Chapter 1: The Definition And Significance Of Ethics

A Lexical Definition Of ‘Akhlaq’

Originally, the term ‘akhlaq’ is an Arabic word whose singular form is ‘khulq’. Its lexical meaning is quality. This includes excellent qualities like courage and chivalry and appalling ones such as lowliness and cowardliness. Lexicographers usually deem this word to be a derivative of the same root as the Arabic ‘khalq’. [However,] when it is said that so and so has a beautiful ‘khulq’ this implies that he or she possesses a beautiful quality of the soul or an immaterial condition that is brilliant. In contrast, when it is said that so and so has a beautiful ‘khalq’ then this means that he or she has an exquisite exterior and that their body is symmetrically stunning.1

The Technical Meaning Of Ethics

In the parlance of the Islamic scholars and philosophers, the term ‘akhlaq’ has numerous nuances and usages some of which we will draw attention to here below:

Deep-Rooted Qualities Of The Soul

The [Arabic] word ‘akhlaq’ is mostly used amongst the Islamic scholars and philosophers to connote those features of the soul that are deeply rooted therein, are enduring and that make the person who possesses them perform certain actions that are in line with those qualities [almost automatically]. These actions stem from someone possessing such a deep-rooted quality without the need for him to deliberate and ponder over whether or not it is proper to perform such actions or not. Rather, they are almost mechanically accomplished by him. When defining ‘akhlaq’, the famous Sheikh Abu Ali al Miskaway says:

‘Akhlaq’ is a condition of the soul by means of which the human being who possesses it involuntarily moves towards performing those actions [that are in line with it] without the need to think twice [over the appropriateness of those actions].’2

Allamah Majlisi also says the following in his explanation of ‘Akhlaq’:

الخلق بالضم ملكة للنفس يصدر عنها الفعل بسهولة و منها ما تكون خلقية و منها ما تكون كسبية بالتفكر و المجاهدة و الممارسة و تمرين النفس عليها …كما أن البخيل يعطي أولا بمشقة و مجادلة للنفس ثم يكرر ذلك حتى يصير خلقا و عادة له

‘Akhlaq is a deeply-rooted quality of the soul that is the cause of certain actions [that are suitable to that quality]. These actions are thus performed effortlessly. Some of these qualities are natural and essential [for the soul] while some of them are acquired by means of [the repetition of] actions [that give rise to those qualities], or through [spiritual] struggle and by means of making the soul accustomed to performing those actions…for example, the stingy person will first strenuously give something of his away in charity. However, after repetition of the act, charity will become second-nature for him and he will become accustomed to it.’3

The late Fayz al Kashani defines ‘akhlaq’ in the following way:4

“Akhlaq’ is a quality that is firmly embedded within the soul. By means of this quality actions are performed with ease and without the need to deliberate over them [i.e. whether they are appropriate or not]. If this quality is such that beautiful actions that are acceptable to the faculty of reason stem from it then this will be named ‘good akhlaq’ while if repulsive and unacceptable actions stem from it then it will be ‘bad akhlaq’.’

In keeping with this definition, actions that are transient and not deeply-rooted within the soul (such as the anger of a tolerant person) or actions that are performed deliberately (such as the charity of a miserly person) will fall outside the scope of ‘akhlaq’ and ethical virtues. Correspondingly, ‘akhlaq’ will embrace both ethical virtues and vices. Therefore, one can speak of two kinds of ethical qualities: Virtues and Vices. This is something that some scholars have clearly stated.

Of course, there has been much debate over the source of these enduring qualities of the soul.5 Some are of the belief that they simply arise from the repetition of certain actions.6 Some others have surmised that they are brought into existence by heredity or the social atmosphere in which the person lives. A third group is of the opinion that they are essential and natural to man. This is while, none of these nuances are contained in the lexical root of the word ‘khulq’. The quality of our soul can be formed by means of the repetition of certain acts, from heredity, through being affected by the environment around it or be natural7 and essential to it. In this regard, it is unconditional.

The Qualities Of The Soul

Sometimes, in the parlance of the scholars the meaning of ethics is any kind of quality of the soul that is the cause of good or bad actions. These qualities of the soul can be long-lasting and deeply-rooted within the soul or they can be ephemeral and superficial. It is also irrelevant [according to this meaning] whether or not these actions come about by means of thought or they are accomplished without any pre-meditation. Therefore, if a miserly person who is accustomed to being miserly should happen to sometimes give something away then based upon this meaning this quality of his will be called an ethical trait and from the point of view of the science of ethics it will possess a positive ethical value. Likewise, if someone, in a premeditative way, does some deed then his action will also possess an ethical value.

