Chapter 5: The Reality Of Ethical Statements

In the first chapter we stated that the most important discussions of the Philosophy of Ethics are the following three general discussions: (1) discussions revolving around the meanings [of ethical concepts], (2) the logical connections [between ethical propositions] and (3) epistemological discussions surrounding ethical propositions. The main axis around which the discussions that we have conducted up till now have revolved have been the meaning of ethical concepts. While doing so we have also gained an acquaintance with some of the logical discussions about ethical propositions and concepts. Now the time has come to examine one of the most important epistemological discussions about ethical propositions that can be considered the most important and fundamental problems of the Philosophy of Ethics. This is whether the reality of ethical propositions are declaratory or conventional?

There can be no doubt in the fact that all of the philosophers and thinkers that have occupied themselves with this question were completely aware of the fact that in common language ethical rules can be equally expressed in both ways. In order to express the fact that acting justly is something good human beings sometimes use declaratory statements such as: ‘Acting justly is something good.’ Often however, they express this as a command and in a conventional manner: ‘Be just,’ or: ‘One must act justly.’ Or in order to express the propriety of telling the truth, in accordance with what the situation demands, they may say: ‘Telling the truth is something good.’ At other times they may use sentences such as: ‘Tell the truth,’ or: ‘One must tell the truth.’ The same goes for the other actions of men that stem from their free-will and are ethically judged by others.

However, we know that declaratory statements and conventional ones possess fundamental differences between them and it is impossible to really combine in one instance. If in some instances certain rules are expressed in both ways, such as is the case with these ethical commands, then in reality one of the two manners of expressions are metaphorical and have been thus expressed for certain psychological and educational reasons. Aside from this it is not possible for one statement to be really a conventional statement and also a declaratory one at the same time. It is for this reason that everyone that has thought about matters in the Philosophy of Ethics and have written anything in this regard have found themselves face to face with this vital question: What is the reality of ethical propositions?

Are they conventional or are they declaratory? In other words, are ethical propositions ones that cognitive? Meaning, is it possible for us to understand their truth or falsehood? Or are they non-cognitive in nature? We can express this in yet a third way: Are they inventive/creative or do they disclose [something for us]? Meaning, are they conventional, man-made and invented by individuals without having any basis in external realities or are they real and true statements by means of which external reality is revealed to us?

Of course, by taking up a stance in this topic some of the other epistemological problems surrounding ethical statements will automatically be resolved. For example, (1) the problem of the standard by means of which we divide the intellect into the practical intellect and the theoretical one, (2) the problem of whether the faculty that comprehends ethical rules is different from the one that comprehends the rules of the other sciences and disciplines or not (and that man does not have more than one faculty of comprehension), (3) the problem of the intelligibility of ethical statements and (4) the type of demonstrations that are used in ethics are some of the questions the answer to which depend upon resolving whether ethical propositions are declaratory or conventional.

Declaration And Convention

Even though the difference between declaration and convention is something that is clear for everyone in order for us to enter the forthcoming discussions with more of an open eye it is only fitting that we first of all indicate the definition of declaratory and conventional statements and the differences that exist between them.

In most of the books on Logic1 after dividing words into simple and composite words and then mentioning the different types of simple words the following is mentioned regarding composite words: There are two types of composite words: Complete and Incomplete. The incomplete composite is the one that is composed in such a way that even though the listener may have heard it he still waits for the speaker to complete it. In the parlance of the logicians: ‘It is not proper [for the listener or speaker] to remain silent after it.’ For example, if someone says: ‘The value of every man is equal to his…’ and thereafter remains silent he has uttered an incomplete composite statement. Of course, incomplete composite words are themselves divided into other sub-categories that can be sought out in the books on Logic. In contrast the complete composite word is that which is composed in such a way that its subject and predicate or precedent and antecedent have been expressed in a complete manner. After having heard it, the listener does not wait for the speaker to complete his statement. Terminologically speaking: ‘It is proper [for the speaker or listener] to remain silent after having heard or uttered such a statement.’ For example: ‘The value of every human being is equal to the good deeds that he has performed.’

The complete composite statement, between the parts of which there is a comprehensive relation, can itself be divided into two types: Declaratory ones and Conventional ones. In the parlance of the logicians, complete composite and declaratory words are often named ‘propositions’ or ‘speech’ and their distinctive quality is that they are capable of being attributed as being true or false. Sentences such as the following: ‘The Iranian Revolution achieved victory in the year 57,’ and: ‘In the future the power of government will fall in the hands of the oppressed and down-trodden,’ can be considered of such a nature since if what they declare accords with reality then they are true and if not then they are false. In other words, a declaratory statement is one that has a stable reality aside from its words and the form of the sentence simply seeks to express that reality.

In contrast, the complete, composite and conventional sentence cannot be attributed with being true or false. In other terms, it does not posses an unchanging truth aside from the words used in it. Rather, the complete relation that exists between its parts is created with the existence of the words themselves. Sentences such as the following: “Be trustworthy,’ ‘Do not befriend evil people,’ Do you know the effects of not enjoining the good and forbidding the evil?’ ‘Oh chivalrous ones!’ ‘I wish that oppression was eradicated from the world!’ ‘What a virtuous man!’ are different examples of statements that are of the conventional type. Such statements cannot essentially be attributed with being true or false. In other words, it is not possible to ask the following question with regards to any of them: ‘Do they accord with reality or not?’ The reason for this is that their ‘reality’ is created the moment that they are uttered and before this they do not posses any sort of truth or reality whatsoever.

