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Chapter 2: Ethical Concepts 1 - General Discussions

Ethical Concepts

What kind of concepts are the concepts that are utilized in ethical statements? How do they come to be? How does the human mind become familiar with them? Are they concepts that depict the quiddity of beings or are they secondary concepts? Are they, like the concept of ‘universality,’ qualities of other mental concepts? Or are they, like ‘causality,’ attributes and distinctions of beings existing in the external world? Or do they have not relation with the external world whatsoever rather only serve to relate the emotions of the speaker? Or do they only transmit the way that he has understood something?

Three Types Of Universal Concepts

Before we answer the aforementioned questions, it is essential for us to inspect the different kinds of Universal Concepts and their distinctions so that we may accurately understand whether or not ethical concepts fit into one of these categories or are a class onto themselves.

We can divine the manifold kinds of Universal concepts into three main categories: 1. Quiddities. Such as ‘man’, ‘whiteness’, etc. 2. Logical concepts, such as ‘universality’ and ‘peculiarity’ 3. Philosophical concepts such as ‘causality’ and ‘unity’. It is necessary to remind the reader that this threefold division is one of the breakthroughs of Muslim thinkers. A proper understanding of them has many benefits while, conversely, an inappropriate knowledge of them and their differences from one another can lead to irremediable mistakes. It is for this reason that we will now briefly explain each one of them.

Quiddity

Concepts that are quiddities or primary intelligibles are concepts that come into existence after knowledge of particular entities in that part of the mind in which ideas and concepts form. In other words, the human mind automatically abstracts them from specific instances. The moment that one or more particular or specific concepts are acquired by means of the senses or through internal intuition the faculty of reason abstracts a universal concept there from.

From one point of view this Universal concept comprises all of the common attributes of its particular instances and on the other hand it lacks their distinctions and particular qualities. It is for this reason that it can be predicated of an infinite number of individual instances. These concepts convey the essence and ‘what-ness’ of external things and transmit the boundaries of their beings. They are called quiddities or primary intelligibles and resemble molds of different shapes in which external beings can fit. It is for this reason that they can also be named ‘mental moulds’. Many of the concepts that we employ in our day to day lives and the conversations that take place therein are of such a nature.

Examples of such concepts are ‘human being’, ‘animal’, ‘plant’ and the likes of these that are abstracted after having sensed one or more of their particular instances. Another example is the concept of ‘whiteness’ that is formed after seeing one or more white things. Also, the universal notion of ‘fear’ is acquired after having felt fear one or more times. Usually, they define these types of concepts as being those both the occurrence and attribution of which take place in the external world.

It is necessary to remind our readers that some of the ideas that fall under the category of quiddities do not have an instance that can be sensed. In other words, they have not been acquired through an abstraction applied to sensation rather they are taken from knowledge by presence. An example of this is the notion of ‘soul’ or concepts that are acquired from the knowledge we have of its faculties and states.1 For this reason the famous statement: ‘Nothing forms in the intellect except that it is first formed in the senses’ can only be true if we take ‘sensation’ to mean any kind of particular and specific knowledge such that it would include intuitive wisdom as well.

Logical Concepts

Secondary Logical concepts are concepts ‘the occurrence and attribution of which both occur in the mind.’ In other words, they are not capable of being predicated of external beings rather only relate certain qualities of ideas and mental images. Since they do not seek to relate anything about beings in the external world they are not preceded by sensation. Rather, by meditating on mental concepts they are formed. These ideas come into existence in our minds in the following way: Once the mind has acquired quiddities it takes a look at them once again and then realizes that they have certain qualities. It is for this reason that the instances of such concepts and the subjects for which they are predicated are other concepts that only exist in the mind. For example, the instance of the concept ‘universal’ is the ‘concept man’ that only exists in the mind while the human being in the external world cannot be considered an instance of it. The reason for this is that the external human being always exists as an individual not a universal.

The distinction of logical concepts is that they are only predicated of ideas and mental forms. It is for this reason that with a little concentration they are acquired. All of the principal ideas utilized in the science of Logic are of such a nature; ideas such as: conception, affirmation, proposition, syllogism, universal, particular etc. Hence, these concepts are also called ‘secondary logical intelligibles.’

