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Chapter 6: Ethical Values

In the beginning it will be beneficial to remind our readers that the term ‘ethical value’ and ‘value concepts’ in the works dealing with ethics have at least two different usages. In the midst of the preceding discussions, we became acquainted with one of these terms and that is the division of the predicates used in ethical propositions into value concepts and concepts that are of an imperative nature. By ‘value concepts’, in this usage of the term, we mean at least those ethical concepts that have a value connotation such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’…in contrast, the meaning of imperative concepts is those concepts that possess a nuance of obligation and responsibility such as the concepts ‘must’ and ‘must not’.

However, sometimes a more general meaning is intended by the term ‘value’ and in this instance it comprises all ethical concepts, both imperative and value concepts. ‘Value concepts’ in this meaning of the term is tantamount to ‘ethical concepts’ and stands in contrast to ‘non-ethical concepts’. It should not be left unsaid that in this second meaning of the term, ‘value’ does not just posses a positive meaning, rather it comprises within itself both positive values and actions that must be and should be accomplished as well as negative values, or, actions that are not becoming and should not be performed.

In the present discussion we mean by ‘value concepts’ and ‘ethical values’ this very meaning of the term. We seek to answer the following question: In what situation will a particular action possess an ethical value and what is the reason for this? In other words, what does it mean when it is said that certain actions possess an ethical value and some others lack ethical value? Principally speaking, where does the ethical value of the actions of men stem from? What is the measure of an ethical and valuable action?

The Importance Of The Discussion On Ethical Values

The discussion about ‘value’ and the comprehension of its essence is one of the problems that drew the attention of the philosophers of ethics towards itself from times immemorial. All of them attempted to find a standard or measure by means of which to assess and evaluate ethical propositions. Without a doubt, we understand some actions to possess ethical value and we praise or scold its agent [for the performance of it] while some actions we consider to be lacking in any ethical value and therefore, we do not pass any judgment regarding their ethical value. However, the crux of the matter is the difference between the two types of actions. What is the thing that causes some actions to possess a certain sanctity or transcendence while others do not? It is here that divergent viewpoints have come into existence regarding the measure of an ethical action and the explanation of the essence of an ethical value. This is so to such an extent that there are views regarding the basis of an ethical action equal in number to the specialists [in the field of ethics] and the amount of ethical schools of thought.

It should not be left unsaid that the importance of the problem of value is not limited to the Philosophy of Ethics. Rather, this subject also has a special place in the other social and humane sciences. In various sciences, such as Psychology, the Psychology of Sociology, Sociology [itself], Political Science and Economics the different aspects and dimensions of ‘value’ have been discussed and extensive research regarding this topic has been conducted and matters that are related to it even peripherally. One of the western researchers, by reading 4000 works that have been printed on this subject was able to, in the end, find approximately 140 different definitions for the term ‘value’ in the sayings of scholars from different sciences.1

Economic Value

Even though linguistic discussions and analysis is not a one hundred percent way to solve intellectual and philosophical matters an examination of the non-ethical usages of the term ‘value’ will help us understand the essence and standard of ethical value. In our opinion there is a common element that can be found in the different definitions which have been presented for ‘value’ in the various sciences. That common factor is the element of ‘desirability, benefit and usefulness.’ Since an examination of this claim in all of the abovementioned disciplines will take us away from our original goal, we will suffice ourselves with an examination of ‘economic value’.

The discussion about the value and standard by means of which one weighs the price of a product is one of the problems that drew the attention of economists towards itself from times immemorial. Many different views have been expressed regarding this matter. Some have tried to define the value of a product by means of the work that is carried out upon it. Some others have included the factor of being ‘hard to find.’ A still third group has understood economic value to lie in supply and demand. Finally, a fourth group has placed their finger upon the element of desirability, being useful and satisfactory.

It seems that Adam Smith was the first person to discuss value in a logical and extensive manner. First off, he divided economic value into ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value.’2

He meant by ‘use value’ or ‘natural value’ that we evaluate the value of a product based upon its effectiveness in satisfying one of the needs of human beings.3 When a human being is hungry then food is valuable for him. In other words, food has the capability of satisfying one of his needs. It seems that here value is almost tantamount to desirability and benefit. Man gives value to the things that he wants and to the extent that they are desirable for him and bring him benefit will he understand them to be valuable.

