Chapter 4: Ethical Concepts 3 - Good And Bad

We previously stated that the concepts that are employed as predicates in ethical statements can be divided into two universal categories: obligations and values. In the previous chapter we discussed in detail concepts that serve as obligations (must and must not). Now we intend to examine value concepts. Of course, since the basis of all value concepts are the concepts ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and all other ones such as ‘correct’, ‘incorrect’, ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ are either synonymous with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or somehow return to these two we will Therefore, suffice ourselves with an evaluation of these two value concepts.

In this chapter we will attempt to discover of what nature is the concept of ‘good’. Is it a mental construct or does it have an extension in the external world? Is it real or is it man-made and conventional? Is it a quiddity or is it one of the philosophical concepts? What is good? What kinds of things are attributed with goodness? Is goodness simply a quality of ethical actions or does it also include non-ethical things and individuals? How can we distinguish the ethical usage of this term from its non-ethical one? What is the cause of ethical goodness and evil? Does it have a root in personal inclinations and tastes? Or is it connected to the commands and prohibitions of society? Or does it find its source in the commands and prohibitions of God? Or should we search for its source in the existential connections that lie between the actions of man and his ultimate perfection?

Unfruitful Attempts To Analyze The Concepts ‘Good’ And ‘Bad’

Some have wished to answer the aforementioned questions using a linguist analysis of concepts such as ‘good and bad’, ‘beauty and ugliness’ and ‘good and evil’ and other synonymous concepts. For example, they have said that the word ‘khayr’, that is synonymous with the Persian word ‘khub’, is from the same root as ‘ikhtiyar’:

الخیر ما یختاره الانسان

‘Goodness is that which man chooses [freely].’

‘Good’ is the thing that man chooses and adopts on his own. In other words, the goodness of things and actions depends upon the choice and will of man. In the words of Barouche Spinoza (1632 – 1677), we do not desire that we understand as good rather conversely, we name that thing as ‘good’ which we desire. As a result, we name everything that we abhor as ‘bad’.1

In another place he says:

We do not strive to attain that thing which we consider to be good. Rather, conversely, since we strive to attain something and we seek it out we consider it to be good.2

Many Muslim philosophers and lexicographers have said the following in their definition of ‘khayr’:

الخیر ما یتشوقّه کل شئ

‘Good is that which all things desire [or long for]3

الخیر ما یرغب فیه الکل

Good is that which all things like.4

That thing is good which everybody and everything desires.5 In some of the works of Aristotle (322 – 384) this definition of goodness has been mentioned. In his Nichomacean Ethics6 he states that those who have said that the good is that towards which everything inclines have spoken the truth.7

Regarding the genesis of the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ some of our great scholars8 have stated that it is possible that the word ‘husn’ beauty was used for the very first time for physical beauty. Man saw that other individuals of his species possessed a symmetrical and harmonious body, especially in their face; they felt within themselves an inclination and natural pull towards them. In this situation they used the word ‘beauty’ or ‘husn’ beauty to describe such a state. In other words, if they felt pleasure in seeing someone then they attributed them with beauty while if they felt agitated by seeing someone then they attributed them with ugliness. In the second stage they used these concepts to describe actions, meanings and other ideas that were in line with their social way of life. In other words, they used them to describe things that were helpful in their attaining their felicity as human beings and their enjoyment of life on earth. For example, justice, helpfulness, telling the truth and trustworthiness are all attributed with goodness since they are things that are in line with the felicity of man and help him better enjoy his social life. In contrast, things such as oppression, encroaching upon the rights of others, lying and treachery are things that are attributed with being evil.

Leaving aside from the correctness or incorrectness of such views, the reality of the matter is that such grammatical and linguistic discussions, that do not go past being possible explanations regarding the genesis of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’, are not suitable answers to rational and philosophical problems regarding the reality of such concepts. The reason for this is that in opposition to such views, it can easily be claimed that man chooses, inclines towards and takes pleasure in that thing which he deems to be good, and not vice versa. This means that man selects that thing and takes pleasure in the thing which he has previously accepted as being good.

What is more, even if we assume that in linguistic discussions we reach the conclusion that the individuals that coined a certain language first took into consideration the word ‘ikhtiyar’ (choice) and then based upon it coined the word ‘khayr’ (good) or that they coined the word ‘khub’ (good) first off for physical beauty and only thereafter generalized it to include spiritual and ethical beauty, in any case this will not help us in solving rational and philosophical questions in any substantial way. Such questions will remain, as they were, unresolved.

