Chapter 8: An Examination Of The Theory Of Ethical Relativity

Another one of the most important discussions in the Philosophy of Ethics that has extraordinary practical effects for individuals and societies is whether ethical rules and values are absolute or relative. In other words, are ethical values, rules and principles the product of social, psychological, cultural and other factors and the likes of these such that the former would change and vary with changes and variations [that should happen to occur] in the latter? Or are ethical values stable and perennial things such that the changes in time and place would have no effect upon them? What are the arguments of those who adhere to ethical relativity? Where is the fallacy of such arguments? How can we prove the absoluteness of ethical principles and values? Also, are all ethical rules and values absolute and stable or does there exist relative values capable of change?

The Different Kinds Of Ethical Relativity

First off, it is fitting to explain some of the various kinds of ethical relativity and to clarify the meaning of each one. In this way we can gain a clearer perspective of what is being argued over and also obtain a more precise comprehension of the proofs of those who adhere to ethical relativity. In general, it is possible to say that the most important types of ethical relativity are the following: Meta-Ethical Relativism, Descriptive Relativism and Normative Relativism. We will, hereunder, explain each one of these theories:

Descriptive Relativism

The difference in ethical traits of the diverse nations and societies has always preoccupied the minds and thoughts of philosophers. From the time of Ancient Greece there were always discussions surrounding this topic and its corollaries. The encounter of the Greeks with other nations and societies and their acquaintance with their ethical ideas and values caused some of the philosophers of that era such as Protagoras to consider man to be the measure of everything. Such individuals stated that ‘ugliness and beauty’ as well as ‘justice and oppression’ are things that are founded upon the customs and traditions of human beings.1 In the twentieth century, with the expansion of social and international relations and the growth of social and anthropological sciences clearer and more serious proofs for the differences between the ethical values of various groups and societies was obtained. Eskimos abandon old people in the snow so that they may die from hunger.

Some tribes consider stealing to be ethically permissible. The members of certain tribes from the Malaysian Islands consider friendship and cooperation with others to be something unbecoming. In some societies children are obliged to kill or choke their old parents. This is while all of these actions are ethically wrong in our society. In some South Asian countries people smell each other when they want to show the utmost respect. In Western countries, especially in Latin America, when people want to display their respect to a speaker they kiss their face, whether they be a man or a woman. However, in the Islamic society it is very unbecoming for a woman to kiss a strange man and vice versa. 2

When we study the ethical conduct of a specific society throughout time, we can clearly see the fluctuations in their ethical values. Until recent decades, in some western countries if someone were to come out in public in a short-sleeved shirt then the police would arrest him. Such an action was considered morally unbecoming. Today, however, the ethical standard of that same society has changed and anyone can come out in the public eye as he so desires and no one will consider his action to be immoral. Therefore, it can be gathered that aside from the fact that the ethical values of different societies, groups and individuals are poles apart, in a single society they also vary from time to time and are [thus] relative.3

It is necessary to remind our readers that the claim of Descriptive Relativism is not simply that ‘the ethical rules of different individuals and societies are different’ rather they claim that the principle ethical rules (not only their derivatives) also fluctuate and are even contradictory [to one another at times].4 In other words, the claim of Descriptive Relativism is that the ethical values and principles of individuals fundamentally contradict one another.5 What is meant by ‘fundamental contradiction’ is that even if there is a consensus of opinion regarding the distinctions of some specific thing under consideration the [underlying] difference of opinion will not be erased.

For example, the difference of opinion regarding the permissibility or impermissibility of children killing their elderly parents is not always because of a fundamental difference of opinion on ethical values (i.e. a difference of opinion as regards the principle of paying respect to one’s parents). The reason for this is that it is possible for the adherents of such an action to kill their parents because they feel that this is necessary for the eternal salvation of their parents or because they hold that killing old people relieves them of their pain and even protects their dignity. Thus, may kill them out of the utmost respect and love for them. Therefore, in such instances, in the words of William Frankena: ‘there is a difference in objective beliefs [regarding the external world] not ethical beliefs.’6 Such differences of opinion can be solved by means of dialogue and conversation regarding the realities existing in the Universe. A fundamental difference of opinion is when there is a difference in ‘ethical beliefs’ in such a way that even if there is an agreement regarding the characteristics of the action under consideration, there may not be any way to resolve the difference of opinion of the two parties [with regards to it].7

It should be stated that Descriptive Relativists can be divided into two categories: 1. Extreme and 2. Conservative; According to the extreme line of thought all of the principal values of various society posses a fundamental difference between one another. However, according to the more conservative trend the fundamental differences only exist in some of the principal values in some similar cases throughout time for some individuals, groups and societies. 8

Descriptive Relativism, in reality, falls within the jurisdiction of Sociology, Anthropology and the likes of these sciences and there is still much discussions going on regarding its correctness.9 Some foreign anthropologists and psychologists in the west have even doubted in the truth of such a theory.10 The reality of the matter is that the claim of the extreme relativists is very far-fetched and unbelievable. Can we really conceive of a society that considers justice to be bad and oppression to be good, aside from differences of opinion regarding the [particular] instances of such concepts? Can an individual, group or society be imagined that considers the killing of innocent people to be ethically permissible? Yes, it is possible that there be differences regarding the meaning and instances of ‘innocence’ but can we imagine a society that considers stealing, in the proper meaning of this word, to be permissible?

