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John Gray: “Humanity is a figment of the imagination”

If you cannot conceive of humanity from an area of knowledge outside science, what reason could there be for thinking that one and only one system of values is peculiarly human? 

Limits of reason: in William Blake's Newton, the great man shows his blindness to the natural world around him. Image: Bettman/Corbis
Limits of reason: in William Blake's Newton, the great man shows his blindness to the natural world around him. Image: Bettman/Corbis

The Quest for a Moral Compass: a Global History of Ethics
Kenan Malik
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £25

Histories of morality are rarely written in order to inform the reader. When the Victorian rationalist W E H Lecky produced his immensely popular History of European Morals (1869), his goal was to infuse the book’s readers with a sense of the advancing power of human reason. Lecky’s was a story of improvement – the occasionally stumbling but unfailingly heroic advance of rational inquiry against the stultifying authority of custom and the determined opposition of religion. Anything that did not fit in with this edifying tale was mentioned only in passing as a minor detour in the onward march of humankind, or else was ignored.

It’s an ironic commentary on our faith in intellectual progress that 150 years later Kenan Malik should present what is not much more than an expanded version of Lecky’s rationalist fairy tale. Malik doesn’t mention Lecky, and may not have read him, but something very like Lecky’s story shapes his account of the development of moral thinking. Describing the modern movement that for him embodies the advance of humankind, Malik repeats a liturgy we have heard incanted innumerable times: “In the Enlightenment, the intellectual wind of change that blew through Europe in the 18th century, the humanist sensibility that had emerged in the Renaissance found full flower.”

You would never know, from reading Malik’s account, that the Renaissance was a time when belief in magic thrived at the highest levels of the state, with Elizabeth I regularly consulting spirit-seers. You would have no idea that Kepler (a prototypical Renaissance figure Malik doesn’t discuss) was as devoted to horoscope-making as he was to astronomy, or that Machiavelli (another archetypal Renaissance figure who doesn’t even appear in the book’s index) posed fundamental questions about the role of ethics in politics.

Nor would you realise that Immanuel Kant (whom Malik, in a lengthy and reverential discussion, celebrates as having “revolutionised moral thinking”) described Jews as “a nation of cheaters”; that Voltaire was an ardent adherent of the pre-Adamite theory of human origins, according to which Jews and “negroes” were relics of an inferior pre-human species; that “Darwin’s bulldog” T H Huxley, praised by Malik for his criticisms of evolutionary ethics, developed a detailed classification of racial types; or that the German rationalist, biologist and virulent critic of religion Ernst Haeckel (another vastly influential thinker who is not discussed) defended theories of eugenics and racial inequality that helped shape a pattern of thinking in which Nazi crimes could be claimed to have a basis in science.

The Quest for a Moral Compass is a rationalist history of ethics in which all of the repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism have been airbrushed, Soviet-style, from the record. To be sure, the absence from the book of the sleazy side of rationalism may come in part from mere ignorance. In any event, it’s clear that Malik prefers not to know. From one angle this may be the normal dishonesty of an evangelising ideologue: Malik has a world-view to promote, and he’s not going to let awkward facts get in his way. From another perspective, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a testament to the perplexities of secular faith. Like Lecky, Malik writes in order to prop up a belief in moral progress. The difference is that while the Victorian sage appears to have had few doubts regarding the creed he was promoting, Malik often seems as anxious to persuade himself as to persuade his readers.

In common with generations of rationalist writers, Malik begins the history of moral thought with the Greeks. A more reflective writer might have asked whether these ancient thinkers had the same conception of morality as we do. After all, it’s incontestable that the idea of morality we have today – a set of principles or laws aiming to protect a uniquely precious type of human value – derives from monotheism. Nothing like this can be found among the polytheistic Greeks, who when they talked of ethics meant the art of life, including aesthetics and politics as well as what we think of as prudence or self-interest. In fact, in the sense that we understand the term, the ancient Greeks did not have a “morality” at all. Starting with the Greeks creates a problem if you want to present the history of morality as a single, continuing story – and one that ends in some version of the modern secular assertion of universal human values. Greek ethics weren’t meant to be universal, and they can’t be wrenched apart from the metaphysical framework accepted by the most influential Greek philosophers.

Aristotle may have talked of the good life for human beings, but he never meant to include most of humankind. Women and “barbarians” (non-Greeks) were excluded, while slaves achieved the good life by being instruments of their masters. This wasn’t just prejudice on Aristotle’s part: it reflected the metaphysics that underpinned his ethics. “Aristotle was a different kind of philosopher to those that had gone before,” Malik writes. “There was in him none of the poetical, speculative or mystical.” This is, at best, a half-truth. Aristotle may have valued careful observation, but his view of the world as a whole was far from empirical; everything that existed had a purpose and a function in a cosmic hierarchy of value. At the top was the “unmoved Mover”, a godlike entity that devoted itself to perpetual contemplation. It was this mystical vision, more than any kind of empirical investigation, which supported Aristotle’s belief that human beings are rational animals. If the good life for human beings – or a few favoured specimens among them – consisted in contemplation, it was because such a life connected them with something of supreme value beyond the human world.