The meaning of ‘exchange value’ is a relation by means of which one use value is exchanged for another.4 The prices that are mentioned in the marketplace for merchandise and products in reality show us the amount of their exchange value. In other words, when they seek to exchange something most human beings understand that it is correct to exchange it for such and such a product or a specific amount of money. If we ponder over the matter properly then the main element in exchange value is the desirability of the product for the buyer and seller. The reason for this is that money is desirable for man and the product that he wished to buy is also desirable for him. If, when compared with one another, the desirability of what he gives and that of what he takes are equal or if the desirability of what he takes is more than that of what he gives then in this case they say that his transaction is valuable. On the other hand, if its desirability is less then what they say this transaction is not ‘worthy’ of being carried out.

Therefore, the value of a product is distinguished through its desirability. For example, if the desirability of a book be high in the eyes of the reader, then he will be ready to buy it even for a high price but if people show no interest in buying a book, then its ‘exchange value’ also drops. Let us suppose that there is a thirsty person who is in desperate need of water. He will be ready to pay more than the actual price of the water in order to obtain it. On the other hand, after some of his thirst has been quenched, he will not be ready to spend the same amount of money for water. Therefore, the [economic] value of water depends upon the amount of its desirability.5

Of course, keeping in mind the fact that things such as inclination, need and desirability are qualities and that they express conditions in the soul of individuals they are not capable of being weighed in [strictly] quantifiable terms. For example, it is not possible to say that a certain product is one hundred percent desirable and therefore, its price is one hundred dollars. It is for this reason that many discussions have been carried out in the books of Economics regarding the manner of weighing the value of a product the examination of which will keep us from our main goal.

However, the conclusion that can be drawn from the conceptual analysis of economic value is that the standard of value or at least one of the main elements of economic value is its amount of desirability, benefit and usefulness in comparison to other products. In other words, not only is an element of ‘comparison’ present in the definition of economic value but there is also an aspect of ‘desirability’ therein as well.

The Elements Of Ethical Value

Desirability

There is no doubting in the fact that there is a difference between ethical and economic value. The value of an ethical action is not because of its exchangeability with something else. Even though it is possible to perform some good deed in order to go to Heaven or to be saved from the fire of Hell this does not mean that the value and goodness of actions such as acting fairly and telling the truth is only because there is something better to be gained in exchange for them. If this was so then, assuming there was nothing to be gained in exchange for them, acting fairly or telling the truth would no longer be valuable and would not be praised by others.

Nevertheless, the same elements that were involved in economic value, i.e. desirability and the comparison of the desirability of two things are also instrumental to some extent in ethical actions. Thus, it is possible to consider them as the elements and basis of an ethical action. Of course, aside from being desirable, an ethical action must also possess other dimensions to itself. In other words, the desirability of ethical actions has certain conditions and clauses and therefore, it is not possible for us to consider desirability to be the unconditional standard for an ethical action. If this was not so then the desirability of food for a hungry man and water for a thirsty individual would also have to be considered to be possessing ethical value.

Free-Will

The Subject of Ethical Values is the action that man performs through his own free-will. It is for this reason that as long as we are compelled [to act] (even if we perform monumental tasks) they will never be attributed with ethical value. Therefore, we must condition the desirability that is mentioned in ethics with a certain clause: ‘The desirability that is connected to actions that man performs through his own free-will.’

It should not be left unsaid that in the science of ethics and ethical discussions three things are discussed that are all connected in some way with the free-will of man.6

1. One of them is related to the actions that man does out of his own free-will; In other words, every action that man performs because he chooses to and through his own free-will.

2. The second is related to the source and cause of those actions. For example, in the science of ethics attributes such as greed and generosity are discussed even though it is possible that in certain circumstances such qualities may not be capable of being acquired [through our own choice]. However, because these qualities manifest themselves in our actions and are related in some way to our freely-willed actions they are ethically evaluated. Thus, it is said: ‘Greed is a bad quality,’ and ‘Generosity is a good quality.’