The Concepts Of Physical Beauty And Ugliness

In order to properly understand the different views regarding ethical goodness and evil it is fitting that we first point out some of the most important views of the scholars of aesthetics on the subject of physical beauty and ugliness. What does beauty and ugliness mean when we say: ‘This flower is beautiful,’ or ‘This is an ugly landscape.’ Is ugliness and beauty a subjective or objective concept here? Do they depend upon the observer? In other words, are they something real or are they mental constructs? If they are in fact real things then a more precise philosophical question arises regarding them: Are they quiddities or are they philosophical concepts? Generally speaking, we can say that there are three main views regarding beauty which we will point out here below.

Beauty Possesses An External Existence

Some have held that beauty is something that exists in the external world and have understood it to be a quiddity amongst others.9 In other words, these individuals believe that there is a quality that exists in the external world named beauty just as color, shape, dimension and the likes of these exist in the external world. Even though we do not have a faculty that can sense beauty, our intellect uses the faculty of sight to come to the conclusion that there is another real quality named beauty in this flower, for example, aside from its color, shape and dimensions.10 This is exactly the same way that all philosophers believe in the existence of substance. They say that even though we do not do not possess an independent faculty of sense perception that can perceive substance, the intellect uses the other senses to gather that there is something in the external world upon which rest the other accidental qualities of a body and which serves to support them11.

Therefore, even though we cannot directly perceive beauty it nevertheless possesses an extension in the external world. Our mind can fathom it from the external world without any sort of intellectual abstraction. Of course, it must be remembered that the sentences that are usually used to express this external quality are usually misleading. For example, we say: ‘The painting of that artist is beautiful.’ The reason for this is that from such statements we usually understand that that artist created beauty in a place where it did not exist. In reality, however, the artist simply removed a curtain that stood in the way of beauty and allowed it to display itself. In other words, in the same way that a thinker does not have the ability to create something in the external world rather he only discovers it, the artist also does not create beauty rather only discover it.12

Beauty Is A Philosophical Concept

Some aestheticians have adopted a second view13 regarding beauty. That is that beauty is a philosophical concept. In other words, they believe that the concept of beauty, like the concept of causality is acquired through a certain amount of mental abstraction and often through comparison [of certain concrete realities]. In the view of such individuals, even though beings in the external world are attributed with beauty it is not a concept like color, shape and dimension such that it would possess a real extension in the external world. In terms that we have previously used, it only mentally occurs [for its subject] but its subject is attributed with it externally.14 Herbert Reid says:

Man reacts to the shape, plane and dimensions of things that surround his senses. Sometimes he takes pleasure in the ornamentation of these shapes, planes and dimensions and the absence of such ornamentation causes him to get upset and revile. The sense that ascertains these relations that man takes pleasure in is the sense that perceives beauty. In opposition to this lies that sense that perceives ugliness.15

A Sentiment And Emotion

A third group, that comprises a large amount of aestheticians, considers beauty to be a mental construct that is somehow connected to the feelings and emotions of individuals16 and lacks any kind of external reality. In the opinion of these people, human beings have been created in such a way that they see beauty when they look at certain objects, see ugliness when they look at others and understand still other concepts when they observe other things. Beauty is a subjective concept that is relative to the personal inclinations and feelings of individuals. Beauty depends upon the person sensing the object and it is not a quality that inheres in the thing being sensed. In the words of an expert in this field: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’17

According to this view, beauty is something completely relative. It is possible that something appears beautiful to one person while it appears ugly for others. It is also possible that something is beautiful in the opinion of a group of people in one time period and in another time that same group considers it to be ugly. Beauty changes when it changes its geographical location. The thing that is beautiful in England will not necessarily be beautiful in India what to say of Persia.18 When someone says: ‘That is a beautiful sight,’ then he has simply expressed his personal tastes and feelings. If we see that many things appear ugly to us and at the same time appear beautiful for certain animals19 (such as is the case with things that we eat or smell) or if we see that some things are beautiful for white people while those same things are ugly in the eyes of blacks then all of these things are proofs that beauty is something is a subjective concept that reflects the tastes and feelings of individuals. Thus, we cannot find any traces of it in the external world. Therefore, it is meaningless to say that those statements that comprise concepts such as beauty and ugliness are true or false. If someone says: ‘That flower is beautiful,’ then we cannot say that he is right or wrong in his claim. The reason for this is that this is simply a matter of his personal tastes and feelings that he experiences when he comes face to face with this flower and that he expresses using such statements.

An Examination Of The Different Views Regarding Ethical Goodness And Evil

After having gained a brief acquaintance with some of the most important views regarding the concepts of physical beauty and ugliness now the time has come for us to examine the different view regarding ethical goodness and evil. Upon careful assessment of the questions that were mentioned in the beginning of the current discussion it will be known that we are not simply seeking to linguistically define the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and their synonyms. In other words, we are not trying to discover words that can serve as replacements for ‘good’. In clearer terms, we are seeking to analyze the word ‘good’ from a phenomenological approach not from linguistic one.

