The Quest for a Moral Compass: a global history of ethics


(Source: Wikipedia)

Kenan Malik

Kenan Malik. The Quest for a Moral Compass: a global history of ethics.  London: Atlantic Books, 2014.

The Second Vatican Council in its Decree on Christian Unity (Unitatis Redintegratio) indicated that a discussion of moral issues should be the first place to begin the dialogue on Christian unity. For fifty years the dialogue has focused on doctrinal issues. Now that the conversation bringing Christians churches and their people to a greater awareness of their unity in Christ has turned to moral issues, progress seems to be moving ahead.


The quest for a moral compass did not end with the Enlightenment. But the rejection of the heritage of the Greco-roman philosophers (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) and their Christian disciples (John Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, Augustine and Aquinas) took their toll. The rejection of the moral teachings of Judaism and Christianity revealed by God and contained in the Bible, has led to a time when each person legislates his/her own moral code.


This book is a global history of ethics. It is not only sweeping, it is detailed, giving two chapters to Islam and a chapter to the Chinese philosophers, especially Confucius. It is global because it crosses continents and millennia, cultures, philosophies and religions. It is a much needed antidote to wandering aimlessly in unknown ethical waters. While Malik evaluates each contribution, good and bad, he is even-handed in his kudos and criticisms. There are giants who have made great contributions to moral discernment, and there are minor players who have done no less.


Malik is from India, a humanist, a keen student of many subjects relevant to issues of our day. He examines them with a deep knowledge of history and its twists and turns. We may not agree with his conclusions, but his erudition is readily apparent. The names of contributors to our culture, our pursuit of a just God and a life of virtue following our better angels, ranges from Homer to Kant, from Augustine and Aquinas to Kierkegaard; MacIntyre, Bentham, Mill, Hume and Nietzsche suggest different directions to follow.


The search for a moral compass continues. There is hope. Pope Francis, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and a host of others are shedding light on a new compass that points to a bright star and a true course to a moral and ethical way guiding young and old on their journey to a better life and safer world.