Taking into consideration the reports and the, technically speaking, scientific investigations of the orientalists regarding our own society it is very likely that the reality of the matter be something else. Edward Brown and Comte de Gobineau are two of the most famous European orientalists, the second of which spent at least five years in Iran and regarding the former some specialists have born witness that no one has researched the literature of Iran and the ideas of the Muslim philosophers and mystics more than he. However, in his book A History of Literature in Iran11 he says: ‘Gobineau has made a mistake regarding the meaning of the word ‘asfar’ which is the plural of ‘sifr’ meaning book and says that it is the plural form of ‘safar’ [meaning journey]. On page 81 of his book The Religions and Philosophies of the Middle East he writes: ‘Mulla Sadra has written a few other books regarding traveling.’ As can be seen these two famous orientalists have made a grave mistake [regarding the book al Asfar]. One of them considers this word to be the plural form of sifr book while the other says that the book was a travel log. This is while, in the words of the martyr Mutahhari ‘If these two individuals were to have personally read the first page of the al-Asfar then they would have known that asfar is neither the plural form of the word sifr nor is it a travel log.’12

This Gobineau in a book entitled ‘Three Years in Iran’ writes the following regarding the manner in which Iranians greet each other: ‘After you and your host and everyone else has sat down then you turn to the host and say: ‘Is you nose, by the will of God, fat?’ Then the host will say: ‘By the grace of God my nose is fat. How is your nose?’ I have even seen such a question being asked from one person five times and he answered them each time…’13 Even though Mr. Gobineau lived many years among the Iranian people and could speak the Persian language very well he made such a mistake regarding the formal conduct and daily actions of the Iranian people. Now, how can one rely on the reports of such individuals regarding the spiritual conditions, ethical conduct and metaphysical concepts of other nations and societies? We will assess this kind of relativism more while criticizing the proofs of the Relativists.


The second type of Relativism that has been discussed by the Philosophers of Ethics is Meta-Ethical Relativism. According to this view, that is often discussed under the general heading of ‘epistemological relativism’14, we must not understand only one of the many conflicting ethical rules or systems to be correct and the other ethical rules and systems to be incorrect and unjustifiable.15 The adherents of such a kind of relativism hold that ‘with regards to the principle ethical rules, there is no reasonable and authentic way to justify one [system or rule] as opposed to the other. As a result, it is possible that two principal rules that contradict one another each posses an equal amount of authenticity.’16

The general claim that is accepted by all of those who adhere to Meta-Ethical Relativism is that there is not simply one correct ethical standard. Rather, there can be at least two or more correct ethical standards. It is for this reason that they believe that ethical terms such as good, correct and the likes of these must be interpreted in a way that it be possible to apply them to various contradictory ideologies. The adherents of such a viewpoint have tried in various ways to prove this idea. In its proper place we will examine and criticize their proofs.

Meta-Ethical Relativists can, in one way, be divided into two sub-groups: Extremism and Conservatism. According to the extreme version of this idea all of the ethical systems are equally true and justifiable and we cannot say that there is one single system that is more true or justifiable then another. However, the more conservative relativists, while denying that only one ethical system is correct, claims that some ethical systems are truer and more justifiable than others. Philosophers such as Walzer, Wong and Foot all adhere to the second version [of this ideology].

In another way this [ethical] relativism can be divided into two general sub-groups: Conventionalism and Subjectivism.17 Conventionalism holds that [the nature of] ethical principles depend upon the culture, habits and customs of a society. For example, Sociologists [with an inclination to such an ethical relativism] believe that the legitimacy of ethical principles depends upon their collective acceptance by society and the social contract [which that society makes with regards to their propriety]. In other words, the correctness or incorrectness of a certain action in the eyes of a specific individual depends upon the society of which that individual is a member.

‘The correctness or incorrectness of the actions of an individual depends upon the essence of the society from which he stems. That which is ethically good or bad must be considered in light of the grounds of belief, wants, beliefs, history and social atmosphere [in which that action is performed].’18

However, according to Subjectivism the authenticity of ethical principles depends upon the individual choice and personal tastes and feelings of an individual person and not the society [as a whole]. The Emotionalism of Ayer and Stevenson are two blaring examples of this kind of Relativism. Based upon this view there remains no more room for ethical judgments or demonstrations.

Normative Relativism

The third type of ethical relativism says: ‘That which is correct and good for an individual or society is not correct or good for another individual or society even under similar conditions.’19 Since this type of ethical relativism expounds a normative rule, is named Normative Relativism. As we have seen until now, Descriptive Relativism and Meta-Ethical Relativism do not hold an individual logically responsible for an ethical rule. Descriptive Relativism simply describes the differences between the ethical principles of various individuals and societies. Meta-Ethical Relativism discusses the justification of different ethical rules and whether or not ethical principles are always justifiable and true or not. However, this type of relativism presents a normative rule and says the following to individuals and societies: One must not be adamant upon following certain stable ethical rules and appraise the ethical values that have been accepted by others based upon one’s own ethical standards. In reality they teach one how to interact with those individuals that have different ethical values than ours.20 This type of relativism takes it for granted that first of all the ethical values that have been accepted by different individuals and societies differ from one another and possess fundamental dissimilarities from one another.

This type of relativism, which is usually accepted by anthropologists, has many social and international repercussions and it is possible that its formation by some western thinkers was for this very reason.21 According to this outlook one society does not have the right to reprimand another society because it has disobeyed certain ethical rules of conduct and the likes of these or to ask everyone to act upon the norms that it has personally accepted. This outlook can also be used to subdue the differences of opinion between the individuals of a society regarding specific problems.

For example, it is possible that the members of society have different opinions regarding the permissibility or impermissibility of abortion and that these differences of opinion lead to serious social conflict. However, by relying upon Normative Relativism it is possible to tell people not to be so sensitive to the opinions of others. As will become clearer in the forthcoming discussions the foundations of this view are fundamentally incorrect.

A Delineation Of The Subject Of Debate

From amongst the three forms of ethical relativism that we have just mentioned it is the second which is directly related to the Philosophy of Ethics, that is Meta-Ethical Relativism. Descriptive Relativism falls, in reality, under the auspices of Anthropology and Sociology and Normative Relativism is actually an outcome and consequence of Descriptive and Meta-Ethical Relativism. Of course, it must be kept in mind that the belief in Normative Relativism is not the logical consequence of accepting Descriptive and Meta-Ethical Relativism. In other words, neither of the two logically results in Normative Relativism. Rather what is meant is that one of the conditions for the acceptance of Normative Relativism is that we accept that there are differences in ethical systems and that we recognize that all or some of them are justifiable.22

In other words, it is not logically problematic that someone accepts Descriptive or Meta-Ethical Relativism and at the same time ethically evaluates ethical systems other than his own. Therefore, in this section we will concentrate our attention on the analysis and critique of Meta-Ethical Relativism However, before presenting the proofs of this manner of thinking it is fitting that we briefly introduce some of the schools of thought in relativism.