It is only natural that each one of the different ethical schools of thought has its own special explanation of goodness and evil. It is even possible to say that there are as many different views regarding the concepts of goodness and evil as there have been different kinds of ethical schools of thought in the history of mankind. Principally, one of the most important factors in the genesis of the manifold ethical schools of thought is the various interpretations that they have made regarding the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Schools of thought such as: Hedonism, Evolutionism, Intuitivism, Socialism, Sentimentalism and the Divine Command Theory have each presented their own special definition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that we will scrutinize in detail when we examine the ethical schools of thought. In general, however, we can categorize the different views regarding this matter into five distinct groups.

External Existence

Some of the Philosophers of Ethics hold that the concepts of good and evil are quiddities and first intelligibles. This means that they possess an independent external existence. Some of the actions of men such as justice, trustworthiness and truthfulness possess a real quality in the external world named ‘goodness’. Some other actions such as oppression, disloyalty and lying possess a real and objective quality named ‘evil’. Of course, such qualities cannot be grasped through the faculties of sense perception as are smell and sound. However, the power of reason is able to comprehend them without the need to intellectually abstract them with the help of the faculties of sense perception.

This is the opinion of many philosophers, amongst them being Nelson20, K. Nelson21, Copelston22 and G. E. Moore (1873 – 1958).23 He was of the belief that the concept of ‘good’ is a concept that tells of a real quality of things and actions and that exists in the external world. Of course, he understands the intuitive power of the intelligence to be the tool by means of which we comprehend such a concept not the apparent senses. It is for this reason that his school of thought has been named as ‘Intuitivism’. In the opinion of Moore, the concept of ‘good’ is a self-evident one, is simple and is incapable of being defined.

He says:
If you ask me: ‘What is good?’ then in response I will say that good is good and this is the most you can say about it. If you ask me: ‘How can we define goodness?’ I will answer that goodness is incapable of being defined and this is the most we can say about this matter.24

Therefore, he understands the concept of goodness to be the basis of all other ethical value and command concepts and he defines them all using it. For example, in defining ‘responsibility’ he says:
It is an action that creates more ‘good’ in this world than does anything that resembles it.’25

Russell (1872 – 1970) also, at least in one time period of his life, was deeply influenced by Moore in his ethical meditations. He believed that good and evil are two qualities that are related to things, independent of our opinion just as something’s being a square or a circle is the same.26

A Sign Of The Feelings And Emotions Of The Speaker

There is another view regarding the concepts ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that resembles the third view about beauty and ugliness. This view is that man has been created with certain special inclinations, emotions and feelings each of which or all of which demand a certain action. This means that there is a correspondence between certain actions and the desires which cause those actions to be attributed with being good. On the other hand, certain actions are not in line with these desires and inclinations and therefore, they are attributed with being evil. In any case the concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ do nothing but express the emotions and personal inclinations of the speaker without having any connection with the world outside us and without describing anything about the beings, individuals or actions that exist in the external world. Neither do they relate any quality to those things nor do they negate any quality from them.

The presence of an ethical concept in a proposition does not increase its objective meaning. For example, if we say to someone: ‘You have done something bad by stealing that money,’ we have not [objectively] said anything other than: ‘You have stolen the money.’ By adding the phrase: ‘You have done something bad,’ we have not related anything [about what has transpired in the external world]. Rather, we have only conveyed the fact that our ethical opinion does not accept such an action. This is exactly as if we were to say in a tone expressive of our astonishment: ‘You have stolen the money!’ The tone of our voice that seeks to express our astonishment and also the exclamatory sign do not add anything to the objective meaning of the statement. They only seek to convey the fact that the expression of such a statement by the speaker was accompanied by some emotions.27

Absolute Convention

The third view is that the reality of goodness and evil is something man-made and conventional. When a certain group of people see that a certain action to corresponds to their goals, they conceive the quality of ‘goodness’ for it and if they see that another action does not accord to their goals, they label it as being ‘bad’. In other words, the concepts of ethical goodness and evil resemble that of property, matrimony, leadership and the likes of these which are discussed in the science of law. This means that neither do they possess an extension in the world outside us nor does any real human emotion attach itself to them. Rather, they are simply are man-made conventional concepts that have been formed by an individual or society for various reasons and with different intentions.

The Divine Command Theory

According to the Divine Command Theory, the actions of human beings do not possess any essential goodness without taking into consideration the command of God. The examination of this view, which can be found in the theological literature of the Muslims under the title of ‘Divine and Religious Good and Evil’, has a long history. The problem of the goodness and evil of actions is a problem that was seriously discussed from the time of the sages of ancient Greece. A casual glance at the debates between Socrates and Ezifrome clearly demonstrates this fact.

