Chapter 9: The Relation Of Religion To Ethics


The relation of religion to ethics is one of the most interesting and yet difficult discussions and one that has a history as long as philosophy and religion itself. Throughout history, philosophers from one side, and religious individuals, from the other, have found themselves face to face with this question: What is principle, ethics or religion? In other words, is religion the source of ethics or is ethics the source of religion? Is God bound to follow ethical rules or is ethics bound to the will of God? Is it possible to speak of ethics if God did not exist? In this case would it be possible to live morally? Or, would it be true to say, in the words of DastaYuski, that: ‘If God did not exist then everything would be lawful.’ In other words, does a materialistic world view necessarily lead to a self-indulgent way of life? Or is it possible to speak of ethics even without religion and religious beliefs? How does religion need ethics? How is ethics connected to religion? Can we say that ethics is a part of religion? Are they completely separated or do they cooperate with one another? Are they organically linked with one another?

These are some of the most important questions that have always preoccupied the minds of the philosophers of ethics in the past and even today. Each one of them has presented answers to these questions based upon his own viewpoints and has attempted to solve these questions keeping in mind his own special stance on religion and ethics. In this chapter we will also attempt to expound our own view on this matter while presenting a general outline of the different views on religion and ethics. However, before this can be done it is fitting that we relate a history of this discussion so that we can get a better acquaintance with the presentation of this discussion in the books of the Islamic scholars and also remind ourselves of its extraordinary importance in the eyes of preceding and contemporary scholars.

A History Of The Discussion

As we have previously mentioned the problem of the connection of religion with ethics (like many other philosophical and ethical problems) has been discussed by philosophers and theologians from the time humans have begun to think philosophically. The beginning of this debate is a conversation between Socrates and Asifron that has been related by Plato. 1 In this conversation Socrates asks Asifron: ‘Does something become good because God commands it or does God command something because it is good?’ In this way Socrates laid the ground for a topic that, for 25 centuries, was always the subject of debate between the philosophers of ethics, theologians and theosophists. Some have chosen the first option and thus have adhered to religious ethics and some others have chosen the second and have stated that ethics is independent of religion.

Right until the modern era (i.e. the Renaissance) most of the Christian thinkers believed in the harmony between religion and ethics2. Most scholars strove to derive ethical rules from the Bible. However, it seems that Christianity does not have a complete ethical system and that the Bible only contains a series of ethical admonitions the most important of which are the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

In the words of McIntyre:

‘Jesus and Paul had invented a type of ethical system that was intended [to be implemented] for a limited time period; [that is] before God could initiate the promised kingdom and before [the mundane] history could come to an end. Therefore, one should not expect to find in their sayings the foundations for life in an eternal [and divine] society. Aside from this, in no way did Jesus wish to present an [ethical] constitution that was essentially independent rather his purpose was to reform the ethics of the Pharisees.’3

At the same time, the Christian scholars before the Renaissance, especially Augustine and Aquinas, always strove to lay the ideological foundations of Christian Ethics upon the philosophical principles of Plato, Aristotle, the Neo-Platonic thinkers and the Stoics.4

Before the Renaissance, Christianity, which was the most popular religion in the west, ruled over all of the dimensions of people’s lives. This included the scientific, cultural, social, political and ethical dimensions of their lives. However, after the Renaissance, the downfall of the Fathers of the Church and the spread of a sentiment of animosity towards religion a scientific and rational spirit gradually gained sway over all of the dimensions of people’s lives and thus replaced the inclinations towards God and religion. There was a tendency towards humanism and the spirit of human beings became more attached to this ideology. This was so to such an extent that someone like August Cont announced that the era of religion had passed5 but ironically concocted a humanistic religion in order to fill the spiritual void that people felt because of religion’s passing.6

Of course, the intellectual and cultural upheavals that occurred after the Renaissance went through ups and downs and gave birth to various and often conflicting lines of thought. It is for this reason that it never moved in one direction. This movement continues even today and there are still disagreeing and contradictory lines of thought in all of the various cultural and philosophical fields. It seems that, unfortunately, the works of western scholars that are translated in Iran all have one specific line of thought. Most of them are atheistic and anti-religious. However, the reality of the matter is something totally different in the western world.

In any case, aside from all of the anti-religious and anti-ethical movements, the problem of religion and ethics has been one of the most important preoccupations of contemporary philosophers. Even the atheistic and anti-religious philosophers devoted much time to this problem. Individuals such as Niche (1844-1900), Marx (1818-1883) and J. L. Mackie are glaring examples of this group. This [renewed interest in the relation of ethics and religion] has breathed new life into this problem in recent centuries. A large amount of the religious and ethical research conducted by the western philosophers has been allocated to this matter.

