Chapter 7: Ethical Responsibility

Another one of the concepts that has long drawn the attention of the philosophers of ethics towards itself is the concept of ‘ethical responsibility’. We will also attempt to point out some of the dimensions of this problem in this chapter and to answer some of the [fundamental] questions that have been mentioned regarding this topic. Some of those problems are the following: What it is the meaning of responsibility? Does being responsible mean that one deserves praise and or scorn? Is responsibility related directly to the action itself or does it also include the indirect consequences of the action? Is responsibility simply a prospective concept or a retrospective one as well? Is responsibility a quality that is related to individuals or can societies, groups, organizations, companies and the likes of these also be attributed with it? Principally speaking, under what circumstances is someone responsible for his actions? If someone is forced to do something or does so unknowingly, is he ethically responsible for his action? If someone is afflicted with psychological compulsion (such as the individual that is afflicted with kleptomania) will he be ethically responsible for his deeds? Finally, keeping in mind the fact that responsibility only has meaning when there is someone to whom we must answer it should be asked as to who we are responsible to answer to?

The Importance Of The Discussion Of Responsibility

The topic of responsibility is one of the most important and valuable philosophical, religious, ethical and legal problems. From the time of the ancient Greeks until now philosophers were constantly attempting to explain, in different ways, the responsibility of man and its conditions and requirements. Of course, some of these philosophers of ethics (who believed that the foundation of an ethical rule is the command and imperative) felt more secure in relation to this question and it is for this reason that we see that amongst the later philosophers of ethics, Emanuel Kant and following him the Neo-Kantians placed especial emphasis on this concept. Kant held that the foundation of ethical rules is the imperative and responsibility and since man is ordered by the intellect [to perform certain tasks] it is only natural that he is responsible in relation to its commands.

The importance of the problem of responsibility will become clearer when we understand its relation to philosophy, theology and some of the natural sciences. From one point of view the discussion on responsibility is tied up with some of the discussions in philosophy such as causality and the free-will/predestination debate. In other words, [it is tied up with] discussions that has drawn the attention of many great thinkers of this world towards itself from the time of the formation of philosophical thought up till the present age. From another point of view, it is also connected with important theological discussions such as ‘the absolute knowledge of God’ and the most complicated discussion that is ‘the divine decree and measurement.’

Also, in the present era with the striking advancement of social sciences, anthropology, psychology, etc new discussions on this topic have been put forth that have increased its complexity and importance. Some of the experts in the field of the humanities have in some way tried to negate free-will from man by taking recourse to the social, environmental, psychological, biological factors that influence the behavior of man. They have claimed that men cannot be considered to be truly free agents rather they resemble the parts of a complicated machine. Their actions are completely influenced by social and biological factors.1 The necessary corollary of this claim is that we cannot hold any human being ethically responsible for his or her actions. Therefore, even though it is possible for us, for certain [practical] reasons, to legally sentence criminals and throw them in jail from the point of view of ethics we can never hold them responsible for the crimes that they have committed.2

The Meaning Of Responsibility

Some writers, such as F.H. Bradley, are of the opinion that ‘responsibility’ means the same thing as ‘making one’s self accountable for something.’3 Based upon this view, when it is said that Zayd is ethically responsible for such and such an action then it is as if we have said that he can ethically be taken to account for it.

It is true that in most cases the discussions that are related to responsibility lead to ones that are related to the capability of being held accountable. At the same time however, being responsible for something and being susceptible to being taken to account for something do not mean [exactly] the same thing. At the most, it is possible to say that ‘being susceptible to being taken to account for something’ is one of the necessary consequents of being responsible for it. When someone acts upon what he is responsible for then contrary to this claim he will be praised and rewarded [for what he has done]. In other words, it is possible to say that the discussions on [ethical] responsibility are the foundations of the discussions related to [ethical] praise and scorn and are connected to it.4

In any case, it is possible to say that responsibility and being responsible [for something] means asking someone to do something and it is used in cases where the one asking can follow up on what he asked from the one whom he has asked. He can hold the one whom he has asked answerable for his behavior which either conforms to what he has asked for or does not. The corollary of this is that the one responsible will be praised or scorned and in cases rewarded or punished corresponding to the kind of behavior that he has displayed. In conclusion, responsibility is only reasonable when the one who has been asked to do something is obligated to do what he has been asked to do. It is for this reason that it has been said that the concept of ‘responsibility’ is only meaningful in relation to the carrying out of and or forgoing of one’s duties. If the one responsible performs his duties, then he will be praised and often rewarded while he will be scored and often punished if he shrinks away from his duties.

It should not be left unsaid that the discussion on ethical responsibility is not simply limited to the actions that man performs directly rather it cannot also be brought up with regards to the indirect consequences that may not have been intended [by the agent].5 They can even be brought up with regards to the internal actions [that man performs within himself] that are related to the acquisition, strengthening or weakening of the psychological distinctions of man. For example, it can be asked: ‘Is the person who is inclined to oppression (but does not oppress anyone) responsible [for this inclination] or not?’ It should also be known that the jurisdiction of responsibility is not limited to the effects of one’s actions that may come about in the future; rather, it also includes those effects that existed in the past.6

It is for this reason that, from one point of view, responsibility can be divided into two categories: Responsibility that is related to the past and one that is related to the future. The responsibility that is related to the past is the one that the agent comes face to face with after he has performed the action. Being responsible for the future means to have some sort of an obligation [with regards to an action] that secures the existence of that action in the external world. When it is said: ‘The lifeguard is responsible for the safety of the swimmers,’ it is more than anything related to responsibility for the future.

