The Quest For A Moral Compass: A Global History Of Ethics by Kenan Malik (book review).

Kenan Malik’s ‘The Quest For A Moral Compass: A Global History Of Ethics’ book has a long title which actually tells the content of the book. In many respects, though, it’s more a history of the people who creates ethics than the subject itself, which only gets caught up on in the final chapters. So from history, we see the start of ethics with Socrates and the other Greek philosophers. It’s rather interesting that many of these people were imprisoned or executed for heresy so they were all standing on sticky wickets, being ironically revered and disliked equally for expounding moral issues of good and evil. The bad guys clearly didn’t get their message.


Some of the reveals are quite interesting. Epicurus developed a commune that would make monks and prisoners look like they had a happy life in comparison. Considering their limitations, I wasn’t surprised getting recruits and living beyond a generation was possible.

Something that I hadn’t given much thought to before that both Christ and Mohammed were illiterate and had to rely on other people to writing their messages down. Considering that the apostles themselves were fishermen originally and also unlikely to have any formal education, it should make you wonder how they wrote their gospels as well. Word of mouth must surely have distorted the message somewhere down the line. If you don’t believe that, get a line of folk, whisper a simple message to be spread ear to ear and see how different it is at the end. Thinking objectively today, one has to wonder how they could be such strong philosophers without some form of literate foundation to have been built up upon or how much their writers tidied things up.

Malik cuts across the world with a variety of philosophers and religions, so you get a completeness of what has been covered, offering no bias. This makes for a better examination, although I wish more space was spent on what elements of ethics each contributed as well as the effect they had. Malik’s writing is so fluid, I found that I was always reading rather than stopping too much to consider what was being said.

It isn’t until half-way through the book that Malik starts pointing out some of the ethical philosophy. I wish he’s made a point of whether this was because people had started analysing why they do good or bad things but the 18th century is certainly the time when it happened but with the upper classes telling the lower classes what to do, you can surely see the change happening here. It certainly had its association with the Bible although quite why Malik says it started with Adam when it was Eve who bit the apple I’m less sure about.

As with many things, it’s the examples that gets people to copy it and from the way Malik describes it, the German Emmanuel Kant was certainly amongst those that people wanted to copy his morals. It did make me ponder on the effects of any one person who can affect others. We see that a lot today in how others are influenced, even if it’s only by PR folk, that will make you wonder if we can be led so easily without questioning anything. It’s only luck that some of the nicer folk’s morals get through. Working outside of self-interest to help others also serves your own well-being probably being the biggest selling point. In Great Britain, it was certain Jeremy Bentham who contributed this to the value of ethics.

Balancing the books, Malik also examines Karl Marx and Frederich Nietzsche, whose work was corrupted by his sister after his death to aid the Nazi Party in Germany. In having only selected choices from what these gentlemen wrote, the moral compass of certain countries were certainly swept in different directions. It also tends to suggest that morals aren’t inflexible and change to the direction leaders want you to believe in, which is a very sobering thought.

Although I wish Malik had spent a bit more time on what and how these various philosophers influenced the worlds that they lived in and its growth across the world, his book does do a lot of the groundwork for you to appreciate Man’s development. What is most surprising is that so few people were involved in teaching morals. If you think about it, we all have our own individual moral codes of what is right and wrong and how much we can tip the balance either way in our conduct and what is acceptable. These people helped lay the groundwork for the acceptable so knowing something more about them should fill you in on their historical significance. Ethics isn’t a science but a fairness between right and wrong. As this book shows, there weren’t many philosophers who explored its understanding but reading here will show you the obstacles they faced.

GF Willmetts

May 2014

(pub: Atlantic Books. 390 page hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84887-479-4)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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