Philosophical Concepts

Philosophical concepts are concepts whose abstraction needs a certain amount of effort on the part of the minds and a comparison of things with one another. Usually, they tell us of the relations that beings share with one another, their states and the type of existence that they possess. Even though these concepts do not have an instance in the external world the beings therein are attributed with them. An example of such concepts are ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ that are abstracted by the reason after it has compared two things the existence of one of which depends upon the other and keeping this relation in mind. When it compares fire with the heat that comes into being from it and focuses on the dependence of the latter on the former the faculty of reason abstracts the concept of ‘cause’ from the fire and the concept of ‘effect’ from the heat.

If such an association and comparison not be at play concepts such as these can never come into being. For example, if fire is seen a thousand times and its heat is sensed for an equal number of times but no comparison is made between the two and or one does not concentrate on the fact that one of them comes into being from the other then the idea of cause and effect cannot be acquired from them. It is clear that the concept of cause and effect do not possess an external existence [separate from the existence of the subjects for which they are predicated]. This means that they do not have an external existence like ‘fire’ that is a substance or ‘heat’ that is an accident. The existence of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ are not such. All the while, the fire and heat are both attributed with such concepts. All philosophical concepts are such (like unity, multiplicity, contingency, necessity, potentiality and actuality).

The special distinction of such concepts, that are named secondary philosophical concepts, is that they are only acquired through comparisons and the analysis of reason and that they relate to us the manner of existence of certain beings and not the boundaries of their quiddities. Sometimes this distinction is remembered as such: Philosophical concepts do not have a separate instance in the external world; their occurrence is mental while their attribution is in the external world.

From the point of view that their occurrence is mental these concepts resemble logical concepts and from the point of view that their attribution is external they resemble concepts that are quiddities. It is for this very reason that they are sometimes confused with the first type of intelligibles and often with the second. Therefore, one must pay careful attention to the differences and distinctions of these three types of intelligibles so that one may be safe from fallacies and mistakes that may arise from taking one of them for another.

As we previously stated, making out the logical concepts is much easier than the other types of universal intelligibles. With a little concentration one can fathom the fact that ‘they do not refer to anything in the outside world rather they are only qualities of other mental concepts.’ However distinguishing concepts that are quiddities from the philosophical concepts is not as easy. This is so to such an extent that even some of the greatest philosophers stumbled when attempting to discriminate them from one another. The main difference between these two types of concepts is that concepts that are quiddities show us the boundaries of the essence of beings while philosophical concepts tell us of the manner mode of their existence. The formation of these two groups of concepts depends upon two different mental exercises. The acquisition of quiddities in the mind does not require anything other than one or more particular sensation. This is while philosophical concepts, aside from the being conditioned with the aforementioned knowledge, need a special mental analysis. This analysis is usually accomplished by a comparison of two things that are known through knowledge by presence or two types of external beings.

After having become acquainted with the different types of concepts and each one of their distinctions, now the time has come for us to evaluate ethical concepts. In this section we must first clarify when can we consider a certain concept an ethical one? In other words, what is the sign that a certain concept is an ethical one? That is to say, what is the distinction of ethical concepts from other concepts? Secondly, what kind of concepts are ethical concepts? Can we say that they are one of the three kinds of universal concepts [that we have just stated above]?

The Subject In Ethical Statements

We have previously mentioned that ethical statements can be stated in two ways. They can be stated in a way that conveys the fact that they wish to tell us something of the external world. For example, we can say: ‘Justice is good.’ They can also be stated in the form of a command or prohibition such as: ‘One must be just.’ They are equally used in both forms. Therefore, the concepts that are utilized in ethical sentences can be divided into two groups:

1. Concepts that are used as subjects therein, such as: Justice, oppression, truth, falsehood, envy, spite, pride, chastity, abortion, keeping one’s promise, etc.

2. Concepts that are used as predicates in such statements. For example: Good, bad, must, must not and the likes of these.

Now we wish to know what kind of concepts are the concepts that are used in ethical statements, whether those be the concepts that are used as the subjects of such statements or the ones that are used as predicates therein. How does the human mind become familiar with such ideas? Also, can we categorize them under one of the three types of universal concepts or not?

In brief, it can be said that the concepts that are used as subjects in ethical statements are not quiddities and do not possess a separate external existence. Rather, they are abstracted from concepts that are quiddities. Following this, they are used in conventional (itibari) meanings according to man’s social and personal needs. For example, since there is a need for us to control the desires of men and for them to respect others in their conduct, generally speaking, certain boundaries have been taken into consideration the exiting of which will be called ‘oppression’. Observation of those boundaries and moving within them will be called ‘justice’.

