Chapter 3: Ethical Concepts 2 - Must And Must Not

In the previous chapter, we mentioned some general points regarding the predicates of ethical propositions and explained some theories regarding the definability and source of ethical concepts. It is only fitting that we now separately examine both those concepts that convey ethical values and those that serve as commands in ethical propositions. The reason for this is that the ideas that serve as predicates in ethical propositions can be divided into these two groups and manifold opinions have been expressed with regards each of them.

In Islamic philosophy many different meanings have been mentioned for ‘necessity and obligation’ the understanding and delineation of which is very important for our current discussion. It is for this reason that we will now explain, as an introduction, the different types of ‘necessity’. It is necessary to remember that since we can easily understand the concept ‘must not’ once we have understood ‘must’ we will concentrate our discussion on the explanation and definition of the concept ‘must.’

The Different Types Of Necessity

The relation between the subject and the predicate in a proposition such as, ‘a is b’ can be conditioned in three different ways: necessity, possibility and impossibility. The relation of necessity is inevitable, unavoidable and inescapable. In other words, when there is a relation of necessity between the subject and predicate of a proposition this implies that the intellect cannot accept that it is not so. For example, in the proposition, ‘The number four is an even number,’ the relation between the number four and being an even number is one of necessity and one that cannot be denied by the intellect.

This relation of ‘necessity’ can itself be divided into three distinct categories: ‘essential necessity,’ ‘necessity by means of something else’ and ‘necessity in relation to something else.’ Of course, possibility and impossibility also have different types and categories that do not need to be explained. Therefore, we will now briefly explain each of the three kinds of necessity.1

Essential Necessity

From the logical point of view the meaning of Essential Necessity (adh dharurat adh dhati) is that not only is the predicate necessary for the subject but this necessity stems from the essence of the subject itself. In other words, the essence of the subject is such that demands such a predicate and it is thus impossible for that predicate to be separated from that subject. In the parlance of the philosophers, the meaning of Essential Necessity is that when we relate existence to something this predicate is necessary for it. In other words, it is not possible for us to consider them separated from one another. If such a being were to exist in the world (and in fact it does exist) this is the same being that we name ‘the Essentially Necessary Being’ and which, based upon the proofs for the Unity of God, and cannot be more than one.

Necessity By Means Of Another

All of the possible beings that have come into existence can be named ‘Necessary by Means of Another’. The ‘possible being’ is one that does not essentially demand existence and non-existence. Now, if it were to come into being this is a sign that another being has caused it to do so. In other words, since its complete cause has come into existence it has acquired, in turn, the necessity of existence. Therefore, its necessity is one that has been acquired from another.

If we take two pans of a scale into consideration, if they both are empty from any sort of weight, then it is necessary for them to remain in this state of equilibrium. It is possible for both pans of this scale to move up or down. Of course, if we place a weight in one pan then it is natural that it will come down and with this weight upon it, it will be necessary for it to do so. Therefore, every essentially possible being acquires necessity from its cause. Such a necessity is called ‘Necessity by Means of another’.

Necessity In Relation To Another

Just as it is clear from the name of such a necessity, it rests upon a comparison between two things. In Necessity by Means of another it is said that, for example, when we take into consideration the existence of ‘a’ then the existence of ‘b’ is also necessary. Here, we only imply that if ‘a’ exists then it is impossible that ‘b’ not exist. But we do not seek to imply that this necessity of existence stems from ‘a’ or does not. Of course, since Necessity in Relation to Another is something general it comprises within itself all of the instances of Necessity by Means of Another. To such an extent that the relation of a cause and its effect is one of the best instances of Necessity in Relation to Another even though it is also an example of Necessity by Means of Another. Of course, the dimensions of the way in which these two concepts apply to this case are different. In Necessity in Relation to Another we are not concerned with the fact of whether or not the necessity of ‘b’ has stemmed from ‘a’ or not. Rather, are sole concern is to convey the fact that when we take ‘a’ into consideration then the existence of ‘b’ (or vice versa) is necessary. In conclusion, every cause, both complete and incomplete, have a Necessity in Relation to their effect2 and two effects of the same cause also have a Necessity in Relation to themselves.

The Concept Of Must In Ethics

There are numerous opinions with regards to the concept of the ‘ethically must’. In the previous chapter, while we were explaining the views regarding the definition of ethical concepts, we gained an acquaintance with some of them. There we indicated that many of the philosophers of ethics believe that the concept ‘must’ is one that can be defined with the help of scientific, natural, biological, social, psychological, philosophical or theological concepts. On the other hand, another group of philosophers have special views, especially regarding the concept of ‘must’ which we will now allude to.

