A must-read: Kenan Malik's book on the history of moral philosphy


Kenan Malik, English writer and lecturer, has written a book about the history of moral philosophy. Every person interested in the topic simply must read it. "The Quest for a Moral Compass" is a marvel of clarity and rigor. The philosophers' positions are explained intelligibly without undue simplification. Their ethical reasoning is put into a social and intellectual context. It is unceasingly interesting and instructive.

The book begins with the opening stanza from Homer's Iliad, "Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus. ...", and discusses the moral universe the story unfolds within. It is the kind of writing that makes me rejoice. No long-winded introduction, pseudo-academic meta talk about how the book is organized, but just bang on, head first! That's how it should be done.

The book is subtitled A Global History of Ethics, signaling that it extends beyond the usual focus only on European philosophy. Each chapter deals with a theme or a philosophical movement, broadly in chronological order. The intimate and complex relationship between ethics and religion occupies a large part of the discussion.

Malik shows how thought that often routinely is seen as exotic and different can be illuminated in the same frame of reference as that of European thought. For example, Malik discusses Hinduism starting with Mahabharata with its parallels to the Iliad. He discusses Chinese philosophy in a way that amazes me.

He also shows connections which he suggests are underestimated or forgotten. One example is his discussion of the relationship between Enlightenment ideas and the Haitian Revolution in 1791 led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, and its impact on postcolonial arguments.

Although the book focuses on ethics and morals, it also explains the different philosophers' conception of man, the world and the gods. Malik discusses the way in which the social situation and its changes affect the philosophers' arguments and debates, but he carefully avoids the simplistic theses of historical determinism that attempt to explain the dominance of schools of thought by certain social conditions.

When I go through the notes I made before writing this comment, I realize that it is not possible to pick up all threads. Malik's book provides a sumptuous smorgasbord of starting points for many different debates. I will discuss a small sample here.

A recurring theme is the Euthyphro dilemma (which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, here, here and here). In Plato's dialogue this dilemma is formulated thus:

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

That is: Do the Gods (God, if monotheism) determine, all on their own, or even define, what is morally good? Or do moral values exist independent of, and in some sense before, the gods?

Malik shows how philosophers, theologians and moral movements respond differently to this challenge, and that the response says a lot about the moral thinking. For example, he believes that the conflict within Islam between rationalists like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and traditionalists like al-Ghazali can be seen as different ways to approach this dilemma, where rationalists regarded morality as independent of God, while traditionalists either saw the question as meaningless, or that the answer of course is that God is in charge. In this Malik sees a parallel with the long discussion in Christendom, where, for example, Martin Luther took the same view as the Muslim traditionalists.

Malik also makes the interesting observation that modern moral philosophers are not immune either to the Euthyphro dilemma. Sam Harris, debater, atheist, researcher in neurology, claims, for example, that morality can be derived from that which gives rise to human well-being, and that one can explore scientifically, with new neuroscientific methods, what actually elicits such well-being, defined as certain neurophysiological states. The Euthyphro dilemma is highly relevant here: Are these states good, because a person can achieve them if certain moral values are satisfied, or are the moral values defined by the presence of certain specific physiological conditions? Malik's conclusion is that neither neuro-philosophers, nor theologians, nor any others, can escape the Euthyphro dilemma, and I can only agree.

Malik is occasionally too "nice" towards the philosophers he discusses, I think. He explains Hegel's politically conservative positions with his being "a crusty reactionary" in his old age. I think that this cliché, that one becomes conservative as one grows older, does not explain things better than the internal logic of Hegel's philosophy, and that indeed one should put the blame on the philosophy rather than on age.

Malik writes that "while Nietzsche's philosophy was not a precursor of Nazism ...", then on the next page quotes Richard Wolin who says practically the opposite, and I think that Malik's own description of Nietzsche makes the connection to Nazism fairly obvious. The issue is probably the meaning of "precursor". One can see Nietzsche's thought as a precursor to Nazism, without actually proposing that it is completely identical to Nazism, which it obviously is not. A precursor has to be changed to be the thing that is a precursor of, and thus it is non-identical. But the relationship may be very strong.

A theme addressed in several of the book's chapters is consequentialism versus virtue ethics. I have previously written about virtue ethics versus utilitarianism (the most common form of consequentialism) in [a comment to a book by Ann Heberlein ](https:/ /kraulis.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/ann-heberlein-etik-en-introduktion-med-brister/), a book which, incidentally, in this context appears like a writeup by a high-school student.

Malik comments on the various attempts made to modify naive utilitarianism in order to avoid its most obvious problems:

[...] the cumulative impact of such workarounds is to diminish the consequentialism of consequentialist theory. What comes to matter less is the consequences of the action than its intrinsic value. What the history of consequentialism reveals is the difficulty in thinking about moral acts without passing judgement on the intrinsic worth of those acts.