Schools Of Thought Within Ethical Relativism

If it is not possible for us to say that the acceptance of relativism in ethics is the natural consequence of those schools of thought that understand ethical rules to be inshai in nature then we can at least state that these schools of thought are more ready to recognize this matter. In this section we will point out some of those ideologies that have accepted ethical relativism and following this we will criticize Meta-Ethical Relativism.

Personal Hedonism

There are some ethical schools of thought that explicitly state that ethics is relative while there are others that have not explicitly stated such a thing however, we can gather from their principles and ideological foundations that they must believe in ethical relativism. For example, the necessary outcome of the principles and ideological foundations of Personal Hedonism is that ethical rules are relative. Aristippus of Cyrene (435 B.C.),23 the representative of this ideology, was of the belief that a good act is one that our nature takes pleasure in and that creates happiness within us while a bad action is one that is not pleasing for us and causes us pain and distress.

Therefore, from the point of view of this school of thought, personal pleasure and pain are the measure of [ethical] goodness and evil. Every human being must act in such a way that his personal pleasure may be secured. It is for this reason that one action may be pleasing for one individual while it may be painful for another and be neutral for a third. In this case it will be [ethically] good for the first, [ethically] bad for the second and be ethically neutral for the third (meaning it is neither good nor bad for him).

Marxist Ethics

The ethics of Marxism is relative and susceptible to change. In the opinion of the Marxists the ethics of a feudal society is different from that of a Proletariat one. Every society and era from history has its own ethical demands. Above all one of the principal foundations of the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism is that everything is in a state of change and fluctuation. The natural conclusion that can be drawn from this principle in the field of ethics is that it cannot be said of a certain ethical trait that it is always and for everyone a virtue or a vice. Rather, its goodness or evil follows the historical conditions [in which it exists]. Therefore, according to the ethics of the Marxist it cannot be said in an absolute manner that, ‘Stealing is evil,’ rather one must see in what historical setting one has stolen. In the feudal system it is evil for the masses to steal from the land-owners since if this were not so that system would not progress and reach the stage of capitalism.

It is necessary in the Proletariat system that wealth be centralized so that with its help large factories can be made. However, if from the beginning the workers begin stealing and take the wealth of their masters then no amount of capital will be centralized. Therefore, in this stage of history stealing is bad. However, when a society reaches a stage where a revolution is to come about within it then its value system will be changed and thus stealing the wealth of the capitalists will be something good. In any case, ethical values follow the social upheavals of a society, especially its economic conditions.


Also, sociologists such as Durkheim believe that a proper and good action is one that is acceptable to a society or specific group while a bad and unbecoming action is one that is hated by them. Even if a society considers homicide or theft to be permissible the performance of such acts by the members of such a society will be good and acceptable. Other individuals and societies will not have the right to reprimand and to ethically evaluate their actions based upon their own ethical standards.

In other words, every society has its own ethical values all of which are correct in relation to that society. Even though it is possible that there exists certain common and global ethical value there is, however, no guarantee that they will last forever or that they will remain universal. In any case, according to the view of the socialists it is not correct to use the ethical rules of a group or specific society to assess other groups and societies. It is not proper to speak of absolute and universal ethical rules and principles.


The logical result of a school of thought such as Emotionalism is also nothing other than ethical relativism. The reason for this is that if ethical rules simply express the emotions of the speaker and has no root in external reality then logically it is not possible to expect others to feel the same emotions [and thus to believe in the same ethical rules]. It is possible that there may be multifold emotions and inclinations equal to the number of human beings existing in this world.

A Description And Critique Of The Proofs Of Ethical Relativism

The adherents of Meta-Ethical Relativism have taken recourse to a number of proofs in order to substantiate their beliefs. Sometimes they have held on to general Epistemological Relativism and at other times they have used Descriptive Relativism [as evidence].24 Here, we will relate and criticize the most important of their proofs.

Demonstration By Way Of Descriptive Relativism

A famous proof that has been used to prove Meta-Ethical Relativism is founded upon Descriptive Relativism.25 This proof goes as follows: Since certain actions are acceptable and good in certain societies while they are unacceptable and evil in others we can understand that ethical values are relative and that their ruling is different in relation to various individuals and societies. It is even possible that something be considered good in one era while it be considered evil in another.

As was previously indicated there is still a debate regarding the correctness of Descriptive Relativism. Some of the thinkers in the field the Humanities have seriously doubted the legitimacy of such a concept. In reality, it must be proven that ‘the principle ethical rules of human beings are different and conflicting, even if those human beings are completely taught [in the same manner] and all of them posses common objective beliefs.’26 If not then it is not possible to reach that conclusion simply by showing that there is a difference in the principle ethical rules of various societies.
‘The reason for this is that it is possible for the aforementioned differences to stem from a difference or deficiency in beliefs regarding the external world.’27 The relativists are incapable of proving such a thing. How is it possible to prove that ‘even if all human beings are educated properly and have clear [ethical] ideas and common objective ethical beliefs they will still posses different ethical principles?’28
Say that two individuals posses two distinct ethical rulings [regarding an action]. Assuming that their difference of opinion does not lay in an assessment of what ethical concept the action is an instance of, there are a number of possibilities at play here:

1. Another difference of understanding has caused a difference in the ethical ruling of the said action. Assume that one of the two individuals is of the belief that one way of acquiring ownership of something is to simply find it. In this case, if someone else were to take that thing without the permission of the one who found it this would be tantamount to stealing and an evil action. However, the other person does not consider finding something to be the cause of ownership and in his eyes if someone else were to take it this would not be an evil deed. This is because in the eyes of the latter this is not stealing. In other words, the difference of opinion of these two lays in their definition of ownership and as a result in their definition of stealing. It is not true that one of them considers stealing to be good in certain cases while the other says that it is absolutely wrong.

2. It is possible that their difference of opinion lay in the fact that they have a different outlook with regards to certain other realities. Say that one of these two believes that killing any human being to be evil [under all circumstances] while the other considers this to be good in some cases. It is possible that this difference of opinion be because the first person is unaware of the outcome of terminating a killer or apostate who threatens the life or beliefs of others. So, it is likely that by correcting this belief he may become of the same faith as the second person.

3. Each one of them may have the same take on a certain action and the realities that are related to that and still have a real difference of opinion with regards to the ethical ruling of the action.