However, the problem of the relation of religion to ethics has not been discussed as an independent topic in the Islamic World to the extent that it has in the West. Why is it that these problems have been examined more in the West then in the Islamic world? Why is it that many books have been written in this regard there and not over here? Why have these topics been discussed more in Western countries while in the Islamic world this was not so? This is something that needs to be examined from a sociological point of view. However, if we want to present an optimistic answer to these questions then we must say that in the Islamic countries there was not much need felt to examine this topic.

This was due to Islam and the popularity of the Islamic ethos, especially the teachings of the Family of The Prophet (s). For Islamic societies religious and ethical matters were self-evident. It was not important as to what place religion has in ethics and what place ethics has in religion. Nor was the relation of religion and ethics or the principality of one over the other significant for Muslims. At the same time, we must admit that we as Muslims have not examined these matters as they deserve to have been examined. Now that the Islamic Revolution has been victorious and Islamic issues are being presented in such a way that everyone is turning their attention to an inquiry of the foundations of the Islamic sciences, we hope that these issues will once again find their proper place in Islamic Philosophical research.7

It should not be left unsaid that in the various theological and usuli books some discussions can be found here and there regarding this subject. For example, the problem of ‘the beauty and evil of actions’ (which was brought up from the very onset of the genesis of theological discussions amongst Muslims) is, in reality, the same problem that has been the principal topic of debate amongst the philosophers of ethics from the time of Ancient Greece until today (i.e. the relation of religion and ethics). Of course, the real objective of the Muslim theologians in bringing up this issue was something else entirely.

However, the discussions that were conducted [regarding other matters] perfectly delineate their stance on this issue. The Adliyyah believe that God commands good actions and prohibits evil ones because of an essential goodness and evil than inheres in them. In this way they have, in reality, expressed a certain objective independence of ethics from religion. In contrast, the Ashaira hold that the command and prohibitions of God cause actions to objectively become good or bad. In truth, they have surmised that ethics depends upon religion. Also, most of the Adliyyah are of the opinion that the intelligence of man can understand the goodness or evil of at least some actions independent of [the guidance of] religion. However, apparently the Ashaira hold that without the help of religion reason does not have the power to comprehend the goodness or evil of any action whatsoever.8

This theological and ethical issue entered the Usuli debates in recent centuries and the hair-splitting research of the Usulis has enriched it tremendously.9 A treasure-trove of wisdom has thus been prepared whose comprehension can open up new horizons for philosophers of ethics and solve many of the complexities of this subject matter. However, it seems that this topic has not reached an acceptable conclusion and that it still needs a more serious examination.

An Examination Of A Few Views

In one way we can group all of the views regarding the relation between religion and ethics into three general categories. 1. Exclusion. 2. Unity. 3. Cooperation. Some are of the opinion that the jurisdiction of religion and ethics are completely separate from one another and that there is no relation between them whatsoever. Another group understands the relation between religion and ethics to be an organic one and say that they are in reality one entity. A third view is that even though religion and ethics each possesses an independent jurisdiction they are related and reciprocally influence each other. In the forthcoming discussion we wish to expound these views in detail and then to criticize and evaluate them. Lastly, we hope to present our own view on this issue.

The Mutual Exclusion Of Ethics And Religion

According to this view, religion and ethics are two separate entities and each of them possesses its own independent sphere of influence. They are not related to one another in any way whatsoever. They resemble two circles that do not meet at any point at all. If sometimes it may appear that religious and ethical matters meet with one another then this is accidental and by chance. There is, however, no logical connection between them. This resembles two travelers that are journeying to two distinct goals and happen to meet each other by chance. This does not imply that there is some logical connection between them.10

In the view of the adherents of this theory religion is related to the relation that man has with God. Ethics, on the other hand, is an expression of the relation that human beings have with one another. Therefore, religion and ethics do not have a common subject matter. Some have taken a step further and have said that religion and religious beliefs are a hindrance to ethics and that they cause it to gradually terminate. ‘The relation of ethics to religion may possibly destroy ethics. The reason for this is that with the destruction of religious beliefs ethics comes to life.’11

Nitche (1844-1900) is a famous adherent of this way of thinking. He was of the belief that it is only with the ‘death of God’ and the freedom of human beings from the shackles of religion that the path to proper ethical conduct may be opened up. He was of the assumption that the concept of God is an enemy of life. It was for this reason that he stated: ‘By foregoing the faith in God it is possible for the powers of creativity to open up in man. The God of Christianity no longer gets in our way with his commands and prohibitions. No longer are the eyes of humanity fixated upon an imaginary supernatural world as opposed to this [real] one [that we are in].’12 He stated: Christianity makes us accept the life of slaves.13 This is while fear, meekness and the likes of these are ethically unacceptable. Ethics should make human beings more powerful and active.