In contrast to the loving attention he lavishes on the ancient Greeks, Malik’s account of monotheism is largely hostile. When he gets round to discussing the contribution of Judaism in the fourth chapter, he focuses on Deuteronomy, “an angry work” that advocates “the brutal suppression of those who worship other gods, and, indeed, the slaughter of other ethnic groups”. He notes the existence of other biblical injunctions urging “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”; but he says little about Job’s questioning of divine justice – a contribution to moral thinking more profound, to my mind, than anything in Greek philosophy. When he considers the birth of Christianity, he tells us that there was “little new” in the teachings of Jesus; any positive elements in Christianity are owed to Augustine, who for all his faults was “the last classical philosopher”. When he turns to Islam, the story is the same: he praises the religion mainly for preserving “the rationalist spirit that had been first carried by the Greeks” and for transmitting that spirit to Europe.

Malik is keen to stress the global reach of his account, and rightly points out that what today are considered “western values” would have been unrecognisable to canonical western thinkers of the past. Yet when he discusses the Hindu Vedas and the Buddha, Confucius and Taoism, it is as stages on the way to a higher form of moral consciousness that the modern west exemplifies. Buddhism is not bad as far as it goes, we learn, but lacks the world-transforming sense of agency of modern thinking. Taoism may have one or two points to its credit, but it suggests that unexamined lives may be worth living – a sacrilegious idea, for devout rationalists such as Malik. Other non-western traditions receive similarly patronising treatment. Presented in a style that is at times reminiscent of 1930s agitprop – one of the book’s central chapters is entitled “The Revolutionary Spirit and the Reactionary Soul” – what Malik gives us is not a history of moral thinking, with its many divergences and deep discontinuities, but a self-admiring fable.

In writing the history of morality in this way, Malik shows the formative influence of his own history as a one-time Trotskyist activist. The Socialist Workers Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party (for which he stood as a parliamentary candidate in 1987 and 1992) may be as thoroughly defunct, in terms of political influence, as the now-proverbial dead parrot. But it wasn’t the tens of millions of casualties Trotskyism incurred in faraway countries where revolution was serious business rather than an adolescent hobby that led Malik to move on from the beliefs of his youth. Instead, what produced the shift seems to have been a parochial intra-left debate about multiculturalism, which he opposed not because it involves compromising liberal freedoms, but because it tainted the purity of the revolutionary enterprise. Malik clings to a view of history, and humanity, that is essentially Marxian; yet he does so without being able to draw on any of the metaphysical and religious traditions that made Marx’s thinking such a powerful system of ideas. The result is a view of morality that is not so much erroneous – though Malik’s account contains numerous rudimentary mistakes – as basically incoherent.

The depth of his confusion is clear in his garbled discussion of the objectivity of values. He accepts that values change over time; as he says, this is the theme of his book. But such changes aren’t arbitrary, he declares: “There is a certain logic to historical change.” Now it is true that historical developments can have a kind of inherent rationality, in which one situation emerges from another in a series of intelligible steps. However, unless you think of history in teleological terms, as a story that may not be inevitable in its outcome but that has a built-in goal or purpose of some desirable kind, there is no reason to think this process need be in any way benign. As can be seen in the emerging catastrophe in Ukraine, where spiralling conflict on the ground is leading to another ruinous war, events may well have a certain logic; but it is logic of a kind that has nothing to do with ethics.

At this point, Malik will splutter that neither he nor Marx ever believed that history is governed by inexorable laws. It is human agency that shapes events, he will insist: as he puts it in the book’s final sentence, “The choice is ours.” Yet who are “we”, precisely? Marx was able to draw on an understanding of humanity as a kind of universal subject engaged in a struggle for freedom and redemption from the past, which he inherited from Judaism and Christianity. Nothing like this can be found among Malik’s beloved Greeks, who viewed history as a succession of natural cycles that had no overall meaning. In the absence of Marx’s Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity and history, or some other religious/metaphysical underpinning, “we” means whatever anyone wants it to mean.

If you strip away religion and metaphysics and think of the human species in strictly naturalistic terms, you will see that “humanity” – the universal subject, together with Marx, that Malik inherits from monotheism – is a figment of the imagination. “Science cannot determine values,” Malik writes, “because one cannot determine what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the data.” True enough; but if you cannot call on any conception of humanity from an area of knowledge outside science, what reason could there be for thinking that one and only one system of values is peculiarly human? Or for thinking of history as a process in which these values are gradually unfolding?

Marx was able to assert that some values were quintessentially human, even as he denied that there was any constant human nature, because he believed history had an internal logic that was somehow inherently good. Without that comforting conviction – which Marx borrowed illicitly from religion – Malik’s universal values are left hanging in empty space. Once you have really given up monotheism, you have to say goodbye to the idea that human values can be universal or objective in the sense that rationalists such as Malik want to believe. You are left with the existing human animal, with its many different histories and perpetually warring moralities.

Malik’s inability to accept this inescapable truth gives his constant invocation of “humanity” a kind of comic poignancy. Here below, on the conflict-ridden earth, human beings are raucously diverse and often savagely divided in their values, and vanishingly few of them have any interest in Malik’s inchoate post-Marxian visions. But somewhere in the heavens, far above the stale air of the Trotskyist meeting room, floats universal humankind – a serene, Cheshire-cat-like being, more nebulous and chimerical than the gods of the past, but seemingly still capable of casting a glimmer of meaning into the lives of disoriented ex-members of extinct revolutionary sects.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)