It is clear that the third possibility, which is in fact the claim of the Descriptive Realists, is not one hundred percent sure and there always exists the possibility that the other two options are true. Therefore, such relativists cannot simply prove their claim by means of the existence of a difference of opinion regarding the ethical ruling of a certain action.

Even if we overlook the abovementioned objections then it must be said that it is only possible to use Descriptive Relativism as a particular proposition in order to refute the claims of those who state that all ethical values are absolute and that none of the ethical values or rulings are relative [in any way whatsoever]. In order to explain: If someone were to claim that every value concept and every good, bad, must and must not are absolute then in order to refute his claim it is enough for us to point out that a certain action is good in one society while it is unacceptable in another. In other words, in response to that statement which is made in the form of a universal proposition the gist of which is that all good and bad things and value statements are absolute and universal it is possible to present a particular negative proposition and in this case the former proposition and universal ruling will be negated. However, based upon this way of thinking it is only possible for us to prove the relativity of a portion of ethical values and we have in no way negated that we posses certain absolute ethical values.29

However, using Descriptive relativism in an extreme manner and in the form of a universal proposition (aside from having the abovementioned objections) needs us to prove a bona fide and primary difference in all of the values that have been accepted by people and nations. However, it is not [practically] possible for us to completely asses all of the ethical rulings of the various societies in all areas.

However, the most important objection that can be leveled here regarding the derivation of Meta-Ethical Relativism from Descriptive Relativism is that even if we admit to a real difference between the various individuals and societies with regards to the ethical value of all actions we cannot understand this to be a proof for the legitimacy of Meta-Ethical Relativism. The reason for this is that the existence of a difference in the ethical systems [of this world] does not logically prove the correctness and truth of all of them or that they are not [objectively] founded upon realties.30 In other words, in the same way that the existence of a difference of opinion in a certain science does not mean that all of those opinions are correct, the existence of a difference of opinion in the ethical evaluation of actions is in no way a proof that all of those evaluations are correct or that there is no real ethical values.

Demonstration By Means Of Understanding Ethical Rules To Be Inshai In Nature

Understanding ethical statements to be inshai is another stance [that is used as a foundation] for the relativity of ethics. Most of the individuals and schools of thought that have understood ethical rules to be inshai have accepted the relativity of ethics, either explicitly or implicitly. As we have seen, schools of thought such as Emotionalism and Socialism that understand the foundation of ethical rules to be the emotions and tastes of individuals or human societies are of the belief that it is not possible to believe in stable ethical principles. The reason for this is that, first of all, it is possible that the emotions and inclinations of different individuals and societies be dissimilar. Secondly, with a change in the tastes and emotions of persons and their social preferences a change will occur in their ethical judgments.

Keeping in mind the matter that we have presented in detail in the previous chapters (especially the third, fourth and fifth chapter) it will become clear that not only are ethical concepts (whether they be used as subjects or predicates) secondary philosophical concepts that have a source of abstraction in the external world, what is more, ethical statements are themselves declaratory and seek to express a real relation that exists between certain actions and their effects. Therefore, this stance of ethical relativism is also incorrect.

Sometimes the relativity [of ethical statements] is justified by means of the conventional nature of ethical rules. In order to explain: According to this view: Ethical rules are conventional ones. The goodness and evil of actions depend upon how someone convenes them to be. Their goodness or evil do not posses an objective reality outside the convention of the individual. Anytime certain sane individuals deem it necessary to convene upon a certain concept in order to achieve their goals they agree upon that concept so that in this way their goals may be achieved. For example, they agree upon ownership and matrimony (under specific conditions) in order to secure certain interests that they have taken into consideration. Ethical concepts and judgments are also of this nature and depend upon the convention of rational human beings which in turn depends upon the benefits and harms that they seek to secure or hinder. The benefits and losses of individuals and societies are abstracted from the relation between needs and things that can fulfill those needs. Hence, in reality conventional concepts and rules depend upon the needs of human beings which in turn do not have any sort of stable form. Individuals and societies [and their needs] change with time and place. Therefore, that which is abstracted from such needs and then convened based upon them will be susceptible to change as well. In conclusion, ethical rules and concepts are similar to other conventional concepts and have no objective reality. Therefore, such ethical rules are shaky and in a state of flux.

In other words, stable and unchanging propositions are ones that are proven through logical demonstration. The reason for this is that the conditions of a logical demonstration are that its premises be continuous, necessary and universal. It is also natural that its conclusion will partake of these qualities as well. Every rational proposition, whether it be related to philosophy or to other theoretical sciences, will be universal, stable, continuous and absolute provided that it is a proposition that we are certain is true. For example, since mathematical propositions are demonstratable their results are stable and absolute (whether they are found in arithmetic or geometry). If the propositions that are found in the natural sciences are certain in nature then they will also posses such characteristics. Universality, necessity, stability and continuity are the distinctions of objective rules. This means that they are rules that are abstracted from external reality and follow a certain set of causes and effects. Since the law of cause and effect is something stable its consequences will also be so. Accordingly, the conclusions that are founded upon the law of causality are also stable and continuous. Ethical propositions are, however, not of such a nature. The concepts that we use in ethical propositions have not been derived from external reality. The subjects of such propositions are abstract concepts and their predicates are also conventional concepts that revolve around the needs of individuals and societies. As we have previously stated we have no proof in our hands that the needs of human beings are stable and do not change. Therefore, we cannot present any logical demonstration for the stability and absoluteness of ethical rules. Rather, it must be accepted that ethical rules are relative.

There are many logical fallacies in this theory several of which are not directly related to our discussion and which we cannot delve into in detail at the moment. Right now, however, we wish to stress upon a point that, although simple, possesses a great consequence. This is the explanation of what is meant when we say that ethical concepts and rules are conventional. Does this mean that ethical concepts and statements are conventions that are completely disconnected from reality and are not related to the external world? Is the conception of ethical ideas and rules something that depends upon the needs and desires of the person who convenes them? Or are they conventions that are abstracted from real beings and external realities and are not related to the emotions and feelings of individuals?

