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He also discusses the Sam Harris idea that science can be used to influence morality. Lots of interesting ideas, but the discussion left me wanting. Jan 24, Veronica rated it it was amazing. A very informative and understandable book; an excellent introduction. The only downside might have been, as others have noted, the author needing to add his opinions where it was unnecessary, and the lack of some important philosophers.

Personally I would've liked to read more about Africa, especially on the ancient side of things. Jul 27, Tim rated it it was amazing Shelves: philosophy. The is a massively impressive work. In less than pages, Kenan Malik covers pretty much the entire history of moral though. Yet despite the necessary brevity he manages to both summarise and analyse the views of history's most renowned thinkers on the subject with clarity and insight.

I shall be reading this book again, several times probably. May 08, Larkin Tackett rated it really liked it.


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This book took me nearly six months to read, but I now know so much more about the history and intersection of religion, morality, and human events. It is, rather, to breathe life into it, to understand morality as a human creation, to recognize it not as a fixed monument but as an evolving story.

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History becomes a tool through which to discover how values have changed, and why, and what it tells us about our moral lives today. Jan 08, Riley Haas rated it really liked it. I have been reading Malik's blog for more than a few years at this point I think , in part because I feel like he has much greater insight into the issues around jihadism than most of the people writing in North America who I've had a chance to read. I find his approach not only measured - which is refreshing - but also imbued with a strong knowledge of the various cultures at play, and a knowledge of history.

It is for this reason that I got this book. To be honest, I was initially quite disa I have been reading Malik's blog for more than a few years at this point I think , in part because I feel like he has much greater insight into the issues around jihadism than most of the people writing in North America who I've had a chance to read. To be honest, I was initially quite disappointed. I am not sure what I was expecting, but I guess I was expecting less of a retread through the other intellectual histories of the West I have read.

Malik's treatment of the Greeks and the early Christians did not feel to me as if I was getting anything new out of it - rather it felt to me as though we had both read many of the same books. And though I appreciated his discussions of India, Chinese and Muslim ethics, the former two felt cursory in a way that surprised me. Is this all there is to their long histories?

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The general sense that this wasn't the book I thought it was continued when I got to the sections on Nietzsche and Existentialism. I understand there are numerous problems with Nietzsche - I mean, that's sort of his thing, being difficult to interpret - but I feel like there's a balance to be struck with his work, between its path-breaking character and its potential dangers.

But the bigger problem for me was the chapter on Existentialism, which focuses almost completely on Kierkegaard and Sartre Dostoevsky is only briefly covered in relation to both this chapter and the Nietzsche chapter, Camus is also only briefly discussed. As an Existentialist myself, I felt like this was short shrift. There's a lot more within the tradition if it can be called a tradition than Sartre. To focus on late Sartre, when he pretty much renounced his original ideas, also seems problematic.

But in turning every moral choice into a "leap of faith. Sure, choice is given primacy, but it is hardly unstitched - a huge appeal of Existentialism for me is that it places choice in the context of human history and human life. Sure, there is an insistence that, in theory, you can completely create everything anew, as Nietzsche might, but there is an acknowledgement by many of the thinkers, I believe, that this is a rather hard thing to do, given the history and society that we find ourselves in by accident.

Malik's attitude towards Existentialism is particularly baffling given these passages from the end of the book: "[Frankl's] understanding of humans as creators of value and as makers of meaning applies equally to humans as a collective. It is only through others that we find our individuality, and it is only through others that we come to appreciate the meaning of values and the value of meaning No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off the moral tightrope that we are condemned to walk as human beings.

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

It can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. The choice is ours. Yes, yes, it depends on which Existentialist. For me, the real value to the book lies in its later chapters, as Malik uses his global history to inform the struggles in the West and in China in the modern era for how to come up with "objective" morals.

The chapters on post-colonial and contemporary moral thought are particularly illuminating, given my unfamiliarity with these thinkers beyond Peter Singer but also given my own fears about Scientism. I agree with Malik that, though science can tell us lots of things, it cannot tell us about morality. Also, I should mention that the chapter on Marx is quite interesting and refreshing, compared to some takes I've read. This is the first history of moral thought I've read. Though I found it straying a little from the topic at times - and, due to my ignorance of the other traditions of the world, I wondered whether the focus couldn't be on additional ethical and moral thinkers from outside the West, Japan for example - I loved how he pulled the strands together in the final chapters.

For example, Malik goes out of his way to take on The Abolition of Man, a book that nearly floored me when I first read it over a decade ago, before I had time to think deeply about Lewis' highly problematic argument. As he says in the above quote, it is up to us how we sort out our moral problems, there aren't any extra-human rules we can just slap on to humanity.

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I highly recommend this, particularly if you haven't read much western philosophy, because it's accessible in a way that so much philosophy isn't, and it's broad in its scope, in a way that other histories of philosophy that I have read are not. Feb 26, Elaine Searle rated it really liked it. As a woman, I fell excluded from this search.

However, I did enjoy reading this book and the author has done an impressive job of giving a very readable overview of moral thought through the ages.

Chapter 18 is the best thing I've read easily all year if not ever, in respects to the accumulation of ethical theory and its grounding problem. A surprisingly breezy read for a book about philosophy, this work is a good point of reference to understand the journey of ethics and morality over time. Apr 05, Ben Hobson rated it it was amazing. Truly exceptional book. Lays out a lot of history in a concise, engaging way. Loved it, and will use its knowledge in future. Oct 15, Konstantin Antypenko rated it really liked it.

Starting with Homer and ending with Sam Harris and all points in between. From that point of view, the whole idea of human progress seems somewhat questionable. The morality of Homer, specifically the behavior of Agamemnon and Achilles, from our modern eyes appears suspect. However, within the context of ancient Greece where role was more important than the individual and the actions of the gods were everywhere, the morality of their actions become clear.

Yes, despite our best efforts and t Wow Yes, despite our best efforts and the writings of C. Lewis , morality really is relative. That is a major theme of this work as he moves from the Greek philosophers to the Christian philosophers to the Islamic philosophers to the Buddhist philosophers to the Enlightenment philosophers and so on.

It does interest me how morality, like so much over the last century think painting, sculpture, literature has come un-moored from its past.

Kenan Malik

In this highly technical, mechanistic, fast-paced, global world, it's pretty clear that we are at a loss and are trying to grope our way to a new understanding. That becomes the second major theme that I came away with. It did not get the fifth star because it tried to do too much in too little space. Major philosophers were thrown in and just as quickly were discarded. To have done justice, it needed to be twice as large; in which case, it probably would lost much of its readability.

It probably would have been better to edit out some of the philosophers instead of doing a drive by of their thinking. Dec 09, Daniel Clark rated it really liked it. This book is nothing if not ambitious. On human flourishing 4. Heaven and hell 5. Nirvana 6. The view from the mountains 7.

click Faith and power 8. Reason and Revelation 9.

The human challenge The revolutionary spirit and the reactionary soul The human triumph Passion, duty and consequence The challenge of history The death of God, the end of morality Studying any area of philosophy can be overwhelming. The more you master one particular view, the more you realise there are many others.