It should be noted that the topic of declarations and conventions and also the reality of declaratory and conventional statements is one of the discussions that was focused upon in this century by the Usuli scholars. They have presented many novels and at the same time diverse views and thoughts in this field.2 In order to gain an acquaintance with some of the hairsplitting analysis of the Usulis on this problem it is only proper that one take a glance at a list of some of the problems that was the focus of their attention:

(1) Does the difference between declaratory and conventional statements lie in their madlul e tasawwuri (the conception that the statement conveys) or their madlul e tasdiqi (the proposition that it conveys)?3

(2) Does their difference lie in the intention with which they were made? In other words, if someone utters a statement with the intention of relating something regarding the external world then that statement will be declarative while if the same statement is uttered with the intention of creating something therein then the statement will be conventional. Or does the intention to create something have nothing to do with and has no effect upon the conventional nature of a statement?

(3) Does the difference between declaratory and conventional statements lie in the manner in which they relate [something about the external world]? In other words, if by uttering some statement someone intends to express a relation that already exists therein then his statement will be declaratory and otherwise it will be conventional. Or, does their difference lie in that which they seek to relate and express not the manner in which they express it? Meaning that, if what they seek to relate is the existence of a relation and its reality then the sentence will be declaratory while if they seek to recount the creation of a relation and its coming into existence after having once not existed then it will be conventional.4

(4) Is the standard by means of which we can judge the truth and or falsehood of declaratory statements the qasd e jiddi (the sincere intention of the speaker) or their qasd e istimali (the intention of the speaker to use a word in the meaning it was coined for)?5

(5) Is the standard of the truth and falsehood of a statement its hikayat e tasdiqi (the proposition that it conveys) or wujud nisbat e tammah (the existence of its complete relation)?6

This a list of some of the profound and hairsplitting discussions of the scholars of Usul and that are, in their own place, very beneficial and helpful.

An Examination Of A Few Views

When we scrutinize the matters and views that were mentioned in the previous chapter regarding the definability and un-definability of ethical concepts then it will become clear that there are a number of different types of views regarding the ikhbari and or inhsai nature of ethical propositions. The reason for this is that the first step in solving this problem and the corner stone upon which it rests is the semantic analysis of ethical concepts. It is only natural that any stance that we adopt there will have a direct effect upon this problem.

Therefore, it is possible to divide the different ethical schools of thought keeping this problem in mind into two general groups: Descriptive and Non-Descriptive or ones that are founded upon the fact that ethical statements seek to ‘create’ something in the external world and ones that adhere to the fact that they seek to ‘disclose’ something about it. The following schools of thought can be considered to be amongst those that believe that ethical propositions are inshai in nature and that they do not intend to describe anything regarding reality: Imperativism, Emotivism, Socialistic, the Divine-Command and the Conventionalist theories. In contrast to such groups, there are a number of different kinds of Naturalistic, Intuitivist and Philosophical theories. Such theories must be subsumed under those theories that hold that ethical propositions are declarative in nature.

Therefore, here we will briefly criticize and evaluate some of the most important schools of thought and views that can be subsumed under ‘Descriptive’ and ‘Non-Descriptive’ ethical schools of thought. Further explanation regarding such schools of thought should be relegated for the section of this ethical research project that will deal with an [independent] examination and critical analysis of the different ethical schools of thought.

Non-Descriptive Schools Of Thought


Imperativists are of the opinion that, even though some ethical propositions are apparently declarative, they are all in reality commands. ‘One must speak the truth,’ and ‘Speaking the truth is good,’ are misleading statements whose real form has been altered from the following proposition: ‘Tell the truth.’7 Statements that are expressed in the form of a command are inshai in nature and therefore, one cannot speak of their being true or false. The reason for this is that they do not express anything regarding the real world such that if they were to be in accord with that, they would be true while if they were not in accord with that they would be false.


Emotivists understand ethical propositions to be simply expressive of the manner in which the speaker has personally understood [something] and his individual feelings about it. It is clear that such personal takes on a subject cannot be attributed with truth or falsehood.8 For example, if someone says: ‘I like coffee,’ it is not correct to say that he is expressing something regarding a truth that exists in the external world. The same goes if someone should say that: ‘Telling the truth is good.’ Meaning, by uttering such a statement he has not anything other than expressed his emotions and personal feelings.

In other words, when we have accepted on the basis of logical positivism that meaningful statements are limited to analytical statements and those propositions that are made with regards to realities that are capable of being verified through experimentation, then it necessarily follows that ethical propositions are meaningless and that they lack any epistemological value. The reason for this is that ethical rules are not analytical nor are they justifiable by means of sense experiment. Consequently, they are not capable of being true or false. This is because a statement’s being true or false depends upon it having a meaning.9

It should not be left unsaid that based upon the view of emotivists when an individual utters an ethical rule, he has sought to create by means of this proposition his temperament and personal tastes and he does not even seek to relate anything regarding his mental condition. Otherwise, it would be necessary to say that the emotivists were adherents of the Descriptive theories even while they explicitly say that ethical statements, in opposition to their apparent form, are inshai and do not possess any epistemological value. In brief, in the view of Emotivists:

The distinctive feature of ethical judgments does not lie in the fact that they express the beliefs of the speaker [regarding reality] rather they lie in the fact that they show us his temperament. Also, it does not lie in the fact that they increase or change the knowledge and beliefs of the listener rather it lays in that they change his temperament and more than likely have an effect upon his actions. To summarize, fundamentally, ethical statements do not possess a dimension of being declarative rather they possess a dimension of being effective.10


The staunchest advocate of this view is Richard Mervyn Ayer. Like the Emotivists he also rejects the fact that ethical statements are declarative and states that if we sometimes see that some ethical rules possess such a dimension then this is simply an accidental matter. In the view of Ayer, basically ethical statements are the practical answers of individuals [for certain problems] and they are not answers to theoretical and epistemological queries. An ethical rule is in reality much like a piece of advice or a suggestion that is given in response to the question: ‘What should I do?’ Meaning, the basic goal [of such statements] is to guide the listener and not to excite his emotions.