It must be examined from the point of view of Epistemology whether these ethical concepts are simply fashioned based on the desires of specific individuals or groups and have no connection with the realities in the external world and those beings which are independent from the wishes of individuals or groups? If this is so, then no kind of rational analysis can be made of them. Or, can we find some place for them amongst the realities of the external world and thus analyze them using the laws of cause and effect?

In this field, as well, many different views have been expressed. The truth of the matter is that, even though these concepts are made by men and are conventional (itibari) in a special meaning of this term that we will explain in detail later on, it is not true that they are completely disconnected from the truths outside our minds or that the laws of cause and effect do not apply to them. On the contrary, men make them based upon what he has distinguished he needs in order to attain his felicity and perfection. This discernment, like in other cases similar to it, sometimes accords with reality and other times does not. For example, it is possible that someone may form such concepts only so that he may attain his personal interests and thereafter may impose them upon society.

In any case, we cannot say that these conventions are unsubstantiated and lacking a foundation [in reality]. The fact that we can discuss them and weigh their soundness and or incorrectness is one of the best proofs in this regard. We affirm some of them and reject others and for each one of them we search for a proof to substantiate it. If these conventions (itibarat) were simple a manifestation of personal inclinations and resembled personal tastes of individuals (like tastes in color, clothes or types of food) then they would not be deserving of praise or scorn. In this case, accepting one and rejecting another would not mean anything other than an expression of similar or dissimilar tastes.

In any case, even though the existence of such concepts depends upon the conventions of men, the existential relations between human actions and the results that accrue from them are the foundations of these conventions (itibarat) and innovations.2 In other words, the concepts that are used as subjects in ethical statements are neither quiddities (such that they would display the essence and what-ness of external beings) nor can they be considered as logical concepts that are the attributes of mental concepts. Rather they are of the class of philosophical concepts (mafahim e falsafi). For example, as we have seen, in the statement: ‘Justice is good,’ ‘justice’ that is the subject of this ethical rule is not a quiddity that exists in the external world. It does not possess an independent reality in the external world. Rather it is an abstract concept that can only be derived when we take a number of things into consideration [and then compare them with one another]. The quiddity of the act itself does not play any role in the abstraction of this concept. Justice can be the speech of someone or an act which someone performs. Slapping an innocent person is an act of oppression but can be an instance of justice if it is performed as an act of retribution. The act of slapping however, that is a real being in the external world, is neither just not oppression. I order to abstract these concepts one must take other things into consideration.

Of course, some may surmise that sometimes an external being is attributed with ethical goodness or evil. For example, in the statement: ‘Walking in a land that belongs to someone else is an act of oppression.’ Some may say that walking is an act that exists in the external world and here it has become the subject in an ethical statement. However, when careful attention is paid, we come to realize that walking is itself not the real subject of this ethical rule. Rather, since this act of walking was done in the land of someone else and is an instance of stealing it has become the subject of this ethical law. Therefore, even in these cases, the external being has become the subject of an ethical ruling because it is an instance of an abstract concept (stealing).

The Predicates Of Ethical Statements

The chief discussion about ethical concepts is related to those concepts that are used as predicates in ethical statements. One of the perennial preoccupations of philosophers of ethics was to present a defendable theory regarding those concepts that convey ethical values (such as good and bad) and those that relate ethical obligations (such as must and must not). This is so even today. It is necessary for us to first properly analyze ethical concepts before we enter the discussion regarding the ikhbari or inshai nature of ethical statements. It is for this reason that when we adopt a reasonable and justifiable standpoint about the source of these concepts’ genesis, their proper definition and as a result the significance or meaninglessness of ethical statements then the road to presenting a correct and justifiable view with regards the ikhbari or inshai nature of ethical statements will have been found. In this section we will attempt to recount some of the most important theories about the definability of ethical concepts and the source of their genesis and, with the will of God, in the following chapters we will present our own view on this subject. Deliberation on the explanation we will present about our own view will itself clarify the deficiencies and flaws of the rest of the perspectives.

Viewpoints On The Definition Of Ethical Concepts

In general, it is possible to say that there are three main views amongst philosophers of ethics and especially western thinkers on this subject: Definist theories, Non-Naturalistic theories and Non-Cognitivist theories.

Definist Theories

The common trait of this group of theories (that includes a wide range of ethical standpoints) is the belief that it is possible to [independently] define and analyze ethical concepts. Every ethical concept can be defined without taking recourse to other ethical concepts and simply based upon non-ethical ideas.3 Principally, the advocates of this view hold that ethical concepts and terms are simply symbols and signs for the distinctions and peculiarities of external beings. Based upon this stance, ‘it is possible for one to define must on the basis of is and value based upon reality.’4 This group of theories can be divided in another universal division into two groups: Ethical Naturalism and Metaphysical Theories.