3. The third matter that is discussed in ethics is the consequences of freely-willed actions. It is possible that by repeating a certain deed some trait or traits may come into existence in [the soul of] man in the form of a deeply rooted quality. Such qualities are also included within the jurisdiction of ethical matters from the point of view that they are the results of a freely-willed action. Therefore, ethical desirability is a desirability that is related to a freely-willed action, its source or its consequences. In any case, it is conditioned with [being related to] behavior that, in the end, is connected to the free-will of man.

Human Desirability

Does every action that man performs through his own free-will, with any sort of desirability that it may have, possess ethical value? There can be no doubt in the fact that the actions that man performs in order to satisfy his natural needs possess no amount of ethical value, although they may be desirable to him. The person that eats food or drinks water in order to satisfy his hunger or thirst or even the mother that caresses her child or feeds it in order to satisfy her motherly feelings will not be praised by others. Nobody says: ‘What a good character so and so possesses! He eats his food!’ or: ‘What a good mother is she! She feeds her child and caresses it!’

Therefore, the desirability of an ethical action also has another condition and that is that it should not have been accomplished in order to satisfy some [base] instinct. However, since the addition of a negative clause to some definition does not clarify it, rather, only adds to its ambiguousness it is better for us to reword this clause in the following way: ‘Ethical value is the inclination that the human soul feels [with regards to some action] with the intention to satisfy some instinct that lies above our animalistic instincts.’ In other words, it is possible for us to divide the desires of the soul into two categories: One are the desires that exist at the level of animalistic instincts such as the instinct to eat and to protect one's self. These can all be considered to be instincts that are common to both man and animals. The others are instincts and desires that are [spiritually] loftier than these and are solely relegated for man. Such are instincts that propel human beings to the acquisition of knowledge and certain specific actions. Examples of such instincts are courage, generosity and justice. These are in fact the thirst and needs of the higher dimensions of the human soul. Man feels a need to quench them and feels incomplete if they are not satisfied. It seems that such desires and such a thirst is something that has been muffled or still lies in the subconscious of human beings that live as animals do. Such individuals do not pay any attention to these types of needs that lie within them.

According to the clause that we have just added here the desirability of freely-willed actions that are performed in order to satisfy some animalistic instincts cannot be considered to possess any ethical value. On the other hand, the deeds that are related to securing the lofty and humane needs possess such an ethical value. In other words, the human being possesses two personas: A lower persona and a transcendent one. This means that every individual has two levels of existence or two stages of being. In one stage he is an animal like all other animals that possesses instincts that he shares in common with them. On a whole new level altogether he possesses a transcendence that solely belongs to him. The real persona of man is that lofty and human one. Therefore, the action that corresponds to the spiritual perfection of man is a ‘lofty and valuable action’ while ‘every action that is not related to the loftier dimensions of our soul is an ordinary and base one.’7

To a certain extent this clause sheds light upon the reality of ethical value and bestows upon us a more complete understanding of it. Nevertheless, there are still some ambiguities surrounding it. The reason for this is that, first of all, it must be proven that man possesses two types of instincts: human and animal ones. Secondly, it must be proven that his human instincts are more perfect and better than his animal instincts, that the satisfaction of his animal instincts lacks all ethical value and that the satisfaction of his human instincts is ethically valuable. The fact that we possess certain inclinations that other animals do not is not a proof that we are better than them. Aside from this, is it not possible for us to say that the satisfaction of animalistic desires also possesses a certain amount of, although small, value? Meaning, is it not possible for us to divide values in the same way that we divide desires and instincts? Why is it that we relegate ethical value for the satisfaction of desires that are specifically relegated for human beings?

It is for this reason that, in order to complete the discussion and in order to answer these questions, it is necessary for us to add still another clause.