The Existence Of The Most Possible Good

G.E.. Moore, an English philosopher believes that the concept ‘must’ means ‘to be correct’.3 ‘Correct’ in turn is a concept that can be defined using the concept ‘good’. ‘In every instance where the agent must perform a certain act the correctness of that act can be defined in the following way: It is an act that in reality creates the most ‘good’ possible under the circumstances.’4 Therefore, in his view the meaning of ‘must’ is that this act creates the most amount of goodness possible. For example, the statement: ‘I must help my neighbor,’ means: ‘Helping my neighbor will lead to goodness.’5

Needless Of A Definition

H. I. Picard (1871 – 1947) believes that the concept ‘must’ is self-evident, intuitive, not in need of being defined and in fact something that cannot be defined. He explicitly states that we must pay attention to the self-evident nature of our obligations, in other words, the intuitive nature of our knowledge of them. ‘And in general, if we were doubtful of whether or not we had an obligation towards the creation of ‘a’ under circumstances ‘b’ then the solution of this problem does not rest in the deliberation of universal concepts rather it lies in directly being present in an instance of the circumstances ‘b’ and then intuitively fathoming the obligation of creating ‘a’ in such circumstances.6 In the view of Picard, obligation is a unique and inimitable concept and Therefore, it is not possible for us to define it based upon other concepts.7

Command And Decree

Rudolph Carnap (1891 – 1970) holds that all ethical concepts, including the concept ‘must’ in reality means command and decree. In his opinion the statement: ‘One must not steal’ is a misleading one that in reality means: ‘Do not steal.’ ‘One must act justly’ in reality means: ‘Act justly.’8

A Means Of Expressing One’s Emotions

Ayer also clearly states that ‘must’ and ‘must not’ in ethics, and in general all ethical concepts as well, do not possess any concrete meaning and do not relate to us something regarding the external world or mental state of the speaker. Rather, they simply display his emotions. In other words, they are merely signs and symbols that are utilized to articulate our feelings.9

Necessity By Means Of Another

Some Muslim scholars deem that the concept of ‘must’ in ethics conveys the same meaning as does the philosophical concepts Essential Necessity or Necessity by Means of Another. One of the experts in this field states: ‘The technical meaning of must is the same as that of Essential Necessity or Necessity by Means of Another that conveys that intensity or importance of a being.’10 Of course, the difference between the ethical ‘must’ and the ‘must’ used elsewhere is that the former is used with relation to those things whose existence depends upon the free-will of an intelligent agent while the ‘must’ that is used elsewhere is used in relation to those things whose necessity is acquired from causes that do not possess free-will. In other words, the only difference between ethical necessity and logical necessity is that the necessity of ethical beings stems from the free-will and reason of the agent that performs them while the necessity of beings that are not ethical in nature stems from factors not one of which is the free-will of a rational agent.11

Careful consideration of the view of the conventional nature of ethical concepts shows us that the concept ‘must’ in this theory is taken from Necessity by Means of Another.12

However, as we will explain in detail when we expound on our own personal view regarding this subject, ethical necessity is in reality an instance of Necessity in Relation to Another, not Necessity from Another. The incorrectness of the aforementioned view will become clear by means of matters that will be stated there.

A Clarification Of The Preferred View

Words such as ‘must’ and ‘must not’ are used in two ways. Sometimes, in certain languages, they are used as commands and prohibitions. In this case they play the same role as prepositions do. In this case, they do not have an independent meaning [that can be grasped separately from the statement in which they are used]. Rather, along with the verb that is used in the statement with them, they take the place of the form of a command or prohibition. For example, the statement: ‘You must say’ is used in place of ‘Say’ and the sentence: ‘You must not say’ is used in place of ‘Do not say.’ Sometimes they possess an independent meaning which is ‘necessary.’ For example, in place of the statement: ‘One must act justly’ one can use the following statement: ‘Acting justly is necessary.’ In other words, ‘must’ does not mean command or decree here rather it signifies necessity and conveys to us the necessity of the act.

Without a doubt, in the first usage ‘must’ and ‘must not’ have a conventional and constructive nature and do in fact convey the feelings and emotions of the speaker. It is quite possible that they were made without taking into consideration the consequences of the acts which they were made with reference to. It is also likely that they were made without any goal or purpose in mind. Of course, one must keep in mind the fact that a command and convention can only be reasonable when, first of all, the person making them has a reasonable purpose in mind and, secondly, the command that he makes or law that he forms really is useful in fulfilling that purpose. In other words, his command must have a foundation in reality and must have been formed based upon real and justifiable standards.