This means that the thing that the lifeguard is responsible for (i.e. the safety of the swimmers) has not come about as of yet and will come to pass in the future (i.e. when people come and swim in his presence). On the other hand, when it is said: ‘The lifeguard is responsible for the life of such and such a swimmer,’ this expresses the responsibility that is related to the past. The reason for this is that ‘the death of the swimmer’ is something that has already taken place and the responsibility of the lifeguard in this matter is because he had not performed his duty properly [at the time when he should have].

Therefore, responsibility that is related to the past is with regards to those actions that an individual has performed or not performed while responsibility with regards to the future is related to those obligations that an individual must perform in the future. It is possible to say that because responsibility has two stages: ‘want’ and ‘taking into account’ it correspondingly can be divided into two categories: the stage of ‘want’ is related to the responsibility that is connected to the future while the stage of ‘taking into account’ is related to the responsibility that is related to the past.

The Responsibility Of An Individual Or Group

Some believe that responsibility is not solely relegated for each and every individual; rather, groups, organizations and even companies can be understood to be responsible.7 In other words, it is possible to hold a specific group or organization responsible [for some specific action] leaving aside its members and affiliates. For example, when it is said that: ‘The educational system of the country is responsible to train experts [in different fields],’ or ‘That company is responsible to import beautiful products,’ or ‘The government is responsible to protect the safety of the society,’ then in all of these cases responsibility has been related to companies and organizations and we have considered them responsible ‘as a whole’. It is for this reason that the praise or scorn that is the result of carrying out one’s obligation or not fulfilling it will be directed towards the whole society not each one of its individual members. It is for this reason that it is possible to scorn an individual member of the government even while we praise the government as a whole for carrying out its responsibilities.

With regards to this view, it must be said: If they mean by this that companies and organizations possess an existence independent of their individual members such that they can be responsible in some way without taking into account their members and can Therefore, be held responsible [for their actions] then this is something incorrect and unacceptable. The reason for this is that, principally speaking, praise and scorn follow responsibility which follows obligation which follows free-will. Free-will is a distinction of man and therefore, we can in no way believe that such companies and organizations have free-will. Therefore, saying that they are responsible for their actions is something metaphorical and lacks a philosophical and rational basis.8 However, if what they mean by this is that some, or rather, most of the ethical and legal responsibility of individuals forms inside such organizations and companies and is a result of their having become members of such associations then this is something correct and justifiable. Because he has a job that is related to an organization (i.e. a school) a teacher has some special responsibilities and because a doctor has a job that is related to society as a whole he has distinct obligations and thus responsibilities. A manager also has different responsibilities from the workers that work under him. However, this is something different from believing that an organization qua organization (i.e. without taking into consideration its members) is responsible [for its actions].

Therefore, when an organization is praised for its actions then in reality this means that all of its members have fulfilled the individual responsibilities that they were burdened with. Conversely, if an organization is scorned because some of its members have not acted properly and thus the organization was not able to perform its duties as intended, then even though apparently the organization as a whole is scolded in reality this scorn is directed towards those individuals that have not carried out their responsibilities. Ethically we cannot scold a worker that has properly performed his duties because of the unbecoming actions of the ‘whole’. The worker that understands his responsibility properly, ethically speaking, is not responsible in any way for the unbecoming actions of other workers.

The Conditions Of Ethical Responsibility

The explanation of the necessary and sufficient conditions for responsibility is something that has long drawn the attention of philosophers towards itself and in this regard lengthy discussions have been carried out. In general it is possible to say that a human being is only ethically responsible for an action or event when first of all he has the power to perform it, secondly when he does so knowingly and third when he performs it out of his own free-will.9 It is possible to say that all of the philosophers and thinkers that have discussed this matter have accepted these conditions and that if there is any difference of opinion in this regard it is in relation to the interpretation and delineation of the boundaries of these conditions. Of course, we do not intend to say that everyone has accepted the existence of these conditions and that they affirm the fact that man is ethically responsible [for his actions]. Rather, as we will see in the forthcoming discussions some emphasize the fact that free-will is a condition for ethical responsibility and at the same time believe that man is forced to act the way he does and therefore, is not ethically responsible for his actions. An explanation of each one of the three conditions of ethical responsibility will follow:

Power And Ability

One of the necessary conditions for ethical responsibility is the power to perform one’s obligations. Therefore, if the obligation lies outside the jurisdiction of one’s power it is only natural that one cannot ethically be held responsible for that. It is for this reason that we believe that it is bad for someone to be burdened with a task that he cannot do and that the Most-Wise God does not ask human beings to do something that lies outside the boundaries of their abilities. ‘God does not oblige a soul with something unless he is able to do it.’

Knowledge And Awareness

The second condition for responsibility is that man knows what he has been obliged with and understands that he is responsible for it.10 Therefore, someone can be held ethically accountable for some action and thus he can be praised or scolded with regards to it if, aside from being capable of doing it, he is aware of its correctness or incorrectness.11 The Holy Qur’an says the following in this regard:

إِنَّا خَلَقْنَا الْانسَانَ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ أَمْشَاجٍ نَّبْتَلِيهِ فَجَعَلْنَاهُ سَمِيعَا بَصِيرًا

‘Verily we created man from a mixed seed so that we may try him. Therefore, [for this reason] we gave him hearing and sight.’ (76:2).

In this verse, after mentioning the creation of man from a mixed sperm God points out the purpose of his creation, in other words, testing. God has created man in such a way that he possesses different inclinations and desires that often contradict one another and in this way, He has laid the ground for his testing and responsibility. Thereafter, God says that we gave him the power to understand and created him with sight and the power to hear. It is by these means that he can understand his obligations and responsibilities and may also choose one out of the many different and contradictory ways [to perform these responsibilities].