A. Ethical Naturalism

This group is of the opinion that ethical concepts can be defined by referring to natural and physical concepts. These people believe that ethical rules are statements that explain natural phenomenon but there [verbal] form has changed.5 According to this collection of views we can evaluate ethical judgments with the help of scientific experimentation in the same way that we justify scientific statements and concepts (that seek to relate information about physical reality) using experimental research. Ethical Naturalists have a difference of opinion with regards to what kind of natural concepts should be used to help define ethical concepts. It is for this reason that ethical naturalism can itself be divided into at least three sub-groups:

1. Biological Theories: This view holds that biological concepts can be used to define ethical concepts.

2. Sociological Theories: This group uses sociological concepts in the definition of ethical concepts.

3. Psychological Theories: This group takes recourse to psychological concepts to explain and analyze ethical concepts.

B. Metaphysical Theories

The adherents of this school of thought strive to use philosophical, theological and divine concepts in their analysis and definition of ethical concepts. In reality, according to these theories ethical rules are statements that seek to explain metaphysical or theological realities but their form has changed. In order to substantiate ethical rules and concepts one can take recourse to the very method of research that is used in order to prove metaphysical statements.6 For example, the famous ‘Divine Command Theory’ can be considered one of the Metaphysical Theories that considers the content of ethical concepts to be the commands and prohibitions of God. In the view of these individuals ‘must’ means ‘something that is commanded by God’. Therefore, the statement: ‘One must act justly,’ means exactly what the following statement wishes to convey: “Justice has been commanded by God.’

Intuitionism/ Non-Naturalistic Theories

Intuitionists accept the belief of Definists who say: ‘Ethical terms are signs and indications of the distinctions of things such as being desired or guides to felicity.’ At the same time they deny the fact that qualities that are stated using words such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be defined on the basis of non-ethical terminology.7 Butler, Cheswick, Rishdal, Moore, Prichard, Rice, Crit, Hartman and Jung can all be considered Intuitionists.8 With all of their differences that the individual members of this group has with one another9 they are all unanimous upon the fact that some ethical concepts are self-evident, intuitively known, incapable of being defined and simple in nature. At least one ethical concept should possess these traits so that it can be used as a standard be means of which we can fathom the other ethical concepts. Based upon this view, it is only through intuition that we can understand ethical rules and concepts. They cannot be known through scientific experimentation or through meta-physical demonstration.10 It is for this very reason that this group is called ‘Intuitionists’.

In other words, in the opinion of Intuitionists ethical concepts can be divided into two distinct groups: Basic concepts and Derivative ones. The distinction of Basic concepts is the fact that they are known through intuition, are simple, and incapable of being defined. As a result, the propositions that are comprised of these concepts will not need to be proven. In the parlance of such individuals, they ‘justify themselves’.11 Derivative concepts are ones that are not intuitive, are simple and must be defined based upon the Basic concepts. Of course, there is a difference of opinion with regards to what concepts are Basic and which are Derivative. For example, Moore considers the concept ‘good’ to be the basic ethical concept. Sejwick believes that the concept ‘must’ possesses the qualities of a basic ethical concept. Rice stresses that both ‘good’ and ‘must’ are basic ethical concepts. Some others have presented the two concepts of ‘good’ and ‘correct’ as being the basic ethical concepts.

Non-Cognitive Theories

With all of the vast differences of opinion that they have with regards to ethical concepts and propositions12 all of the adherents of this school of thought agree that ethical concepts are meaningless and incapable of being defined. Neither can they be defined using natural or metaphysical concepts (as the Definists believe) nor can they be defined using basic ethical concepts (such as the Intuitionists hold). These individuals do not believe that ethical concepts have a knowable dimension to them and hold that such concepts do not relate to us anything about the external world.13 The Emotivism of Ayer (1910-1989) and Stevens (1908-1979) and the Advocationalism of Ayer (1919) can be considered to be types of Non-Cognitivism. As can be deduced from their name these individuals say that ethical concepts are simply concepts that describe our feelings, emotions or our personal opinions not ones that describe the reality outside us.

Ayer emphatically states that when we say: ‘Telling the truth is good’ it is as if we have said: ‘Hooray for telling the truth!’ Or when we say: ‘Stealing is bad’ this means: ‘Stealing, boo!’14 In other words, concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not give us any information about the external world.