In conclusion, the concepts ‘must’ and ‘must not’ can often be simply used to convey the emotions and personal tastes of the speaker. This is when they are used in place of decrees as a substitute for commands and prohibitions. Also, though this is true, they are only justifiable and reasonable when they are formed based upon the factual necessary relation between the act commanded and its results.

The second meaning the concept ‘must’ (i.e. when they are used to convey the necessity and obligation of the performance or foregoing of a certain act) is used in numerous types of propositions and in different disciplines. For example, they may be utilized in statements made in the natural sciences or mathematics. An instance of this is when a teacher tells his students in a laboratory: ‘One must combine Chlorine and Sodium in order for salt to come into existence.’ Or for example, a doctor may tell his patient: ‘In order to regain your health you must consume this medicine.’ Now, the question is whether the meaning of ‘must’ in the aforementioned statements (in other words, in statements made in the Natural Sciences or in Mathematics) are simply conventional and are commands and decrees issued by the speaker or that they seek to convey a factual relation between beings?

There can be no doubt in the fact that in the first case the statement seeks to convey the fact that there is a real relationship between the composition of the two elements and the coming into existence of the chemical material [we seek to produce by the composition in question]. In the second case the same relation is stated existed between consuming the medicine and regaining one’s health. In the parlance of the philosophers in such cases the term ‘must’ seeks to convey the ‘Necessity in Relation’ that exists between the cause and its effect. It shows us that until a specific act (the cause) is not accomplished its consequence (the effect) will not come into existence. This means that it expresses the necessity of performing or foregoing a certain act in relation to a specific purpose. This is what, in the parlance of philosophy, is meant by ‘Necessity in Relation to Another.’

However, when such words are used in ethical and legal propositions (in their declaratory form) do they also seek to communicate the necessity that an act has in relation to the goal that it seeks to produce or do they merely convey a conventional and man-made relation between them? It is here that different have been expressed such as the ones that we have seen until now. Some have surmised that the concept ‘must’ when used in statements that express the laws of Nature relate to us something real in the external world and their incorrectness or incorrectness (i.e. the truth or falsehood) is something that can be easily understood. On the other hand, when ‘must’ is used in ethical statements it is simply conventional and thus one cannot in any way test whether or not they are true or false and whether or not they accord to external reality or not.

But the truth of the matter is that the real meaning of ethical necessity is the very causal relationship [that, as they say, is expressed in scientific statements]. This is the causal relation that exists between an act that stems from the free will of the agent and the ethical or legal goal [that is its purported consequent]. For example, when a jurist states: ‘A criminal must be punished,’ even though he does not clearly state the goal behind such a law in reality he seeks to convey the casual relation that exists between punishment and the goal of lawmaking (i.e. safety in society). In the same way, when a teacher of Ethics says: ‘One must return what one has been trusted with to its owner,’ in reality he seeks to say that there is a relation between this action and the goal of ethics, that is for example the attainment of perfection and felicity. It is for this reason that if one was to ask the lawmaker: ‘Why must we punish the criminal?’ he will answer: ‘Since, if we do not punish him society will fall into chaos.’ Also, if we were to ask the teacher of Ethics: ‘Why must we return what we have been entrusted with to its owner?’ he will answer us based upon standards that he has adopted in the Philosophy of Ethics.

In the beginning of this chapter, we stated that one of the extensions of necessity in relation to another is the reciprocal relation between cause and effect. When the complete cause of a being exists, the effect must also necessarily exist. Conversely, whenever the effect exists its cause must also exist. Now, we must pay attention to the fact that the relation of causality can sometimes exist between two real beings in the external world like fire and its heat that are necessary with respect to one another. It is also possible that such a relation exists between an action that stems from the free-will of an agent and the consequences of such an action. It is abundantly clear that the action of man can have, from the point of view that it is a particular phenomenon, effects within the soul of man and also external to him. It can also have specific social and personal repercussions. Of course, such effects may be recognizable and capable of being grasped by everyone and at other times they may be unrecognizable. In any case, when we compare the actions of man that stem from his free-will with the consequences and effects that stem from them we see that they are each necessary in relation to one another.