Ethical Virtues

Sometimes, also, the word ‘ethics’ is only used to refer to the good ethical virtues. For example, when it is said: ‘Such an action is ethical,’ or ‘Lying is unethical’ or when it is said: ‘The essence of ethics is love’ then in these cases the word ethics is being used to refer to the good ethical virtues. This meaning of ethics is also common in the English language. Usually the word ‘ethical’ is synonymous with ‘proper’ or ‘good’ while its antonym ‘unethical’ is used to refer to ‘improper’ and ‘bad’.8

What are the principle ethical virtues? Do all of the ethical virtues return in the end to one or two virtues or not [i.e. do they branch out from certain principle virtues]? There is a great difference of opinion in this matter.9 According to the theory of Trait-Egoism the basis of all ethical virtues is that which is in the best interests of an individual. On the other hand, the theory of Trait-Utilitarianism states that the root of all good ethical qualities is desiring and acquiring that which is best for people in general [not just the individual agent of the action].

The Trait-Deontological Theory states that aside from mentioning personal interests and the common good as a basis for ethical virtues one must also bring up obedience to God and justice [as being part of the foundation of ethical virtues]. Some others say that the root of all [ethical] virtues is two: The desire for good and justice. These individuals explicitly state that if an ethical state of the soul cannot be derived from the desire for good and justice then in this case the aforementioned state is ‘either not an ethical virtue (such as faith, hope and wisdom that are religious or intellectual virtues) or it is not a virtue at all.’ In the Christian tradition it is said that Christians posses seven ethical virtues: ‘Three divine virtues: (faith, hope and love) and four human virtues: (considering what is in the best interest, patience, balance and justice).’ Plato and the other Greek philosophers along with many of the Islamic sages mentioned four fundamental virtues: Wisdom, courage, balance and justice.10

The Ethical Organization Of Life

The word ‘ethics’ especially in the view of some western philosophers11 has another usage. This can be seen when they speak of the ‘Ethical Organization of Life’. Based upon this terminology, ethics stands alongside matters such as art, science, law, religion. At the same time, it is used in a different sense than them. According to this terminology, ethics, like language, religion and the nation existed before the individual and ‘the individual enters into and to a large extent takes part in it’. It also exists after the person ceases to be. In other words, the existence of ethics does not depend upon the individual. Rather, it is ‘a tool in the hands of the society as a whole that is used to guide and instruct the individuals and smaller segments of that society.’

A Code Of Conduct That Rules Over Individuals

Some understand ‘ethics’ to be a code of conduct of a group of people. Thus, the ethics of Nazis means the code of conduct that the Nazis accepted and the ethics of Christians will be the code of conduct that they acknowledged.12

Other meanings have been mentioned for the term ‘ethics’ that are very close to this term even though in these meanings some clauses have been added to make it more specific. For example, some have defined ethics as: A universal yet unofficial system that concerns itself with all sane human beings and seeks to control their behavior with others and is comprised of rules, expectations and ethical virtues and whose purpose is to lesson the wicked ethical qualities.13 Others state: Ethics is a conglomeration of beliefs that are prevalent in society regarding the demeanor of its members and concerns itself with what conduct those members should adopt.14

The Science That Is Ethics

Many different definitions have been presented for the science of Ethics. Some of the great scholars have laid emphasis on the role of knowledge [in their definitions] and have defined Ethics as: The knowledge of the ethical virtues and vices. When defining Ethics al Tusi states:

‘It is the knowledge of the manner in which the human soul can acquire a trait by means of which all of the conditions and actions that intentionally stem from him can be characterized with beauty and praiseworthiness.’15

Also, a certain scholar in the West has defined [the science of] Ethics in the following way:

‘As can be deduced from the Latin and Greek root of the word ‘ethics’16 the science of Ethics is an awareness and knowledge of the habits, customs and qualities of human beings.’17

However, some others have underlined ethical action and conduct when defining Ethics:
‘The science of Ethics is a science that probes into the conduct of man from the point of view of how it should be…the science of Ethics focuses its attention on the way in which the actions of man can be perfect and good.’

In the following definition of Ethics: ‘The knowledge of how to live or the knowledge of how we must live’ more than anything else stress has been laid on the practical aspect of ethics not its theoretical one.

In order to present a more comprehensive and precise definition of the science of Ethics we can characterize it as the science that discusses the different kinds of good and bad qualities and the method by means of which one can acquire such good qualities and remove such bad qualities from one’s self. The topic of Ethics is thus good and bad qualities from the point of view of their relation with those actions of man that lie within his will and which he [freely] can acquire or keep away from. In the science of Ethics, aside from gaining an acquaintance with the different kinds of ethical virtues and vices, one is taught the ways in which one can acquire virtues and remove vices or prevent them from coming into existence. In the words of the late Naraqi:

‘The science of Ethics is the knowledge of those traits which have the ability to save or destroy man [spiritually]. It discusses the method by means of which one acquires the attributes that can rescue him from spiritual peril and the ways in which he can free himself from those qualities that devastate his soul.’

The Different Kinds Of Ethical Research

There are at least three different kinds of method of research in the field of Ethics. A proper understanding of these methods and their spheres of jurisdiction can assist us in gaining a better understanding the Philosophy of Ethics and its problems.

