Book Review | The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics

Authored by: Kenan Malik | Publisher: Atlantic Books | Year of Publication: 2014
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When Jonathan Sacks wrote that ‘We are all in Kenan Malik’s debt’ or when Tom Holland called the book a ‘tour de force’ and imagined replacing Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy on his bookshelf with it, they were not exaggerating about Kenan Malik’s book The Quest for a Moral Compass. It is a groundbreaking work from an author, columnist and broadcaster currently with the BBC in London, who happens to be of Indian-origin. In this absolutely stimulating work, Kenan traces the history of ethics and morals from the 2nd Century BC to the present, highlighting the discourse on the questions of right and wrong, good and bad from the time of the ancient Greek literature starting from Homer’s Iliad through various religions and philosophies right up to the philosophers of the last century.

The story of the evolution of mankind is the story of ethics and morals. It all began with an interesting question – Is something moral and right because the gods have said so, or have the gods said so because it is moral and right? In other words, who is the arbiter of right and wrong – man or god? Ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle tried to address the knotty question through the philosophical interpretation of the ‘virtuous man’. Kenan describes the times when these philosophers lived and the philosophical challenges they encountered from the not-so-gentle gods of the Greeks as also from the Kleptocratic rulers of the time. 

In fact, the Athenian democratic system put Socrates to death for what it concluded as treachery – accusation that Socrates was enamoured of the Spartan oligarchy and colluded with them during their 30-year occupation of Athens. But the real reason appears to be Socrates’ rejection of the then prevalent notion that ‘what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious’. The Euthyphro of Plato, one of the earliest Socratic dialogues, proposes instead that ‘the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all gods hate, is impious’. Socrates insisted that the moral thought must be derived from the ‘rational study of the human condition’, not from the speculation about gods’ choice.

Plato’s Republic was the first work to insist that morals and ethics are a societal phenomenon and to manage societies in a just and virtuous manner, philosopher-kings are needed. Like in the ancient Hindu Varna social order, Plato too divided society into three classes: labourers, soldiers and rulers. Plato insisted that rulers should be superior beings, and that superiority should be a product of their training and upbringing. In other words, it is not democracy, but the rule by a ‘superior few’ that Plato recommended.

From this foundational discourse on the origins of moral thought, Kenan takes the reader through the journey of moralism in the Western world. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations for Greek thought, which believed in the human agency more than the agency of god for deciding the morals. However, the advent of Semitic monotheism challenged that once again by bringing the Heaven and Hell dimension into the discourse. God and his messenger became the moral arbiter once again and a new social ethic evolved, controlling the entire spectrum of human life. Kenan discusses the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam during the medieval period and their contribution to the moral discourse and dilemmas.

“Monotheism transformed the vision of human nature and the character of moral thinking. There was a new reason to be moral: because God, all-seeing, all-knowing, loving yet wrathful, requires it of you. Monotheism made humans both greater and lesser than they had been before. They had been created by God in his image. Yet they were now seen as weak, corrupt, flawed and broken; reason had become subservient to faith”, writes Kenan of monotheistic moralism.

The way the ancient Greek moralism of the gods was challenged by Socrates, Plato and others, the medieval monotheistic moralism too was challenged by the Enlightenment thinkers like  Hobbes, Mills and Marx from the 16th century onwards. This, coupled with the progress science had made, led to the rise of what is broadly described as the Western culture. Countries like India that came in contact with Europe and America in the last couple of centuries have eagerly adopted and internalised various elements of this Western culture.

There is one country though, which resisted this Western influence doggedly and that is China. Today, China has emerged as a strong economic power. Kenan and several other scholars predict that it would use its economic clout to challenge the Western value system and replace it with its own. Kenan quotes Martin Jacques who claimed that with the rise of China “Western universalism will cease to be universal – and its values and outlook will become steadily less influential. The emergence of China as a global power in effect relativizes everything”.

Kenan’s book is rich in its survey of global history of ethics and morals. It introduces you to countless philosophers and philosophies. It raises serious questions, makes profound observations and analyses intricate moral webs. For example, are morals static or ever-changing? Kenan suggests that they change with changing times. When the witches were burnt alive in medieval Europe in the name of God, it was not really God who mandated it; nor in the present times when we consider those acts as immoral. On both occasions, it was man who decided what was right and wrong. “Man should not ask what the meaning of life is”, Viktor Frankl wrote, “he must rather recognise that it is he who is asked”. “Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existence will be”.

This book is an intensely thought-provoking thesis. But, interestingly, Kenan chooses to end it on a not-so-optimistic note by highlighting the current degeneration of the humanity in general. It is better to believe that all notions of good and bad, right and wrong come from external authority rather than from any human agency, Kenan bemoans in the concluding paras, because “we have lost faith in our ability to be moral cartographers, leading many to recoil at the very thought of humans as moral map makers”.

One may disagree with Kenan about his pessimism. Also, Kenan’s treatment of moralism in Hinduism was not upto the mark. He gives less prominence to Hinduism and depends on sources that may not be the right authority. Kenan’s thesis is Euro-centric and uses that prism to evaluate some of the non-Western cultures also.

Despite such minor shortcomings it nevertheless is one of the greatest books that I have read in this year; and certainly a great one to end 2020.


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  • Good analysis on morals and ethics to be man-made not god-made. However, people invoke God to give some sanctity to them.
    In the entire analysis—- I don’t think Kenan is correct in assessing China— that one day China would change the western value-system. China has lost its roots of Buddhism, when it embraced a worldly religion: Communism. Chinese now have no foot-hold to stand on. Maybe China’s economy grew because it adopted western capitalism to its advantage but not its free -society . None of the outsiders would like to make a permanent home in China. Whereas in the West they would because of the western values of free society and freedom of speech. Perhaps, the writer’s view is of China-2014, when he wrote the book. The present China everyone abhors.

Ram Madhav

Ram Madhav is an Indian politician, author and thinker. Formerly, he has been the National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ram Madhav also serves as a Member of the Governing Board of India Foundation, a New Delhi based premier think tank which seeks to articulate Indian Nationalistic perspective on issues of National and International importance.

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