A Prudent And Sensible Choice

Whenever the intellect should happen to show us that the desirability of a certain action is more [than others] and if we were to, [following this], knowingly choose to perform it then in this case our action will have ethical values. To explain: If in one instant only one instinct were to exist in man then he would seek to satisfy that very instinct. In the case where the conditions [necessary for this task] existed and nothing in the external world prevented us from doing so the action [that this instinct sought out] would come to be. However, if there were a number of different inclinations in man and it were impossible for him to satisfy all of them at the same time then in this case such inclinations would get in the way of one another. The inclination whose pull is stronger will naturally draw the attention of the soul towards itself. The question is: What role does man play in this war that wages between the various instincts and inclinations [within him]? Is he simply a casual observer, such that he will follow [blindly] whatever instinct should, due to natural or social reasons, happen to gain the upper hand? Or is it that he can himself choose [what to do] through mental activity and by means of the utilization of his free-will such that it will be possible for him to deny himself the satisfaction of his powerful natural instincts? In the first case, even though he has, out of his own free-will, performed that which his natural instincts desired, he has fallen from the heights of humanity and human values and deadened the special faculties of humanity. In this regard he resembles a wisp of straw that has been thrown in the middle of a whirlpool.8

Therefore, man must asses which one of his conflicting instincts are more in line with the guidance of his intelligence and following this choose that very one. A prudent examination will lead him to understand which one of his wants has more desirability for him and then he can choose to perform that. It is only here that his work possesses ethical value. Of course, what is the measure by means of which he can prefer some of his desires over others is an altogether separate question. One way is to weigh actions by the amount of pleasure that they bestow on us and then choose the one that is most pleasing and long-lasting. Another way is to compare their results and consequences and then choose the one whose results are loftier and more enduring. Still another way is to choose the one that is more conducive to the ultimate perfection of man and which assists him in attaining the proximity to God.

In sum, it appears to us that in order to attain ethical value four elements must be present: ‘free-will’, ‘desirability’, ‘human desirability’, and ‘a sensible and prudent choice.’ The non-existence of any of these elements is a sign of the non-existence of ethical value.

An Examination Of Some Views Regarding The Standard For Ethical Values

Just as we have point out earlier, each one of the ethical schools of thought has a special view regarding the measure of an ethical action and the essence of ethical value. Here, we will point out some of these viewpoints:

Social Value

From the point of view of Socialism, everything that has been commanded or prohibited by a society or is accepted or rejected by them will possess ethical value. Ethical values are the very social values that society has accepted. Outside the scope of society most if not all of the ethical values become meaningless. Self-sacrifice, patience, forbearance, speaking the truth, justice, love and the likes of these are all values that we have been introduced to by society.9

In other words, man possesses two personas: an individual persona and a social one. If his social persona is not his only persona then it is at least as real as his individual one and is not a conventional or man-made thing. In relation to these two personas the actions of man also can be divided into two categories: Actions that he performs for his individual persona and those that he does in order to satisfy the desires of his social persona. In this regard those actions that have been suggested to him by his social persona will possess ethical value while any action that has been instigated by his individual persona will not be ethical in nature.10

It should not be left unsaid that in our discussions on ‘Society and History in the Light of the Qur’an’ we have extensively criticized this view and weighed it by the traditions of the Prophet and His Holy Family and reason. There we have proven that not only are the proofs that the adherents of this view present to substantiate their claim insufficient but rather there are also numerous rational and religious proofs that demonstrate the incorrectness of this belief. In order to gain a better acquaintance with these objections one can refer to those discussions.11

Personal Or Group Profit

In the opinion of the Epicureans, the basis of ethical value is pleasure and personal good. Ethical value is nothing other than pleasure and individual good. Consequently, the thing that grants us more pleasure and whose pleasure is more enduring and serves our personal interest more will have more ethical value.

In contrast, the Profitivists hold that it is the profit or loss that accrues to people in general or to a specific group that makes an action more ethical and increases its value although it may lead to some personal loss [for an individual]. It seems as though the personal interests of an individual is somehow tied up with that of society and thus their separation is not something that can be easily accomplished. We will discuss these schools of thought in more detail in the second part of this book and therein we will demonstrate their imperfections and weaknesses.12

In the examination of the Islamic Ethical School of Thought it will become clearer that although, in reality, profit and benefit is always alongside that thing which is the standard of ethical value, profit cannot in and of itself be considered to be what makes something valuable.

