Book cover

This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

There could be no more daunting intellectual task than setting out to write a history of moral thought from the ancient Greeks until now. Yet there is no neater way of combining philosophy, religion, intellectual history, general history and just about everything imaginable relating to the human condition. To bring it off you need to know a lot in many fields, be up-to-date in your reading and have the ambition to be a true philosopher. Finally, you must be sufficiently familiar with non-European contexts and perspectives to be able to consider whether any scheme of universal basic values, rights and ordering of right and wrong can overcome the disabling charge of “Eurocentrism”.

Central to the story, of course, is the strained relationship of moral thought to religion. In his new book The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, during a brief but incisive passage on the medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Kenan Malik remarks that this fascinating thinker’s philosophy, which made a profound impact on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for all its novelty and originality returns us to a perennial dilemma originally highlighted by Plato: “either goodness is divinely defined but arbitrary, or it is rational but exists independently of the gods.”

That dilemma is what ties the preoccupation with moral thought together in ancient, medieval and modern philosophy and, equally, connects the quest to understand goodness in the West, the East and everywhere else. However much this is an essentially philosophical and theological question, moreover, it exudes vast practical implications and consequences for everyone. Traditionalists had no difficulty with the arbitrariness of God’s demands, and his privileging of believers over unbelievers, as long as there were enough believers who unquestioningly accepted the dictates of religious authority to impose it on everyone, whether they liked it or not. But what happens when this ceases to be the case, or the believers are successfully challenged and checked by unbelievers? New forms of compulsion and censorship become necessary in the view of many, or most, but are opposed by others. Philosophically, the rationalists could never accept the notion of God imposing irrational and arbitrary moral and social demands. But what do they do in their everyday life and conversation when society tells them that they must submit to this idea, willingly or not? In Ibn Rushd’s time and elsewhere, it produced clandestine underground movements of subversive ideas – in his case, rather ironically, more in Christian Europe than in the Islamic world.

The backbone of Malik’s book consists of brief, but not too brief, outlines of all the key philosophers’ moral strivings and quests, and the pithy outlines he provides of the moral engines of great world religions like Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. In each case, the account is centred on that creed’s ethical and social distinctiveness and legacy to mankind generally, showing how differently each not so much created afresh as creatively reconfigured the world moral order out of previous elements. The result is a philosophical-theological drama that is thoroughly absorbing, has much to say to everyone and is generally useful to young and old, learned and not so learned alike, in a way that very few books are. That is quite an achievement.

The modern dominance of Western thought is dealt with in a refreshingly novel manner. There have always been shifting centres of intellectual gravity in the history of moral thought. Greece, ancient Palestine, Persia, India and China have all at different times been focal points that exerted a wide influence beyond their borders. Each tradition of moral thought was distinctively shaped by local conditions, but then went on to exert a compelling attraction over much wider areas, and continues to do so. Buddhism has many advocates in the West today, as does Islam. Each tradition seeks to present its rationality, cultural richness, humanism and social forms in an increasingly advantageous light to the moral explorer.

As new centres of intellectual gravity emerged, older ones were not so much pushed aside as obliged to recede. So there is nothing inherently perverse, distorted or imperialistic about the fact that in recent ages the “key thinkers, ideas and movements came primarily from the West”. This is why the second half of Malik’s book “does not hop across the globe as the first half does”. Undeniably, it was the West’s economic expansion – colonialism, imperialism and finally globalisation – that rapidly spread modern Western ideas across the face of the globe, but it is equally true that it is precisely this expansion of the West that brought India, China and the West face to face, and forced all our religious, moral and philosophical traditions to consider each other, and at the same time encounter themselves afresh, re-evaluating their own moral messages in relation to the “other”. If it is true that Indian thinkers today, even when powerfully affirming their own traditions and orientations, cannot free themselves from the challenge of the West, it is equally true that the West today cannot escape its entanglement with the great ethical and social systems of the non-European world.

Postmodernism is disposed of incisively. “Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, postcolonial theorists argue, so Western intellectuals impose their knowledge on the rest of the world,” Malik writes. But Western philosophy does not replicate the ways and methods of Western imperialism. Its criteria and methods, but also its values, are completely different. So is its relationship to the non-European world, which is not one of subjugation and annexation, but of interaction and accommodation. The key concepts of Western secular modernity that are hardest to contest – universalism, democracy and individual liberty – were not, in reality, products of Western imperialism, and are actually not compatible with it. Anti-colonialism in modern times is as much a product of Western philosophy as of non-European thought, or more so. There are also other key Western ideas, such as Marx’s critique of capitalism, that have demonstrated an impressively wide appeal in every part of the globe but remain as much contested today in the West as anywhere else.

For those many readers in the West and East reluctant to see the Enlightenment as the source of those modern Western values that are most universal and hardest to challenge – democracy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, racial and gender equality and sexual emancipation – this book will present a formidable problem. For the entire force and logic of Malik’s account of mankind’s “quest for a moral compass” stands or falls on his division between a moderate Enlightenment that compromised with faith and tradition, but also endorsed the monarchical-aristocratic social systems that powered the economic and military expansion of the West, and a Radical Enlightenment that made no such compromises and was therefore the only kind of Enlightenment that was truly universal. Matthew Stewart recently demonstrated the universality, as well as the subversive character, of the democratic tendency within the American Revolution in Nature’s God. The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2014). Malik is surely justified in insisting that “what made Enlightenment ideas truly universal was that they became weapons in the hands of those who fought Western imperialism, as Toussaint L’Ouverture and many others recognised. The ideals of liberty, equality, democracy and rights are not specific to the West.”

François Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803) is one of Malik’s heroes. A black slave born in Haiti under French colonial rule who obtained his freedom and some education before the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, he began by leading a black revolt against the French from September 1791, but later allied with the democrats of the French Revolution in spreading universalist ideas of liberty and helping fight off the invading Spanish and British monarchist foes of the Haitian (and the French) Revolution. It was only after Napoleon tried to reintroduce slavery into the French Caribbean in 1802 that Toussaint resumed full-scale war against the French. He was eventually captured and died in France, but not before he had been instrumental in securing Haiti’s independence and founding her Euro-African-Caribbean tradition of equality, liberty and human dignity.

The key point that postmodernists regularly forget is that Toussaint’s revolution was “fuelled by the moral claims of the French Revolution, the Rights of Man, and the universalist philosophy of the [Radical] Enlightenment”, but carried through by slaves of African descent. Malik is undoubtedly right about this. It is difficult to object, either historically or philosophically, to the argument that the Radical Enlightenment is the source of modern moral universalism; democracy and human rights for Africa and Asia no less than America and Europe. Malik affirms that where all enlighteners “recognised that to create a more moral society one had to create a more rational one”, only those embracing the principles of the Radical Enlightenment “accepted that to create such a rational society would require root and branch transformation”. It is central to Malik’s argument that the “revolutionary egalitarianism that arose out of the Enlightenment was positive and forward-looking”.

Admittedly, this pivotal idea has met a great deal of resistance recently from often eminent philosophers and historians. A surprisingly large number have tried to torpedo the notion of a Radical Enlightenment that is key to the genesis of democratic modernity, but one can hardly say their arguments make much sense. Anthony Pagden, for instance, recently published a work entitled The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (Oxford, 2013), in which democrats and conservative monarchists and defenders of aristocracy are all blithely and indiscriminately lumped together. The Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94) is held up as a hero but without differentiating Condorcet’s egalitarian, democratic Enlightenment from other sorts of Enlightenment, which merely creates a seriously unhelpful intellectual muddle. Many key enlighteners, like Voltaire and Hume, were opposed to democratic revolutions and defended the then dominant monarchical-aristocratic social systems and the morality of deference and submission that went with it.

So despite the protests against his approach, Malik is on firm ground. In explaining the origins of the Radical Enlightenment tendency, he briefly considers the pivotal role of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77): “More than any other moral philosopher before him, more even than Aristotle, Spinoza saw human nature as malleable, and emotions and desires not as given but as transformable. The most significant transformation, for Spinoza, was from being a slave to one’s passions to being an agent of one’s change.” This opened the door to redefining the moral order as a system of good and bad that is relative to what is socially “good” and “bad”, thereby simultaneously encouraging the development of the growing individual’s powers as a moral agent and the fundamental transformation of society to a more open and a more equal system. In this way, for the first time, the individual quest and the social quest for a moral compass become interconnected, interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Others, such as Bayle, Diderot, d’Holbach and Condorcet, then carried this philosophical-social project further into democratic modernity.

But along with much that is persuasive, it seems to me that there are two mistakes in Malik’s account of how we got to the modern, secular, free-thinking morality of the emancipated individual and of the Enlightenment, which need to be clearly identified. Malik sees the root of the modern “revolutionary idea of equality” as lying earlier, in religiously shaped movements, such as that of the Levellers in England, that were associated with the radical Reformation. Some of the German Anabaptists, and the English Levellers, were certainly revolutionary, and undoubtedly developed some notion of equality. But their arguments were theological, and the revolutionary impulse in their movements is disconnected from any theory of individual liberty, equality of believers and non-believers, or freedom of expression and lifestyle. Lots of movements have been revolutionary, and lots have been egalitarian in authoritarian ways, without this necessarily lending itself to the emergence of a set of values capable of underpinning democracy, freedom of expression and universal human rights.

The other error that I see pertains to the relationship between Marxism and the Radical Enlightenment, to Malik’s bracketing Marx with radical enlighteners like Condorcet. To discuss Marxism in a history of moral thought, as Malik admits, is in itself somewhat paradoxical as many have concluded that Marx noticeably lacks a theory of ethics. Malik quotes Sombart as affirming, “Marxism is distinguished from all other socialist systems by its anti-ethical tendency.” This may not be strictly correct but it is certainly true that in Marxism, the need for the individual to develop his or her own powers of personal fulfilment, and to make basic choices affecting their pursuit of happiness, is marginalised.

In several places, Malik describes Marxism as one of the “heirs” to the Radical Enlightenment, but it seems to me that this is misleading. During the 1830s and 1840s, and even more after the 1848 revolutions, the democratic republicans in France and elsewhere – men like Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin – felt themselves more and more under threat, not just from Marxism but the other socialist movements too. The problem was not just the political rivalry that developed between competing movements, nor that the radicals were uninterested in root-and-branch social reform. The tension lay, rather, in a major difference of emphasis.

For Marxists and other socialists, the source of human misery, oppression and wretchedness is a wrong economic system; the way to set things right is to change the economic system. At bottom, individual study and self-improvement are irrelevant. For the Radical Enlightenment, by contrast, economic changes and especially better regulation may be and are needed, but the source of human misery and oppression is not the economic system but ignorance, bigotry, religious authority and trust in tradition. The way to set things right is through enlightened education, eliminating religious authority and changing the laws and institutions of society so as to strip out the theology and reflect the revolutionary new concept of justice based on racial and gender equality, freedom of thought and liberty of the individual. This is surely a fundamental difference.

But despite one or two possible errors of interpretation, Malik’s book is an admirable tour de force and there is little available to compare with it. Anyone with a serious interest in the history and nature of modernity and the human condition would be the poorer for not reading it.

The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics is published by Atlantic Books

Jonathan Israel’s latest book is Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton University Press)