Since the words itibar and itibari31 posses various usages in philosophical texts it is necessary to first of all indicate some of the most frequently utilized meanings and usages of this term so that we may prevent any sort of fallacy of equivocation from taking place [in our current discussion].32 After this we will see in what meaning we can understand ethical rules to be itibari. The most important meanings of the word itibari are the following:

Secondary Intelligibles

According to one meaning, all secondary intelligibles, whether they are logical or philosophical, are called itibari. Even the concept of existence can be considered to be itibari [in this meaning of the term]. In this usage the concept of itibari is employed in contrast to a concept that is a quiddity. This meaning has been frequently used in the sayings of Sheikh Ishraq and usually he means by ‘intellectual conventions’ this very connotation.

Concepts That Are Not Principle In Nature

In the discussions on ‘the principality of existence or quiddity’ the word itibari is used in contrast to principality. If something is ‘principle’ then this means that it is ‘real’, that ‘essentially it is the source of real effects in the external world’, that ‘it essentially exists’ and that ‘it fills the pages of the book of existence’.33 In contrast, itibari means that something does not possess external reality, it essentially cannot be the source of any real effects [in the external world] and that it does not fill the pages of the book of existence. Rather, it is a figment of the imagination or it is abstracted by the mind from the non-existence which is the boundaries of an existing being.

Concepts Formed By The Imagination

According to a third meaning of the term, itibari means those concepts that are formed by the faculty of the Imagination which in no way have any instance in the external world or in the mind and that are fashioned by the faculty of imagination such as the concept of ‘the Boogie-Man’.

Ideas That Depend In Their Conception Upon The Individual And Social Needs Of Human Beings

Itibari in this usage of the term means a concept or rule that does not have a real source of abstraction in the external world. Rather, it is simply fashioned based upon the personal and collective needs of individuals such as the concept of ownership and leadership.

Now it has become clear, without a doubt, that the meaning of itibari in the abovementioned proof is not one that stands opposed to principality34. Also, bearing in mind the explanation that will come after this it can be gathered that it is incorrect to consider ethical concepts to be imaginary. Therefore, the third meaning of itibari is also not intended here. However, if by itibari in the abovementioned proof the fourth meaning of this term is intended it seems that the comparison of the convention of ethical concepts and rules with other conventions such as ownership and matrimony is not a proper one.

In order to explain: One cannot consider all conventions to follow the personal and collective needs and desires of human beings. Rather, only those things that are invented in a society and are metaphorical concepts are such. Ownership and matrimony are examples of such concepts since they follow the personal and collective needs of human beings and are simply conventional things. It is for this very reason that various societies have a variety of conventions [in relation to them]. For example, in one society they come to the agreement that the words ‘bitu’ (I sell) and ‘ishtaraytu’ (I buy) are the cause of ownership while in another society it is the signature of the buyer and seller that causes ownership to come about while in a yet third society it is shaking hands that causes ownership to come into existence.35

It is also possible that in some other place they have agreed that ownership should come into existence in some other way. In any case, ownership is a conventional thing and depends upon the manner in which people agree upon its cause and there is no real relation between conventional causes and their effects. Usually, the standard used in the convention of concepts is the best interests of society and the ease or simplicity of certain works.

However, it must be kept in mind that, mainly, there are no discussions in philosophy regarding metaphors, allegories and social contracts. The itibari concepts that are discussed in the philosophical sciences, one of which is the Philosophy of Ethics, are those that possess a real source of abstraction in the external world and do not depend [in their conception] upon the changing needs and personal desires of individuals. Yes, we also accept the fact that all philosophical concepts, including the dos and don’ts of ethics are itibari [in one sense] and conceptual but not in the sense that they hinge upon the emotions and feelings of individuals and society. More accurately, it means that their conception depends upon the human mind. In other words, if the human being did not exist then such concepts would also not exist. The reason for this is that as we stated previously, philosophical concepts are such that their occurrence is in the mind.

Of course, even though ethical concepts and rules are itibari and do not posses entified reality they do have a real source of abstraction in the external world. This is exactly like the ideas of cause, effect, possibility, necessity and other philosophical concepts that are abstracted from external beings and do not depend upon the changing desires of the individual that forms them. Whether we want to or not, know it or not, fire in the external world is the cause of heat and its being a cause [for heat] is not something that revolves around the needs, feelings, comprehension or understanding of individuals. The extensions of such a causality are the same in the field of ethics and do not depend upon the personal inclinations and feelings of individuals. The relation that telling the truth, lying, justice, oppression and other actions that stem from the free-will of man have with the consequences that accrue from them is not one that has been concocted by humans. Rather, this is an objective relationship that possesses entified reality. Whether we wish it or not, whether we know it or not, telling the truth is effective in the soul’s acquiring [ethical] perfection while lying causes the soul to be distanced from [this] perfection.

Ethical Absolutism

By now it has been clearly understood that ethical relativism is an unacceptable doctrine. The various schools of thought that adhere to ethical relativism do not posses a justifiable ideological foundation. Also, the proofs that have been presented for relativism [in ethics] are barren and incapable of establishing it as true. In this section we wish to defend absolutism in ethics. Absolutism claims that ethical values (or at least the principle ethical values) are everlasting and universal and posses real and perennial standards [by means of which they are assessed]. However, before explaining our theory in detail it is fitting that we point out some of the different schools of thought within absolutism.

The Schools Of Thought Within Absolutism

The Theory Of Ethical Felicity

Apparently, the ethical school of thought of the ancients was absolute in nature. Socrates, for example (who can be considered the founder of the ethical school of thought of felicity) was of the opinion that ethical virtues (which are the necessary and sufficient conditions for acquiring felicity) are constant and unchangeable realities36. Even though human beings have apparent differences because of the different temporal and spatial conditions in which they exist, they have a single unwavering nature. This perennial nature necessitates that they posses unchanging needs and aspirations. Therefore, ethical virtues are always stable and unchangeable.37

Even though Plato made corrections and amendments to the ethical theory of Socrates he accepted in essence his school of thought.38 Hence, in his view ethics is something stable and unchangeable and the temporal and spatial conditions [in which humans find themselves] do not have an effect upon ethical values. Aristotle also accepted the theory of ethical felicity of Socrates and Plato albeit after making certain revisions and modifications to it. He was of the opinion that the way to achieving ethical virtue, and as a result ethical felicity, was [to practice] justice. It can be gathered from the apparent nature of his sayings that justice is always and in all societies the criterion for goodness. For example, in his opinion courage is good for everyone, in every instance and all the time. This is while the two virtues that lay on the other end of the spectrum of courage (i.e. foolhardiness and cowardliness) are bad in the same [unconditional] manner.