Descriptive Ethics

Descriptive Ethics is the study of and research into the description and explanation of the ethics of various individuals and societies. In other words, it is a report and description of the ethical principles that have been accepted by certain individuals, groups or religions. In this field of ethical research, the method used is experimental and recourse is taken to the reports of others. Here there is no room for rational demonstrations and the likes of these. The goal of such a research project is simply to gain an understanding of the conduct and ethical demeanor of specific individuals or groups. Here we do not seek to persuade others to adopt or distance themselves from the ethical qualities that we report. Fundamentally, in such discussions there is no discourse into the propriety or impropriety of the ethical traits that have been reported. Such historical research is usually the pejorative of psychologists, anthropologists or historians.

Studies into the ethical qualities of Eskimos, the uncivilized tribes of Africa and Australia or the different religions of the world are fields of research that are related to Descriptive Ethics. Statements such as the following are examples of ones made in Descriptive Ethics: Eating the flesh of one’s dead father is good in the eyes of Kalatines (a certain tribe in India).18 Killing old and decrepit people is acceptable in the opinion of Eskimos.19 Killing ones daughter was good in the eyes of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance. Drinking alcohol is bad according to Islam

Substantive Ethics

Substantive Ethics20 is a term that is use to refer to the discipline that probes into the principles, standards and methods by means of which one can distinguish between ethical beauty and ugliness, propriety and impropriety, and must and must not.21 This section of Ethical research is often called Command Ethics and seeks to examine the actions of human beings from the point of view of being attributed with being good or bad or obligatory or prohibited. It is irrelevant in this regard what view a specific individual, group or religion has regarding this matter. In other words, the topic of discussion in such ethical discussions is not a specific religion or group of people rather its topic is the actions of man that stem from his free will. It is for this reason that it is sometimes called First-Order Ethics. The method of research in such ethical discussions is rational demonstrations not experimentation or the report of others.

In general, we can say that two types of discussions regarding ethical statements are the pejorative of Substantive Ethics:

A. A philosophical defense of the general ethical values or laws such as: the goodness and necessity of justice and the evil and unlawfulness of injustice.

B. An effort to present a theory for the goodness and necessity of an action. For example, if, in an ethical system it is said that: ‘Justice is good,’ or ‘One must be just,’ in Substantive Ethics one discusses the rationale behind these general rules. One tries to answer questions such as the following: ‘What is the reason that certain actions are correct?’ ‘How can we say that a particular action is proper?’ ‘Why is it necessary for someone to adopt a virtuous ethical conduct in his life?’22

In an attempt to answer questions such as these, different theories have been put forth throughout the history of ethical discourse. For example, some believe that the basis of the goodness of actions and their necessity is ‘ethical egoism’. Others say that it is ‘general utilitarianism’. Still others have presented the ‘divine command theory’ as an alternative to these. Finally, some have held that the basis of the goodness of an action is the fact that the aforementioned action will lead one to attain a perfection that is worthy of being acquired. In other words, these scholars have presented ‘perfectionism’ as the best standard for the goodness of those actions that lie within the domain of man’s free-will.


Meta-Ethics is a term that is used to refer to studies into and philosophical analysis of ethical statements. This section of ethical research is also referred to with the following epithets: Theoretical Ethics, Philosophical Ethics, the Logic of Ethics, Analytical Ethics and the Epistemology of Ethics.23 This field in no way includes within itself experimental and historical studies into ethics. Also, it is not the responsibility of this branch of ethics to defend a particular substantive rule or value. In other words, its subject is not the ethics or conduct that has been accepted by a people or specific religion nor is it those actions of man that stem from his free-will.

Rather, the topic of this branch of ethical discourse is the statements and sentences that are utilized in Substantive Ethics. It is for this very reason that it has also been called ‘Second-Order Ethics’.24 Someone who discusses ethical statements from this point of view is completely neutral with regards to their truth or falsehood. For example, the two statements: ‘Abortion is bad’ and ‘Abortion is good’ are equal in his eyes. His principal responsibility in this section of ethics is to analyze the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and two scrutinize the statement under question.25

The most famous term that is used to refer to this branch of ethical studies is ‘Meta-Ethics’. Some people claim that this term was coined for the very first time in the beginning of the twentieth century by the Neo-Positivists and some Marxist writers and was used in opposition to Substantive Ethics.26 It is for this reason that we do not come across such a term in the writings of those philosopher that discussed ethics before them, even though we, here and there, come across discussions that lie within the jurisdiction of this branch of ethics.27

However, we must ask, from what point of view does Meta-Ethics rationally and philosophically analyze ethical statements? In other words, what are the boundaries of the discussions of Meta-Ethics?