Based upon this take on religion and ethics aside from possessing a separate jurisdiction they do not posses a common goal. The goal of religion is to make human beings god-like, to help them transcend themselves and to satisfy their desire to worship God. The goal of ethics, on the other hand is to present commands and prohibitions that can rectify the social relations of human beings.

It should be noted that the belief in the complete separation of religion and ethics is not solely relegated for the atheists and opponents of religion rather some of the believers and religious individuals such as Kierkegaard are of the belief that as long as one holds on to ethics it is impossible for him to acquire real faith in God. The latter requires a ‘leap of faith’. For example, if Abraham had followed the ethical ruling stating the impermissibility of killing one’s child he would never have acquired real faith. Religious faith implies a certain blind submission and the freedom from the shackles of the powers of reason. Even though ethics possesses a certain amount of transcendence it is still bound to the faculty of reason which always keeps its own best interests in mind.

He believed in three stages for the human spirit.14 Passing from one stage to the other occurs through a choice and the power of will. This means that one must choose one of the options laid out in front of you and that too the one that is the best. The first stage is that of the senses. The distinction of this stage is that one’s persona is scattered in the sensible phenomena. The second stage is the ethical stage. In this phase ‘man submits to specific ethical standards of goodness and the responsibilities that ethics dictate to us. This is the voice of everyone’s reason. In this way he bestows a certain form and organization to his life.’15 A simple example of the passing from the sensible stage to the ethical one for Kierkegaard is marriage. Man marries instead of satisfying his urges through fleeting pleasures. Marriage is an ethical institution. The third stage is the stage of faith and the connection with God.

In order to demonstrate the difference between the ethical stage and the stage of faith he gives the example of Abraham. The hero of the ethical stage sacrifices himself for an ethical law. Abraham, however, is the hero of the stage of faith. In the words of Kierkegaard, Abraham does not work for some universal ethical law. He is of the opinion that in this phase ‘ethics are irrelevant.’16 Of course, apparently, he does not mean that ‘religion negates ethics. Rather he means that the man of faith is completely connected to God whose requests are absolute and cannot be measured by the human mind.’17

The Theory Of Unity Between Religion And Ethics

The second general view regarding the relation of religion and ethics can be named the ‘theory of unity’. According to this view the relation between these two is organic and one of them is a part of the other. In the opinion of most Muslim thinkers, religion is ‘the collection of beliefs, ethics rules and laws that God has revealed to the prophets for the guidance of human beings and in order to secure their worldly and other-worldly felicity.’ Therefore, the jurisdiction of ethics is not completely separate from that of religion. Rather, it is a part of the whole that is religion. If we compare religion to a tree then beliefs will be its branches. Ethics will be its truck and rules will be its branches and leaves. It is clear that the trunk of a tree is not separate from the tree itself rather the trunk is a part of the tree.18

In other words, based upon this take on religion, the relation between religion and ethics is one of absolute generality and peculiarity. This is like two circles one of which is smaller than the other and is contained in the one that is bigger than it. It is only natural that in this case all of the parts of the smaller circle are parts of the bigger circle.

The Theory Of Cooperation

The third opinion is that religion and ethics each possesses its own persona however they cooperate with one another. There is something of a logical connection between them like the connection between a cause and its effect.19 This means that both ethics and religion are connected to one another in different ways. The acceptance of some religious propositions depends upon the acceptance of some ethical concepts and statements and the definition of some ethical concepts, the acceptance of some ethical propositions and the comprehension of many particular ethical rulings depend upon religion and religious propositions. All of the individuals that enumerate the dependencies of religion upon ethics and all of the people that emphasize the connection between them have, in some way, adhered to the theory of the cooperation between religion and ethics.

This theory possesses within itself many more particular views that we will hereunder point out under the two general headings of the dependency of ethics upon religion and the dependencies of religion upon ethics. By doing so we will show some of the different ways in which these two entities cooperate with one another.

The Ways In Which Religion Depends Upon Ethics

Ethics And The Knowledge Of God

One of the most popular and maybe most important proofs for the necessity of knowing God (which has been mentioned in most of the theological books) is that it is [ethically] necessary to thank someone who has done you a favor. Since God has granted us many favors and since all of the blessings that are at our disposal are from God, it is ethically necessary to thank him. Of course, thanking someone demands that we recognize who he is and until we do, we cannot thank him. Thus, the necessity of knowing God depends upon the acceptance of an ethical ruling which is: ‘Thanking someone who has done you a favor is obligatory.’20