Epicure (270-342 B.C.), who believed that the standard for the goodness and evil of actions is [the] pleasure [that accrues from them]39, was also of the opinion that ethical virtues are absolute. He divided the pleasures of human beings into three categories: 1. Natural and necessary pleasures such as eating and drinking. Epicure held that the acquisition of such pleasures was always good and acceptable. 2. Unnatural and unnecessary pleasures such as the pleasure that one experiences from popularity and social standing. He was of the opinion that such pleasures must be forsaken in an absolute manner and that they are, in reality, always bad and unacceptable. 3. Natural yet unnecessary pleasures such as the pleasure of marriage and eating tasty foods. He considered the satisfaction that one acquires from [partaking in] such pleasures to be good if they are moderate in nature but held that going to an extreme with regards to them was deplorable. It can be gathered from such a division that Epicure also considered [at least certain] ethical virtues to be stable and absolute. He held that pleasures that must be acquired are always good and that so for everyone and said that the unnatural and unnecessary pleasures are always bad and that so for everyone.

The Theory Of An Ethical Conscience

The adherents of the theory of an ethical conscience, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778 A.D.), understand the ruling of the conscience to be the standard by means of which we asses [ethical] goodness and evil. Apparently, they mean to say that human nature and [the] conscience [within us] is something stable and continuous in such a manner that it is not influenced by [the] historical and social factors [in which it finds itself]. It always rules in the same way. Rousseau said: ‘Our conscience never tricks us. It is the true guide of human beings. The relation of the conscience to the spirit is like the relation of nature to the body. Whoever obeys it has obeyed nature and should not fear going astray.’40

The School Of Thought Of Kant

Amongst the later day philosophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) defended absolutism in ethics more than anyone else. In his opinion ethical virtues are absolute and do not change under any circumstances. They do not accept of exceptions. The goodness of actions such as ‘telling the truth’ and ‘keeping one’s promise’ are universal and perennial.41

Fundamentally speaking, Kant considers those actions as being ethically good that first of all stem from man’s free-will and are his responsibility [to perform]. Secondly, they should be executed with the intention that one is doing one’s duty by performing them. Man is responsible for that action which he can respectively ask anyone else to do under any circumstances whatsoever. In other words, the absolute command of Kant says: Act in such a way that it is as if the ideology of your conduct, through your will, be one of the general laws of nature.42 He was of the opinion that the source of this ‘absolute command’ is the self-evident judgment of the practical intellect and can be considered as one of the apriori rulings that the practical intellect commands us to perform without recourse to experimentation.43 In sum, this absolute command, for which many different explanations have been presented44, is that all of the ethical responsibilities and duties must be absolute rulings and must not be specifically for a certain individual or society. It should also not possess special conditions and states.

Our Opinion

We claim that all of the ethical values are absolute and do not depend upon the personal tastes and conventions of individuals. At the same time we accept that some of the ethical rules are relative, albeit in another meaning of this word. These relative ethical rules are conditioned with certain special conditions. We will explain the meaning of relativity and absoluteness more so that this matter can become further clarified.

It is possible to say that the relativity of a certain rule has two distinct meanings. Sometimes the meaning of relativity is that the ruling of a certain subject is different in relation to the different states and conditions which that subject undergoes. For example, we say that water’s boiling at 100 degrees is relative. This means that the temperature at which water boils is relative to the purity of the water and the air pressure of the atmosphere in which the water is.

Therefore, the abovementioned ruling is not stable and unchangeable. Rather, it fluctuates in relation to the specific conditions and circumstances that exist in the external world [and in which the water can be found]. Yes, if the water is unadulterated and the air pressure remain stable then the abovementioned ruling will be stable and unchanging for the specific subject [under consideration]. In other words, pure water, under a specific atmospheric pressure, will always boil at one hundred degrees. In contrast, some rules are absolute. This means that they do not change with the changing of circumstances and conditions. For example, a physical force will unconditionally increase the speed of the movement of a physical body [that it encounters].

Therefore, some physical laws are absolute while others are relative and conditional. Both types of laws can even be found amongst mathematical propositions. The proposition: ‘Every triangle has at least two acute angles’ is absolute while the proposition: ‘Every triangle has a side whose square is equal to the sum of the square of the two other sides’ is conditioned by the fact that the triangle under question be a right triangle. It is clear that the rule that is conditioned or relative, in this meaning of the term, is absolute and stable albeit under its own specific conditions and circumstances. This means that assuming that those conditions and circumstances really [and continually] exist the ruling is not susceptible to change. In reality, all of the rules that are related to objective reality are such that in all or certain real conditions they are stable, absolute and unchangeable. Scientific, mathematical and philosophical rules expound the conditions for those rules.

In this way, in our opinion, some of the ethical propositions are absolute while others are conditional and, in this way, relative. The propositions: ‘Justice is good’ and ‘The worship of God is good’ are absolute while the proposition: ‘Killing another human being is bad’ is conditioned with the fact that the human being [to be killed] is innocent and that the killing be contrary to justice. Based upon the idea that all ethical statements are declarative and that they relate something about ethical reality all ethical rules will be based upon realities. In this case it is possible for us to say that the difference between these two types of ethical rulings is that some of them are only rooted in the primordial nature of man and that they are connected to the original and ultimate purpose of man’s existence. Now, since the nature of man and his ultimate purpose are things that cannot change the values that are based upon them are also unchangeable. These are the principle ethical values in the view of Islam.45 However, in some other ethical rulings, such as the evil of killing another human being, the subject is such that its evil or goodness depends upon the specific conditions [in which it exists]. When those conditions and circumstances change the goodness or evil of the action [under question] also change. These are conditional ethical rules and it is possible for us to understand them to be relative, in the abovementioned meaning of the term.