The Meaning Of ‘Must’ And ‘Must Not’

Some people have surmised that ethical value, and ethics in general, can be summed up in the meaning of ‘must’ and ‘must not’ and therefore, every ethical value in reality represents an ethical command or imperative. According to this view, ethical value exists anywhere that ‘must’ and ‘must not’ exist. The following has been said regarding the merits of this viewpoint: Transforming ethical values into the form of commands (as we have done) and returning ethics to a collection of commands and understanding value propositions to be imperative in nature is effective in clarifying some ambiguous points and solving many philosophical puzzles.

In our view, this viewpoint is neither inclusive nor exclusive.13 Neither is it true that ethical value is absent wherever ‘must’ and ‘must not’ are absent nor is it true that wherever these two exist ethical value also exist.

The non-inclusiveness of this opinion lies in the fact that, just as we have previously explained, in the propositions used in the natural sciences, mathematics and the conventional disciplines concepts such as ‘must’ and ‘must not’ are frequently used even though no one will consider those sciences or those of their propositions that use such concepts as possessing ethical value. It is for this reason that the following statement, which is often uttered, will be false: Scientific laws are always universal and logical propositions that end with ‘exists’ or ‘does not exist’… [While] ethical laws are laws that evaluate things that [do not] exist in the external world or which speak about what ‘must or must not be done’ in a general or particular way. In other words, such a distinction between science and ethics or knowledge and value is in no way in accordance with reality.

It is not true to say that wherever we see ‘must’ and ‘must not’ we should understand it to be related to ethical values while wherever there is talk of ‘exists’ or ‘does not exist’ or the beings in the external world that should be related to science. When it is stated in the natural sciences that: ‘In order to obtain water it is necessary to (i.e. one must) combine the elements hydrogen and oxygen in a specific way’ have we expressed an ethical value or law? When a mathematician says the following: ‘In order to solve such and such a mathematical problem it is necessary to (i.e. one must) perform a certain equation’ has he left the boundaries of science and description and spoken about virtue and ethical value? In the purely conventional sciences such as grammar where it is said: ‘In Arabic, in order to form a sentence, one must place the verb in front of the agent of the verb’ has an ethical rule been decreed?

Even with all of the common traits that Ethics and Law possess we still cannot say that the commands and prohibitions of Law, whether they be related to the general rule of Law or the particular laws of a government, possess ethical value in and of themselves. Although, it seems possible for us to situate them into Ethics in some way and thus form an ethical system that comprises the propositions of the Law. However, it should be kept in mind that in this case the ethical value of laws and legal rulings are related to their ethical dimension not their legal one.

Another objection that can be leveled at this view is that it is not exclusive. The reason for this is that value concepts are not limited to obligations and prohibitions. Many concepts such as: good, bad, correct and incorrect are often mentioned in Ethics that hold value meanings and are in no way kinds of obligations or prohibitions.

In summary, such an interpretation of ethical values lacks the conditions necessary for a precise definition [for ethical value] and, thus, is unacceptable. It is not possible for one to divide concepts into two groups and then say that one group is of the type of ‘what is’ while the other group is of the type of ‘what must or must not be done’ and then state the ethical concepts are of the second group.

The Intellectual Desirability Of An Action That Stems From Free-Will

Another view has drawn the attention of many philosophers and the experts on the Philosophy of Ethics [to itself] and that is that the standard for ethics and ethical value is the intellectual desirability of actions that stem from our free-will. Every action that is affirmed and accepted by the intellect and which the intellect commands us to perform possess ethical value while every action that is sought out by the natural instincts and inclinations lacks ethical value.14

In order to explain: Man is a being that is composed of three principal faculties: Lust, Anger and the Intellect.15 It is only natural that each one of these faculties has their own needs and requirements. Nonetheless, the basis of ethics and ethical value is that the intellect should be what rules over the being of man in such a way that it should satisfy the needs of the other faculties without going to an extreme in this regard and unless this should lead to a setback on his road to [spiritual] felicity. The intellect should guide these faculties to the middle point of justice and balance.