What is more, many of the western philosophers have striven to prove God using ethical demonstrations.21 It seems that Kant was the first person to utilize such demonstrations to prove God. He understood all of the proofs of the theoretical intellect to be barren in this regard and was of the belief that the practical intellect and the ethical rules necessarily lead us to admit the existence of God and some other religious beliefs such as the subsistence of the soul. Therefore, in the view of Kant the belief in God and the acceptance of the soul’s eternality depends upon an ethical awareness and the practical intellect.22 Some of the defenders of this proof have sought to prove an eternal and absolute commander and prohibiter (i.e. God) from the stability and absoluteness of ethical commands and prohibitions. They did this in this way:

The ethical commands and prohibitions demand the existence of some being that has commanded and prohibited them. Such a being cannot be the individual himself or other human beings. Rather a source higher than human beings must exist, named God, who is the source of ethical obligations and prohibitions.23 Some others have tried to prove the divine lawmaker by means of the ethical rules.24

A very popular form of the ethical argument runs as follows: Ethical values are objective entified realities in the external world. Their creator must either be material or immaterial. Matter is incapable of creating ethical values. Immaterial beings are either human or beings that transcend humans. Human beings cannot be the creators of ethical values since human beings cease to exist while ethical values are perennial. This shows us that there is a being higher than the human being that is the creator of ethical values. This being is none other than God.25

In any case, all of the individuals that have taken recourse to ethical demonstrations to prove God have emphasized, knowingly or not, the dependency of religion upon ethics.

Ethics And The Worship Of God

Another way in which religion depends upon ethics (and which is rooted in the theological and ethical books) is that it is ethics that makes us responsible for performing the religious duties. Religion is based upon the worship of God. The question is: What is it that obliges us to worship and serve Him? In answer to this question, it is said: God is our Creator. He Therefore, has the right to be worshipped and He is our Master. We are His slaves and have been created by Him and Therefore, must observe His rights over us. The way to do this is to worship Him. In the words of Imam Zayn al Abidin (s) the greatest right that God has over man is the right to be worshipped.

فَأَمَّا حَقُّ اللَّهِ الْأَكْبَرُ عَلَيْكَ فَأَنْ تَعْبُدَهُ لَا تُشْرِكَ بِهِ شَيْئا

‘However, the greatest right of God over you is that you worship Him and that you do not associate anything with Him.’26

Therefore, it is an ethical ruling that causes us to turn towards religion and to observe our religious responsibilities. This ethical rule states: ‘One must observe the rights that others have over you.’27

Ethics And The Goal Of Religion

Another one of the principal ways in which religion needs ethics is related to the goal of religion. Religion claims that it has come to [spiritually] cultivate man and to secure his worldly and other worldly felicity. It is for this reason that one of the goals of religion is to organize the personal and social life of man. This can only be done by means of a collection of special ethical rulings. Consequently, it is possible to say that religion cannot accomplish its goals without ethics and thus it cannot, without ethics, secure the worldly and other worldly felicity of man.

Ethics And The Propagation Of Religion

Without a doubt, good morals and religious conduct is one of the most important and tested methods for propagating religion. Therefore, religion needs ethics in order for it to spread.

فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِّنَ اللَّهِ لِنتَ لَهُمْ وَ لَوْ كُنتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لاَنفَضُّواْ مِنْ حَوْلِكَ فَاعْفُ عَنهُْمْ وَ اسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَ شَاوِرْهُمْ فىِ الْأَمْرِ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلىَ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يحُبُّ الْمُتَوَكلِّين‏

‘It is part of the Mercy of Allah that thou dost deal gently with them wert thou severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about thee: So pass over (their faults), and ask for (Allah's) forgiveness for them and consult them in affairs (of the moment). Then, when thou hast taken a decision put thy trust in Allah; for Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him).’ (3:159).

Ethics And The Meaninglessness Of Religious Propositions

In the writings of some western thinkers another one of the ways in which religion needs ethics has been mentioned: If religious propositions are to be significant, they must be reduced to ethical propositions. One of the most famous proponents of this view is R.B. Braithwaite. He was profoundly influenced by the logical positivists and their standard for the significance of propositions. According to this standard, only those propositions are meaningful which either express logical realities or are proven through [scientific] experimentation. At the same time however, one of his principle scholarly preoccupations was the significance of religious propositions. Braithwaite said that the standard of the Logical Positivists was useless for the assessment of religious and ethical propositions. Their meaning, he stated, must be examined keeping in mind the manner in which the phrases [and concepts] employed in them are utilized.

Based upon this, he sought out the manner in which religious propositions are used. In the end, he reached the conclusion that religious propositions are, in reality, [used as] ethical propositions. It is for this reason that it is easily possible to transform them into ethical propositions. An ethical proposition expresses the reason why the speaker has acted in a certain way and this is also the primary usage of religious rulings.