For example, if the purpose of man is to attain the proximity to God and he wishes to actually attain such a lofty goal and on the other hand we have understood from some source (such as reason or the Divine Law) that this goal cannot be attained except by the performance of some specific actions then in this case it will be said that there is a necessary relationship that exists between that goal and those actions. This necessity can be expressed in the form of an ethical statement in which the aforementioned action will be connected to ‘must.’ For example, we may say: ‘In order for that effect (the nearness to God) to come into existence one must perform that special action.’ Or for example: ‘One must tell the truth.’ The meaning of such a statement is that there is a necessary relationship that exists between telling the truth and the proximity to God (that is the perfection of man). This is exactly how we stated in the experimental sciences that for example: ‘In order to for water to come into existence hydrogen and oxygen must combine together in a specific way.’

In conclusion, ‘must’ has two usages: One is declaratory and seeks to relate something regarding the external world while the other is simply man-made and conventional. The first implies a Necessity in Relation to Another and express a real connection between those actions of man that stem from his free will and his ethical pursuits. In the second usage of this term, although ‘must’ and ‘must not’ are conventional and man-made they are not altogether without a basis in reality. Rather, there is a truth and reality hidden behind them and these concepts seek to convey such a truth. As we have indicated, these types of ethical concepts are, much like the concepts that are used as subjects in ethical propositions, are philosophical concepts and are secondary intelligible concepts. Such concepts, although they do not have an extension in the real world they are derived and abstracted from real beings that do exist in the external world. If, on occasion, other nuances are imbued within them or they are intended to mean something else then this would be an allegorical or metaphorical usage of such concepts.

The Difference Between Necessity In Value And Non-Value

Now, the following question can be raised: If the meaning of ‘must’ is the same no matter where it is used then what is the difference between the problems and propositions of those disciplines that deal with ethical values and the problems of the natural sciences or mathematics that also contain concepts such as ‘must’?

The basic difference lies within specific clauses that are taken into consideration in each case not in the meaning and significance of ‘must’ and ‘must not’. In order to explain: In natural and mathematical concepts nothing other than the philosophical necessity in relation to another nothing else is taken into consideration and no other clause is attached to the concept in question. On the other hand, when concepts such as ‘must’ and ‘must not’ are used in matters of law or in ethics then they are done so along with a clause. Here it is the necessity that is understood between the deeds of man and the consequences that accrue from them. In other words, ‘must’ in ethics and the law is used in a much more confined way [than the way it is used in for example the natural sciences]. In ethics it is used to signify the casual relation between deeds of man and the consequences that they lead to. Aside from this there is no difference between their meaning when they are used to ethics, the natural sciences and mathematics.

The Difference Between ‘Must’ When Used In Ethics And When Used In Law

Since a legal ruling, like an ethical ruling expresses the real relation between an action and a certain goal we may now ask the question: What is the difference between ethical rulings and legal ones? What causes one problem to be legal in nature while another one is ethical?

The problem of the relation of ethics to law and also the difference that separates these two disciplines is one of the most important topics of theoretical ethics. There can be no doubt in the fact that these two groups of problems and in general these two fields of study have many similarities with one another. They both play a similar social role and express standards by means of which social conduct may be organized. The manner of expression and apparent form of legal and ethical rulings are also the same. With the exception of a few instances, they both deal with the deeds of man. It is for this reason that there is no consensus of opinion amongst scholars as to the way in which these two disciplines differ from one another. Everyone has sought to differentiate them based upon their own personal views on ethical and legal problems.

In the view of many scholars of the West the fundamental difference between ethics and law is the manner of their execution. Legal rulings are guaranteed by the law to be executed. There is a physical entity outside the members of society that guarantees their execution. This is in contrast to ethical laws that are not guaranteed to be executed by any physical power or threat. Rather, at the most, there is the promise of being praised or the threat of being scolded and things of this nature that are verbal signs of appreciation or scorn [that pave the way for their execution].13

In other words, it is an internal force that guarantees the execution of ethical laws. For example, the sentiment of doing good to others or the inclination to perform an action that is correct. In other words, in the opinion of such individuals the most important difference between these two disciplines lies within the method by means of which they each attempt to organize the conduct of people. Law uses legal organizations such as the Congress or the Supreme Court to control the actions of individuals while ethics utilizes the powerful force of tradition, popular beliefs and personal opinions.14

Others hold that the difference between law and ethics is the source of their formation. They state that, for example, the laws of a state are formed by its congress and are put into execution by its supreme court, while the rulings of ethics is not something that can be formed by any law-making body or be implemented by a court and fundamentally they cannot be made. It is only natural that the holders of such a view have not been able to accurately depict the difference between law and ethics in primitive societies that lacked distinct branches of government.15