By doing so another faculty comes into existence in man by the name of ‘justice’. In this manner the principles of ethics will be acquired: chastity, courage, wisdom and justice. In any case, any action that is not performed in order to satisfy the desires of the faculties of lust and anger, rather, is performed because of the desirability and benefit that the intellect sees in it will be an ethical deed. In other words, any action that is commanded or prohibited by the intellect and whose goal is to satisfy the needs and requirements of this faculty will possess ethical value. On the other hand, if the goal behind an action is the satisfaction of the unruly desires of the faculties of lust and anger then that action will not be ethical or possess ethical value.

From one point of view, this perspective has plus points and merits that do not exist in the other ones or that do, but in a lesser way. This is the separation of a lofty action or value from an instinctive and normal one. Just as we have previously stated in explaining our own personal view in the beginning of this chapter, we also accept the fact that a deed will only possess ethical value and be included in the jurisdiction of ethics when it is not simply performed in order to satisfy the animalistic tendencies and natural inclinations. Rather, it should be in line with the transcendent and sacred dimension of man. Also, the emphasis of this view upon the intellectual desirability of an ethical action is a point that does not exist in the others and we have previously stated that one of the principal elements of ethical value is that it is intellectual in nature.

However, leaving aside the fact of whether or not this view is justifiable or not [in and of itself], it seems that the premises and fundamental postulates upon which it rests are shaky. The reason for this is that it can apparently be gathered from what they say that they consider the intellect to also possess needs and requirements that are satisfied by the performance of certain actions!

These individuals relate commands and prohibitions to the intellect even while, in our opinion, the intellect does not have the power to command or prohibit, as a [cognitive] faculty [of the soul]. As we have extensively explained in the preceding chapter, we believe that the intellect does not possess any sort of inclination or desire and, principally speaking, the intellect is not an instinct or inclination.

The intellect does not command or decree nor does it feel the hunger or thirst for something. It does not take pleasure in anything. The sole responsibility of the intellect is to comprehend the universals and to guide and clarify matters. The intellect resembles [in this matter] a lamp that distinguishes the way from the pitfalls that lie on it without it having any inclination towards one of the two sides. Therefore, it is not possible for us to consider the measure for ethical value to be the acceptance of the intellect or intellectual desirability of a deed. Unless we interpret this to mean what we stated in explanation of our own personal view which is that the standard of the ethical value of an action is that the intellect distinguishes the fact that the action rationally deserves to be desired and then man chooses this action out of his own free-will.

  • 1. ‘Chisti Arzish’, John Von Dis and Eleanor Scarburgh, in Qabasat, no 13, p. 114.
  • 2. Tarikh Aqaed Iqtisadi, v. 1, p. 114-123 and Tarikh Aqaed Iqtisadi, Louis Budon, p. 86.
  • 3. Nizamhaye Iqtisadi, p. 112.
  • 4. Nizamhaye Iqtisadi, p. 113.
  • 5. Pishniyazhaye Mudiriyyat Islami, p. 150-151.
  • 6. Pishniyazhaye Mudiriyyat Islami, p. 152-153; Akhlaq dar Qur’an, v. 1, p. 21-25, 47-50, v. 2, p. 90-95.
  • 7. Naqdi bar Marxism, p. 207-209.
  • 8. Khud Shinasi Baraye Khud Sazi, p. 102-105.
  • 9. Falsafah wa Jamea Shinasi, p. 51, 72.
  • 10. Naqdi bar Marxism, p. 205, 207.
  • 11. Jamea wa Tarikh az Didgah Qur’an, p. 73-109.
  • 12. Falsafah Akhlaq, Mutahhari, p. 311-323.
  • 13. Taliqah ala Nihayah al Hikmah, p. 391-392, no 382.
  • 14. Al Fawaed, p. 320.
  • 15. Al Mizan, v. 1, p. 370-373; Sharh ibn Maythum ala Meah Kalimah li Amir al Mominin, p. 19-20.