Book review: The Quest For A Moral Compass By Kenan Malik


Friday 18 April 2014 15:24 BST

If you happen to be cogitating on the possibility of a degree course in philosophy, you must read this book. If you are not, you probably ought to read it anyway: it will do you moral good.

As a survey of philosophical thought, Kenan Malik’s narrative is a terrific achievement. Ranging from Socrates to Richard Dawkins, from China to Haiti, from dry ethics to poetry, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a work of highly readable history much more than it is a philosophical treatise.

Malik takes a chronological approach to his subject, illuminating how successive generations of thinkers have sought to reconcile the perennial paradoxes which underscore human existence.

There are the usual themes: free will versus fate; individualism within society; reason against desire; the relativism of truth. As men and women have struggled to understand the purpose of their lives, so philosophers down the ages have attempted to provide explanations and enable progress. Yet Malik does more than simply summarise what key figures have said at various stages. Throughout the book he highlights connections between key strands of thought over time. In discussing the development of Mohism, Malik glances ahead to western utilitarians. When we arrive at 20th-century cultural relativism, there are neat reminders of how some of the relativists’ key ideas had been foreshadowed in the writing of Herodotus.

All this is done with a deft touch. Even where there is repetition of major points, it feels helpful rather than irritating. There are also flashes of humour: Aristotle may have been the most influential figure in the history of philosophy but, as Malik puts it, he could occasionally be pretty trite: “No one could disagree with the advice but one would hardly need to be Aristotle to give it.”

Malik rightly endeavours to understand philosophical theories – and their development, both short- and long-term – by reference to their historical contexts. As he notes: “… notions of right and wrong are historically flexible. That, after all, is the story of this book. But … moral changes do not happen on a whim; they are not arbitrary or random. Changes in notions of right and wrong do not merely follow their own course but are related to broader social, economic, political and intellectual shifts.”

If there is a criticism of The Quest for a Moral Compass it is that this central “story” is hardly novel. While it might not be the starting point for a philosopher, it certainly is for academic history. Indeed, most serious contemporary historians would surely regard it as little more than a statement of the obvious, which suggests that Malik’s critique of Aristotle might occasionally apply to himself.

Ultimately, says Malik, the quest for a moral compass remains ongoing and should be embraced. It remains to be seen whether a recent article on the entertainment website Buzzfeed headlined “19 Philosophers Ranked by Hotness” is a demonstration that humankind’s attempts to synthesise the “man as he is” and “man as he could be” dialectic have finally reached the mainstream.

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