But I do not see that this difficulty really can be avoided with some form of virtue ethics. The crucial point is the concept of "intrinsic worth". Virtue ethics tends to revolve around values such as "human dignity", "independence", "kindness", etc. But how can you even discuss these values if we do not analyze how they affect people and society? That is, what consequences they entail? Consequentialism undeniably has philosophical issues, but from what I gather, a virtue ethics that intends to have effects in real life must also consider the relationship between value and reality. Then some form of consequentialism becomes inevitable, albeit indirectly. The only other option, as far as I can see, is that the virtues are determined arbitrarily, by a god or someone else.

Well, Malik is not an explicit supporter of virtue ethics. Perhaps the most famous modern virtue ethics philosopher Alaisdair MacIntyre argues, among other things, that humans necessarily derive morality from their place in tradition and society and that liberal individualism and modernism tries to deny this, thus causing a disconnect from the basis of morality. Malik criticizes this view as inherently conservative, and brings forward the idea that the individual's social position can be viewed in the terms of change, rather than tradition:

With the coming of modernity, as the necessity of traditions gave way to the possibilities of collective change, so a new question was posed. People now asked themselves not simply 'What moral claims are rational given the social structure?', but also 'What social structures are rational?' What kind of society, what types of social institutions, what forms of social relations, will best allow moral lives to flourish?

Compare this with Karl Popper's words from The Open Society and Its Enemies, The Spell of Plato (which I discussed recently):

The social engineer and technologist, on the other hand, will hardly take much interest in the origin of institutions, or in the original intentions of their founders [...]. Rather, he will put his problem like this. If such and such are our aims, is this institution well designed and organized to serve them?


We should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? [...] We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity?

There is a lot in common between Malik and Popper. In Popper's thinking there is a clear progressive approach in his analysis of the open society. Similarly, there is a strong undercurrent of progressivism in Malik's view of the history of morality. One less frequently noticed difference in emphasis between Popper and many other liberal thinkers is that Popper does not consider it very important to discuss inherent human nature, or social contracts, or natural law. Popper wants to promote individual liberation, but it is a question of progress and development, not a return to something that was once lost, or satisfying an agreed-upon contract.

Malik's selection of philosophers can of course be criticized. A choice must be made, and one can never make everyone happy. But I hope I may be forgiven if I say something here. The debate in recent years has been characterized by various types of identity politics. From the left in the form of a postmodern and postcolonial critique of capitalism. From the right as identitarian thinking combined with populist and xenophobic ideas. The common enemy are the ideals of the Enlightenment. Malik mentions names such as Michel Foucault and Martin Heidegger, but does not discuss them. One possible explanation is that he does not view these thinkers as moral philosophers; certainly, they themselves would not have approved of that classification. But the broad anti-Enlightenment movement, which thinkers such as these have inspired, does posit strong moral claims, and for that reason alone, an analysis would have been relevant. I have not (yet) read Malik's earlier books, where these aspects may be discussed, but they would have had a given place also in this book.

In the conclusion of the book Malik provides some comments about the history of moral thought. He attacks the position that true moral values are immutable:

[The history of moral thought] is the story of the crafting of new norms, and of the remaking of old ones. Nor is the question of whether morality is objective or subjective merely a modern conundrum. It is a question that has always troubled, and divided, moral thinkers.

He also dismisses the idea that an ethical framework is impossible without God. The very long Chinese Confucian tradition shows the opposite.

[...] only from the blinkered perspective of Western monotheism could one suggest that without God there could be no morality.

In addition, a belief in God does not mean that moral thinking has been dealt with:

Belief in God, in other words, does not obviate the need for every believer to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, independently of the Holy Books. There is no getting away from the Euthyphro dilemma.

As I've said, Malik writes with an enviable clarity.

Malik says that even if moral issues do not have objective answers, so they can still have rational answers, based on social conditions. I do not find it easy to interpret what he says in this part of the text; my impression is that these thoughts are "work in progress". He argues that the belief in rationality and humanism that was the driving force of the Enlightenment has faded. The major disasters during the 1900s, world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, all of this has worn down the belief in man. Malik writes that

The real problem with contemporary morality, the reason it appears fractious and fractured, is, paradoxically, not moral but social.

I am not quite sure what social conditions Malik refers to. I have a vague feeling that he is on to something, but what it is in more concrete terms, I'm not sure.

I wonder if Malik does not give up too much of the historical achievements of the Enlightenment. Certainly, during these days of crisis on various fronts for liberal society, one senses that the Enlightenment ideals are on the wane. But at the same time, there has been concrete progress which the Enlightenment in a broad sense has accomplished. Democracy is more widespread than ever before. Violence in relation to the world's population is at a historically low level, despite media reports. And more people live richer and longer lives than ever. That does certainly not mean that there are not still enormous problems.

But a history of moral thinking which sees social development as an essential component of the story, should presumably also take note of the significant progress that has actually occurred.

Finally: This book must be translated into Swedish and published as soon as possible!