In Meta-Ethics ethical statements are analyzed from at least three points of view:


In this section the meanings of the terms utilized in ethical statements are discussed. Usually, words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘must’ and ‘must not’ that are used as predicates in ethical statements are scrutinized and defined. The reason for this is that the subjects of ethical statements are usually clear. For example, words such as ‘abortion’, ‘telling the truth’, ‘lying’, ‘homicide’ and the likes that are used as subjects in ethical statements do not need to be defined.

Of course, if the subject of an ethical statement is unclear then that will also be the focus of discussion. An example of this is the drawn-out discussions on the meanings of ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’. Also, all of the concepts that are used in ethical statements as givens such as ‘freedom’, ‘choice’, ‘desire’ and ‘purpose’ or words that are used in the results that are derived from ethical rules such as ‘satisfaction’, ‘felicity’, ‘perfection’, ‘success’, and the likes of them are all examined and analyzed semantically.

Epistemological Questions

The following discussions can be considered to be some of the most serious discussions in the Philosophy of Ethics: Are ethical statements commands or do they seek to relate information about the external world? Are ethical rules relative or do they possess some absoluteness to them? What role does reason and demonstration play in ethics? These discussions are related to the epistemological dimension of ethical statements. Such discussions are delved into and hair-splittingly examined in meta-ethics.

Logical Questions

Can ‘must’ be derived from ‘is’? Can ethical statements be derived from statements that are not so? Fundamentally, what is the relation between reality and value? What relation do specific ethical statements have with one another? These, and the likes of these, are some of the most important problems of meta-ethics and are related to the logical dimensions of the discussions surrounding ethical statements.

The Philosophy Of Ethics

After having gained an acquaintance with the different kinds of discourse in Ethics, the time has come to specify the jurisdiction of the Philosophy of Ethics. Does the Philosophy of Ethics include within itself every kind of ethical discourse? Does it include Descriptive Ethics, Normative Ethics and Ethical Analysis? Or is it solely relegated to the latter two branches of ethics? Is it just another name for Meta-Ethics?28

Some of the Philosophers of Ethics believe that the Philosophy of Ethics includes, in some way, all three kinds of ethical research. In the words of one writer29, the first responsibility of the Philosophy of Ethics is to present a universal theory of Normative Ethics. However, because it is impossible for someone to be fully satisfied with such a theory without first analyzing certain ethical matters the Philosophy of Ethics will include Meta-Ethics as well. On the other hand, because some psychological and anthropological theories have an effect upon the problems of Normative Ethics and Meta-Ethics a certain experimental and descriptive analysis enters into the discussion. All of the works of the scholars of ethics before the twentieth century were composed of Descriptive Ethics, Normative Ethics and some of the problems of Meta-Ethics. A casual glance at the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Butler, Kant, Mill and other scholars that discussed Ethics in the Islamic World will substantiate this claim.

Nevertheless, if the Philosophy of Ethics is truly a branch of Philosophy and a philosophical and rational analysis of ethical problems and rules in this case, we cannot state that it includes Descriptive Ethics. The reason for this is that there is no room in Descriptive Ethics for reason and philosophy. Rather, at the most it will include the problems of Normative Ethics and Meta-Ethics. This is, in fact, the view of many of the Philosophers of Ethics.30

Of course, it should not be left unsaid that some intellectuals believe that delineating the jurisdiction of the Philosophy of Ethics and deciding whether or not it includes, aside from the problems of Meta-Ethics, those of Normative Ethics or not is itself one of the discussions of Meta-Ethics. To put it better, it is a result of a view that one adopts in Meta-Ethics and is related to the stance that one takes on the essence of ethical statements.31 The reason for this is that if someone, like Ayer, takes up an scientific view regarding ethics statements and were to believe that they lack a epistemological dimension to them, then in this case they would simply be a way in which the speaker were to reveal his emotions or sensations to others in order to effect them.32 In this case there would be no room for us to rationally and philosophically evaluate them. Accordingly, Normative Ethical statements lay outside the scope of philosophical discussions. On the other hand, if we assume that ethical statements possess epistemological value and seek to affirm or negate something regarding the world outside us then in this case the problems of Normative Ethics will also be a part of the Philosophy of Ethics.

Other philosophers of Ethics, especially analytical philosophers believe that the jurisdiction of the Philosophy of Ethics is limited to the discussions of Meta-Ethics. 33From amongst the three main different discussions of Meta-Ethics (in other words, the discussions surrounding the meanings of terms used in ethical statements, the epistemological value of ethical statements and the logical relation between ethical statements and concepts) these individuals pay special attention to semantics. ‘The reason for this is that they believe that philosophical problems can only be solved by a linguistic analysis and by clarifying the meaning of words.’34 People such as R.M. Ayer hold such an opinion. These people exclude all psychological problems and experimental science and all of the questions that are posed in Normative Ethics from discussions surrounding what is good or correct.35 Ayer has openly supported such a view and places special emphasis on the fact that the topic of the Philosophy of Ethics is solely the examination of ethical concepts and the correctness or incorrectness of their definition.36

It appears that the Philosophy of Ethics is simply another name for Meta-Ethics and Therefore, should not include the discussions of Descriptive or Normative Ethics. The reason for this is that the Philosophy of Ethics, in reality, examines and discusses the concepts and judgments that are taken as givens in the Science of Ethics and ethical statements. This means that it not only defines and clarifies the concepts and ideas of ethical statements but also occupies itself with problems upon which ethical judgments depend. In other words, since the topic of the Philosophy of Ethics is the science of Ethics and the problems that are brought up in Normative Ethics we cannot consider the problems of Normative Ethics to be those of the Philosophy of Ethics as well.