When someone says: ‘What should I do?’ then he has asked for his emotions to be stimulated rather he has sought to be guided. In brief, in the view of Ayer ethical rules resemble simple commands and are kinds of suggestions that guide others with the difference that they are, in contrast to simple commands, universal.11

The Viewpoint Of Itibari Concepts

Previously a few things have been said regarding the Conventionalist view and there we say that some of the great scholars understand ethical concepts to depend [in their meaning] upon the goals of someone who makes them and that they do not have any reality other than the convention and itibar of the individual that makes them. It appears that the logical conclusion of this view with regards to ethical propositions is that (Of course, such great scholars actually accept such a thing) they are inshai in nature and that they do not possess a declarative dimension that expresses something regarding reality. The reason for this is that if even one of the parts (such as the predicate) of a statement be itibari then we cannot say that the statement as a whole possess a real and true extension. Therefore, the relation that exists between a subject and an itibari predicate is one that is [like the predicate] man-made, suppositional and itibari.12

The principal reason that declarative statements are attributed with truth and falsehood is that by uttering them the speaker seeks to relate something regarding reality. This is while he does not have any such intention when he makes in regards to itibari matters. In other words, when someone like Firdawsi says: ‘Two spears, two arms, two brave men, one dragon and one roar of a lion,’ he does not wish to express something regarding the external world and that one man is really a lion and one of them a dragon. Or, for example, when someone says: ‘One must speak the truth,’ or ‘Justice is good,’ then they do not wish to communicate something regarding an external reality. Therefore, we cannot attribute such statements with truth or falsehood or say that the one who uttered them is speaking the truth or is a liar. Fundamentally speaking, it should be known that it is the statement that seeks to communicate something about reality in which the speaker intends to express something regarding reality that is divided into true and false statements not itibari propositions. The latter are simple statements that the mind makes with the intention of solving some [practical] problems of life and which possess a creative or itibari aspect to them. They do not, however, have anything to do with reality.13

It is true that even conventional knowledge is attributed with being false in the statements of Allamah Tabataba’i but a careful examination of all of the dimensions of what he has mentioned in this regard shows us that he does mean to say that they are really ‘false’ such that the meaning of the proposition would not be in accord with external reality. Rather, it is only an apparent falsehood, or, in his words, a ‘poetic’ falsehood that falls outside the scope of our current discussion. Careful examination of what we shall now relate from him can clarify this reality for us:

اگر دانشمندى كه از نقطه نظر واقع بينى- به تميز مطابقت و عدم مطابقت مفاهيم- و تشخيص صدق و كذب قضايا مى‏پردازد- با اين مفاهيم و قضاياى استعارى روبرو شود- البته مفردات آنها غير مطابق با مصاديق و مركبات- و قضاياى آنها را كاذب تشخيص خواهد داد- زيرا مطابق خارجى كلمه شير- جانور درنده مى‏باشد نه انسان- و مطابق واژه ماه كره‏اى است آسمانى نه خوب‏روى زمينى‏…چنانكه اگر كلمه شير يا ماه را- بى عنايت مجازى در مورد سنگ- بجاى واژه سنگ استعمال كنيم غلط خواهد بود- بى مطابقت- يا اگر بگوئيم- گاهى كه آفتاب بالاى سر ما مى‏باشد شب است- دروغ خواهد بود بى مطابقت-.ولى دانشمند مزبور- ميان اين دو نوع غلط و دروغ فرقى خواهد ديد- و آن اينست كه غلط و دروغ واقعى اثرى ندارد- ولى غلط و دروغ شاعرانه آثار حقيقى واقعى دارد- زيرا تهييج احساسات درونى- و آثار خارجى مترتب باحساسات درونى را- بدنبال خود دارد-.

‘If a scholar wishes to objectively distinguish the concurrence of concepts [with reality] and the truth or falsehood of propositions then he will find himself face to face with such metaphorical concepts. Of course, he will find that their individual components to not be in accord with reality and the propositions that are composed of them to be false. This is because, it is a ravenous animal that is the extension of the word ‘lion’ not any human being and the extension of the word ‘moon’ is a celestial sphere not any beautiful face…in the same way that it will be false for one to use the word ‘lion’ or ‘moon’ for a rock without anything to justify the metaphor (non-concurrence) or if he were to say: ‘Sometimes when the sun shines above us it is night,’ this will be a lie (non-concurrence); At the same time, the scholar will see a difference between these two types of falsehood and that is that the real falsehood does not have any effect [on anyone] while the poetic lie has real effects [on those that hear them].’14

Descriptive Theories

We have stated that the stance that we adopt with regards to ethical concepts has a direct effect upon our view on ethical propositions. Based upon this if with regards to ethical concepts someone were to believe in one of the Naturalistic theories or Intuitivistic ones then he must hold that ethical propositions are declarative in nature. In reality there are a number of opinions as to what is the external reality that ethical propositions relate and what is it that they seek to express.

A large number of experts in the field of ethics hold that ethical rules seek to express a reality that exists within the soul of man not something external to him. In other words, these people opine that ethical propositions describe the conditions of the world lies within man’s soul not the universe without. In contrast, a group holds that ethical statements express and describe things outside us. In the view of Epicureans the reality that ethical propositions wish to depict is the conditions and realities within the soul of man. For example, someone like Moore who believes that the concept ‘good’ is a real and objective one and who define other [ethical] concepts based upon that, hold that a proposition such as the following: ‘One must speak the truth,’ seeks to express an external reality and thus say that it would be capable of being attributed with being true or false. If the statement is in accord with the reality that it seeks to express then it will be true otherwise it will be false.

