Non fiction

Book review: The quest for a moral compass

Perhaps I needed a break from the swathe of somewhat trashy science fiction or maybe I just wanted to feel clever, but for whatever reason, I picked up this book. @Psythor had bought it and it had been perched precariously upon a stack of other books we had purchased recently, but hadn’t put away properly.

It was really good, if at some points really, really depressing. Kenan Malik takes the reader through 2000ish years of philosphical, political, economic and religious history in the search for a moral compass. In the end, there really isn’t one, or it is ours to construct.

It can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilerating one. The choice is ours. P. 344.

The first 150 or so page I was quite familiar with, being a relatively concise replication of some of the intellectual history covered in my history degrees. That totally made me feel clever – but for anyone who hasn’t studied classics, medieval, early Modern or 18th and 19th century history – it’s a brilliant encapsulation of moral development.

I think what struck me most was how you can see how religion still shapes our reality in fundamental ways. Perhaps not an individual level, for those who aren’t religious, but how the impact of those who are devout impact on larger events. The most poignant phrase I think in the book, sums up the problem with being devout, was after the discussion on Kierkegaard:

“But the idea of a leap of faith anchored by nothing beyond that faith itself, the idea of a God who can call upon any individual to violate any ethical law on grounds that cannot be justified in worldly terms, is deeply troubling. How can we tell a genuine call from a delusion? We cannot. In the post 9/11 age, that cannot but seem a terrifying moral black hole.” P. 258.

(Kierkegaard, I imagine, like Schopenhauer would not be good at dinner parties.)

Echoes of that devoutness with no wordly moral grounding can be seen in many contemporary conflicts (or at least it seems to me.) But it’s not the impact of a great mass of believers, in my mind, but the minority fringe who nevertheless impact on the world stage – much to it’s detriment.

However, it was depressing to get through the book and not really agree with any particular philosophy (I think I identified most closely with Sartre). But then, I am without philosophical training and am not a contemporary with most of the philosophers. Who were heavily influenced by their current situation. (Or perhaps being Chair of Conway Hall Ethical Society makes me partial to Auguste Comte.)

It does lend an aura of post-modernist relativism about it. However, I think overall, it is rescued by the constant evolution of these ideas, the constant shifting of the sands of what is moral and ethical. Even more, the message that we have some agency in formualating the frameworks we think are ethical and moral.

Malik quotes C.S. Lewis who believed there was no moral innovation left – it’s all been done.

There has never been, and never will be,’ Lewis insisted, ‘a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world…’ p. 338.

C.S. Lewis, pardon my French, is a prick.

Like Malik, I agree that we’re going to constantly refocus our moral lens throughout time. In that vein, hopefully to more progressive, more compassionate levels. I have hope as I’ve seen this happen in my lifetime. Of course, it will never be easy.

Perhaps these are questions, as Malik suggests, is something that will always be questions without concrete answers. It is our job to deal with it. Grab it by the horns and don’t be afraid of “falling off the moral tightrope” (p. 344.)

The alternative, to me, seems very sad and reactionary. A retreat to past to something espoused by an influencial Chinese Philosopher Jiang Qing.

The most…frustrating quote being:

Nor can such an order be built on the Western concept of ‘equality’. Since people by nature are unequal, differing in virtue, intelligence, ability and knowledge, so the idea of equal rights, irrespective of an individual’s moral standing, makes little sense. P. 328.

Man. A bit of a kick the the liberal gut there. It doesn’t get any better – it’s almost like a recapitulation of Burke (who, philosophically, is a knob-end).

That’s the kind of fight that the reshaping of our moral compass is up against. The reactionary, retreat into the past and parochial views of Burke, Jiang and Lewis versus individual autonomy, liberality, altruism, dignity, humanity and all those good things.

Such a good book and one for those who haven’t had an introduction to philosophy, or like me, had missed great swathes of it in their education. A highly recommended read.

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