In any case, by the Philosophy of Ethics we imply a science that clarifies the principles and foundations of the science of Ethics. Often, it may recount other matters such as the history of Ethics, its founder, its purpose, the method of research employed therein and also the transformations that it may have undergone throughout history. This is similar to the eight famous problems that ancient scholars mentioned in the beginning of their books and which were called the ‘eight chief matters’. Sometimes the word ‘science of’ is added when they say ‘the Philosophy of the Science of Ethics’. This implies that it is a branch of Philosophy that seeks to examine the foundations and philosophical underpinnings of the science that is Ethics.37

The Problems Of The Philosophy Of Ethics

After having been briefly acquainted with the jurisdiction of the Philosophy of Ethics we will recount some of the most important of its discussions so that we can grasp the discussions of this branch of learning with more clarity.

1. How do ethical concepts come into being? How does the human mind become familiar with them? How can we distinguish the ethical usages of terms such as ‘correct’, ‘incorrect’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘must’, ‘must not’ and ‘responsibility’ from their non-ethical usages. How do we define the terminology and concepts that are related to ethical matters such as ‘conscience’, ‘free-will’, ‘intention’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘intelligence?’ Finally, what is the essence, meaning or usage of rules that are comprised of ethical jargon?

2. From what source do ethical statements and judgments come into existence? Do they have a source in Nature? Do they stem from reason? Or do they depend upon the commands and prohibitions of a society? Can we say that the basis of all ethical obligations is the will and law of God? Is it necessary to have a primary obligation from God in order to substantiate all other ethical duties?

3. It is possible to say that the most important topic that is discussed in the Philosophy of Ethics is the question of whether ethical statements are ones that aim at relating something about the outside world or statements that aim at creating something there. Even though ethical statements can be stated in two ways: in a declaratory way such as the following: ‘Justice is good.’ And also, in the form of a constructive statement: ‘One must be just.’ However, in any case this fundamental question must be answered: Are ethical statements principally declaratory or constructive?

What role does intention play in ethical actions? In statements such as: ‘Telling the truth is good’ is it only because when one tells the truth his words accord to reality that we can say that telling the truth is good? Or does the intention of the person who has spoken the truth also play a part in this relation? To put it more precisely, is the foundation of an ethical judgment only the beauty or ugliness of the action or should one also take into consideration that of the agent of the act as well?

5. Is one of the conditions of an ethical rule the fact that it is obligatory? If this is so then how does this go with the free-will of man? Since, one of the basic conditions of an ethical action is that it stem from the free-will of an individual.

6. What is the relation between the ethical action and the reward that one accrues from it? Is it necessary to consider a good reward for a good action and a bad reward for a bad action? Or is there no relation between the ethical action and the reward or punishment that is a result of them. Assuming that a reward or punishment is taken into consideration for an ethical action is it necessary for the agent of the action to focus his attention on them when he is performing the action? Or is it that focusing on the rewards and punishments would be detrimental to the ethical nature of the action? Would it transform the action into something of a business transaction and therefore, annul it of its ethical value?

7. Another one of the most important problems of the Philosophy of Ethics is the question of what is the basis of ethical rules. On what foundation do ethical statements rest? How can we justify ethical obligations and values? What logic is behind the proofs presented for ethical values? Why must one speak the truth and why must one be just and not oppress anyone? Is the standard for the goodness and propriety of an action the joy that an individual feels when he performs it the way that the Egoists and Hedonists claim? Or is it the benefit and joy that the masses as a whole experience the way that Utilitarianism assumes? Can the commands and prohibitions of a society be the measure by means of which we weigh the goodness and or evil of an action the way that Durkheim believed? Or is the standard by means of which we assess the goodness and or evil of an action something that is not related to personal tastes or the inclinations of a society rather it rests in its relation with the absolute perfection and eternal felicity of man?

8. Can ethical rules be proven by means of rational demonstration or not? If so, are both the Basic and Derivative Judgments of Ethics capable of being proven through reason? Or are the fundamental laws of ethics something self-evident and not in need of being proven? The latter is what some Intuitivists and those who adhere to the theory of ‘an ethical sense’ believe. Also, fundamentally, what is it that makes a certain demonstration ‘ethical’? In other words, what is the difference between ethical demonstrations and non-ethical ones? Also, the more important problem is what kind of proof would be an ethical proof? Is it a demonstration or is it dialectical in nature? Or is it one of the other types of argumentation? Or is it a special type of proof all its own (sui generis)?