If truth be told, the Intuitivists agree with such a Naturalistic viewpoint that understands ethical rules to be an expression of the qualities of actions that we perform in the external world while they differ from them in that Intuitivists believe that some of the ethical qualities are incapable of being defined, simple and un-analyzable. In the view of such people, there is no need to take recourse to other propositions in order for us to affirm statements such as the following: ‘Telling the truth is good,’ and ‘Lying is bad.’ The reason for this is that [ethical] rules that contain concepts such as good and bad are self-evident ones that are understood via the intuition of the intellect. The intuition of the intellect is the standard by means of which we assess the truth or falsehood of ethical propositions in the view of the Intuitivists. Intutuitivists stress the declarative and qualitative nature of ethical propositions to such an extent that some of their critics have brought up this very matter as a proof that their views are unjustifiable. William Frankena says the following in this regard:

In sum, it seems that Intuitivism is unjustifiable even if it has not been proven to be wrong…apparently, ethical rules, whether they are natural or not, are not simply descriptive. Ethical propositions advise [others to do certain things], legalize [certain actions], explain what things are conducive to [certain ethical traits] and which are not, and so on and so forth.15

Our View

In our view there is a real and objective relationship between the deeds of man and the perfection that is desired by him. This is a cause-and-effect type of relationship. By means of our ethical rules we seek to express and describe such an objective relationship. This is clearly the result of the analysis that we presented with regards to ethical concepts. Since we understood concepts such as ‘must’ and ‘must not’ to be expressive of the relationship between the deeds of man and the perfection that is desired by him and that concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are philosophical ones that express the type of relationship that lies between actions and the ultimate perfection of human beings it is only natural that ethical propositions should be declarative and expressive of that same objective reality. Therefore, they should be capable of being attributed with truth or falsehood.

In reality, even though some ethical rules are apparently inshai they are not different from the rules of experimental sciences or mathematics in that they relate or disclose something about the real world to us. Thus, in the same way that the propositions of the experimental sciences express external reality ethical propositions also disclose this objective reality. The only difference between them is the special clauses that ethical rules have. Therefore, we assess the truth and or falsehood of ethical propositions by means of the same standard by means of which we judge the truth and or falsehood of scientific, logical or philosophical propositions. As we have explained elsewhere16, the standard by means of which we can judge the truth and or falsehood of scientific, logical and philosophical propositions is their accordance with or non-accordance with reality. The reality of experimental and scientific propositions is external realities and the reality of philosophical and logical propositions is the mental existence of the reality that they seek to express. This differs in philosophical and logical propositions. For example, in logical propositions the reality [that they seek to express] is a specific level of the mind, while the reality that ‘the impossibility of the conjunction of contradictions’ seeks to express is a supposed external existence. In this way, the measure by means of which we asses the truth or falsehood of ethical propositions is the effectiveness or futility [of certain actions] in helping us achieve our desired goals.17

It is useful to remember that it is possible that certain individuals may make a mistake in their assessment of what their ultimate goal or purpose is or that they may falter in their judgment of the ways in which to attain the true goals. This does not, however, in any way negate the objectiveness of the cause-effect relation between the deeds of men and the results that accrue from them in the same way that the difference of opinion [and thus mistakes] of certain scientists does not negate the objectiveness of science. In other words, if it said that a certain statement is declarative it is not meant by this that it is necessarily true rather it is possible that a declarative statement be true in the same way that it is possible that it be false. There is thus a difference between a false declarative statement and an inshai one. In a false declarative statement, there is also an expression of external reality but this expression is a mistake and does not accord with reality. On the other hand, in inshai statements there, is fundamentally speaking, no expression of objective reality.

The Benefit Of Using Inshai Statements In Ethics

Keeping in mind the view that we have presented regarding the reality of ethical propositions (i.e. that they are declarative in nature) the following question arises: Why is it that in many cases we use an inshai form to express ethical rules? If all ethical concepts are an expression of the cause-effect relationship that exists between the deeds of man and the consequences that accrue from them, why is it than instead of expressing such a relationship directly we use concepts such as ‘must’ and ‘must not’ or ‘good’ and bad’?

It seems that simplicity and ease are one of the most important factors in the use of ethical concepts in place of an in-detail explanation of the relationship between actions and their consequences. It is for this reason that instead of saying: ‘Telling the truth increases the trust that exists between the members of society, betters their relations and brings about the good-pleasure of God while lying causes its opposite,’ in a short but concise statement it is said: ‘Telling the truth is good and lying is bad.’

What is more, commands and rules, in contrast to declarative statements, are more effective from an educational/pedagogical point of view. Not only does it cause the student to more firmly believe in the truth of and seriousness of the statements of his teacher but what is more, it strongly motivates individuals to perform ethical works. Now, declarative and descriptive statements do not play such a vital part or if they do so only do so in an insignificant manner.

The Consequences Of Understanding Ethical Statements To Be Inshai

The Need For Someone To Form Them

Since every insha is in need of someone that will form it if we assume that ethical propositions are inshai ones then they too will stand in need of someone that will make them. It is for this reason that those who adhere to non-Descriptive views [in the field of ethics] have sought to discover such an individual. It is this problem which has brought into existence a countless number of non-Descriptive theories. Some, such as those that adhere to the Divine Command Theory, understand God to be the one that makes ethical rules. Others, such as the Socialists surmise that it is the intellect of the society as a whole that forms them. Other groups such as those that adhere to Imperativism, Emotivism and Prescriptivism say that it is the intelligence and feelings of individuals that create ethical rules. However, if we understand ethical rules to be declarative and expressive of external realities then such discussions will not, principally speaking, be brought up.