Of course, in this regard God has not limited Himself to the ordinary means of cognition rather, through the delegation of the prophets and revelation God has delineated the proper manner of living for human beings. In this way the ground has been completely laid for the testing of and responsibility of man and the road to making excuses has been closed.

In any case, having awareness with regards to the thing that one is obliged with is another one of the conditions of responsibility. It is for this reason that we do not ethically evaluate the actions of a small child. If we do encourage him or scold him then this is simply to teach him and has no connection whatsoever with ethical responsibility. A child is free to break the window of his neighbor’s home with a rock or to refrain from doing so. Now, if he should happen to choose the wrong thing then, even though we may scold him it is clear that this scolding is simply meant to teach him [that this action is wrong] and does not mean that we intend to scold him for not performing his ethical responsibility in this matter. This is because he lacks the knowledge and awareness of the ethical dimensions of his actions.

Free-Will And Independent Choice

Another one of the fundamental conditions of ethical responsibility is the existence of free-will and independent choice. Aristotle said:
‘The condition for responsibility, and [thus] being capable of being scorned to praised, is an independent choice.12 Therefore, every action that is the effect of being forced to do it is not free-willed and as a result the individual has no responsibility with regards to it.’13

Forced actions, in the view of Aristotle, are those actions whose causes lie outside our free-will. For example, a wind may take a boat here and there or another power may cause it to move in another direction.14

In order to gain a clearer picture of this condition it is necessary to first point out some of the principal meanings of free-will.15 Thereafter, we can understand the meaning of the free-will that is a condition of ethical responsibility.

1. In contrast to Idhtirar: Sometimes the word ikhtiyar is used in opposition to idhtirar. For example, it is said: Eating the dead flesh of an animal that has not been ritually slaughtered is prohibited if one does so freely but under idhtirari conditions it is permissible. This means that eating such a meat is permissible under conditions where not doing so would lead to great harm or to the destruction of one’s self.

2. In contrast to Ikrah: Ikrah is true in instances where man is threatened with some danger and because of such external threats he does something that he would not have done in conditions where was free.

3. In contrast to Jabr: In many instances ikhtiyar is used in a very broad and general sense and means that the agent of the action performs an action only because he is inclined to do so without being under the pressure of some other factor. In contrast a jabri action is one in which the free-will and independent choice does not play any role rather its existence was due to the pressure of internal or external factors.

After having gained a cursory acquaintance with the three main meanings of ikhtiyar now the time has come for us to examine what is meant by the ikhtiyar that is mentioned as one of the conditions of responsibility? As we have previously indicated, the thing that grants [ethical] value to the actions of man and thus makes him the object of praise or scorn is that he freely chooses from amongst the various possible actions that lay before him. God has created man in such a way that there are different, and often conflicting, inclinations within him that oppose one another in practice. Each one of these inclinations pulls him towards itself.

However, it is not true to say that every power that is stronger will have a certain effect upon his behavior and will forcefully pull him towards itself like a piece of iron in between to magnets that is pulled unwillingly towards the one whose attraction is stronger. Rather, men can with the power of free-will and their independent choice stand up against the flood of such inclinations and desires. Man has a power by means of which he can gain the upper hand over his unruly animalistic instincts. It is for this reason that we can hold him responsible for his actions and their consequences and take him to account for them.

Therefore, the meaning of ikhtiyar and independent choice in this discussion is that man has the power to choose. It is for this reason that if he should perform some action under the duress of others, he will not be responsible for it.

However, does man actually possess such a power of free-will and independent choice? Can man gain the upper hand over the pressure of the powers that exist around him and within his soul as well as genetic factors or is he the slave of such visible and hidden powers?

In our opinion, ‘the power of choice and free-will is one of the most definite things that have been used to introduce man.’16 Every human being fathoms this intuitively and with a knowledge that is incapable of being incorrect.

این که می گی این کنم یا آن کنم این دلیل اختیار است ای صنم

That you say, ‘Should I do this or that?’
Is itself a proof for your free-will, Oh dear!

Without a little amount of self-introspection everyone can understand that he can freely speak or stay quiet, move his hand or keep it still and eat or remain hungry.

We remain in doubt with regards to two tasks
How can this doubt exist if we were not free?
How could this ‘Should I do this or that?’ be
If both of his hands were tied?
This doubt would not exist in his head:
‘Should I go into the ocean or should I jump up?’
So, this doubt should have some power [behind it]
If not then it would be hilarious

However, the ones that deny free-will have taken recourse to numerous proofs in order to establish the existence of determination. In order to complete the present discussion, it is fitting that we examine and criticize some of the most important doubts of the determinists.

A Critique And Examination Of The Proofs Of The Determinists

In general, it is possible to say that the Determinists, from whatever group they may be, hold that the actions that stem from man are surrounded by conditions and circumstances that make it impossible for him to do anything else and that the will of man does not play any role in the existence or non-existence of such actions. The advocates of determinism have presented numerous proofs to substantiate their claim and in other terms they have tried to prove their claim from different angles. In this section we will examine three of the most important proofs of the Determinists.

Philosophical Determinism

On the basis of the philosophical principle: ‘Until something does not become necessary it does not come into existence’ the condition for [the existence] every possible being is that it should reach the boundaries of necessity. Since the actions of men are also possible beings if they want to come into existence, it is necessary for them to first become necessary. In other words, their complete cause should come into existence. It is only natural that if the complete cause of something should come into existence it will become necessary. Therefore, there remains no room for the free-will of man and thus it is not possible for us to consider him ethically responsible for his actions.