9. Must every society have its own ethical system? Or do all human societies possess similar ethical rules? Do the ethical rules of a society or group remain stable throughout history or do they change in different time periods in relation to the advancement of society? For example, is the ethical system of a feudal society different from that of a bureaucratic one? In summary, is ethics something relative or is it absolute?

10. Another one of the important discussions that is presented in the Philosophy of Ethics is the examination of the connection that Ethics has with the other human sciences and wisdoms such as religion, law and the rules of a society. Is Ethics independent of religion or can no ethical system remain intact without religion? What is the relation between science and ethics? Can we derive ethical rules from scientific propositions or are these two fields completely separate from one another? Can we say that even with one thousand scientific facts one cannot prove or disprove an ethical rule? What relation do ethical rules have with the other social and political conventions? What do they have in common? What separates them from one another?

The Importance And Position Of The Philosophy Of Ethics

No one can doubt the importance of ethics, upbringing and the purification of the hearts of human beings. Having a good character, removing vices from one’s self and beautifying one’s soul with virtues is one of the most important factors in enjoying felicity in this world and the next. After belief in God and the Prophet ethics is one of the most important matters from the point of view of Islam. Being lackadaisical with regards to the purification of one’s conduct may cause one to forfeit one’s fundamental beliefs. The Holy Qur’an has clarified this for us and shown us that some bad habits and vices can hinder one from believing in God. The Holy Prophet said the following about the Christians of Najran: ‘The reason that they did not accept Islam was not that they did not realize the truth of Islam rather it was their fondness for wine and the meat of pigs that prevented them from doing so.’ From here we can comprehend the profound connection that exists between ethics and beliefs.38 There have been many people who have been guided to the Truth through their good character and meritorious qualities. On the other hand, there have been many individuals for whom the road to a proper understanding of the realities of this Universe has been closed simply because of their bad conduct and evil character.39

It is for this reason that from the point of view of Islam the science of Ethics and the problems that are related to ethical matters are one of the most important and noble of all wisdoms. Is it not true that one of the purposes of delegating the divine prophets was the purification of souls?

هوَ الَّذِى بَعَثَ فىِ الْأُمِّيِّنَ رَسُولًا مِّنهْمْ يَتْلُواْ عَلَيهْمْ ءَايَاتِهِ وَ يُزَكِّيهِمْ وَ يُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَ الحْكْمَةَ وَ إِن كاَنُواْ مِن قَبْلُ لَفِى ضَلَالٍ مُّبِين‏

‘It is He who has sent amongst the unlettered an apostle from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them In Scripture and Wisdom,- although They had been, before, In Manifest error.’ (62: 2)

In a famous tradition the Holy Prophet mentions that the purpose of his mission was to perfect the noble qualities of human beings and said:

بُعِثْتُ لِأُتَمِّمَ مَكَارِمَ الْأَخْلَاقِ.

‘I have been sent to perfect the noble ethical qualities.’40

From the point of view of Islam, Ethics teaches us the proper way to live, a way that is acceptable to God. It instructs us on the suitable method of journeying to the final perfection that has been destined for man and the manner in which we are to establish a relationship with God. All of this is aside from the fact that it is one of the three basic pillars of the religious sciences alongside matters of belief and the rules of fiqh. It is for this very reason that the Islamic scholars, in the light of the Qur’anic wisdom, from times immemorial, have paid special attention to the problem of ethics. In Islamic societies, in every era and location there have always been compassionate masters and guides. These individuals have kept the science of Ethics alive through their spiritual struggles. Sometimes, aside from their practical asceticism they have written valuable and perennial works on Islamic Ethics. From amongst these, one can mention: ‘The Rasail Ikhwan as Safa wa Khullan al Wafa’41, ‘as Saadah wal Isaad fis Sirat al Insaaniyah’, Tahzib al Akhlaq wa Tathir al A’raq’, ‘al Muraqibat fil A’mal as Sunnah’ and tens of other works.

Unfortunately, even though valuable and admirable efforts have been made in the field of Ethics, when we compare this with the progress of other Islamic sciences such as Theology and Fiqh, Ethics and the problems related to its philosophical underpinnings seem to pall in comparison. Not enough work has been done in this regard. Of course, there are many sociological, psychological and ideological reasons as to why Islamic scholars have not paid much attention to Ethics and, in the words of Ghazzali, the discussions on ethics have absolutely disappeared from the Islamic society and have been [completely] forgotten.42

فأما علم طريق الآخرة و ما درج عليه السلف الصالح، مما سماه الله سبحانه في كتابه فقها و حكمة، و علما و ضياء و نورا. و هداية و رشدا، فقد أصبح من بين الخلق مطويا، و صار نسيا منسيا

‘The path of the Afterlife, however, which the righteous ancients followed and which God has described in His book as being understanding, wisdom, knowledge, illumination, light, guidance and maturity, so verily this has become concealed amongst Creation and has been completely forgotten.’