In this debate Ezifrome claims that it is the command of God that makes something good. In response, Socrates asks: ‘Is it that since God has ordered something that it is correct or because it is correct that God has ordered it?’ Ezefrome answers that since it is correct God has commanded us to do it. In this way the debate continues.28 This is exactly the same discussion that was extensively and fruitfully conducted in the Islamic world by Muslim theologians and philosophers. In current times some of the famous Shia scholars29 have occupied themselves with this discussion revivifying it, solving some of its difficulties and clarifying many of its obscure dimensions. It seems that many of the facets of this question still are in need of scrutinizing research.

A History Of The Discussion Amongst The Muslim Thinkers

From the time that Muslim thinkers came face to face with this problem they found themselves divided into two groups. The Shiites, the Mutazilah30 and some of the Hanafiyyah31 believed that goodness and evil are two of the essential qualities inherent in actions and that the intelligence of man only has the power to comprehend the goodness and evil of some actions. The commands and prohibitions of God simply serve to disclose this reality. The goodness of a good deed is something that is hidden within its essence and it is for this reason that God commands us to perform it. The evil of a bad deed is also essential to it and it is for this reason that God prohibits us from doing it.

In contrast, the Asharis32 were adamant about the fact that the command and prohibition of God are what create the goodness and evil of actions and it is not true to say that goodness and evil are things that are essential to actions. Religion simply does not disclose goodness and evil for us. In the words of the Asharis themselves:

الحسن ما حسّنه الشرع والقبیح ما قبّحه الشرع

‘Goodness is that which religion has deemed to be good and evil is what it has deemed to be evil.’

Therefore, if God were to command us to lie then it would become good and if He were to prohibit us from speaking the truth then it would become in turn evil.

It should not be left unsaid that the view of the Adliyyah not only accords with the first view, in other words, that goodness and evil are two objective entities in the external world, but also is in line with the second that held that they are secondary intelligibles and philosophical concepts. The view of the Asharis, however, is exactly the same as that which has been named amongst western philosophers as the ‘Divine Command Theory’ and is also a instance of the theory that held that such concepts are conventional (with the difference that from the point of view of the Asharis it is the command and prohibitions of God that make something good or evil not the emotions and feelings of an individual or group).

The Meaning Of Good And Evil And The Claim Of The Asharis

In order for the topic of discussion to become clear and also in order for the claim of the Asharis to become more clarified it is necessary that we now mention some of the different meanings of good and evil that have been mentioned in the theological and usuli33 books for good and evil. Whilst doing so, it is also essential for us to delineate the differences and similarities between the views of the Asharis and the Adliyyah.

Perfection And Deficiency

Based on one terminological meaning, ‘good’ means perfection while ‘bad’ means deficiency. When it is said: ‘Knowledge is good,’ then this implies that knowledge is perfection and when it is said that: ‘Ignorance is bad,’ then this means that it is a deficiency and imperfection. It should not be left unsaid that based upon this meaning here we are not taking into consideration the harmony that knowledge has with the perfection that we are seeking and the disharmony that ignorance has with the same nor are we considering the praiseworthiness of knowledge in the eyes of the intellect verses ignorance. Also, it should be known that this meaning of goodness and evil is not something that is solely a quality of the actions of man rather it also includes external beings. For example, when it is said: ‘A fruitful tree is good and a withered one is bad,’ then this meaning of goodness and evil are being intended.

The Asharis are unanimous upon the fact that this meaning of goodness and evil is something that the intelligence can fathom independently and also state that goodness and evil in this meaning are essential qualities of the actions of man and things existing in the external world.34

Being In Accord With Or In Opposition To Temperament

Another meaning that has been mentioned for goodness and evil, and that is also unanimously agreed upon by everyone, is anything that is in accord with the inclinations and desires of man is good while anything that is not is bad. For example, smoking cigarettes is good for people that are apt to do so since it is something that is in line with their temperament and the structure of their bodies. It is necessary to remind our readers that in this meaning the dimension of perfection or deficiency of the thing or action under question in relation to man is not being taken to consideration.

Being In Accord With Or Opposition To A Goal

Another meaning that has been mentioned for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is being in accord or opposition to the purpose of man. Beauty and ugliness, based upon this meaning and in contrast to the previous one in which they were not abstracted from a locus outside the soul of the human being, is abstracted from the real relation that exists between something or an action and the goal or purpose [for which it is performed]. In order to explain:

If there be a positive relation between something or some action and the goal that someone has taken into consideration then that thing or action will be attributed with being good. If, on the other hand, there be a negative relation between the two then it will be attributed with being bad. For example, it is said: ‘A saw is good for carpentry but it is bad for watch-making.’ Sometimes this meaning has been referred to as ‘expediency and unsuitability.’35 Just as has become clear from the examples this meaning [of the term] is not something solely relegated for the actions of man rather it encompasses within its fold other things as well. It is unanimously agreed that this meaning of goodness and evil is rational in nature. The Asharis also admit that the human intelligence has the capability to comprehend such qualities in things without the help of religion.

