6.1 Moral Teachings in Islam- Main Ethical Questions
Many writers who write about Islam are not totally familiar with Islam. They present the Five Pillars of Islam as the whole of Islam. However, it took us twelve sessions just to explore in some reasonable degree of depth (not total deapth) the meaning and significance of each of the Five Pillars.
The Five Pillars represent the very bare minimum and the foundation of moral and ethical requirements. When we talk about pillars we are literally talking about pillars with no walls, ceiling furniture, partitions and thus the Five Pillars alone do not constituted all of Islam. Islam has its own set of ethical and moral system that covers all aspects of life independent of any other existing system whether it is secular or religious.
6.1 Main Ethical Questions
Host: How would you define morals and ethics?
Ethics is defined as a study of human conduct as it relates to certain basic ideals. That is why ethics is regarded as normative science rather than positive science. Normative represents basic ideals and how things are supposed to be. Ethics and morals are fields of study that focus on the knowledge of good and evil. They are the basis that we use to evaluate behavior as being good or bad.
Host: Many people question whether ethics and morals have any relevance today given the advanced nature of our civilization and technology. Are these ethical questions relative to day to day life?
It is interesting to note that since man was put on earth till now man never ceased to think and contemplate about these moral questions of good and evil. Mankind did achieve great strides in modern technology and space age, but are these advancements in the total and complete sense what humans are really aspiring towards? The relevance of this subject is so great that all of our social, economic and political problems come from moral problems. At the heart of all of our contemporary problems is the basic ethical question.
When we talk about technological advancement, we should ask how much did we advance in the human sense? What is happening to the institution of the family? What is happening with the younger generation when we hear about a generation gap, antagonism, frustration, discontent and lack of a sense of purpose? There is disintegration of sexual morality as evil is regarded as good and good is regarded as evil. All of these things are upside down now all in the name of modernism. Honesty has become meaningless unless it is beneficial. People think that they do not worship any God because they are liberated are indeed worshipping other false gods (wealth, power, expediency).
The world has gone through a lot in two World Wars and numerous other wars. There has been a great deal of cruelty done by man to his fellow man. A great philosopher, Burton Russell at one point said that it would be unfair to beasts to say that man has descended to the level of beasts. Indeed if I may add that sometimes beasts are regarded as more humane because a beast only kills for food. The sense less murders that are all over our news give us clear indications that we can no longer put our heads in the sand.
Lewis Mumford in his book Conduct of Life says “The invisible breakdown of our civilization, the erosion of values, the dissipation of human purpose, the denial of distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, and reversion to subhuman levels of conduct.”
Harold Titus in his book Living Issues in Philosophy says “Man has devised numerous plans and organizations for gaining greater security and comfort yet he suffers from mental and emotion security as to the meaning of life the meaning of the world in which he lives and the kind of life he wants to live with his fellowmen.”
An eloquent expression about the same problem has been given by Northrop in his book The Meeting of East and West in which he says “It would seem that the more civilized we become the more incapable of maintaining civilization we are.”
The relevance of the moral is not simply important but perhaps more important that it used to be.
Host: Can you elaborate on the point that the main concern of ethics and morality has to do with the study of good and evil? What are the major areas that are studied in ethics?
Basically four questions are coved in books of philosophy and ethics and they are:
1. What is supreme good? What is the ultimate criterion that allows us to judge if something is good or evil?
There are three major answers to this question. One answer is that the ultimate good is happiness. So anything that makes people happy is good and anything that makes them sad is evil. The second answer is perfection. The attainment of perfection should be achievable, and anything that helps achieve perfection is good and the reverse is evil. A third suggestion is that duty for the sake of duty, an idea presented by Emanuel Kent one of the famous philosophers. This point basically says that people should do their duty for the sake of duty and not for any other purpose.
If we look at all these answers we find that they are all part of secular morality. This type of morality follows that system of belief that is divorced from God. This is the belief that we can answer these questions without believing in God or the life hereafter.