The Necessity For Two Faculties Of Knowledge

One of the unacceptable consequences of believing in the inshai nature of ethical statements is that it is necessary in this case to adhere to the fact that there are two faculties of comprehension in man: A faculty that comprehends what exists and what does not (the Theoretical Intellect) and a faculty that comprehends imperatives which are expressed as what must or must not be done (the Practical Intellect). The reason for this is that if we do not understand ethical statements to be expressive of external realities that exist [independent of our will] rather we say that they are inshai in nature and are simply commands then in this case we have created a barrier between ‘what is’ and ‘what must be’ in such a way that one faculty of comprehension cannot fathom them both.

It should not be left unsaid that the problem of the Theoretical and Practical Intellect is one of the most important questions of Philosophy and Epistemology and one that was brought up amongst Philosophers and Theologians from times immemorial. Different views existed as regards the definition of and usage of each one of the two terms. Even though not many held that there was a separation between ‘what exists’ and ‘what must be done’ they still separated these two faculties from one another for various reasons and intentions. Here, it is fitting that we briefly indicate some of the most important views on this subject and while doing so also explain what our personal view is on the matter.

Great scholars such as Ibn Sina, Bahmanyar, Abul Barakat al Baghdadi, Mulla Sadra (in some of his works) and Abdul Razzaq Lahiji are of the opinion that it is the unconditional responsibility of the Theoretical Intellect to understand universal concepts. This includes the universals that are related to deeds and those actions that stem from man’s free-will such as ‘the goodness of justice and the evil of oppression’ as well as the universals that are theoretical in nature and are related to objective reality. The responsibility of the practical intellect is to think about particular matters in order to practically benefit from them. The obvious conclusion of such a view is that man possesses two faculties within him: One is the faculty that is specifically related to the Universals (the Theoretical Intellect) and the other is the faculty that is related to particulars and that which is practical in nature (the Practical Intellect).

Some other great scholars such as Qutb ad Din Razi in his book the al Muhakimat, the late Naraqi in his Jama as Sadaat, and ibn Maythum Bahrayni in his Commentary on the Nahj al Balagha have stated the following in their definition of the Practical and Theoretical Intellect:
The Theoretical Intellect is a faculty whose responsibility is unconditionally comprehension. This includes understanding the Universals and the Particulars and those things that are related to action or those that are not so. The Practical Intellect is a practical faculty whose job is to work and it does not comprehend anything whatsoever. In the opinion of this group using the word ‘intellect’ for the Practical Intellect is an equivocation of the term otherwise these are two kinds of faculties and there is nothing in common between them other than the fact that they are both faculties of the human soul.

Another view18 in regards to the definition of the Theoretical and Practical Intellect is that we do not posses, in reality, two separate faculties; rather, under certain circumstances the faculty that we have named as the Theoretical Intellect is called the Practical Intellect. In order to explain, every type of comprehension falls within the jurisdiction of the Theoretical Intellect. This includes both the comprehension of concepts that are related to action and those that are not even particular things such as: ‘It is necessary to help this poor person.’ Now, if someone were to really help this poor person in the external world then the same faculty that was previously named ‘the Theoretical Intellect’ will now be called the Practical Intellect. Therefore, the difference between these two is that sometimes the things that the Theoretical Intellect understands are put into practice and at other times they are not. [In the former case the Theoretical Intellect will be named the Practical Intellect].

It appears that before defining the Theoretical and Practical Intellect it is better to define the Intellect itself and that we obtain a better picture of what it is. Following this we can explain the reason as to why it is divided into the Theoretical and Practical Intellect.

Many different definitions can be found for the Intellect in the works of the Muslim Philosophers, Theologians and Usulis several of which are simply rewordings of one another.19 Some20 have surmised that the Intellects has certain wants, needs, and requirements that are satisfied by the performance of specific actions. Intelligent people praise or scold others for some deeds in order to satisfy the desires of the intellects.

Nonetheless, as some of the great scholars21 have explicitly stated the reality of the matter is that the Intellect is a faculty of comprehension whose responsibility is to fathom the Universal [concepts and propositions]. There is no sort of inclination or desire within it22 and principally speaking the faculty that is the Intellect is not of the type that desires anything. If sometimes desire is predicated of it then this is simply a metaphorical predication that does not really befit it. For example, sometimes we may say: ‘My eyes find pleasure in looking at certain sights,’ even though taking pleasure in some sight is not the action of the eyes. The job of the eyes is to see while taking pleasure is related to the soul. In any case, the Intellect does not entice one to anything nor does it command or prohibit things. It is not the responsibility of the Intellect to command or prohibit [one from things]. The passion that man has in understanding truths drives him to discover and understand them and after he has unraveled complicated problems, he feels a certain personal satisfaction in having done so.

Some philosophers23 have said that the station of the Intellect is equal to the very degree of the spirit and rational soul of man and therefore, it cannot be counted as one of the specific internal faculties of the soul. However, it seems that this matter is incorrect. The reality of the soul is far above just being able to understand mental concepts. The reality of the soul can be accurately summed up in being able to intuitively witness the existence of things while the comprehension of mental concepts is something that is performed by means of one of its faculties that lies beneath the lofty station of the human spirit. This faculty is called ‘the faculty of the Intellect’ in the parlance of philosophy.