It should not be left unsaid that since the goals of men differ in nature goodness and evil in this meaning of the term will be relative qualities. For example, killing Zayd is something evil in the eyes of his friends since it is something that stands detriment to their goals and ideals while it is something acceptable and good in the eyes of his enemies since it accords to their goals. In other words, the relative nature of this meaning [of goodness and evil] is exactly like the relativity of cause and effect. Meaning, it changes when that which it is connected to changes not when the view, tastes or temperament [of individuals] change.

In the same way that a specific thing may really be, from a certain vantage point, a cause of some thing and not be its effect, a certain action may be good when compared with a specific goal and [from this point of view] it will not be bad. Of course, it is equally possible for the same action to be evil and bad when compared to another goal just as it is possible for the cause [we previously mentioned] to be the effect of something other than its effect. In any case, however, these are not things that are dependent upon the individual tastes and personal temperaments of individuals.

Praise And Scorn

The fourth connotation that has been mentioned for good and bad in the books of Theology and Usul is that ‘good’ means the action that is praised by all intelligent beings of this world and the agent of that action is someone who deserves reward in the next life as a recompense for it while ‘bad’ is the action that is scorned by them and its agent deserves to be to be punished for it in the next life. There is a difference of opinion amongst the Asharis and the Adliyah on this meaning of the terms ‘good and ‘bad,’ that are solely relegated for those actions of man that stem from his free-will. The Adliyah are of the opinion that the intelligence does have the ability to comprehend the standard by means of which we can say that some actions deserve praise while others deserve scorn. On the other hand, the Asharis say that the human intelligence does not possess such a capability. This group holds that unless they are commanded or prohibited by God the actions of men do not possess any goodness or evil in and of themselves. If such qualities do not exist for the actions of men, then it is only natural that the intelligence does not have the ability to comprehend that they do. [Since, it is impossible for the intelligence to see something where it does not even exist].

Mullah Abdur Razzaq Lhiji explains the view of the Adliyyah and the Asharis regarding this meaning of the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the following way:

مراد از عقلى بودن حسن و قبح، آن است كه عقل تواند دانست ممدوحيّت نفس الامرى و مذموميّت نفس الامرى بعضى از افعال را، اگر چه شرع بر آن وارد نشده باشد…مراد از شرعى بودن حسن و قبح، آن است كه عقل را نرسد نه ادراك حسن و قبح، و نه ادراك جهات حسن و قبح، در هيچ فعلى از افعال: نه پيش از ورود شرع و نه بعد از آن‏

‘When we say that goodness and evil are intelligible this means that the intelligence has the ability to understand that certain actions really deserve to be praised or really deserved to be scorned even though a command or prohibition from religion has not reached us with regards to it. It can also mean that it has the capability to comprehend why religion has praised or scorned some action if something of the sort has reached us from religion… [In contrast,] the meaning of goodness and evil being religious in nature is that the intelligence does not have the ability to comprehend the goodness and evil [in this meaning of the terms] of any of the actions, nor why they are good or bad, neither before a religious edict nor after one.’36

An Explanation Regarding The View Of The Asharis

What do the Asharis intend when they deny the goodness and evil of actions? Do they deny the intelligibility of goodness and evil or do they also deny essential goodness and evil? Do they hold that we cannot prove that certain actions are good and evil or do they intend to say that actions are not good or evil in and of themselves? Do they really wish to say that justice is only good and oppression only evil because God has commanded one of them and prohibited the other and that if we suppose that God were to prohibit us from being just it would be bad and oppression would become good?

The reality of the matter is that there are a number of different expressions [regarding this matter] in the works of the scholars of the Ashari school of thought. The apparent meaning of some of their sayings supports the first possibility while the apparent meaning of some of their other expressions strengthens the second possibility. However, in any case, we will hereunder mention some possible interpretations for their view and then fairly and rationally evaluate each of them.

1. The first possibility is that the Asharis intend to say that man’s intellect does not have the capability to the comprehend goodness and evil of each and every one of man’s actions and responsibilities and it is for this very reason that it needs the message of the prophets. In order to explain, even though the intelligence has the ability to comprehend the principles of religious beliefs it is incapable of understanding particular matters of beliefs as well as most of the problems related to man’s religious responsibilities. For example, Man’s intelligence cannot comprehend many of the events that will take place in the Resurrection: The pain that man experiences when his soul is taken from his body, the punishment in the grave, the questioning of Munkar and Nakir in the grave, the stations of the Day of Resurrection, the Bridge and the Scales and the likes of these are examples of matters related to the Afterlife which the human mind would not have understood [had religion not have told him that such events will indeed take place].