Another explanation for this proof is popular amongst some western philosophers and it goes as follows:17

1. If determination be true then it would entail that we have accepted causality as a general rule and in this case, no one will be free with regards to anything. The reason for this is that if we suppose that the complete cause of something has come into existence then the occurrence of the effect is necessary. This would entail that the free-will and independent choice of the agent has no way to prevent it from coming to be.

2. If determination be false (in other words, if we do not accept the general law of causality) then in this case as well no one will be free with regards to anything. The reason for this is that in this case, phenomena will come into being without any cause and haphazardly and thus it will have no relation whatsoever with the free-will of man.

3. Determinism is either correct or incorrect.

4. We can only hold someone ethically responsible for their actions when they were free to perform them.

Conclusion: No human being is ethically responsible for any of their actions or the consequences that such actions might entail.

Therefore, assuming that we have accepted the general law of causality the free-will and independent choice of man are nothing more than figments of the imagination. Since we do not fathom the real causes of our choices, we surmise that we have chosen them through our own free-will. This resembles the man who is taken in his sleep into another room only to have the door of the room locked on him. However, after he wakes up, he chooses to remain in the room. This is a choice that he has really made and he could have chosen to leave the room [in his mind]. This is while we know that he has not really chosen anything. The reason for this is that there is only one alternative that lies ahead of him. It is his ignorance and unawareness of his real situation that has caused him to surmise that he has freely chosen to remain in the room. The exact same thing can be said of our ethical choices keeping the general law of causality in mind. When we choose to perform action ‘a’ and forego action ‘b’ then we surmise that we are free to do so even though we are not. The reason for this is that our actions are determined by their [own proper] causes. In other words, they are the effects of the causes that precede them. Therefore, we cannot hold man ethically responsible for his actions.18

Spinoza said:
‘Since man is aware of his desires and inclinations but is unaware of their causes, and he cannot even guess what they are, he thinks that he is free.’19
‘It is for this reason that the child thinks that it seeks out its mother’s milk and the angry young boy believes that he seeks out revenge through his own free-will and the coward thinks that he chooses to flee and the drunk man believes that he himself says things that he would not have, were he sober. In this way the crazy person, the angry boy and the likes of them think that they speak by the freely-willed command of their souls. This is while, in reality, they cannot hinder the intentions that drive them towards speaking. Experience and reason have taught us that human beings only believe that they are free because they are aware of their actions but unaware of the causes of those actions.’20

This proof has been criticized from many different angles by the philosophers of ethics.21 The simplest answer that can be given to it is that in regards to man free-will and choice is the last part of the complete cause of his deeds. Therefore, no complete cause will come into existence unless the will and choice of man are not added to the other parts of the complete cause and thus the action will not be in this case necessary. And after man wills to perform some action, it is meaningless to assume that he must be free to perform the action or forgo it. Therefore, if the advocates of this proof consider the will of man to be one of the constituents of the complete cause, then in this case the action is accomplished through the free-will of man. If, on the other hand, they do not assume that this is so and say that the complete cause of this action exists then they are mistaken.

‘The reason for this is that as long as the choice of man does not exist the complete cause will also not exist. Therefore, the action that man performs freely also obtains necessity through its cause only this is a necessity that it has obtained through an agent that has free-will. In other words, it is the free-agent that grants necessity to its action. Hence, it is not necessary for him to become overpowered by his action.’

In other words, these individuals have surmised that believing in causality is synonymous with the belief in determination. This is while these two do not necessitate on another. Meaning, it is possible to believe in the general law of causation and say that every effect becomes necessary through its complete cause and at the same time to accept the fact that man is free in his actions and to state that the choice of man is one of the elements of this complete cause and that it in relation to actions that man chooses to perform his choice is what bestows necessity to them.22

Natural Determinism

Another set of proofs and doubts of the determinists can be subsumed and criticized under the universal heading: ‘Natural Determinism’. The determinists are of the opinion that the laws of Nature dictate that man perform certain actions and that they place man on a path in which he can only perform those specific actions. In this situation there is no room for free-will and independent choice in the precise meaning of these terms. Environmental factors instigate certain inclinations and motives in man. Also, based upon the laws of heredity man unwillingly inherits certain traits from his ancestors. Therefore, when men choose to perform a certain action, even though they have apparently freely chosen to do so, in reality this choice is the outcome of a series of natural, environmental, genetic and hereditary factors. Therefore, there remains no room for independent choice and thus ethical responsibility.

In his famous defense of two young criminals Clarence Darrow, an American lawyer, was able to prove their innocence by taking recourse to natural determinism.23 He was of the opinion that there is no such thing as free-will and independent choice and that all of the actions of man are formed on the basis of previous causes and factors. Man is not free to choose his father, mother, brother and sister; he is not free to choose how he will be educated and raised in the beginning of his life. These are in fact the things that form the structure of what will be his behavior. He is not free to choose the genes by means of which he inherits the ethical characteristics of his father. All of these are things that are forcefully given to him. Consequently, he is not responsible for his actions. If there be some responsibility then it is related to a time before he was, somewhere in his countless ancestors or in his environment.

Behaviorists such as Watson and his followers hold that it is possible to predict and control the behavior of men. This is because all of his behavior (including the ethical choices he makes) is controlled by means of a series of causes that can, in principle, be distinguished. Therefore, by understanding those causes it is possible to predict the behavior of every individual in relation to his specific circumstances and thus to control him in this way. Watson was of the belief that there are two defining factors that help shape the behavior of men: One of them is inheritance and the other is the environment. Therefore, by changing the environment in which man lives his behavior is sure to change as well. In one of his books, he writes:

‘Give me a few well-behaved and healthy children so that I may raise them in my own special world and I promise you that I can educate whichever one I may happen to choose by chance the way I want. I can make him a doctor, lawyer, artist, manger, businessman, or even a beggar or a thief. This is leaving aside their propensities, inclinations, capabilities, tastes and race.’24

The daily spread of Bio-Medicine and Genetic-Engineering as well as Eugenics and the striking progress that has been made in this field after the discovery of DNA shows us the pivotal role that genes and heredity play in the formation of man’s outward and inner person.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that no human being can be held ethically responsible for his actions. He cannot be praised for his good deeds or scorned for his evil deeds even though, from the point of view of the law, it is better to take punishments into consideration for evil people so that society may be safe from their malevolence.

The answer to these claims is very clear. In reality such individuals have made the fallacy of ‘Misplaced Concreteness’. They have taken one of or some of the factors that help form man’s behavior and have assumed that they are the only factors therein. In order to explain: We also accept the role of environmental, natural, genetic and hereditary factors in the formation of man’s behavior. A young person who lives in an environment full of spirituality can more readily perform his religious duties. The individual that has been raised in a religious family is more inclined to religious values. However, it must not be forgotten that such factors only play the role of paving the way for the actions that correspond to them. They do not in any way cancel out man’s free-will. Without a doubt, certain instincts can be instigated by certain natural factors but is it not true that man has the ability to control a natural inclination?

In regards to the Prophet Yusef it must be said that all of the natural, physical, environmental and age factors were present for him to perform an unbecoming act with Zulaykha however his spiritual luminosity, or in the parlance of the Qur’an his ‘Divine Proof’ (that was apparently some type of special knowledge25) helped him overcome such factors. The wives of the Pharaoh and the wives of two of the greatest divine prophets, Lot and Noah, all found themselves in special environments. According to the argument of Watson, they all should have acted in accordance to the dictates of their environments. However, reality shows us that this was not the case. Each one of them freely chose a path [that contradicted the dictates of their surroundings] and those environmental factors were not able to shape their behavior.

ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ امْرَأَتَ نُوحٍ وَ امْرَأَتَ لُوطٍ كَانَتَا تحَتَ عَبْدَيْنِ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا صَلِحَينْ‏ِ فَخَانَتَاهُمَا فَلَمْ يُغْنِيَا عَنهْمَا مِنَ اللَّهِ شَيْا وَ قِيلَ ادْخُلَا النَّارَ مَعَ الدَّاخِلِينَ وَ ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا لِّلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ امْرَأَتَ فِرْعَوْنَ إِذْ قَالَتْ رَبّ‏ِ ابْنِ لىِ عِندَكَ بَيْتًا فىِ الْجَنَّةِ وَ نجَّنىِ مِن فِرْعَوْنَ وَ عَمَلِهِ وَ نجَّنىِ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِين‏

Allah sets forth, for an example to the Unbelievers, the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot: They were (respectively) under two of our righteous servants, but they were false to their (husbands), and they profited nothing before Allah on their account, but were told: ‘Enter ye the Fire along with (others) that enter!’ And Allah sets forth, as an example to those who believe the wife of Pharaoh: behold she said: ‘O My Lord! Build for me, in nearness to thee, a mansion in the garden, and save me from Pharaoh and His doings, and save me from those that do wrong.’ (66:10-11).

We also accept in principle the influence of heredity factors [upon man’s actions] but there is no doubting in the fact that they do not negate the free-will of man and cause him to be determined in his actions. The person who is born to cold and unloving parents is more prone to be violent. However, experience has taught us that there have been many children whose ancestors had particular traits but who have acted completely opposite to the behavior of their mothers and fathers.

They have chosen a direction in their lives that was opposed to the manner of living of their parents and ancestors. In many cases there have even been two brothers that were born to the same parents but who had completely different behaviors. Even though the son of Nuh (‘a) had a father that was a prophet for 950 years he chose the path of evil. Kumayl ibn Ziyad and Harith ibn Ziyad were both from the same father and mother but one of them became one of the special companions of Imam Ali (‘a) while the other courted eternal damnation by beheading the two sons of Muslim ibn Aqil. In conclusion, it is not possible to predict the behavior of human beings relying on genetic, hereditary and environmental factors and to the same extent it is not possible to use such factors as an excuse to say that they are not ethically responsible for their actions.

Theological Determinism

As was previously pointed out the problem of responsibility is closely related to some religious and theological teachings such as ‘the Absolute Power of God, ‘the Absolute Knowledge of God’ and ‘the Divine Predestination’. Such ideas can easily be misunderstood and it is for this reason that some religious scholars fell into the trap of Determinism by relying upon such teachings (or should we say, by misinterpreting such teachings) and thus negated the ethical responsibility of men.

The Absolute Power Of God And Determinism

‘The Most Powerful’ is one of the attributes of God. This implies that God is someone that has power over all things and thus even man and his actions fall under God’s power. Every power is accidental and follows the power of God. Some of the western scholars are of the opinion that the will of man is like the will of a mount that is driven in whatever direction that God or Satan wishes. If God drives him in a certain direction, then he moves in that direction and if Satan drives him in another direction, then he will go in that direction. However, in no instant does he choose his rider.26

In any case, based upon the belief in the absolute power of God there remains no room for the power of man or his freely-willed actions. Some Islamic sects take recourse to this Divine Attribute to negate every kind of causality or effectiveness for things other than God. They clearly announce that ‘the actions of the servants of God are created by Him and the servants do not have the ability to create anything.’27
For example, in order to explain the effect of fire in the genesis of heat or eating in the genesis of satiation they take recourse to the unstable theory of ‘the Habit of God.’28 These individuals have strove hard to prove their claims29 and since they have seen that this view clearly leads to determinism they have attempted to save themselves from this problem by holding on to ‘the Theory of Acquisition.’30 However, just as has been demonstrated in its own proper place this is also not something that can be a justifiable way [to negate determinism].31

The consequence of such a deviant way of thinking is that the actions of men will be directly related to God and thus man’s role in their creation will be completely negated. Thus, no one will be ethically responsible for their actions. In other words, the grave inference of such an abnormal way of thinking is that all ethical and legal systems of thought that seek to train and educate man (including the ethical and legal system of Islam) will be meaningless and futile. The reason for this is that if the Power of God is such that it leaves no further room for the free-will and independent choice of man then in this case responsibility, imperatives, prohibitions, rewards and punishments will no longer be spiritually consequential.32

Free-will is like salt for the food that is worship
If it were not for it then it would be mechanical33 like the [revolving] of the heavens
It is not rewarded for its turns nor is it punished for them
Since, it is free-will that determines the skill of the worshipper on the Day of Reckoning
The entire Universe praises God freely
This is not a praise that has been forced upon them34

In any case, we are of the belief that ‘the action is the action of God and [at the same time] it is our action35’ and that there is no contradiction in the fact that a specific action be that of God and that of man. Of course, they are the actions of two agents that stand vertically aligned with one another in the hierarchy of existence.

The Absolute Knowledge Of God And Determinism

Another religious teaching is that God knows all things. ‘Verily He knows all things’. Some people have taken recourse to this rational and religious reality and surmised that the free-will and independent choice of man is nothing but a figment of the imagination. How is it possible for human beings to act contrary to the Divine Knowledge? If God knows that I will do something at some specific time then I must do so. From another point of view, if when that time comes, I still have the power to do otherwise then this would necessitate that God’s knowledge was a mistake.36 This way of thinking has been adequately reflected in the famous quatrain that has been related to Omar Khayyam:

I drink wine and anyone that is like me
Will consider my drinking wine to be trifle
My drinking wine was known by God from eternity
If I do not drink wine then God’s knowledge would be wrong

In answer to this query, it must be said that God knows things exactly as they are and how they will take place. The actions that man performs through his own free-will are known by God as such. Therefore, if they were to come into existence by force then it would not be in accord with the Divine Knowledge. Therefore, there is no contradiction between the eternal and absolute knowledge of God and the free-will and independent choice of man.37 The pre-knowledge of God does not threaten the free-will of man. The knowledge that God has that someone will attain felicity while another will be eternally damned does not necessitate that he will be so contrary to his choice. How beautifully have they answered Khayyam:

To understand the eternal Knowledge as the cause of sin
In the eyes of rational people this is the height of ignorance

Divine Predestination And Determinism

Belief in the Divine Predestination implies that the existence of all phenomena and their various stages of genesis, blossoming and termination are accomplished under the wise planning of God and that we understand the coming into existence of the conditions that they depend upon and the attainment of their final degree of perfection to be dependent upon God’s will. However, if man really be free then how is it possible for us to relate his actions to the will of God and the Divine Predestination? If the existence of all phenomena, including the actions of men, depend upon the will of God then what does it mean when we say that man is free? In other words, every deed has an agent that performs it through its own free-will and it is impossible for one action to possess two agents. Therefore, if we relate the actions of man to his free-will and independent choice then it will not be possible for us to relate them to the will of God. Conversely, if we state that they stem from the will of God and His Divine Providence then we must negate them from the will of man. In this case we must say that man is a being upon which God acts and which does not have any choice in this regard.38

In reaction to this misgiving some have tried to rely upon the Divine Predestination and will of God to overlook the freedom of man and have fallen into the trap of determinism. They have Therefore, negated any kind of ethical responsibility from him. Others, in order to escape determinism have stated that man’s actions lie outside the jurisdiction of Divine Providence. Such individuals have fallen into the trap that is Tafwiz [i.e. relegating the affairs of men to themselves].39 The truth is that ‘neither is determinism correct nor is the relegation of affairs to the servants rather something that lies between these two’40. In order to explain: Relating one action to the will of two agents is impossible when both of those agents are horizontally aligned with one another (i.e. both of them lie on one plane of existence and thus neither of them are the cause of the other) or in the parlance of the philosophy they are agents that can replace one another in the creation of this action. On the other hand, if they were to be vertically aligned (i.e. if one of them were to play some part in the genesis of the other) then in this case it is possible to relate the one action to both of them.41 Therefore, the will of God and His Divine Providence are not incompatible with the free-will of man.

بل قضا حق است و جهد بنده حق همین مباش اعور چون ابلیس خلق

Rather Providence is correct, as well as the effort of the servant
Do not be cross-eyed like Iblis the one created from fire

Attributing the action to man is [proper] on one level while its attribution to God is [even more proper] on a higher one. On that level the existence of man, the matter upon which he acts and the tools which he uses in his action are all related to God. Determinism implies that the will of God replaces that of man. However, if the will of God should stand on a higher plane than that of man then this will not lead to determinism. God wishes that man should come into existence in this Universe even while he possesses free-will and all of the other dimensions of his being. However, this does not lead to determinism [rather it emphasizes it]. The free-will of man, following his existence, is a pure ‘relation’ to God and this does not imply any form of determinism.42

تو ز قرآن باز خوان تفسیر بیت گفت ایزد ما رمیت اذ رمیت

گر بپرانیم تیر آن نی ز ما است ما کمان و تیراندازش خداست

این نه جبر این معنی جباری است ذکر جباری برای زاری است

گر نبودی اختیار این شرم چیست وین دریغ و خجلت و آزرم چیست

زجر استادان و شاگردان چرا است خاطر از تدبیرها گردان چرا است

Read once again from the Qur’an the interpretation of the verse
God said: You did not throw when you threw
If we shoot an arrow then that is not from us
We are the bow and the archer is God
This is not determinism; rather this is the meaning of God’s Power
The remembrance of the All-Powerful makes us shed tears
Our tears and wails are a proof of our being compelled
Our shame is a proof that we are free
If it were not for free-will then why this shame
What is this disgrace shame and indignity for?
What are the toils of the masters and disciples for?