It is keeping in mind what we have just stated that we have been lead to believe (like other great scholars such as Farabi24, Mulla Hadi Sabzawari25, Muhaqqiq Isfahani26 and the late Muzaffar27) that the difference between the Theoretical and Practical Intellect lies in the type of things that the Intellect comprehends.28 If the thing that has been comprehended is not practical in nature such as the knowledge of external realities, the understanding of God and His Essential Attributes, etc. then in this case we name the Intellect ‘the Theoretical Intellect.’ However, if what has been understood is practical in nature [and is something that can be created by the free-will of man] such as the comprehension of the goodness of justice and the evil of oppression, the beauty in trusting in God, the resignation of affairs to Him, the obligation of prayer and the recommended-ness of worshipping God in the morning and the likes of these then in this case the Intellect will be named ‘the Practical Intellect.’ Therefore, our soul does not possess two independent faculties of comprehension rather there is only one faculty of knowledge within the soul but since that which it comprehends differs from time to time the Intellect itself has been divided into the Theoretical and Practical Intellect.

Again, we would like to stress the fact that if someone were to understand ethical rules to be inshai in nature then in this case since declarative and inshai propositions are two completely distinct types of propositions it would be necessary for him to hold that the soul possesses two divergent faculties of comprehension. The job of one will be the understanding of concepts and propositions that are related to ‘what is and what is not’ while the responsibility of the other will be to ‘what must be done’ and the obligations of men. However, keeping in mind the fact that ethical propositions are not declarative in nature and that value concepts are rooted in real and objective concepts such a division will not be necessary. Aside from this, principally speaking, we do not possess two distinct faculties of comprehension. Therefore, it behooves those individuals that adhere to the inshai nature of ethical propositions to come up with a solution to this unacceptable and unintelligent corollary of their viewpoint.

Not Having A Standard For The Intelligibility Of Ethical Rules

The problem of the intelligibility of ethical rules and the examination of the place of the intellect and rational demonstration in ethical matters is one of the most important problems mentioned in the epistemological examination of ethical propositions. This is in fact one of the standards by means of which the strength and weakness of ethical schools of thoughts and views can be accurately assessed. There is no doubting in the fact that if we are not able to, in some way, allow rational demonstration to find its way into ethical matters then we will not be able to, as a result, evaluate ethical schools of thought and viewpoints. In this case it will be impossible for us to weigh their correctness and or incorrectness.

The rational examination of ethical rules will only be possible when there is some sort of logical connection between [ethical] values and external realities and ‘values’ return to ‘what exists’ in some way. The reason for this is that the intellect comprehends realities. However, if we hold that ethical rules are inshai in nature not only is there no connection between these ethical rules what is more no sort of rational demonstration will be able to prove them. The personal inclinations and or temperaments of a group of people cannot be proven [to be correct] with a rational proof. For example, it is not proper to ask: ‘What justifies man’s liking a flower?’ Love, inclination, etc. are not things that can be rationally explained. The only time that some topic can be rationally explained is when is when that topic rests firmly upon a series of cause-and-effect relationships. 29

All non-Descriptive theories are afflicted with this big problem. They do not present a rationally acceptable standard by means of which one can evaluate ethical rules. Principally speaking, if we accept the fact that ethical propositions are inshai in nature then there is no way to examine their truth and or falsehood. It is for this reason that in this case not only will there be no way to evaluate the correctness and or incorrectness of an ethical school of thought but, what is more, there will not be any rational way to justify choosing a particular school of thought. The reason for this is that according to non-Descriptive ethical theories the most that ethical propositions express to us is that the individual that formed them desired to do so. When someone gives the order: ‘One must speak the truth,’ even though he has not expressed anything regarding external reality he has indirectly showed us that the desire to speak the truth exists within him. In contrast, if someone were to say: ‘One must not speak the truth,’ then this also indirectly indicates to us that a desire opposite to the one that existed in the previous speaker exists in this speaker. However, in any case there is no way to prove the correctness and or incorrectness of any one of these two views.

It should not be left unsaid that many of those that believe in non-Descriptive schools of thought were themselves aware of this problem. In fact, some of them considered this to be one of the strengths of this viewpoint! Ayer, for example, after stating that if someone makes the following statement: ‘Stealing is evil,’ then he has not expressed any proposition (in the logical meaning of this term) says the following:

It is possible that someone may oppose me in my view that stealing is evil. Meaning, he does not feel the same emotion that I do with regards to it and that he opposes my ethical feelings on the subject. However, he cannot properly speaking negate my statement. The reason for this is that I have not declared anything regarding the external world by stating that such and such an action is correct or incorrect. I have not even declared anything regarding my mental state. I have only expressed some of my feelings [by making such a statement]. Therefore, it is meaningless to ask which one of us speaks the truth. The reason for this is that neither of us has really uttered a proposition.30

Allamah Tabataba’i also explicitly states that:

در مورد اعتباريات- نمى‏توان دست توقع بسوى برهان دراز كرد- زيرا مورد جريان برهان حقايق مى‏باشد و بس

‘It is not possible to take recourse to [logical] demonstration in regards to conventional (itibari) matters. The reason for this is that demonstration is solely relegated for realities.’31

In his Nihayah al Hikmah32 he proves the fact that demonstration cannot work with regards to ethical matters in the following way:

فلأن- من الواجب في البرهان أن تكون- مقدماتها ضرورية دائمة كلية

‘The requisite of demonstration is that its premises be necessary, continuous and universal.’
This is while such conditions only exist in propositions that correspond to the external world. It is for this reason that he understands all of the proofs that have been presented with regard to ethical matters to be popular in nature that do not have any reality behind them other than the consensus of a group of people. It is only natural that if ethical rules are conventional and inshai in nature then neither can they be used as the premises of a demonstration nor can they be proven by the premises of a demonstration. In the words of the Martyr Mutahhari:

ما نمى‏توانيم با دليلى- كه اجزاء آنرا حقايق تشكيل داده‏اند برهان- يك مدعاى اعتبارى را اثبات كنيم- و نيز نمى‏توانيم با دليلى كه از مقدمات اعتبارى تشكيل شده- حقيقتى از حقايق را اثبات كنيم- و هم نمى‏توانيم از مقدمات اعتبارى تشكيل برهان داده- يك امر اعتبارى نتيجه بگيريم… دو در اعتباريات تقدم شى‏ء بر نفس- و ترجح بلا مرجح و تقدم معلول بر علت و ... محال نيست- و انتفاء كل با انتفاء جزء- و انتفاء مشروط با انتفاء شرط و ... ضرورى نيست- و جعل ماهيت و جعل سببيت و ... نامعقول نيست.