Or for example, the number of units in each of the prayers, the manner in which the ritual prayer and fast are to be carried out, the specific timings of the acts of worship, the fact that it is recommended to fast on the last day of Shaban while it is obligatory to fast on the first day of Ramadan and prohibited to fast on the first day of Shawwal (the Eid al Fitr) are all matter that transcend the intelligence and it is silent with regards to them. It is incapable of comprehending the goodness and evil of such actions. There is no other way to understand their goodness and or evil than by taking help from the guidance of divine revelation. In this regard the role of revelation is to disclose the essential goodness and or evil of actions to us. Based upon this interpretation, the Asharis share the same view as the Adliyyah as regards the reality of goodness and evil. On the other hand, since they believe in the incapability of human intelligence, they adhere to the divine command theory when it comes to the comprehension of the goodness and evil of actions.

If this is what the Asharis intend when they deny goodness and evil then it is justifiable and capable of being defended. We also believe that one of the principal reasons that the human race is in need of the divine message and the succor of the prophets is the imperfections of human intelligence. The intellect cannot independently comprehend all of the diverse dimensions of the path to felicity, the perils that lead to damnation and also the cause-and-effect relationship that exists between the deeds of men and the consequences that they will entail in the afterlife.37

However, something more can than this can be gathered from what has been related from the Asharis. They clearly state that without the religious edict in the external world the actions of men lack inherent goodness and or evil in and of themselves. It is the commands and prohibitions of God that make them good and evil. For example, Cushji, after stating that goodness and evil are religious in nature, says:

‘The proof for this matter is that all actions are equal from the point of view of goodness and evil. There is no action that, in and of itself, deserves praise, or whose agent deserves to be rewarded or punished. It is only the command and prohibition of God that gives them such a quality.’38

2. The second possibility that can be mentioned as an interpretation for the claim of the Asharis is that their Divine Command Theory is of the third type [that we mentioned previously]. Meaning, they hold that goodness and evil are conventional qualities that are made and which lack any basis in external reality. If some action is good while another is bad then this depends upon the type of convention that a certain society or group of individuals formed. Of course, it is equally possible for general and international conventions to exist but since we are Muslims and obey the laws of God we see the root of all conventions to be His commands and prohibitions. Whatever He made good we understand to be good and whatever He considers as bad we will also count as being bad.

This interpretation is more in line with the sayings of the Asharis. As was mentioned in the explanation of the first possibility, the Asharis claim that the actions that stem from the free-will of human beings cannot have such qualities nor is it possible for us to comprehend such qualities in them. Therefore, from their point of view, goodness and evil are not quiddities such that they might possess an external existence nor are they philosophical concepts such that they might have a locus from which they might be abstracted nor are they connected to the personal tastes and feelings of human beings. Thus, they are not related in any way to beings in the external world. Rather, they are a type of divine convention.

Possessing A Source Of Abstraction In The External World

In our opinion ‘goodness and evil’ as well as ‘must and must not’ are not indications of the feelings and emotions of the speaker nor are they simply conventions (whether the one making them be the intelligence of an individual, a society or the command and prohibitions of God); rather, they are real concepts possessing an external existence. Of course, they do not exist in the way quiddities do such that they might possess an independent external existence. Rather, they are of the type of philosophical concepts that have a source of abstraction in the external world. In terms that we have been using up till now their occurrence is mental while they are attributed of things in the external world.

This is exactly like the second view regarding physical beauty that understood the reality of beauty to be the harmoniousness of external things. We also hold that in order for the mind to abstract the concept of goodness there has to be some accordance and harmony between two things. Of course, this accordance and harmony should be between two real beings in the external world and should not depend upon the personal tastes and preferences of individuals.39

Even though it is possible that one of the two sides [of this relationship] is a human being but it is not because he has a certain temperament rather because certain perfection will come into being for him in the external world. On side [of this relation] is an action that stems from man’s free-will and the other side is his real perfection that is sought to be brought into existence in the external world. Every action that leads to that desired perfection and serves to help us attain it will be ‘good’. Every action that distances man from that will be ‘bad’.

Therefore, the goodness and evil of a certain action of man will only be grasped after intellectual contemplation and a comparison between that action and the perfection that is desired [to be brought about through it]. The goodness and evil of all actions cannot be solved using the personal tastes or conventions of individuals. Is it possible for us to reach an agreement that from now on oppression will be good and justice will be evil? Principally speaking, how can we comprehend that this agreement, which is in itself one of the deeds of man, is good or bad? Is this to be solved by another agreement [ad infinitum]?