In the words of Ayer:

‘The way that emotive signs are written and used and which usually come after such statements are tell us that the fact that this act has not been ethically avowed is an emotion that has been stated as an expression of the external world. It is evident that here nothing has been said that can be affirmed or negated and by my saying this kind of statement I have not related something about reality. I have not even stated something about the condition of my mind. I have only expressed some ethical emotions that I may have.’15

In any case, according to Non-Cognitivism terms such as: ‘good’, ‘correct’ and ‘must’ express our emotions, at least when they possess ethical nuances. However, they do not relate the fact we have such emotions.16

The Source Of The Genesis Of Ethical Concepts

After having become acquainted with some of the most important views regarding ethical concepts it is only fitting that we close this chapter with an explanation of some of the views regarding the cause that brings ethical concepts into existence.

External Reality

According to this view, ethical concepts are external realities that are comprehended by the intellect or through intuition. This means that the instances (masadiq) of ethical concepts are a portion of the external and real world. The goodness in an ethical deed is exactly like the beauty that exists in a sensible object. The beauty of a flower is a reality that the intellect of man discovers and understands. In some of man’s actions there is this type of beauty. Some actions possess a special beauty and this beauty is something real. In other words, this beauty possesses reality regardless of whether or not the intellect grasps it or not. The responsibility of the intelligence is simply to discover that beauty.

Of course, one must pay heed to the fact that much discussion has been carried out in aesthetics regarding the beauty of sensible things. Is this beauty something that possesses an objective existence in the external world or is it something that is relative to the mind of the observer; such that minus the observer there would be no beauty or ugliness in things? Many Positivists believe that terms such as ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ are used in the same way that ethical terms are used. In other words, they are not used to relate something regarding the external world. Rather, these words are used to express the emotions of the speaker or to induce a specific reaction in the listener.17 Aside from this, even if we accept that beauty is something real in sensible things it is not as easy to accept such beauty in the actions of men. The truth of the matter is that even if we suppose that beauty is something real it will only be acceptable in sensible or imaginary things. In abstract things it will not exist, rather in abstract and intelligible concepts beauty is a convention of the intellect. Of course, here by ‘abstraction’ or ‘convention’ we intend something specific that we will explain later on.

In any case, if someone were to surmise that ethical beauty, ugliness, goodness and evil are real things that are discovered by the mind then as regards the problem of the ikhbari (declarative) or inshai (conventional) nature of ethical propositions he will easily be able to accept their ikhbari nature. This is so because, in this case, ethical propositions will have the capability to be true (be in accordance with reality) or false (not be in accord with reality).

Insha’ And Itibar

Another group of philosophers of ethics, that comprise a wide range of individuals, are of the opinion that, contrary to what the previous group believed, the source of ethical concepts is the itibar or convention. This implies that ethical concepts have no basis in reality rather are simply the conventions that are caused by the whims of the speaker. They resemble questions or commands that do not relate anything regarding the external world. In the same way that the sentence, ‘Go outside,’ does not relate to us anything other than the wish of the speaker [for such an action] ethical statements do so as well. In other words, they do not mean to tell us something about external reality even though they may show us, indirectly, the existence of certain inclinations and emotions inside the speaker.

Amongst the famous adherents of this view one can recount the school of thought of Society-ism, the supporters of the Divine Command Theory and also the Ash‘airah in the Islamic world. Of course, the adherents of Society-ism hold that the source of the genesis of ethical concepts is the intellect and conscience of society as a whole18 while the Ash‘airah and those who believe in the Divine Command Theory say that the commands and prohibitions of God are what cause ethical concepts to come into existence. According to the Ash‘airah ‘good’ is that which God has commanded while ‘bad’ is what God has prohibited.19 Therefore, if there was no God or if there was a God but He did not order or prohibit anything then we would not be able to understand what is good, bad, right, wrong, responsibility and the likes of these concepts. In no way could we grasp whether or not oppression is bad or good or whether returning a trust is acceptable or not.

According to this view the science of ethics is not a science the responsibility of which is to unveil reality for us. Rather, it is simply a collection of commands and prohibitions. This is contrary to disciplines that seek to describe things that exist in the external world and whose subject matter is things that exist in the outside world. These things possess reality regardless of whether or not man comprehends them. The responsibility of man is simply to discover them.