Religious rules and phrases are expressions that communicate the fact that their speaker follows a specific code of conduct. In the opinion of Braithwaite only a small portion of religion cannot easily be reduced to ethics and these are stories that resemble fables that have been expressed in order to support religious propositions. Of course, in the end he also explains away these as well. 28

Aside from the many serious objections that can be leveled against the premises of this view on the standard of the significance of propositions in particular the following objections can be raised in regards to the significance of religious propositions in general.

1. It is keeping in mind the goal that they have (i.e. securing the eternal felicity of man), that heavenly religions such as Islam oblige their adherents to accept, aside from ethical commands and rules, certain beliefs. The acceptance of such beliefs is a part and parcel of faith. Such beliefs are not superstitions or fables, rather concrete realities that support and give direction to actions. For example, the belief in a Single Deity with His attributes of Absolute Perfection makes proximity to Him the ultimate goal of ethics and the standard for value in the ethical system of Islam. It is also the source of [all] legitimacy and rights in the legal system of Islam. This being is discussed in Islamic philosophy as a real entity that is the source of the existence of all other beings.

Also, the belief in the Resurrection and the subsistence of the human soul [after death] is brought up as a philosophical and theological topic. It also has many consequences in ethics. The same goes for the other religious beliefs such as Prophethood, revelation and the likes of these. These are all objective realities not fables or legends. Of course, the problem of the language that religion uses and the significance of religious propositions is a lengthy topic. An examination of all of the dimensions of this subject demands another opportunity altogether.

2. Many of the rules of the Shariah cannot be simply reduced to ethical propositions. The stipulations of religion in punishments, blood money, judgment and legal issues as well as economical matters and business transactions and even the rites of worship are not ethical evaluations.

In conclusion, we cannot accept the fact that religion needs ethics in order for its propositions to be significant [and that without it they would be meaningless].

The Ways In Which Ethics Needs Religion

In reality, the axis around which religious and ethical discussions in the West revolve is the examination of the ways in which ethics needs religion. From another point of view, the adherents of religious ethics have always tried to show the ways in which ethics needs religion. They have done this by showing the connection of ethics to religion in its concepts and intentions. From another point of view, the adherents of secular ethics have tried to prove that ethics does not depend upon religion and have surmised that the jurisdiction of ethics is completely detached from that of religion.

As we have pointed out earlier, some of them have understood religion and religious beliefs to be detrimental for ethics. The supporters of religious ethics have used the Divine Command Theory for the most part to prove that ethics needs religion in order to define the concepts it utilizes and also for the affirmation of its propositions. They are of the opinion that even the comprehension of ethical propositions is something that stands in need of religion. What is more, the supporters of religious ethics say that religion and religious beliefs are necessary in order to practice ethical rules and in this way, they have emphasized the dependency of ethics upon religion.

In this section we will point some of the most important ways in which ethics depends upon religion.29

The Definition Of Ethical Concepts

As we have pointed out in the second chapter, there are three distinct viewpoints regarding the definition of ethical concepts. These are the Intuitivist theories, the Definitivist theories and the non-Cognitivist theories. The Definitivist theories are those that understand ethical concepts as being capable of being defined and analyzed. This group comprises a wide range of different views and can be in turn divided in a general way into Naturalist and Metaphysical theories. The first define ethical concepts by using natural and physical concepts. The second group has tried to define them based upon philosophical and theological concepts.

The adherents of the Divine Command Theory are of the opinion that ethical concepts can only be defined if we return them to the command and prohibition of God. In their opinion ‘the good deed’ is ‘the deed that has been commanded by God’ and the ‘evil deed’ is ‘the deed that has been prohibited by God’. Based upon this outlook, ethics needs religion and religious propositions even in the definition of the concepts it utilizes. The reason for this is that if God did not exist (the belief in God) or if He did but did not command or prohibit anything (the belief in revelation and prophethood) the concepts ‘good’, ‘bad’ and the likes of these would be meaningless. Of course, as we have pointed out in its own proper place, we do not accept this view and are of the opinion that we do not need religion and religious propositions in order to understand the meaning of good and bad.30

The Specification Of Ethical Values

Another one of the ways in which ethics needs religion is that it is religion that delineates ethical values. Of course, there are different views regarding the manner in which we can distinguish acceptable and ethically valuable actions from unacceptable and neutral ones. In the fifth chapter we have pointed out some of them. When we want to see what must be done and what must not be done it is asked as to how is it that we understand the goodness and evil of actions in the first place. What are the boundaries separating goodness and evil? Under what circumstances will a certain action be good and under what conditions will it be evil? Who is it that will distinguish good actions from evil ones? Some are of the opinion that here again ethics needs religion. It is religion that must evaluate actions. In other words, it is with the help of divine revelation and the knowledge imparted to us by the Friends of God that we can delineate the value of actions. By them we can asses which actions are desirable and have ethical value and conversely which actions lack ethical value and are immoral.31

This view can be considered to be partially correct. In other words, the delineation of the ethical value of many of the particular actions of human beings needs religion and religious propositions. The human mind cannot distinguish all ethical virtues on its own. At the same time, it does have the ability to distinguish some of the principle ethical virtues and vices without the recourse to religion and religious beliefs such as the goodness of justice and the evil of oppression.