However, sometimes relativity means that the ethical rule is not stable or unchangeable under no real conditions whatsoever. This means that the rule is not connected to reality at all such that it might remain stable under certain or all circumstances. Rather it is connected to the personal tastes of individuals or their concord upon some matter. Thus, it is possible that they change no matter what the condition are with which they are expressed. In contrast, absoluteness means that the rule is not connected to the personal interests of individuals or their agreement upon something. Rather, it depends upon its own objective conditions. In our opinion, all ethical rules are absolute in this meaning of the term, like all of the rules of the other objective sciences. This means that the real ethical rules do not depend upon the personal tastes and conventions of individuals and they do not change when such tastes and conventions do.

Finally, we will analyze one ethical statement from the point of view of absoluteness and relativity so that this view may be understood more accurately. For example, the statement: ‘Telling the truth is good’ is an ethical rule. Is this rule absolute? In other words, is the predicate ‘good’ always, everywhere and under all conditions true for the subject ‘telling the truth’? Is it true for it even if telling the truth leads to the killing of an innocent person? Kant was of the opinion that telling the truth is an absolute value even if it leads to the death of thousands of innocent people. In his opinion if some people ask you: ‘Where is the entrance to that city?’ you must tell them the correct address even if you know that they want to enter the city so that they can destroy it and kill its inhabitants. He was of the opinion that we must act upon our own personal responsibility and not look at the results that they may lead to.46 In any case, telling the truth is absolutely good in the eyes of Kant. Their destructive consequences under some circumstances do not cause it to become insignificant.

Since the ideological foundations of the ethical school of Kant are not acceptable to us we cannot accept his answer to this ethical query. God willing, we will further examine the strengths and weaknesses of Kant’s view when we criticize and examine the various ethical schools of thought.

However, keeping in mind Islam’s ideological foundations, we can answer this question in two ways. The first is that we say that in cases where telling the truth leads to social evils like the death of innocent people it possesses two characteristics. The first is ‘telling the truth’ and the other is being ‘the cause of the death’. It is good from the point of view that it is an instance of telling the truth while it is bad from the point of view that it leads to the death of innocent human beings. In reality, it resembles the time when a command and prohibition unite in one action, a topic which is discussed in the science of the Principles of Jurisprudence. In that discussion many Usulis are of the opinion that it is possible for one action to be obligatory taking into consideration one of its characteristics while it is, at the same time, prohibited, keeping in mind its other characteristic.

For example, praying in a stolen land is prohibited from the point of view that it is an instance of stealing and at the same time it is obligatory from the point of view that it is an instance of the ritual prayer. Therefore, since goodness and evil possess degrees it is possible to say that these two characteristics often unite in one action. In this case there are three possible scenarios that can happen: The first is that the amount of goodness it possesses equals the amount of evil in it. In this case the goodness and evil conflict with one another and none of them are actualized.

As a result, this person neither deserves to be praised for this action nor does he deserve to be reprimanded for it. The second possibility is that the degree of goodness be more intense than that of evil. In this case he will deserve to be praised to the extent that the action’s goodness outweighs its evil. However, if the level of its evil be more than that of its goodness then he will actually be deserved to be scolded. Therefore, keeping in mind this answer, telling the truth is always good and there is no exception to this rule. Sometimes, however, its goodness is overshadowed by a greater good. Since it is not practically possible for us to perform both good actions [at the same time] reason tells us that one must perform the greater good and forgo the lesser one.

Another answer can be given to this question that, coincidently, is more in line with our ideological foundations. That answer is this: We must examine the subjects of ethical rules and values more astutely. If we look carefully into the matter, we will see that the universal standard for ethical values is the general and real good of the individual and society. That thing is expedient for man which will cause him to attain perfection and really rectify him spiritually.47

Therefore, ‘telling the truth’ is not the subject of an ethical ruling [such as being good] simply from the point of view that it is ‘telling the truth’. Rather, it is good from the point of view that it helps man achieve felicity and perfection and creates real goodness for him and the society [in which he exists]. It is also for this reason that if, under certain circumstances, it should lose this function then it will no longer be the subject for the predicate ‘good’.

In order to explain: The subjects of ethical rules are not the actions that are performed in the external world. The actions of man are not the subject of ethical rules from the point of view that they possess certain specific quiddities. Rather, they are attributed with goodness or evil from the point of view that they are instances of other abstract concepts. The concept ‘telling the truth’ is not, in and of itself, an objective one. In the external world that which really exists is simply the movement of the tongue and mouth and the air that exits the throat of the person [telling the truth]. However, the idea that this speech is an instance of telling the truth or lying is an abstract concept. This means that speaking is, in reality, the cause of making someone understand a concept. That concept must be compared with the external world so that we can understand if it is in accord with it or not. It is keeping this dimension in mind that the ideas of truth or falsehood can be predicated of speaking.

If we look at the matter more precisely then we will see that ‘telling the truth’ is not the subject for an ethical rule even with this characteristic. In other words, ‘goodness’ is not a predicate that is essentially predicated of ‘truth from the point of view that it is truth’. To be more precise, it needs a middle term [for this concept to be predicated of it]. If it is asked why telling the truth is good then in answering this question, we will reach the conclusion that it is expedient for society that the truth be told. This is the middle term or the cause of the predicate being predicated of the subject. Causes generalize and specify [their effects]. Anytime that the benefit of the society lays in a certain action the ruling will also exist [for that action] even if that benefit is acquired through lying. Every action that leads to the destruction of society is bad even if that action be telling the truth.

In other words, this predicate is not essentially related to the subject ‘telling the truth’ rather essentially it hinges upon the benefit or loss that the society may acquire through such an action. It is only accidentally related to speaking the truth. Therefore, the ruling that telling the truth is good is not a logical or rational ruling rather it is a commonplace one. Reason says that this subject has many hidden clauses that can be found if we examine the matter carefully. For example: ‘If telling the truth is to the benefit of society and leads to the real felicity of the individual and the society [he is in] then it is good.’ Therefore, the subject that essentially and principally has such a ruling is absolute and continuous and does not have any exceptions. This subject is an abstract concept that will have this ruling everywhere and in every time that it exists.