God willing, in the following discussions we will elaborately criticize the inshai nature of ethical statements and will speak about the Ash‘airah, Socialists and other adherents of this school of thought. However, it is fitting to recall one point here: There is no doubt that some ethical propositions possess an apparently conventional (inshai) nature. Doubtless, the apparent connotation of sentences such as the following: ‘Act justly,’ ‘Tell the truth,’ ‘Do not lie,’ and sentences of the sort are duty and obligation. However, taking into consideration the fact that ethics is something related to those acts of man which stem from his free-will and that the relation of man’s actions with the effects and results that accrue from them is a real and objective one, we can conclude that the insha’ and convention of ethical propositions can be formed on the basis of those real relations. With this explanation all ethical rules can be reverted to declaratory propositions and thus ethics will be a descriptive science.

Human Nature

The third viewpoint regarding the source of the genesis of ethical concepts is that such concepts are natural to man and that the knowledge of them has been placed within his essence. The comprehension of ethical concepts is one of the distinctions of man’s existence.20 Human beings have been created in the ethical form of God. This means that ‘our ethical intuitions, that are the basis of our existence, are involuntarily a depiction of the basic ethical opinions of God.’ In other words, at least some of the ethical principles that are accepted by human beings are not capable of being taught. ‘Being creatures of God, we come into this world with these principles.’21 Based on this view if God were to have created us in another way, we would have understood them differently. Meaning that it is possible that the things that we currently understand to be good we might understand to be bad or vice versa. Or, it is even possible that God might have created us in such a way that we would not understand what is good and bad at all.

This view has a profound connection with one of the important matters of Epistemology whose solution plays a role in the resolution of the current dilemma. That Epistemological problem is whether or not human beings possess some amount of innate knowledge or not. When man is born does he possess some natural concepts within his mind or does he not understand anything at all when he is born?

Plato22 believed that when man comes into this world, he knows everything. The reason for this is that the soul of man exists in the World of [Platonic] Forms before it is born. This is a world in which the [universal] realities of beings exist. Man becomes acquainted with all of these realities in this supernatural world. However, the descent of man into the temporal realm and its connection with the body is a veil that stands between him and his innate wisdom such that in order to recall that wisdom it is necessary for him to be reminded of what he already knows (not be taught something that he does not know). It is for this very reason that he considered the true purpose of education to be the reminding and recollection of that natural wisdom. Education serves to remove the mundane veil from the face of the innate wisdom that is essential to man. Plato held that using the internal and external senses as well as faculties of knowledge does not grant man any new knowledge.

Rene Descartes also believed in certain innate knowledge, albeit in a different way. He divided the concepts that man conceives into three distinct categories23: 1. Accidental and external concepts that are acquired through the external senses. For example, color, light, taste, heat and sound are all such concepts. 2. Concepts that are invented and fashioned by the mind of man and its faculty of imagination; for example, a Pegasus or mermaids. 3. Natural concepts or ideas that are concepts that God has placed within the intelligence of man and which neither experimentation nor sense perception can conceive of. Examples of such concepts are God, time the soul and physical dimension. Amongst these three types of concepts Descartes only believed that Essential concepts possess epistemological value.

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) also affirmed, in another way, natural and a-priori concepts.24 He relates a certain group of concepts to the mind that he names ‘a-priori’. He considers the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ to be related to the level of sense and the twelve categories to be related to the level of understanding of the mind. He held that the comprehension of these concepts is an essential and natural feature of the mind.25

In contrast to this group (that can be considered in some way rational philosophers), another group26, that are called Experimentalist Philosophers, believe that the mind of man has been created like a blank tablet that does not possess any picture in it at the beginning of its genesis. It is only by coming into contact with external beings through our senses that that their reflections and pictures form on that tablet of our mind and it is transformed into a colorful easel full of pictures.27

Epicure (270 – 341) considered sense perception to be the basis and foundation of all types of knowledge. The Epicureans believed that ‘the intellect, by means of which we evaluate and judge our sense perception, is itself completely dependent upon the senses. Thus, if senses make mistakes then the intellect, is totally defective and flawed.’28 These individuals understand the standard of truth to be sense perception and ‘believe that there is nothing in the intellect except that it first existed in the senses.’ John Locke29 (1633 – 1704), was extremely opposed to the idea of innate concepts, especially with regards to ethical concepts. He understood the proofs of the adherents of such a view to be inconclusive. In response to the question, ‘From where does the intellect acquire the materials for the edifice of its comprehension,’ he responded by saying,
‘I answer this question in one word: All of our knowledge rests on the foundation of sense perception and in the end, all understanding springs from experimentation.’30

