God is dead, says Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead, says God. Dead or not, Nietzsche is wrong, writes British neurobiologist and philosopher Malik—and so is sophist Thrasymachus, for that matter.
In a text that takes in well-known students of the topic and any number of obscurities (and even obscurantists), the author looks closely into the sticky business of ethics, both as distinct from and as adjunct to morals. In both, he approvingly quotes Alasdair MacIntyre as observing there’s a difference between humans as they are and humans as they could (and should) be. Cultures through time have differed markedly in their conceptions of the latter: The Greeks saw their gods as being “capricious, vain, vicious, and deceitful”—in short, much like us though much more powerful. Their vision of a messy, chaotic, violent world took on a more orderly mien in the worldview of Christians such as Augustine, who, Malik notes, found ways to justify slavery theologically. Malik takes care to distinguish moral universes in which humans are thought to have choice from those in which they do not, matters that feed into clashing ideologies today. Yet, as he writes, agency notwithstanding, all cultures have some notion of right and wrong, and all of us are naked, without protection, and in eminent danger of “falling off the moral tightrope that we are condemned to walk as human beings.” In a text that moves comfortably among cultures, continents and centuries, Malik delivers some of the best of what has been thought about ethical matters and some of the worst as well. Fans of Nietzsche (or perhaps of Leopold and Loeb, for that matter) won’t appreciate some of the author’s conclusions, but Malik is admirably evenhanded in considering the history of ethical thought.
An excellent survey for intermediate students of philosophy and a fine course in self-education for general readers.