s crimes, will nevertheless have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward’.

Toussaint L'Ouverture
Toussaint L’Ouverture

But, by the time we reach the present century it’s a different story, as Malik explains in the latter part of his book. The Enlightenment sense of hope and optimism about human capacities have been shattered – by the earlier experience of colonialism and slavery and by the terrible 20th-century lessons of Nazism, Stalinism and the Holocaust. The movements and progressive, secularist ideologies that once embodied that hope have withered away.

Moreover, modernity’s post-Enlightenment emphasis on individual autonomy and the rejection of any kind of ordained or natural design or purpose in the material world has resulted in what Malik calls the Fall of Man’. Summing up the directions taken in moral thought in the last century – from the impact of Darwin, the growth of secularism, from Nietszche’s nihilism to Sartre and existentialism, Malik writes:

The death of God only made sense against the background of a new kind of faith: faith in humans being capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond. It was that faith that drove Enlightenment humanism and the optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century that faith, too, had begun to be eaten away. The history of the twentieth century – two world wars, the Depression and the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further gnaw away at Enlightenment hope.

Indeed, the history of the twentieth century has, in the words of the anthropologist Rob Foley, ‘rather dented human self-esteem’. In the words of Michael Ignatieff  whom Malik also quotes, we eat well, we drink well, but ‘we do not have good dreams’.

In the end, he concludes there is no escape from the Euthyphro Dilemma, as formulated by Socrates and recorded by Plato. The dilemma is that good is either good because it is determined as such by some external judge, like a god or a society, in which case it is arbitrary; or it is intrinsically good, in which case it stands on its own objective merits – which recent writers on ethics have concluded we cannot define in any sense comparable to scientific proof.

Malik’s own conclusion is that morality is constructed by humans, and as such is re-shaped continually with changing times and social circumstances. At the very end of The Quest for a Moral Compass he draws on the philosophy of Viktor Frankl who, in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, written after enduring three years in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, stated that ‘Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked.’ Malik continues:

Frankl’s book is a hymn not to a transcendent deity but to the human spirit. Humans, he suggests, find themselves only through creating meaning in the world. But meaning is not something to be discovered. It is something that humans, and only humans, create. They do so by acting upon the world. ‘Man is ultimately self-determining,’ Frankl wrote. ‘Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be.’

To be human, concludes Malik, is to possess 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 that we are condemned to walk as human beings. It can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilerating one. The choice is ours.

Edward Rushton, as portrayed in the mural by Mick Jones in The Old Blind School, Liverpool
Edward Rushton, as portrayed in the mural by Mick Jones in The Old Blind School, Liverpool

Back in Liverpool in 1814, three months before his own death, the Enlightenment radical Edward Rushton wrote to his friend Samuel Ryley about the loss of a mutual friend:

Why friend Ryley are you so much afraid of dying, seeing that it will come when it will come? If there be another world, let us do well here, and we shall do well there; and if there be not another world, there is a vast consolation in acting our part well in this.

Footnote 8.12.2016

I have been very selective in this short post about the elements in Malik’s book that I have highlighted – notably Enlightenment rationalism and the challenges iit has faced in the past century. These ideas are taken up in an excellent long read in today’s Guardian by Pankaj Misha, ‘Welcome to the Age of Anger’. Challengingly, he concludes:

In our sterile infatuation with rational motivations and outcomes, we risk resembling those helpless navigators who, De Tocqueville wrote, “stare obstinately at some ruins that can still be seen on the shore we have left, even as the current pulls us along and drags us backward toward the abyss”.

Read more

4 thoughts on “The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

  1. I read this a year or so back and found it, as you did, unexpectedly gripping! I expected it to be interesting and stimulating but not to be quite such a page turner… And that final Rushton quote is marvellous.

  2. In the modern world, morality is inseparable from choice. Slaves by another name are supressed in real-time. As life gets faster, and corporations ramp up their GDP above nations, how do we keep morality in play? In work I mean. Wonderful review, the stoics were just great. At home in the gutter, preaching austerity. With dogs. Dogs are very moral. King Buck was greater and more real than any Greek. Hero, or otberwise. Rats are very socially and communally sensitive to morals. When a mink kills a muskrat, it is totally humane, and non-violent. A trip to Costco is…some just yelled at me…got to go do real stuff.

  3. Thanks for the excellent introduction to Kenan Malik’s book. And this poignant conclusive thought:

    … No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off the moral tightrope that we are condemned to walk as human beings. It can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. The choice is ours …

  4. Thank you so much dearest Ashen…..what a revelation this book ! Is it translated into German …title? Thinking of you often love Jenny

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.