When criticizing the theory of those who adhere to innate conceptions it is necessary to remember two points: The first is that it is not acceptable to hold that the intellect of man was imbedded with certain specific concepts from the onset of its existence. This includes concepts that are related to material beings, those that are related to immaterial beings and those that are related to both. Every conscience individual can, by introspection, comprehend that he does not possess such concepts within himself. We cannot even find one individual that intuitively grasps such essential and natural concepts before he begins using his senses and prior to attaining the stage where his mind has achieved a certain maturity. In the words of Avicenna:

فكيف يكون عندنا علم و كنا لا نفطن له حتى استكملنا؟ و ليس يجوز أن يكون عندنا علم برهاني لا نعلمه، فكيف علم أصح من البرهان؟ و إن كنا نعلم ثم نسينا، متى كنا نعلم و في أي وقت نسينا؟ و ليس يجوز أن نعلمها و نحن أطفال و ننساها بعد الاستكمال ثم نتذكرها بعد مدة أخرى عند الاستكمال.

‘How is it possible for us to have knowledge but be unaware of it until we achieve intellectual maturity? It is not permissible that there was demonstrate-able knowledge with us that we were unaware of; what to say of knowledge that is more correct than demonstration. If we knew [something] and then forgot it [after we were born] then when did we possess such knowledge? When did we forget? It is not possible that we knew when we were babies and then we forgot after we had grown a bit and then remembered after we had grown up more.’31

Secondly, even if we assume that a series of concepts are ingrained in the nature of man, we cannot concomitantly prove from this their objectiveness. At the most it can be said that such and such a concept is natural to the intelligence of man. Of course, in every case there is always the possibility that if man’s mind was created differently then he would have comprehended that matter in a different way. This belief leads to many unacceptable corollaries that have been discussed in their own proper place. It does not seem likely that the adherents of such a view would accept such consequences.

The truth is that at the onset of his birth man does not possess any sort of concepts or ideas within himself. Rather, conceptual knowledge gradually comes into being with the help of the effort of the intellect. When man achieves intellectual maturity then his faculty of reason abstracts such concepts in different ways. He acquires them through scrutiny and analysis. The Holy Qur’an says the following in this regard:

وَ اللَّهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْا وَ جَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَ الْأَبْصَرَ وَ الْأَفْدَةَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُون‏

It is He who brought you forth from the wombs of your when ye knew nothing; and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and that ye may give thanks (to Allah..) (16: 78).32

In our opinion even self-evident propositions do not exist from the onset of man’s existence. In other words, when it is first born the newborn does not comprehend proposition such as the following: ‘the whole is greater than its parts,’ It is impossible for two contradictory statements to be true at the same time,’ and the likes of these. When it still has not conceived concepts such as ‘whole,’ ‘part,’ bigger than,’ ‘smaller than,’ ‘contradiction,’ ‘being true at the same time’ and ‘impossibility’ then how is it possible for it to affirm propositions that are composed of these concepts? All such concepts are secondary intelligible concepts that are acquired from external beings through the effort of the intelligence. This means that the child can only grasp such propositions when he not only has the ability to comprehend those concepts and also the capability to compare them with one another.33

It should not be left unsaid that most Islamic philosophers do not accept the fact that [certain] concepts are natural to man and that they precede sense perception and experimentation. Therefore, it is possible to say that in the view of the Islamic philosophers, ethical concepts are not ones that have been embedded within the nature of man. Of course, as we will explain in detail later this in no way implies that they are in any way relative or that they lack an intellectual source.

In the end it is only fitting that we point to some of the sayings of Muslim philosophers in this matter:

Avicenna (370 – 428): In numerous places of the Shifa he explicitly states that the soul of man does not have any natural or essential knowledge unless and until he uses his internal and external senses.

