What can the history of morality tell us about the nature of morality? And, what can it tell us about ourselves as human beings?
Morality is like a map guiding us from the way humans are to the way we think humans ought to be. It is, however, a most unusual kind of map. Most maps help you locate the starting point of the journey and the destination, and pinpoint the route that can take you from one to the other. Not so in the case of morality. On the moral map the starting point, the destination, and the route are all created during the journey itself.
The story of morality is the story of how the relationship between these two visions of the human – the relationship between how we might imagine humans are and how we envision they can be – has changed over time and across space, from Homer’s Greece to Mao’s China, from ancient India to modern America.
Our understanding of what it is to be human, of human nature, has changed over time. Additionally, what it is to be human only makes sense in light of our conception of the kind of beings we want to be, and the kind of world we want to live in.
To look upon morality as a historical product is not to degrade it, but, 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. History becomes a tool through which to discover that values have changed, and why, and what it tells us about our moral lives today.
When we look upon morality as a historical product, it allows us to ask questions such as these:
- Why were ancient Greek gods so immoral?
- How did China manage, for more than two millennia, to create a strong ethical framework without the need for God?
- Why did caste became so important in India?
- Why did Augustine, one of the greatest Christian theologians, think slavery and torture were morally acceptable?
- Why was the Europe of the Enlightenment (18th century) also the Europe of imperial terror?
- How are contemporary claims that science can define moral norms an echo of the religious idea that values derive from God?
A historical account might undermine the idea of moral injunctions as absolute and objective, but it also reveals new ways to think of moral norms as more than merely a matter of personal preference or political need.
Kenan Malik is an Indian-born British writer, lecturer and broadcaster, trained in neurobiology and the history of science. As a scientific author, his focus is on the philosophy of biology, and contemporary theories of multiculturalism, pluralism and race.
Malik has given lectures or seminars at a number of universities, including: Cambridge; Oxford; Institute of Historical Research, London; University of Oslo; and the European University Institute, Florence. In 2003, he was a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is currently Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Surrey.
Malik has been a presenter and panelist on the BBC radio programs Analysis, Night Waves, and Moral Waves. He has written and presented a number of TV documentaries, including Disunited Kingdom (2003), Are Muslims Hated? (which was shortlisted for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award, in 2005), Let ‘Em All In (2005) and Britain’s Tribal Tensions (2006). ‘Strange Fruit’ was longlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2009.
Books written by Kenan Malik include:
- From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath
- Man, Beast, and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature
- Multiculturalism and its Discontents: Rethinking Diversity after 9/11
- Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate
- The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society
- The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics