2014, Books, Non-Fiction

The Quest for a Moral Compass (2014) by Kenan Malik

I have been reading Malik’s blog for more than a few years at this point (I think), in part because I feel like he has much greater insight into the issues around jihadism than most of the people writing in North America (who I’ve had a chance to read). I find his approach not only measured – which is refreshing – but also imbued with a strong knowledge of the various cultures at play, and a knowledge of history. It is for this reason that I got this book.

To be honest, I was initially quite disappointed. I am not sure what I was expecting, but I guess I was expecting less of a retread through the other intellectual histories of the West I have read. Malik’s treatment of the Greeks and the early Christians did not feel to me as if I was getting anything new out of it – rather it felt to me as though we had both read many of the same books. And though I appreciated his discussions of India, Chinese and Muslim ethics, the former two felt cursory in a way that surprised me. Is this all there is to their long histories?

The general sense that this wasn’t the book I thought it was continued when I got to the sections on Nietzsche and Existentialism. I understand there are numerous problems with Nietzsche – I mean, that’s sort of his thing, being difficult to interpret – but I feel like there’s a balance to be struck with his work, between its path-breaking character and its potential dangers. But the bigger problem for me was the chapter on Existentialism, which focuses almost completely on Kierkegaard and Sartre – Dostoevsky is only briefly in relation to both this chapter and the Nietzsche chapter, Camus is also only briefly discussed. As an Existentialist myself, I felt like this was short shrift. There’s a lot more within the tradition (if it can be called a tradition) than Sartre. To focus on late Sartre, when he pretty much renounced his original ideas, also seems problematic.

Existentialists foreground a crucial aspect of our lives, without which moral choice would become meaningless – freedom and responsibility. But in turning every moral choice into a “leap of faith,” in unstitching choice from the rest of the architecture of our lives, existentialists transformed an important insight about the significance of human agency into an implausible demand detached from the reality of the human condition.

This is undoubtedly true of Kierkegaard – who we might regard as more of a “proto-Existentialist” – and it may be true, to an extent, of Sartre – whom I have not read in some time and whom I frankly dislike when it comes to his pure philosophy – but I hardly think it’s true of Existentialism in general. Sure, choice is given primacy, but it is hardly unstitched – a huge appeal of Existentialism for me is that it places choice in the context of human history and human life. Sure, there is an insistence that, in theory, you can completely create everything anew, as Nietzsche might, but there is an acknowledgement by many of the thinkers, I believe, that this is a rather hard thing to do, given the history and society that we find ourselves in by accident.

Malik’s attitude towards Existentialism is particularly baffling given these passages from the end of the book:

[Frankl’s] understanding of humans as creators of value and as makers of meaning applies equally to humans as a collective. It is only through others that we find our individuality, and it is only through others that we come to appreciate the meaning of values and the value of meaning…

The human condition is, however, that of possessing 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 exhilarating one. The choice is ours.

Is that not, really, the lesson of Existentialism? (Yes, yes, it depends on which Existentialist.)

For me, the real value to the book lies in its later chapters, as Malik uses his global history to inform the struggles in the West and in China in the modern era for how to come up with “objective” morals. The chapters on post-colonial and contemporary moral thought are particularly illuminating, given my unfamiliarity with these thinkers (beyond Peter Singer) but also given my own fears about Scientism. I agree with Malik that, though science can tell us lots of things, it cannot tell us about morality.

Also, I should mention that the chapter on Marx is quite interesting and refreshing, compared to some takes I’ve read.

This is the first history of moral thought I’ve read. Though I found it straying a little from the topic at times – and, due to my ignorance of the other traditions of the world, I wondered whether the focus couldn’t be on additional ethical and moral thinkers from outside the West, Japan for example – I loved how he pulled the strands together in the final chapters. For example, Malik goes out of his way to take on The Abolition of Man, a book that nearly floored me when I first read it over a decade ago, before I had time to think deeply about Lewis’ highly problematic argument. Malik’s book provides a strong argument against people like CS Lewis, who want to claim that moral universalism/absolutism comes from the ether and therefore should be accepted.

As he says in the above quote, it is up to us how we sort out our moral problems, there aren’t any extra-human rules we can just slap on to humanity.

I highly recommend this, particularly if you haven’t read much western philosophy, because it’s accessible in a way that so much philosophy isn’t, and it’s broad in its scope, in a way that other histories of philosophy that I have read are not.


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