Distinguishing The Goal Of Ethical Virtues

Another one of the ways in which ethics needs religion is in the fact that ethics needs religion in order to distinguish the goal of ethical actions and virtues. To explain, the basis of values is the goals of actions and conduct. In other words, the value of ethical conduct is bound up with its goals and aims. Since we have sacred goals that are essentially desirable for us, we must perform actions that can help us attain those sacred goals. It is here that ethical values come into existence. It is keeping this point in mind that it is said that the goal of man is to attain proximity to God. This is the loftiest goal in man’s journey towards spiritual perfection. The value of ethical conduct lies in the fact that they either directly cause us to attain such a proximity or they help pave the way for such proximity.

Based upon this, the relation of religion with ethics and the connection of ethics with religion are explained in this way: God is understood through religion and is introduced as the goal of man’s spiritual transformation. It is from here that ethical values come into existence. In other words, if religion did not exist or did not teach us about God ethical values would lack substance. In conclusion, even though ethics and religion have separate jurisdictions religion still pays a great service to ethics in that it delineates the lofty goal of all ethical values.32

Guaranteeing The Execution Of Ethical Values

Without a doubt, contrary to the claims of Socrates, the comprehension of which actions are good and which are evil is not the sufficient cause for carrying them out or shunning them. It is possible that someone properly comprehends ethical virtues and nevertheless shuns them. What is more, the psyche of human beings is such that as long as they are not encouraged or threatened, they usually do not have any ambitions to do something good or keep away from something evil.33

Therefore, it is possible to say that without religion and some of the religious teachings (such as the belief in the justice of God, the existence of the Afterlife wherein the actions of humans will be weighed) most people would not act upon ethical principles and values. In reality, people seek out their own best interests and are selfish in all fields, even ethics. There are not many human beings that act upon ethical and religious principles simply because they feel that they are true or because they love God. Many act morally out of a desire for Heaven and its blessings and many others because they fear Hell and its punishments. It is for this reason that they do good deeds and shun evil ones.

Without a doubt, religion can impel human beings towards acting upon ethical values by showing them their worldly and other worldly consequences and the benefits of their conduct. Religion actualizes ethical values in human beings by promising them the greatest of blessings if they act morally and threatening them with the most horrifying of punishments if they act immorally. Fundamentally speaking, some ethical virtues (such as self-sacrifice) are not rationally justifiable without recourse to religion and religious teachings. Self-sacrifice cannot be reasonably justified in any way whatsoever based upon a materialistic outlook on life.

The Impossibility Of A Secular Ethics

In order to reinforce the dependency of ethics upon religion, sometimes it is said that ethics is meaningless for the person who does not believe in religion or the supernatural realm. This is because a series of immaterial values are mentioned in ethics. Such values often have no material benefit for man. If someone did not believe in anything other than matter and the material realm, how would it be possible for him to accept such immaterial values?

However, to be fair, ethics (in the meaning in which it is mentioned in various ideologies) is not such that it always depends upon religion. The ethical schools of thought that are founded upon the principality of pleasure, benefit, society or conscience do not depend upon religion in any way whatsoever. Even the materialists can accept an ethics based upon these ideological foundations and say that even though ethical concepts are immaterial concepts they are founded upon matter and nature. [They could say that] when matter reaches a certain stage of complexity and perfection it gains the ability to comprehend such concepts. It accepts a social way of life, the customs and traditions of society and assigns values to them.

Aside from the falsehood of such an ideology, when we discuss ethics proper it is not possible for us to say that if someone does not believe in God or the Resurrection it is not possible for him to accept any ethical viewpoint whatsoever. Therefore, we cannot deny the possibility that a secular ethical school of thought can logically exist. If there is an objection to them then it lies in their philosophical world view. In other words, without religion it is still possible to have an ethics, albeit on a lower scale. This is what is observed in the West. However, it is impossible for us to have a perfect ethical system that purports to help man achieve absolute perfection without the acceptance of religion.

An Explanation Of Our View

Up to now we have explained three general views regarding the relation of religion with ethics and now the time has come for us to explain our own view on the subject.34 It seems that the most important step in this matter is the definition of both religion and ethics. We have previously seen that each one of the abovementioned views had a unique definition and take on these two phenomena. This is what caused them to present distinct views on the relation of religion to ethics. Those who adhered to the exclusiveness of religion and ethics had a special definition of religion and ethics. In the opinion of the adherents of this ideology being religious implies that one recognizes God, believes in Him and worships Him.