In other words, when we compare each one of the deeds of men with the perfection that is desired for them then three possibilities come into play, rationally speaking: The first is that there is a positive relationship between them. This means that performing those actions helps us attain that ultimate perfection. In this case we name these actions as ‘good.’ The second is that there is a negative relation between the two. In other words, performing those actions hinders us from reaching that perfection. Such actions will be described as being bad. The third possibility is that there be no relation between the deed and the sought-after perfection, neither positive nor negative. In this case, such actions (if they should happen to exist) will neither be good nor bad. Terminologically speaking, in relation to the desired human perfection they have a neutral value.

In conclusion, the standard by means of which we can measure the goodness and evil of actions is their being conducive or preventive to the goal desired for humanity. In other words, the concepts of ethical goodness and evil can be considered an extension of the concept ‘causality.’ In the same way that the concepts of cause and effect are abstracted from things existing in the external world and can be justifiably attributed to those things, goodness and evil is also abstracted from the casual relationship that exists between the deeds of man and the perfection that is desired for him and thus can be justifiably attributed to them.

The Root Of Ethical Differences

With the explanation that we have just presented for the standard of goodness and evil of deeds an important point becomes clarified. That is the secret behind the differences that exists between different nations and societies regarding the goodness and or evil of certain actions. In order to explain, some actions are considered good in some societies while they are considered bad in certain others. Famous examples of this are the slaughtering of animals which is considered an evil action by some Indians or the drinking of wine and eating of the meat of pigs in the eyes of some Western people while the same are considered respectively good and evil by Muslims. Many philosophers take this difference of opinion as a proof to substantiate the claim that ethics is relative.

However, with the explanation that we have just presented it can be understood that the source of such differences of opinion can be possibly one of two things: 1. An improper understanding of the truly deserving perfection of man that stems from a faulty world view. 2. An improper comprehension of the true relationship that exists between the deeds of men and their sought-after perfection. In other words, even though such individuals may have properly understood what is the true perfection of man they do not accurately understand what effects our actions have in helping us attain such a desired perfection.

Therefore, if we wish to eliminate the differences that exist between different societies regarding ethical matters and that all individuals and societies have a common understanding of what actions are good and bad along with correcting their understanding of the perfection that is proper to human beings it is necessary to take recourse to the divine message of religion. Without a doubt, the human mind has the ability to independently comprehend, in many instances, the relations between certain deeds and the consequences that accrue from them. It is for this reason that we see less of a difference of opinion amongst human societies in regards to ethical principles. The problems that have been labeled by the scholars of Usul as ‘mustaqillat e aqli’ (things that are comprehended by the intellect independent of religion) are all of such a nature. However, there are many other instances, especially in the particular applications of those general principles, where the intelligence does not find within itself such a capability. The comprehension of such matters lies outside the scope of the powers of human intelligence. In the words of Mowlavi:

عقل را ره نیست آن سو ز افتقاد

‘There is no way for the intellect to go over to that side.’

It is here that it stands in need of the help of revelation. By explaining the relations between such actions and the desired perfection of man, religion helps the intellect discover the secret relation that exists between them. Therefore, in such cases relying on religion, the intellect accepts the goodness or evil of certain actions. This is in fact one God’s favors to men. This has been beautifully put in the following way:

الواجبات الشرعیة الطاف فی الوجبات العقلیة

‘The obligations of religion are favors in relation to the obligations of the intellect.’