‘We cannot prove a conventional matter using a proof the premises of which are objective (i.e. a rational demonstration). Also, we cannot use a proof the premises of which are conventional in nature to prove an objective reality. [The reason for this is that] in regards to conventional matters it is not impossible for something to precede itself, for something to come into existence without a cause, and for an effect to precede its cause. Also, it is not necessary [in conventional matters] for a whole to cease to exist if its parts do so, or for something that is conditioned by something to cease to exist if its condition ceases to exist. It is also not irrational to suppose that a quiddity is created and that causality is itself caused.33

Some others, who adamantly adhere to the separation of values and reality and hold that ethical rules are absolutely inshai in nature, say the following regarding the place of the intellect and rational demonstration in ethics: ‘In no way is it possible to logically prove that something is good or bad in the same way that it is not possible to prove by means of any logical demonstration that some action must be accomplished or not.’

Ethical Propositions Are Capable Of Being Demonstrated

Just as we have previously indicated, we also accept the fact that conventional propositions (from the point of view that they are conventional and keeping aside the fact that they are connected in some way to objective reality) lack the conditions of demonstration. Meaning, they are not necessary, continuous and universal. It is for this reason that they are not able to be used in the premises of any rational demonstration or be proven by rational demonstration. But the crux of the matter is whether ethical propositions are absolutely conventional, arbitrary and inshai in nature or they are related to external reality and truth. In the previous discussions we have extensively proven that ethical concepts and propositions are rooted in objective reality and that they have a source from which they are abstracted. Therefore, it is possible to demonstrate the benefit or detriment of ethical rules by relying upon those external realities and also to utilize those ethical propositions in rational demonstrations.34

Also, we agree with the fact that ethical propositions are, in one meaning of the term, popular in nature. However, one must keep in mind the fact that by being popular in nature it is not necessary for that proposition to possess no reality other than the consensus of a group of intelligent people. Principally speaking, this is an incorrect interpretation of the sayings of Muslim logicians and philosophers. A careful examination of the sayings of philosophers such as Farabi35, Ibn Sina36, Bahmanyar37, Katibi38, Khawajah Nasir ud Din Tusi39 and Shaykh Ishraq40 adequately shows us that there is no contradiction between a proposition’s being popular and its truth or falsehood and thus its capability of being used in a rational demonstration. Although an elaborate examination of each one of their sayings [on the subject] will lengthen our discussion a brief indication, by way of passing, of some of their statements in this regard is beneficial. In his Danish Nameh Ilahi, Ibn Sina states the following regarding popular propositions:

و مثال مشهورات چنان بود ، كه گويند: داد واجب است، و دروغ نشايد گفتن و چنان كه گويند پيش مردمان ، عورت‏ نبايد گشاد ، و كس را بى‏گناه نبايد آزردن. و چنان كه گويند: خداى بر هر چيزى قادرست، و هر چيزى را داند: ازين جمله بعضى راست است ، چنان كه مثالهاء پيشين، و ليكن راستيش بحجّت درست شو

‘An example of a popular proposition is that someone should say: ‘Justice is obligatory,’ or that ‘Lying is evil,’ or that someone should say: ‘One must not reveal one’s private parts to others,’ and that ‘An innocent person should not be bothered,’ and like if one were to say: ‘God is powerful over all things and He knows everything.’ Amongst these some are true such as the previous examples. However, their truth is something that can be proven through a logical proof.’41

Also, Khawjah Nasir ud Din Tusi says the following:

مشهورات حقيقى مطلق چنانك عدل حسن است و ظلم قبيح… مقبول بود بنزديك همه كس- و بر جمله بنزديك عقل عملى صحيح باشد- و اما نزديك عقل نظرى بعضى صادق بود- و بعضى كاذب و آنچه صادق بود باشد- كه صدقش ببرهانى معلوم شو

‘Absolute popular propositions, such as the fact that justice is good and that oppression is evil… are accepted by everyone and are all correct in the eyes of the practical intellect. However, some of them are true according to the Theoretical Intellect while others are false. The ones that are true can be proven based upon rational demonstration.’42

Therefore, it is possible to say that ethical propositions can be counted as being popular when viewed in their apparent form but with a certain amount of meditation they can be reverted to certain and evident propositions and in this case, they can be used as the premises of a rational demonstration. The condition for this is that the actual subject of ethical propositions be accurately understood. For example, the proposition: ‘Telling the truth is good,’ in its common form is not demonstratable in nature. The reason for this is that the conclusions of demonstration are not capable of exception even while we come across some instances where telling the truth is not good. For example, if by telling the truth the blood of an innocent person is spilt then it will not be good. However, in reality the subject of such an ethical proposition is a specific type of telling the truth that is in line with the perfection that we seek and that is beneficial to acquiring that perfection; not each any every instance of telling the truth.

In general, it is possible to state that we have two universal major premises for all ethical rules. If any subject should happen to fall under one of them then it will find its true ruling and also partake of the [logical] conditions of a rational demonstration: One of them is the following: ‘Every action that is conducive to our goals is good.’ The second is the following: ‘Everything that detrimental to our goals is bad.’