In conclusion, ethical propositions are absolute if we discover the clauses of their subjects. Of course, the term ‘the clauses of their subjects’ is not a completely accurate one. If the subject and essential characteristics of a ruling be understood then it will not need a clause. For example, the proposition: ‘Animals laugh’ is not true from the point of view that the predicate is not essential for the subject. If the predicate was essential for the subject, then it would be predicated of all of the instances of the subject. In this proposition some of the instances of the subject are lions, horses and bears and we know that they do not laugh. It is for this reason that if we want to relate this predicate to this subject then we must condition the subject with a clause: ‘The rational animal laughs’. In this proposition if the true subject (i.e. man) is mentioned then it will no longer need a clause and we can unconditionally say: ‘Man laughs.’ In this way, if we mention the essential characteristics in ethical propositions we will no longer stand in need of clauses. We only need clauses when the subject does not essentially dictate a ruling or in other words, the predicate is not essential for the subject.

  • 1. ‘Relativism’ by David Wong, A Companion to Ethics, p. 443-444; Dawrah Athar Aflatun, v. 3, p. 172-173.
  • 2. Nazariyyeh Siyasi Islam, v. 2, p. 251.
  • 3. Nazariyyeh Siyasi Islam, v. 2, p. 251.
  • 4. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 227-228
  • 5. ‘Moral Relativism’ by D.B. Wong, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 6, p. 539.
  • 6. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 227.
  • 7. Ethical Relativism’, by Richard B. Brandt, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 75.
  • 8. Moral Relativism’ by D.B. Wong, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 2, p. 856.
  • 9. ‘Moral Relativism’ by D.B. Wong, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 6, p. 539.
  • 10. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 229.
  • 11. Tarikh Adabiyyat Iran, v. 4, p. 302, footnote.
  • 12. Usul Falsafah wa Ravish Realism, v. 1, p. 9.
  • 13. Seh Sal dar Iran, p. 12-13.
  • 14. See: ‘Moral Relativism’ by D.B. Wong, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 857.
  • 15. See: ‘Relativism’ by David Wong, A Companion to Ethics, p. 442.
  • 16. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 227.
  • 17. Naqdi bar Nisbiyyat Akhlaq, Louis Puiman, Tr. Mahmud Fathali, Naqd wa Nazar, no 13-14, p. 326-324.
  • 18. Naqdi bar Nisbiyyat Akhlaq, Louis Puiman, Tr. Mahmud Fathali, Naqd wa Nazar, no 13-14, p.p. 326-327.
  • 19. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 228.
  • 20. ‘Ethical Relativism’, by Richard B. Brandt, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 76 and ‘Relativism’ by David Wong, A Companion to Ethics, p. 442-449.
  • 21. Moral Relativism’ by D.B. Wong, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 6, p. 541.
  • 22. Ethical Relativism by R.B. Brandt, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 77.
  • 23. The History of Philosophy, Copelston, v. 1, p. 144-145.
  • 24. See: Moral Relativism by D.B. Wong, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 857-858.
  • 25. Refer to: Nazariye Siyasi Islam, v. 2, p. 250-251; Moral Relativism by D.B. Wong, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 857.
  • 26. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 229.
  • 27. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p. 229.
  • 28. Ethics, 1973, William Frankena, p.230; Ethical Relativism by R.B. Brandt, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, v. 3, p. 76-77.
  • 29. For more explanation refer to: Nazariye Siyasiye Islam, v. 2, p. 252-254.
  • 30. See: ‘Moral Relativism’ by D.B. Wong, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 2, p. 857.
  • 31. It often happens that a single Arabic or Persian word has different shades of meanings which must be translated by different English terms such as the word itibari. This can be used to indicate that something is subordinate, or that it is a mere respect or that it lacks entified reality or that it relates to value rather than fact and there are still other meanings for this term. Some translators have chosen to translate this as respectival. We have, however, chosen to explain, in each case, what the term means rather than simply substituting a single word for it. Sometimes, however, we have chosen to simply bring the word itibari itself if explaining the concept might lengthen the sentence sought to be translated. In this case we have indicated what the word intends in a footnote. (Tr.).
  • 32. Refer to: Amuzish Falsafah, v. 1, p. 178-179; Taliqah ala Nihayat al Hikmah, p. 22-23; Nihayat al Hikmah, p. 256-259.
  • 33. Nihayat al Hikmah p. 9, 258, 10; Majmuaye Athar, Murtadha Mutahhari, v. 5, p. 36.
  • 34. The reason for this is that if something is itibari in this meaning of the term then it will nevertheless be real however not essentially and only through the reality of something else that is essentially real. For example, in the debates on the principality of existence or quiddity the adherents of the principality of existence hold that both existence and quiddity are real only that existence is so essentially while the other is so because it is one with existence and because when two things are one the characteristics of one of them are attributed to the other albeit in a secondary yet real manner. In the present discussion however the adherents of the itibari nature of ethical concepts are of the opinion that they are not real at all and partake of no objectivity whatsoever. They depend simply upon the personal tastes and inclinations of the one who conceives them. This is not so of quiddity which although it is itibari is not subjective and is reflected in the mind in an automatic manner for all humans in the same way. Thus, this meaning of itibari is not what is being discussed here. (Tr.).
  • 35. It is famous that in the Age of Ignorance the buyer and seller of a commodity would shake hands when performing a business transaction. The term Safaqah that is mentioned in the religious traditions and historical documents refer to this as well as the phrase, ‘May God put much bounty in the shaking of your right hand.’.
  • 36. Dawrah Athar Aflatun, v. 1, (Gorgias, 470), p. 295.
  • 37. A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 1, p. 132.
  • 38. A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 1, p. 249-256.
  • 39. A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 1, p. 145.
  • 40. Amil ya Amuzish wa Parwarish, Russo, Tr. Zirakzadeh, p. 201-202.
  • 41. Refer to: Bunyad Ma Bad Tabiyyah Akhlaq, p. 20-27 and p. 62-63.
  • 42. Bunyad Ma Bad Tabiyyah Akhlaq, p. 61.
  • 43. Bunyad Ma Bad Tabiyyah Akhlaq, p. 37 and 67.
  • 44. Bunyad Ma Bad Tabiyyah Akhlaq, p. 60, 74, 88, 91.
  • 45. For further clarification of the matter refer to: Nazariyye Siyasi Islam, v. 2, p. 252-257.
  • 46. Bunyad Ma Bad at Tabiyyah Akhlaq, p. 25-26.
  • 47. Pish Niyazhaye Mudiryat Islami, p. 165-166.