If we look into these answers we find that there are lots of conceptual problems. First of all, we will discuss happiness as the ultimate good. Again what is meant by happiness? Is it sensual happiness, spiritual happiness or mental happiness? There is no clear answer. Also, whose happiness are we talking about? Is it an individual’s happiness, a group’s happiness, a society’s happiness, a nation’s happiness or the happiness of mankind at large? There is a great deal of ambiguity.
Moving on to perfection, what is the standard of perfection? How do we get the standard of perfection? Whose perfection should we strive to achieve? Is it perfection of the individual, of a group, of society, of a nation, of mankind?
Duty for the sake of duty is perhaps the most ambiguous ways of defining something that should be absolute and clear. What does it mean to do ones duty for the sake of duty? What causes people to follow a particular moral law? What is the rational that lets people do this duty?
2. What are the sources of knowledge about good and evil?
There are all types of answers under secular morality which are quite contradictory. This shows again the deficiency in the approach. The school of Empiricism focuses on human experience and regards it as the ultimate source of what is good and what is bad. A second school is called Intuitionism which says that humans by nature have a kind of insight and feel for what is right and what is wrong. A third school is called Rationalism which is the use of reason (many famous philosophers of the past such as Aristotle, Plato, Espinoza and Hegel were all in this school) to find out what is really good or evil.
When we say experience (Empiricism) as a source of what is good or what is bad, whose experience are we talking about? If one is talking about universal human experience this means that one has to have full data on experience before coming up with an answer. When one evaluates human experiences in an effort to come up with conclusions one will run into lots of problems. Ideally the person doing this evaluation must not only have full access to the data but has to be level minded, very objective and have no bias in his/her interpretation which is impossible. When working with any number of experts every person will interpret human experience depending on his own field of study or competence. It is impossible to get a universal agreement and thus everything will become relative. The other problem is that in order to get full data on experience one might have to wait for too long. Thus people will be lost for centuries before a clear answer is found because the data is simply unavailable. Both other schools Intuition and Rationalism may be partial sources for judging what is good and what is evil, but again they are only not sufficient.
3. Who sanctions morality? What is the power that makes sure people follow morality?
One school claims that the main sanction for morality is the nature of morality itself. This means that there is an automatic feeling of happiness when the right thing is done and bad feeling when something wrong is done.
There is also the law of Practical Reason which believes that there is a self imposed law that following morality is practical and imposes itself. Some also claim that it is the political power in any particular society that sanctions morality. They force morality with jails, police and power. Others would say it is not political power but informal social pressure that makes people follow social norms.
4. What truly represents the motives of moral conduct?
This point addresses what motivates people internally to be moral. One claim is that people have an inherent inborn respect of the law, but those who said that were unaware of what has been taking place in the last two decades. Others claim that it is simply the desire for perfection with the motivation being an inborn attitude that guides people. A third school (a combination of schools) follows the idea of punishment and reward. In this case people follow morality because they are rewarded if they do and punished if they don’t. The schools vary as to who gives the reward. One claim is that it is a reward by the State (political power) the others say that it is by society (social pressure) by being ostracized or rejected if one is bad or being accepted and respected if they are good.
In both of these whether we talk about sanctions or motives we are back in square one because they each vary in regards to individual groups, society or mankind at large. After all this, one is still left in confusion on the basis of secular morality.
Host: Is the secular moral thinking completely unreliable and completely devoid of any kind of truth?
One can not say that any of those ideas that represent the fruit of human thought and great effort on the part of many philosophers throughout history is all devoid of any truth. At one point I even mentioned that there might be some gems of truth in some of the ideas, but the problem is that they represent partial aspects of understanding of ethics and morality. The main problem is that when we don’t have a complete and comprehensive system of ethics and morality one is left with a situation where there are so many gaps and unanswered questions. In this kind of situation we find that many philosophers try to fill the gaps with assumptions or imagination which may or may not help to resolve the issues. Even though there have been some attempts to answer these questions we don’t get a clear indication as to how we can use the answers as a foundation or basis upon which we can build a righteous individual or society. Above all these attempts try to establish a moral system as if mankind is independent of God by divorcing the discussion of morality from the belief in God and hereafter.