This incorrect take on religion is what has created secular ethics and secular inclinations in the West. The common take on religion in the West (with the exception of some Catholic schools of thought) is that religion has no connection whatsoever with other matters. They understand religion to be some kind of feeling and inclination that man has towards God. In order to satisfy this inclination, it is necessary for man to go to a temple or church. In no way is it possible to prove that the thing to which this feeling is attached [i.e. God] is real. It is simply a feeling and personal experience within man.

These people understand ethics in relation to man’s social conduct. Ethics are the values that are mentioned in regards to the social conduct of man. For example, the manner in which human beings should deal with one another is mentioned in ethics. Human beings must be kind to one another, smile when they meet, act properly, tell the truth and observe justice. All of these things are instances of ethics. Of course, it is possible for us to understand some of these values to be the basis of the other ethical values. In any case, the jurisdiction of ethics is limited to the social dealings of human beings. It is only natural that if our take on religion and ethics be such, we will no longer be able to talk about the relation between the two. Ethics will discuss the relation of human beings with one another while religion will discuss the relation of human beings with God.

It seems that the fundamental flaw of this view lies in this incorrect take on religion and ethics. The jurisdiction of ethics is not limited to the social relations of human beings. Also, it does not simply include the characteristics of their souls. Rather, any action or quality of the soul that can be praised or scorned and which possesses some ethical value falls within the jurisdiction of ethics. This includes those that are related to the relation that human beings have with one another, the relation that they have with God or even the way that he deals with himself and Nature.

Religion is also not limited to the explanation of man’s relation with God. In the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Holy Family (s) thousands of other matters have been expounded which are related to different fields. This includes personal, social and international matters. All of these things are part of religion. Of course, the religion that we are taking into consideration is the true one and which rests upon the uncorrupted revelation of God. This is none other than Islam not everything that goes by the name of religion in this world. A casual glance at the Islamic texts indicates that Islam has concerned itself with all of these matters. One of the striking characteristics about Islam is that it comprises beliefs, ethics and rules. Therefore, religion includes all of the dimensions of man’s life and is not limited to the relation that man has with God.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that the rules of arithmetic, geometry and physics for example are not a part of religion. The cause-and-effect relationship that exist between physical and chemical phenomena are not related to religion. Of course, all of these things play a role in the life of man and are in some way instrumental in his spiritual perfection. This dimension of their spiritual value finds its way into religion. In one way it is possible to claim that nothing falls outside religion. Every phenomenon in this Universe has an ethical value in the eyes of religion. To say the least it will be religiously permissible, a ruling that must be given by religion.

A more acceptable view in our eyes is that ethics is a part of religion. This means that we consider the relation between religion and ethics to be an organic one. This resembles the relation of the trunk of the tree with the tree as a whole. Religion is like a tree the roots of which are beliefs, the trunk of which is ethics and the branches and leaves of which are rules.

It should be recounted that sometimes ethics implies those issues and predicates (aside from the view that religion has about ethics or the method by means of which it assesses the value of ethics) in which case it is possible to say that religion and ethics have two separate fields of influence. This is such that it is possible for someone to have an ethical code of conduct without necessarily believing in any religion. Based upon this view ethics is not necessarily a part of religion. If we define ethics in this way the relation between ethics and religion will be one of partial inclusion.

Another point that must be mentioned in the end is that based upon the analysis that we presented for ethical concepts and propositions (i.e. we understood them to be an expression of the objective relation between the freely-willed actions of men and the ultimate perfection that is his goal) ethics will not depend upon religion. This means that, in principle, no specific type of belief has been taken into consideration in this viewpoint. It is possible that someone accept this view without accepting religion or religious commandments.

However, when we wish to understand the ultimate perfection of man and the relation that man’s freely-willed actions have with that perfection we are in dire need of religion. We need the principles and beliefs of religion as well as the content of revelation and prophecy. In order to explain: It is possible that everyone has his own special analysis of perfection. For example, in the opinion of Aristotle, the ultimate perfection of man is to harmonize the faculties of anger, passion and the intellect and to place the intellect in command of the rest of the faculties. Some others say that it lies in man’s harmony with his surroundings.

However, in our opinion (which we have proven in its own proper place) the ultimate perfection of man is his closeness to God. Therefore, if we wish to delineate the ultimate perfection of man, we have no option but to bring up God. It is here that this view becomes connected to religious beliefs. Also, if we wish to distinguish what actions are good and thus related to the ultimate perfection of man the problem of the soul’s subsistence after death must be kept in mind. In this case if there is ever a conflict between material perfections and immaterial ones, we can prefer the later over the former. In cases such as this we say that such and such an action is bad but not because it cannot bring about a material perfection for us rather from the point of view that it gets in the way with another spiritual perfection. Therefore, it is necessary to also have some sort of belief in the Resurrection as well.