The Different Types Of Responsibility

Responsibility To God

Man is, without a doubt, responsible to God. The reason for this is that everything is from Him, belongs to Him and will return to Him. Nothing is independent of Him. The existence of everything depends upon Him in such a way that if He were to ‘look away from’ the world even for an instant ‘the forms of the world would tumble’.

…لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ…

‘To Him belongs whatsoever is in the Heavens and the Earth’ (2: 255).

None of the blessings that man holds [independently] belongs to him. The true owner of all of the physical, spiritual, inner and outer blessings is the Most Holy Essence of the Divine. Keeping this in mind it becomes clear that man is to be held accountable for what he does with these blessings by their true owner [i.e. God]. In other words, He has the right to ask us why we did what we did. He has the right to ask us: ‘Why did you not protect your eyes, ears and tongue from the insinuations of the Devil and the carnal soul. Why did you waste your life?’ The Holy Qur’an says that on the Day of Resurrection men will be asked similar questions:

وَ قِفُوهُمْ إِنهَّم مَّسْئولُون‏

‘And stop them, for they are to be questioned.’ (37: 24).

Man will definitely be questioned with regards to the blessings that were placed at his disposal:

ثُمَّ لَتُسْئلُنَّ يَوْمَئذٍ عَنِ النَّعِيم‏

‘And verily they will be questioned today about the blessings.’ (102:8).

It should not be left unsaid that if God understands certain individuals or things other than Himself to possess rights or to own something then in this case we will be held accountable with regards to them. This is the reason that man will be questioned about how he acted with the Friends of God. Many traditions have been related under the verse:

ثُمَّ لَتُسْئلُنَّ يَوْمَئذٍ عَنِ النَّعِيم‏

‘Then they will be questioned today about the blessings’ (102:8).

According to these the meaning of blessing here is the blessing of the Wilayah and Imamah of the Family of the Prophet (s).43 It is quite likely that the responsibility that we have in regards to the Friends of God is the second greatest after the responsibility we have to God Himself; although this responsibility is a reflection of the responsibility that we have to God.44 The responsibility that man has to his parents is also a manifestation of the responsibility he has to God.

Responsibility To One’s Self

Another responsibility that man has is his responsibility to himself.45 The soul of man possesses many different facets and dimensions that are all related to one another. Each one of these has certain rights and as a result we are accountable for them. For example, man does not have the right to use his eyes, ears, hands, tongue and the rest of his limbs as he so fits.

إِنَّ السَّمْعَ وَالْبَصَرَ وَالْفُؤَادَ كُلُّ أُولَٰئِكَ كَانَ عَنْهُ مَسْئُولًا

‘For every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).’ (17:36).

Each one of the internal and external faculties has certain rights and, as has been indicated by the Holy Qur’an, they will be asked on the Day of Resurrection [about what man did with them] and they will bear witness against him then.

الْيَوْمَ نخَتِمُ عَلىَ أَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَ تُكلَّمُنَا أَيْدِيهِمْ وَ تَشهْدُ أَرْجُلُهُم بِمَا كاَنُواْ يَكْسِبُون

‘That Day shall we set a seal on their mouths. But their hands will speak to us, and their feet bear witness, to all that They did.’ (36:65).

In another verse of the Qur’an man’s responsibility towards himself has been expressed in the following way: ‘O ye who believe! Guard your own souls: if ye follow (right) guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray. The goal of you all is to Allah. It is He that will Show you the truth of all that ye do.’ (5: 105). This verse states that first and foremost every man is responsible for his own guidance and felicity and that the guidance of those who are astray is not the responsibility of the believers:

تِلْكَ أُمَّةٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ لَهَا مَا كَسَبَتْ وَ لَكُم مَّا كَسَبْتُمْ وَ لَا تُسْئلُونَ عَمَّا كاَنُواْ يَعْمَلُون

‘That was a nation that has passed: for it there will be what it has earned, and for you there will be what you have earned, and you will not be questioned about what they used to do.’ (2:134).

It is necessary to remind our readers that these verses do not contradict the obligation to enjoin what is good and to forbid what is evil.46 In any case, man is responsible for his soul and one of the daily obligations of man is that he watch over his soul and take it to account every day:

يَأَيهُّا الَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ اتَّقُواْ اللَّهَ وَ لْتَنظُرْ نَفْسٌ مَّا قَدَّمَتْ لِغَدٍ وَ اتَّقُواْ اللَّهَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبِيرُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُون‏

‘O ye who believe! Fear Allah, and let every soul look to what (provision) He has sent forth for the morrow. Yea, fear Allah; For Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do.’ (59: 18)

Responsibility In Relation To Others

In Islam every individual, aside from thinking about what is in his best interests and being responsible for himself, is also responsible in relation to the other individual members of society and his own species. Man has given rights over other individuals that everyone should observe. One of these is that every believing person should be concerned about the guidance and salvation of others. This importance is adequately shown by the two great responsibilities that are Enjoining the Good and Prohibiting the Evil that have been placed alongside the ritual prayer and pilgrimage [as being one of the pillars of the Islamic faith].