  • 1. Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata", "Ethics", Baruch Spinoza, p179-180.
  • 2. "Ethics", Spinoza, p. 154-155.
  • 3. Al Ilahiyyat min al Shifa; p. 380-381; al Hikmah al Muta’aliyyah, v. 7, p. 58.
  • 4. Taj al Urus, v. 3, p. 194.
  • 5. Pishniyazhaye Mudiriyat Islami, p. 107-119.
  • 6. Akhlaq Nikumakus, ch 1, p. 1.
  • 7. It seems that the concepts good and bad are self-evident and cannot be defined properly speaking. The reason for this is that any attempt to define good and bad depends upon one understanding that certain definitions are better than others (such as the definition that possesses both genus and differentia) and that when one defines something it is best to use those types of definitions that are better than others. (Tr.).
  • 8. Al Mizan fi Tafsir al Qur’an, v. 5, p. 9-11.
  • 9. The History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 1, p. 291; Manaye Zibai, Eric Newton, p. 375, 33-34; Kuliyyat Ziba Shinasi, p. 7.
  • 10. This could perhaps be because the power of reason understands that this flower possesses a certain amount of mathematical harmony.
  • 11. The senses are capable of perceiving accidents such as color, smell etc. They cannot, however, perceive that there is a substance that these accidents adhere in. It is the power of reason that concludes that there must be a substance upon which they adhere. This is the substance that we name ‘a physical body’ of which these accidents are effects. For an acquaintance with the proofs for the existence of substance refer to the Elements of Muslim Metaphysics, by the late Allamah Tabatabai. (Tr.).
  • 12. Manaye Zibai, p. 33-34.
  • 13. Kuliyyat Ziba Shinasi, p. 8-9; Manaye Honar, p. 2-7
  • 14. We prove this in the following way: (1) If beauty were a quiddity that existed in the external world, then it would either be a substance or an accident. (2) It cannot, however, be a substance, since if were a substance then it would either be an immaterial substance or a material one. (3) If it were a material substance it could not be predicated for immaterial beings, which is clearly not the case. (4) If it were an immaterial substance then it could not be predicated for material beings. This is also clearly untrue. (5) If beauty were an accident thing would not be substantially beautiful. This is also clearly untrue.
  • 15. Manaye honar, p. 2.
  • 16. Kuliyyat Ziba Shinasi, p. 53-87; Baztab Kar wa Tabiyyat dar Honar, p. 88-90; Zaban, Haqiqat wa Mantiq, p. 157.
  • 17. A Theory of Art, S. D. Ross, p. 35.
  • 18. Manaye Honar, p. 15.
  • 19. Of course, there is a difference of opinion as to whether or not animals also have a sense of beauty. Some, like Darwin, adamantly defend this view and the same can be inferred from some of the sayings of Allamah Tabatabai (Usul al Falsafah, v. 2, p. 200). Others are of the opinion that animals do not have a sense of smell. (See: Baztab Kar wa Tabiyyat dar Honar, p. 73-75).
  • 20. ‘Moore, George Edward’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 5, p. 379-380.
  • 21. ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 128-129.
  • 22. History of Philosophy, Frederick Copelston, v. 8, p. 445-447.
  • 23. Of course, some others are of the belief that it can be inferred from some of the sayings of Moore that he understands the concept of good to be an abstract one and a secondary intelligible. See: Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 200-203.
  • 24. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 9.
  • 25. A History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 8, p. 445-448.
  • 26. A History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 8, p. 512.
  • 27. Zaban, Haqiqah wa Mantiq, p. 145-146.
  • 28. ‘Morality and Religion’ in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, p. 496-497; Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 75.
  • 29. Al Fawaed, p. 320-327; Nihayah al Dirayah fi Sharh al Kifayah, v. 2, p. 44, 318-319; Durus fi al Ilm al usul, v. 1, p. 361-362.
  • 30. Kashf al Murad, p. 302; Sharh al Faraed, p. 330; Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 199.
  • 31. Isharat al Maram, p. 75-78.
  • 32. Al Iqtisad fi al Itiqad, p. 186-197; al Mahsul fi Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 123; al Tahsil min al Mahsul, v. 1, p. 180, al Barahin dar Ilm Kalam, v. 1, p. 246-250; Sharh al Mawaqif, v. 8, p. 181-195; Dirasat Aqliyyahwa Ruhiyyah fi al Falsafah al Islamiyyah, p. 257-258.
  • 33. Sarmaye Iman, p. 60-61; Matareh al Anzar, p. 230-232, Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 200-202; Sharh Tajrid al Itiqad, Qushji, p. 327-328; al Mahsul fi Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 123-124; al Tahsil min al Mahsul, v. 1, p. 180-181; Sharh al Mawaqif, v. 8, p. 182; Falsafah al Shariyah, p. 270-273.
  • 34. After pointing out the meaning of good and evil ibn Taymiyyah says the following regarding this meaning of good and evil: There are some individuals that affirm a third meaning for good and evil and have claimed that there is a consensus of opinion regarding it. This meaning is that goodness refers to an action being the cause of an attribute of perfection or an attribute of imperfection. This is a third meaning that most of the previous theologians have not mentioned in this problem however some of the later theologians have mentioned it such as Razi, who had taken it from the philosophers.’ Majmuah al Fatawa, v. 8, p. 186-187.
  • 35. Sharh al Mawaqif, v. 8, p. 182; Sharh Tajrid al Itiqad, Qushji, p. 338.
  • 36. Sarmaye Iman, p. 59.
  • 37. Ma’arif Qur’an p. 9-30; Akhlaq dar Qur’an, v. 1, p. 103-110; Nazariyyeh Siyasi Islam, v. 1, p. 58-60.
  • 38. Sharh Tajrid al Itiqad, p. 338.
  • 39. Pishniyazhaye Mudiriyyat Islami, p. 107-112.