History, morality and the clash of civilizations

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

Moral-compass‘With the rise of China’, Martin Jacques writes in his book When China Rules the World, ‘Western universalism will cease to be universal – and its values and outlook will become steadily less influential. The emergence of China as a global power in effect relativizes everything.’ The transformation of China into an economic superpower raises important and challenging questions about how we perceive the world. Our understanding of history and culture will unquestionably change. The Era of the Warring States may come to be seen as significant as the Peloponnesian War, or 1911, the end of the dynastic era, as important a date as 1789, and the fall of the French monarchy. Kongzi, Mo Tzu and Zhu Xi may become as well known as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. Lu Xun could be regarded as fine a writer as James Joyce.

But what about our understanding of morality? To what extent will the rise of China and the decline of Europe and America transform the way we understand moral values? Will universalism be seen merely as a form of Western particularism? To what extent will ‘everything be relativised’?

The story of this book is the story of how the centre of gravity of moral thinking has historically shifted. In the ancient world, Greece, Israel, Persia, India and China were all sources of civilization and of distinctive moral philosophies. The concepts that developed at each source were shaped by the particularities of the local culture and social needs; there were, nevertheless, also common themes that spanned continents, from the idea of virtue to the Golden Rule. The rise of monotheism, and in particular of Christianity, transformed the discussion of ethics in Europe, establishing the idea of rule-based morality, guided and anchored by a divine intelligence, and developing ideas of universalism. The emergence of Islam at the end of the first millennium CE, and its expansion through the beginning of the second, created a new centre of intellectual gravity. Drawing upon the heritage of Greece, Persia and India, as well as the Judaic and Christian traditions, the Islamic Empire came to be a bridge both between the Ancient world and early modernity and between East and West. The only empire that in its day could challenge the philosophical and technological supremacy of the Islamic Empire was China, where the arrival of Buddhism from India triggered a renaissance in Confucian thinking. What we can see in this history is not moral progress, in the sense we can witness scientific or technological progress, but the maturing, development and deepening of moral philosophy.

More here.