Of course, in this responsibility it is God in reality who will take us to account. The reason for this is that it is He that has delineated obligations for individuals with respect to one another. It is for this reason that this [social] responsibility is not at the same level as the [personal] responsibility that we have before God. To be more precise, it is a manifestation of it. In reality, through the monotheistic view of Islam we believe that all responsibilities (including the responsibilities we have to ourselves, the other individuals of society and even animals and plants) are manifestations of the responsibility that we have before God. From this we can understand the incorrectness of the view of those that believe in the principality of society and that society possesses special rights [independent of everything including God] and therefore, its members will always be held accountable before it.

Responsibility In Relation To Other Beings

Another one of the most important kinds of ethical responsibilities of man that Islam has laid great emphasis upon is the responsibility that he has in relation to Nature and the other beings of this Universe, even plants and animals. Man does not have the right to act however he so pleases with the environment. Also, he cannot act as he wants with animals. Rather, animals also have rights over their masters that have been well explained in the Religious Traditions.47 It has even been related in a tradition from Imam Ali that one should not curse animals since God has cursed the one that curses them.

  • 1. Moral Problems, p. 132.
  • 2. Moral Problems, p. 134.
  • 3. ‘Responsibility, Moral and Legal’ by Arnold S. Kaufman, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 7, p. 183.
  • 4. ‘Responsibility, Moral and Legal’ by Arnold S. Kaufman, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 7, p. 183; ‘Responsibility’ by R.A. Duff, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 8, p. 291.
  • 5. Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, p. 158.
  • 6. ‘Responsibility’ by Michael J. Zimmerman, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 1089; ‘Responsibility’ by Duff, The Rutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 8, p. 290-292; Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, p. 160-162.
  • 7. ‘Responsibility’ by Michael J. Zimmerman, in the Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 1090.
  • 8. Jamea wa Tarikh az Didgah Qur’an, p. 73-109.
  • 9. Ma’arif Qur’an, p. 394-395.
  • 10. Ma’arif Qur’an, p. 394.
  • 11. ‘Responsibility’ by M.J. Zimmerman, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 1093.
  • 12. A History of Philosophy, Frederick Charles Copleston, v. 1, p. 386.
  • 13. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 158; Aristotle, David Ross, p. 301-303.
  • 14. Akhlaq Nikomakus, v. 1, p. 60.
  • 15. Ma’arif Qur’an, p. 375-377.
  • 16. Theological Instructions, v. 1-2, p. 173.
  • 17. ‘Responsibility’ by M.J. Zimmerman, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 1090-1091; ‘Responsibility, Moral and Legal’ by A.S. Kaufman, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 7, p. 184.
  • 18. Moral Problems, p. 132.
  • 19. Ethics, Spinoza, p. 62.
  • 20. Ethics, Spinoza, p. 149.
  • 21. Moral Problems, p. 135-138; ‘Responsibility’ by M.J. Zimmerman, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 1091-1093.
  • 22. Ma’arif Qur’an, p. 388-389.
  • 23. Moral Problems, p. 133-134, from ‘Darrow, Attorney for the Dammed’ Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, p. 302-304.
  • 24. Moral Problems, p. 145- 147.
  • 25. This is shown by the use of the word ‘seen’ in the verse of the Qur’an: ‘…had he not seen the proof of his Lord’.
  • 26. ‘Determinism’ by Richard Taylor, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 2, p. 363.
  • 27. Maqalat al Islamiyin, v. 1, p. 321.
  • 28. This theory states that God has the habit of directly creating certain things after or at the same time that He creates certain others. For example, God always creates fire alongside heat even while the fire itself does not play any role in the heat’s genesis. (Tr.).
  • 29. al Luma, p. 69-92.
  • 30. This theory states that although it is God that creates the actions of His servants he does so when they make the intention to do so. Thus, they play a certain role in their genesis for had they had not intended to perform a certain action God would not have created it in them. (Tr.)
  • 31. Buhuth fi al Milal wa al Nihal, v. 2, p. 123-158.
  • 32. Amuzish Aqaed, v. 1-2, p. 171.
  • 33. This can also be translated as necessary.
  • 34. Mathnawi, 3rd Book, p. 3287-3289.
  • 35. This is a reference to a line from the famous philosophical poem of Sabziwari, the Liyali al Muntazimah.
  • 36. ‘Determinism’ by Richard Taylor, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 2, p. 363.
  • 37. Amuzish Aqaed, v. 1-2, p. 176-177.
  • 38. al Mughni, v. 8, p. 109-161.
  • 39. al Farq Bayn al Firaq, p. 114; al Mughni, v. 8, p. 3.
  • 40. This is a reference to a famous tradition from Imam Ja’far as Sadiq (‘a).
  • 41. Amuzish Falsafah, v. 2, p. 362; Amuzish Aqaed, v. 1-2, p. 183-186.
  • 42. Ma’arif Quran, p. 387.
  • 43. al Mizan, v. 20, p. 354-355.
  • 44. Bar Dargah Dust, p. 149-152.
  • 45. Akhlaq dar Qur’an, v. 2, p. 21-23.
  • 46. al Mizan, v. 6, p. 164.
  • 47. Wasael al Shia, v. 8, ch 9, p. 339; Man la Yahzurhu al Faqih, v. 2, traditions 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9; Sharae al Islam, v. 1-2, p. 575.