To delve into them would make us stray from our main discussion.

In any case, this deficiency can be seen even more clearly in the matters that are related to the Philosophy of Ethics. In fact, even those scholars that wrote books regarding ethical matters and pondered over problems in this field were unfamiliar with such discussions. However, if we do not discuss the problems of the Philosophy of Ethics and do not adopt a suitable stance in this field then we will not be able to enter into the discussions of the science of Ethics. The reason for this is that discourse on the philosophical underpinnings of a science will naturally precede that science.

On the contrary, even though ethical virtues are not apparently prevalent amongst the people of Western countries, numerous books and papers have been written about Ethics and the Philosophy of Ethics in that part of the world. In fact, in their Universities the field of the Philosophy of Ethics has many adherents and is attractive to a number of students. Recently, vast amounts of studies and important ones at that have been conducted one these matters. However, they have not found much success in solving the problems of the Philosophy of Ethics. Much confusion can be found in these studies. The appearance of numerous Ethical schools of thought amongst them is also a sign that they still have not found a solid foundation upon which they might solve the problems of this branch of learning.

A History Of Ethical Discussions Amongst Muslim Thinkers

The Philosophy of Ethics is a new science. Not more than a century has elapsed since its establishment as an independent scientific field. Many are of this belief that the first signs of its appearance came with the publication of George Edward Moore’s book, the Foundations of Ethics in the year 1903. Of course, there is no doubt that before Moore these discussions existed, scattered here and there, in Philosophical and Ethical books. Rather, it must be said that as far as historical evidence can tell us, one of the most important intellectual problems of philosophers throughout history was that of Ethics, ethical qualities and the problems related to these.

This was also true in the Islamic world. In other words, the Philosophy of Ethics was not an independent branch of learning alongside other ones. We do not know of even one book written by our previous scholars with this as its title. However, this should not be taken to mean that matters and discussions relating to the Philosophy of Ethics were not brought up in the other Islamic sciences and were not scattered here and there in philosophical and theological discussions. Quite the contrary, many of the most significant and fundamental problems of this science were brought up in the various philosophical, theological and usuli discussions of Muslim scholars. Valuable discussions on these topics were done which give us hope that we can present a legitimate Philosophy of Ethics based upon the doctrine of Islam.

By way of example, there is a famous problem that was always a subject of debate between the Ashairah and the other Islamic sects, especially the Mutazilah and the Shia. That was the problem of ‘the Essentiality of Beauty and Evil’ (al-husn wa al-qubh adhati). This discussion was conducted at great lengths in the Theological books and in recent times was also brought up in books on Usul, albeit by way of passing. Also, discussions on the human soul in the philosophical books, the scattered, yet profound discussions, on the practical and theoretical intellect, the discussions on the itibari concepts in philosophy and the science of usul, the problems of words and the disagreement of proofs in the science of usul and the topic of the generally accepted premises and ethical propositions that we find in the two disciplines of theology and usul are some of the most important problems that have an strong connection with the Philosophy of Ethics.

The stances of Muslim thinkers on these subjects can pave the way for us to find answers to the questions of the topic at hand. Evidently, one should always keep in mind the fact that the purpose for which these individuals brought up these discussions was something else and they were not deliberately attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Philosophy of Ethics. It is for this reason that we can see certain disorganization and incoherence in their words.

The Necessity For Discussions On The Philosophy Of Ethics

It is likely that some people may surmise that discussing the problems of the Philosophy of Ethics and philosophical and rational discussions on Ethics is a useless endeavor. This is especially so for us Muslims who believe in the infallibility of Revelation, our Prophet and the Holy Imams. Seeing as, once we have learned the correct way of life and the superior conduct that is acceptable to God from the Friends of God a pursuit of dry, rational and philosophical discussions cannot have a legitimate and cogent reason. Is not the purpose of life in the eyes of God for us to adopt virtues and to shun vices? If this is so, then what difficulty on this spiritual path to virtue can be solved by discussing the definitions of ethical concepts and hair-splittingly analyzing them? What help can the arguments for or against the ikhbari (declarative) or inshai (creative) nature of ethical propositions provide for us in this regard?

This reservation is, to a large extent, a legitimate one. We also accept the fact that our primary responsibility is to act upon the canons of Islam and the Quran and that the only way to achieve spiritual success and worldly and other-worldly felicity is to abide by the Islamic teachings. We believe that, even though, in the words of a famous poet, ‘rational discussions may be as valuable as pearls and jewels’, they are in themselves not enough to grant us spiritual felicity or cause the flowers of ethical virtues to blossom within us. However, the crux of the matter is that as followers of the Qur’anic ethics and adherents of the Islamic sciences we must be able to present the scientific and rational foundations of the ethics taught by the Qur’an in a logical and analytical manner to others and be capable of defending it from the objections of other ethical schools of thought. It is very clear that this cannot be accomplished without delving deeply into the discussions on the Philosophy of Ethics. Without a proper comprehension of the Islamic view on the problems of the Philosophy of Ethics how will it be possible for us to logically defend the ethical foundations and values of Islam from the other ethical systems of thought?