The first things that we encounter and we recognize are the objects of sense and the forms that exist in our imagination which are taken originally from our sense perception. After this we capture the universal intelligible concepts from these.34

Khwajah Nasir ud Din Tusi (597 – 672): Even though sense cannot in itself give us a universal opinion, it should however be known that the key to the door to all universal and particular knowledge is sense perception. Since, the human soul, from the beginning of its creation until it has acquired all of the first intelligibles and acquired knowledge, obtains the sources of its conceptions and affirmations through the senses and it is for this reason that the First Master said:

من فقد حسّا فقد علما

If someone lacks a sense, he thus will lack a [type of] knowledge [that stems from that].35

Fakr al Razi (544 – 604): In his commentary on the 78th verse of the blessed Surah Nahl he explicitly states that the soul of man is empty of all conception at the onset of its creation. This includes concepts that are self-evident and those that are not. He also considers this matter to be, in itself, self evident and necessary. This is because all of us clearly comprehend that when we were embryos in the wombs of our mothers or when we were children none of us had any understanding of propositions such as, ‘Negation and affirmation cannot be true at the same time,’ or ‘the whole is greater than its parts.’ Therefore, he considers all concepts and affirmations, both self-evident and not, to be preceded by internal and external sense perception.36 Also, in his book al Mabahith al Mashriqiyah37 in the chapter titled ‘On the fact that the comprehension of the soul with respect to another is not essential to it not is it something necessary,’ and also in the chapter titled, ‘On the fact that instruction is not a recollection,’ he goes to great lengths to criticize and scrutinize the opinions of Plato and his disciples who adhere the natural knowledge of the soul.

Mulla Sadra (979 – 1050) has also criticized the theory of natural concepts in two chapters of his famous book the al Hikmah al Mutaliyah that are titled with the same headings as the two chapters of al Mabahith al Mashriqiyah that were mentioned above.38

  • 1. Comparative Ideology, p. 90, p. 132-134.
  • 2. Amuzish Falsafah, v. 1, p. 182-183.
  • 3. ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 127.
  • 4. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 205.
  • 5. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 206-207.
  • 6. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 208.
  • 7. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 215.
  • 8. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 215.
  • 9. ‘Ethics. Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 128.
  • 10. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 216.
  • 11. ‘Moral Reasoning’ in Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 852-853.
  • 12. ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 129.
  • 13. Moral Vision, p. 8-10.
  • 14. In the book ‘Moral Vision’ he states: This theory has taken the name of ‘the Boo-Hurrah theory’.
  • 15. Zaban, Haqiqah wa Mantiq, p. 146.
  • 16. Dar Amadi bar Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 140-141.
  • 17. Zaban, Haqiqah, Mantiq, p. 157.
  • 18. Falsafah wa Jameah Shinasi, p. 78, 115.
  • 19. Al Mahsul fi Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 123; al Tahsil min al Mahsul, v. 1, p. 180; Dirasat Aqliyyah wa Ruhiyyah fi Falsafah al Islamiyyah, p. 257-258; al Iqtisad fi al Itiqad, p. 187-197.
  • 20. ‘Ethics, History of’, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 83, 95; ‘History of Western Ethics: 2, Classical Greek’, in Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 1, p. 465-466.
  • 21. Reason and Religious Belief, p. 441.
  • 22. The History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 1, p. 178-192; al Hikmah al Muta’aliyyah, v. 3, p. 487-488; Ideology Tatbiqi, p. 97-98.
  • 23. Ta’amulat dar falsafah Ula, p. 41; Tarikh Falsafah Garb, v. 2, p. 781; Ideology Tatbiqi, p. 99
  • 24. Sharhi bar Tamhidat Kant, v. 1, p. 42-51; Tarikh Falsafah, Copelston, v. 6, p. 233-236, 251-178; Amuzish Falsafah, v. 1, p. 199; Ideology Tatbiqi, p. 100-103.
  • 25. The History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 6, p. 265.
  • 26. Ideology Tatbiqi, p. 104-115.
  • 27. Amuzish Falsafah, p. 198; Ideology Tatbiqi, p. 104-107, Ilm Huzuri, p. 159-162.
  • 28. The History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 1, p. 462-463.
  • 29. Ideology tatbiqi, p. 105-107.
  • 30. The History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 5, p. 88-93.
  • 31. Al Shifa, Burhan, p. 320.
  • 32. It is necessary to remind our readers that this verse is not in conflict with the knowledge by presence [that human beings have] of God which has been pointed out by verses such as the 172nd verse of the Surah Araf. See: al Mizan, v. 12, p. 312; Ma’arif Qur’an, p. 396-397.
  • 33. Fitrat, Shahid Mutahhari, p. 47-53.
  • 34. Al Shifa, Burhan, p. 106-107.
  • 35. Asas al Iqtibas, ch. 8, p. 375.
  • 36. Al Tafsir al Kabir, v. 20, p. 72.
  • 37. Al Mabahith al Mashriqiyyah, v. 1, p. 496-498.
  • 38. Al Hikmah al Muta’aliyyah, v. 3, p. 487-492.