The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics By Kenan Malik

Atlantic Books 2014, Paperback $40 (NZ) retail

Review by Arch Thomson, Auckland

This book caters for those who want a big cake with big nutritious slices. Think of Kenneth Clark’s Civilization or Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation. Such books cover great swadges of time, interrogate many cultures, and draw comprehensive conclusions. While they are not promoted as “for Dummies”, nor written at that level, such books are insightful for the novice and, the reader suspects, applauded by academics. Clark did it with Western art history (though overlooking the Spanish), Armstrong with “a global account of the time when religious belief was born” [jacket blurb] and Malik with The Quest for a Moral Compass.
From the Categorical Imperative of Kant to the Battle of Kurukshetra, from rival and contradictory readings of Plato and Sophocles, from the Vedas swimming in the mists of antiquity to the publication of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses cited as a test case of Consequentialism — the history-long quest for a moral compass is well-attested.
It is readable by those who still can read critically and it is thought-provoking to those who are open to such provocation. In short, it’s a good read and a good think.
SoF member Arch Thomson from Auckland, whose semi-fictional characterisation of Jesus as “The Galilean Terrorist” appeared in Newsletter 111 and on our website. In doing so he offered his thoughts, on pages 60-63, on how Moral Compass treats Jesus:
After a brief summary of the conventional Gospel story, Malik comments: “Or so the story goes... there exists no eyewitness account of his life or ministry... Modern scholars dispute even whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and there is no certainty as to what charges were levelled against him at his trial and who was responsible for sentencing him to death.”
He gives considerable credit to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew’s Gospel): “Many of Jesus’ sayings are pulled together into a single address to create perhaps the most powerful expression of Christian ethics... a belief in the importance not just of performing good acts but of being a good person... virtue, Jesus insisted, is a good in itself.”
A can of worms. The jargon of philosophy contrasts two kinds of ethical action:
  • in (pragmatic) consequentialism we assess the value of an action by its results;
  • the “opposite” is deontology, where our (good) actions are inspired by an inner commitment to duty, obligation or rightness.
But are either of these good enough for the Jesus of Christianity? - or should that be the ‘Christ’ of Christianity? Doesn’t the goodness of the good person need to go beyond mere duty or rightness? What happens if I’ve tried very hard to be good, but | still know in my heart that I’m not really a good person? And what about God? How good does God need to be in order to be God?
This takes us back a few centuries to the revolution in thought now known as the Axial Age (see Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation). “Pre-Axial” gods, like those in the Greek myths, have been characterised as (alphabetical order): arbitrary, autocratic, capricious, dictatorial, erratic, inconsistent, inscrutable, irascible, irrational, pedantic, perverse, petty, petulant, puritanical, temperamental, unpredictable, vengeful and vindictive. In short, rather unappealing had they been humans. But the Persian teacher Zarathustra (Zoroaster) moralised the universe and its creator. The Supreme Divinity (Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd) would have to be, above all else, good. (His great adversary, the Hostile Spirit Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, is clearly the ancestor of the Satan of Christianity and Islam.)
So what did Jesus and the earliest Christians have to add to this God of Goodness? - plenty.
God was not merely Good, God was Love (1 John 4.16 and 1 Corinthians 13).This was not an entirely new concept, but eschatological Christianity made it credible! So of course we also have to be Love. Problematical. What if I decide that I’m just not a loving sort of person? - it could be a minefield for the depressive personality. And can we ever be loving enough? If we’re writing a history of ethics, don’t we need to assess the overall effect on a society and culture of introducing an impossible standard of perfection, the perfection of unlimited love? Doesn’t it make us all sinners, because (if for no other reason) we can never love enough!
How does Kenan Malik get to grips with this dilemma? At least he seems to be on the right track: “Jesus preached in the belief that the end of the world was nigh and that God’s Kingdom was imminent. His morality was a morality to prepare people for this coming transformation. An ethics for the end of the world...” Love your enemies! (Matthew 5.44; Luke 6.27, 35) - yes, but how is that injunction going to fare when the End of the World persistently fails to eventuate? This is not some theoretical historical problem. On 29 May 2014 the New Zealand Herald reported that an Anglican pastor had quit the church and taken [most of?] his congregation with him, because the General Synod had decided to recognise same-sex relationships and to allow clergy to perform gay marriages. What does a righteous person know about these gay people? - they are an embodiment of the Enemy. The enemy! Oops.
Malik notes that “the Sermon on the Mount can seem both compliantly passive and defiantly subversive... Over the past two millennia Christians have read the Sermon on the Mount in both these ways, both as an ethics of conformity and as a challenge to the social order.”
Jesus gets three pages, out of 344 [witha handful of short comments elsewhere]. This Quest for a Moral Compass has a lot of ground to cover. And the emphasis is on ethics (a public concern), rather than on existential problems (a concern of the individual). At a time like the present, when thoughtful New Zealanders agonise over how to teach ethical standards in state schools, and whether this area of education is supposed to be filling a void left by a decline in religious faith, this book is undeniably relevant.
Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. He is a presenter of Analysis of BBC Radio 4, and a panelist on The Moral Maze. He has taught at universities in Britain, Europe, Australia and the USA, presented many TV documentaries, and writes regularly for newspapers across the world including the New York Times, the Guardian, Goteborgs-Posten and the Australian. His books include Man, Beast and Zombie, Strange Fruit and From Fatwa to Jihad, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize.

His website, Pandemonium is a place for his writings, talks and photography. It thrives on debate.



Quick links