Of course, this is not something that is relegated solely for the Philosophy of Ethics. Rather, this is a responsibility that we hold with regards to other philosophical, theological, social, economic and psychological matters. For example, in relation to the problem of the Resurrection it is true that every Muslim believes that all human beings will one day be raised from the dead and then have their actions weighed. Nevertheless, if we wish to verify this matter for those who refute the Resurrection then we have choice but to resort to rational and philosophical demonstrations.

We cannot say to those individuals that deny the Resurrection and to non-Muslims that since God has stated in the Qur’an that there will be a Resurrection we must adhere to this belief. Correspondingly, in order to explain the economic system of Islam and to prove its superiority over the other prevalent economic systems of the world we must take recourse to reason. In other words, when defending the laws of the Islamic economic structure from the attacks of its adversaries we have no choice but to take assistance from philosophical analysis and scientific methods of research. Even though every Muslim has accepted, in principle, the laws and rulings of Islam in the field of economics and endeavors to employ them in his life this does not resolve us of the need to discuss these matters in a disciplinary manner.

  • 1. Taj al-Urus, v. 6, p. 338; Lisan al-Arab, v. 4, p. 194 and al-Sihah, v. 4, p. 1471.
  • 2. Kimiyaye Sa’adah; Taharat al-A’araq, p. 58-57.
  • 3. Bihar al-Anwar, v. 67, ch 59, p. 372.
  • 4. Al Haqaiq, pg. 54; al-Mahajat al-Baydhah, 5, p. 95.
  • 5. Jami’a as-Sa’adat, v. 1, p. 21-26.
  • 6. Bihar al-Anwar, v. 67, ch. 59, p. 372. Some of the western philosophers of ethics have stated the following in their definition of ethical virtues: They are stable conditions or characteristics that are not completely essential [to the soul]. All of them must, to some extent, be acquired by means of education, practice or even through divine grace. (See: Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 140).
  • 7. An example of this is the love of a mother for her child and the inclination to nurture it.
  • 8. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 28.
  • 9. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, pg. 141 – 144.
  • 10. Al-Mizan, v. 1, p. 371-372.
  • 11. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 27-30.
  • 12. Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules, p. 4.
  • 13. Morality: Its Nature and Justification, p. 8.
  • 14. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ethics, p. 16.
  • 15. Akhlaq al-Nasiri, p. 14.
  • 16. In English the words ethics and morality are both used to refer to akhlaq. The word ethics is derived from the Greek root ethos which means character and the word morality is derived from the Latin root mores which also means conduct or tradition or habit. Refer to: Ethics and Morality in the Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 1, p. 329.
  • 17. Ethics, Pierre Jeanne, p. 53.
  • 18. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 15.
  • 19. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 16.
  • 20. On Normative Ethics.
  • 21. ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 121-122.
  • 22. Normative Ethics, Shelly Kagan, p. 1-11.
  • 23. ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 118.
  • 24. Philosophical Ethics, p. 9.
  • 25. ‘Meta Ethics’ in the Encyclopedia of Ethics, p. 790; A Dictionary of Ethics, p. 260.
  • 26. A Dictionary of Ethics, p. 260.
  • 27. Marifat, no 15, Nigarish Kulli bar Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 48.
  • 28. ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 118-121.
  • 29. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 27.
  • 30. Marifat, no 15, Nigarish Kulli bar Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 48-50.
  • 31. Masalah Bayad wa Hast, p. 19-20, quoted in al Akhlaq wa al Aql, Adil Zahir, p. 24.
  • 32. Zaban, Haqiqah wa Mantiq, ch. 6.
  • 33. ‘Meta Ethics’, David Copp, in Encyclopedia of Ethics, p. 790-791.
  • 34. Masalah Bayad wa Hast, p. 19.
  • 35. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 27.
  • 36. Zaban, Haqiqah wa Mantiq, p. 138-139.
  • 37. Amuzish Falsafah, v. 1, p. 69.
  • 38. Marifat, no 13, Akhlaq dar Qur’an, Misbah Yazdi, p. 17-18.
  • 39. Marifat, no 13, Akhlaq dar Qur’an, Misbah Yazdi, p. 18
  • 40. Bihar al-Anwar; v. 67, ch 59, tradition 18.
  • 41. The full name of the association was Ikhwan al-Safa wa Khullan al-Wafa wa Ahl al-adl wa abna al-Hamd (i.e., "The Brethren of Purity, the Faithful Friends, the Men of Justice and the Sons deserving praiseworthy Conduct"), a name which was suggested to them by the chapter of the "Ring-Necked Dove" in Kalimah wa Dimnah.
  • 42. Ihya al Ulum al Din, v. 1, p. 10, Introduction.