Understanding Ethical Rules As Relative

Another one of the unacceptable consequences of most non-Descriptive ethical theories is the relativity of ethics. This is because when ethical rules follow the personal inclinations of individuals and the temperaments of society and do not have any foundation in objective and external reality then it is only natural that when these inclinations and temperaments should happen to change their ethical judgments will also change. It is possible that a certain action which is considered good today may be considered bad tomorrow because of social changes that take place. Conversely, it is equally likely that a certain action which is deemed to be bad under certain social and intellectual circumstances be considered to be good when those circumstances change.

Since the relativity of ethics is something that we will argue in detail in the future discussions we will close out our present discussion with a reminder of one important point. That is that one must keep in mind the fact that ethical relativity is not the necessary consequent of some of the non-Descriptive Ethical theories, such as the Divine Command Theory. This is because in the view of the adherents of such a viewpoint the creator of ethical rules is God not the intelligence of an individual or group of human beings. Now, the Essence and Will of God are not liable to change. Therefore, the goodness of everything that God commands will remain stable and unsusceptible to change. Conversely, everything that He prohibits will always be attributed with being evil unless a new Divine Law should happen to be revealed which should abrogate the previous laws. In any case, unless the rules of one religion are not abrogated it will remain stable and will not change with the changing of the temperaments of individuals and the upheavals of society.

  • 1. Sharh al Shamsiyyah, p. 26-32; Sharh al Manzumah, p. 239-240; al Mantiq, p. 51-54, Jowhar an Nazid, p. 6-7, Asas al Iqtibas, p. 14-16; al Hashiyyah ala Tahzib al Mantiq, p. 24-27
  • 2. Kifayah al Usul, v. 1, p. 16, 98; Nihayah al Dirayah, v. 1, p. 34-35; al Usul ala Nahj al Hadith, p. 26-28, al Talab wa Iradah, p. 14-26; Nihayah al Afkar, v. 1, 2, p. 54-58, al Fawaed, p. 285-287; Manahij al Wusul ila Ilm al Usul, v. 1, p. 92-95.
  • 3. Kifayah al Usul, v. 1, p. 98; Durus fi Ilm al usul, v. 1, p. 90-91, v. 2, p. 73-74.
  • 4. Nihayah al Afkar, v. 1, 2, p. 54-58.
  • 5. Nihayah al Dirayah, v. 1, p. 219-220.
  • 6. Manahij al Wusul ila Ilm al Usul, v. 2, p. 260-261.
  • 7. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 26.
  • 8. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 24-32; Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 220-222; Dar Amadi bar Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 139-140; Moral Vision, p. 24; ‘Emotive Theory of Ethics’ in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 2, p. 493-496; ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 129; ‘Ethics, History of’ in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 106-107; ‘History of Western Ethics: 12’ in the Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 1, p. 538-539.
  • 9. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 25.
  • 10. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 30.
  • 11. Falsafah Akhlaq dar Qarn Hazir, p. 39-44; Dar Amadi bar Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 146, 155; ‘Ethics, History of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 109-110; ‘Ethics, Problems of’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 129-130.
  • 12. Usul Falsafah wa Ravish Realism, v. 2, p. 166.
  • 13. Usul Falsafah wa Ravish Realism, v. 2, p. 137
  • 14. Usul Falsafah wa Ravish Realism, v. 2, p. 153-155
  • 15. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 219-220.
  • 16. Amuzish Falsafah, v. 1, p. 222-224.
  • 17. Amuzish Falsafah, v. 1, p. 231-233.
  • 18. Kawishhaye Aql Nazari, p. 241-242; Kawishhaye Aql Amali, p. 193-201.
  • 19. Sharh al Mustalahat al Falsafiyyah, p. 213-216; Bughyat al Murad, p. 255-274.
  • 20. Al Fawa’id, p. 330.
  • 21. Nihyah al Dirayah, v. 2, p. 311.
  • 22. Akhlaq dar Qur’an, v. 1, p. 207-208.
  • 23. Rasael Ikhwan al Safa, v. 3, p. 457; Sharh al Mustalahat al Falsafiyyah, p. 216.
  • 24. Sharh Manzumah Hikmah, p. 310.
  • 25. Sharh Manzumah Hikmah, p. 310.
  • 26. Nihyah al Diryah, v. 2, 311.
  • 27. Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 205; al Mantiq, v. 1, p. 295-296.
  • 28. Tarjumah wa Sharh Burhan Shifa, v. 1, p. 28.
  • 29. Pishniyazhaye Mudiriyyat Islami, p. 156.
  • 30. Zaban, Haqiqah wa Mantiq, p. 146-147.
  • 31. Usul Falsafah wa Ravish Realism, v. 2, p. 196.
  • 32. Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 259.
  • 33. Usul Falsafah wa Ravish Realism, v. 2, p. 166-167.
  • 34. Taliqah ala Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 393, no 383.
  • 35. al Mantaqiyyat, v. 1, p. 363-366, 421-424.
  • 36. Al Shifa, v. 3, p. 66; al Isharat wa al Tanbihat, v. 1, p. 351; Danish Nameh Alai, p. 52-53.
  • 37. Al Tahsil, p. 99.
  • 38. Shrah al Shamsiyyah, p. 167.
  • 39. Asas al Iqtibas, p. 346-347.
  • 40. Majmuah Musanifat Sheikh Ishraq, v. 2, p. 42.
  • 41. Danish Namah Ilahi, p. 52; al Shifa, v. 3, p. 66.
  • 42. Asas al Iqtibas, p. 346-347.