What is more, the intellect only has the ability to comprehend in a general way the relation that man’s actions have with his ultimate perfection. Such general concepts are useless in distinguishing the particular instances of ethical rules. For example, the intellect understands that justice is good. It is, however, unclear for it as to what is just in each instance and how our conduct will be just in different situations. The intellect cannot independently fathom such matters. For example: Should the rights of men and women be perfectly equal in society or should there be some difference between them? If there should be some difference between them how much should this be and in which cases? It is clear that human reason does not have the ability to unravel these matters on its own. The reason for this is that it is only when it has a grasp of all of the intricate connections between the actions of men and their ultimate consequences as well as their worldly and other worldly effects that it can grasp such a matter. Such a comprehensive knowledge is not possible for an ordinary human mind. Therefore, in order for us to understand the particular instances of ethical rules we once again stand in need of religion. It is revelation that explains to us ethical rules in specific instances, with all of their conditions and limitations. The intellect cannot accomplish this task on its own.

In conclusion, our view as regards to ethical concepts and propositions, in its total form, needs the principle religious beliefs (the belief in God, the Afterlife and Revelation) as well as the content of revelation and the commandments of religion. It is only natural that we say that ethics is not separate from religion in any case. Neither is it separate from religious beliefs nor from religious rules. Not only is it not separate from religion rather in no instant does it not need religion. Therefore, in our opinion we need religion in order to delineate the ultimate perfection of man, the standard of ethical value and to specify which actions are ethically valuable, detrimental or neutral.

  • 1. ‘Morality and Religion’, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, p. 496-497.
  • 2. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 31-32.
  • 3. A History of the Philosophy of Ethics, Alistair McIntyre, p. 232,
  • 4. ‘History of Wetern Ethics: 5. Early Medieval’, Scott Davis; ‘History of Western Ethics: 6. Later Medieval, Scott MacDonald, Encyclopedia of Ethics, v. 1, p. 480-490.
  • 5. Sayr Hikmah dar Urupa, v. 3, p. 114-119.
  • 6. Sayr Hikmah dar Urupa, p. 129-133
  • 7. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 31.
  • 8. See chapter 4 of this book.
  • 9. Matarih al Anzar, p. 230; al Mahsul fi Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, p. 123; al Tahsil min al Mahsul, v. 1, p. 180; al Fawaed, p. 330-337; Nihayah al Dirayah, v. 2, p. 44, p. 318-319; Durus fi Ilm al usul, v. 1, p. 361-362; Usul al Fiqh, v. 1, 199-216.
  • 10. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 32.
  • 11. Falsafah Din, John Hospers, p. 80.
  • 12. A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 7, p. 393-394.
  • 13. Tarikh Falsafah Garb, p. 1044.
  • 14. Tarikh Falsafah Akhlaq, p. 431-435; A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 7, p. 332-334.
  • 15. A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 7, p. 332.
  • 16. Morality and Religion, W.W. Bartley the 3rd, ch 3, p. 35-48.
  • 17. A History of Philosophy, Copleston, v. 7, p. 334.
  • 18. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 32.
  • 19. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 32.
  • 20. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 33.
  • 21. Khuda dar Falsafah, p. 97-110.
  • 22. Kant, Copleston, p. 171; Khuda da Falsafah, p. 103-104; Tarikh Falsafah Gharb, p. 971-972; The Miracle of Theism, p. 110.
  • 23. Khuda dar Falsafah, p. 98.
  • 24. Khuda dar Falsafah, p. 99; The Miracle of Theism, p. 102.
  • 25. Aql wa Itiqad Dini, p. 163-165; Mere Christianity, p. 34.
  • 26. Bihar al-Anwar, v. 71, al Huquq, p. 3.
  • 27. Din wa Akhlaq, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat, no 13, p. 33.
  • 28. Morality and Religion: W.W. Bartley the 3rd, ch 2, p. 17-33.
  • 29. ‘How Could Ethics Depend on Religion?’ Jonathan Berg, A Companion to Ethics, p. 525-533; Religion and Morality, Avi Saga and Daniel Statman, p. 20.
  • 30. See ch 4 of this book.
  • 31. ‘Din wa Akhlaq’, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat no 13, p. 34.
  • 32. ‘Din wa Akhlaq’, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat no 13, p. 34.
  • 33. ‘How Could Ethics Depend on Religion?’ Jonathan Berg, A Companion to Ethics, p. 531-532.
  • 34. ‘Din wa Akhlaq’, Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Qabasat no 13, p. 34-37.