In our opinion, even though ethical and legal problems differ from one another from many points of view16 the fundamental difference between them lies in their goals and the actions that are purported to secure such goals.17 The goal of the law is to create social order. Of course, this is an order that stems from the deeds of man. In every era, lawmakers formed laws in order to create order in society and in order that society may be better able to attain its goals. They formed these laws according to their own knowledge and based upon the demands of their respective eras and places. For example, in order that automobile accidents may be reduced to a minimum, the lives of human beings may be safe and thus a relative amount of social order may come into existence, they say that: ‘All vehicles must move one the right side of the road.’ This is while moving on the right side of the road does not have any special significance in and of itself. Even if everyone moved on the left side of the road the goal for which the first law was formed would be secured (just as it is so in some countries in this world). In any case, lawmakers take into consideration things that they feel will prevent social chaos and transgressions from ensuing and will secure social order. From the causal relation that exits between these they abstract a legal ‘must’ and then say for example: ‘All vehicles must move one the right side of the road.’

As is abundantly clear, in order to secure the goal of a legal ruling it is not necessary for the agent of the act to perform it with a specific intention. In other words, from the point of view of the law, it is not important with what intention individuals obey the social laws. Thus, if a person were to perform legal obligations with the intention of showing off to others and draw their attention towards him the goal for which the law was formed would still be secured. He must move on the right side of the road and must not break the law with whatever intention he does so. He may do so because he fears punishment or he may do so in respect of the law and the rights of others. He may even do so in order to seek the proximity of God.

However, the goal of ethical rulings is to help man attain his real perfection and his eternal felicity. Such a goal is unattainable with the intention of the free agent of the act. Of course, all people do not hold the same opinion as to the goal of ethics. Even the philosophers of ethics hold different opinions regarding the goal of ethical rulings. Briefly, some consider moral ideals to be the goal of ethics and that in order to achieve such ideals specific actions must be performed with a specific intention in mind, even though many of the ethical schools of thought of the West have not mentioned the problem of intention. In conclusion, the fundamental difference between law and ethics is in the type of goal that they respectively pursue. The goal of law is simply the acquisition of the needs of society and it is for this reason that they can be secured even through force. On the other hand, in ethics a goal is pursued that cannot be acquired without the intention of the agent being present.

In the end, it is useful to recall one point. That is that it is possible that a legal system may exist within an ethical one. [For example,] everything that exists within the legal system of Islam can also be found within the jurisdiction of Islamic Ethics. In the parlance of fiqh, the rules of the law are such wajibat at tawassuli (obligations the correctness of which do not entail the performers making an intention to draw near to God thereby) the correctness of which do not depend upon the intention of the agent. At the same time all such tawassuli obligations can be performed with the intent to gain proximity to God and thus as acts of worship.

Another point is that even though the formation of laws and rights are generally related to those of man’s actions that he performs by his free-will, in a few instances they can also relate to other things. For example, if while he is sleeping someone should happen to hurt another being this action will not fall within the sphere of ethics since ethics does not pass judgment with regards to those of man’s actions that he does not perform freely. At the same time, it falls within in the jurisdiction of the law and such a person is legally obligated to recompense the person who he may have hurt when he was sleeping. Or for example, if someone may happen to kill someone else in his sleep he must, according to the law, pay the blood money for such an act but there is not ethical ruling to be made about him. Of course, when he wants to pay the blood money if he should do so with the intention of gaining proximity to God then has from this point of view performed an ethically praiseworthy action.

  • 1. Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 42-51; Taliqah ala Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 71-85; Sharh Mabsut Manzumah, v. 3, p. 61-80.
  • 2. Philosophical Instructions, v. 2, p. 56.
  • 3. Moral Obligation, p. 145.
  • 4. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 10-11.
  • 5. Moral Obligation, p. 145-146.
  • 6. Moral Obligation, p. 17; Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 14.
  • 7. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 14.
  • 8. Philosophy and Logical Syntax, p. 24.
  • 9. Zaban, Haqiqah wa Mantiq, p. 146.
  • 10. Kawishhaye Aql Amali, p. 102.
  • 11. Kawishhaye Aql Amali, p. 103.
  • 12. Taliqah ala Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 390-391.
  • 13. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 31-32.
  • 14. A Dictionary of Ethics, (Morality and Law), p. 279-280.
  • 15. Dar Amadi bar Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 17.
  • 16. Huquq wa Siyasah dar Qur’an, v. 1, p. 22-24.
  • 17. Taliqqah ala Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 393, no 382.