Morality is defined as a code of conduct, whereby an individual acknowledges something to be either right or wrong. The vast majority of humanity will acknowledge certain things to be right or wrong, but what is the source of this knowledge? What are Islam’s views on morality? How does post-modernist thinking react to a universal value system?
Explanation of Terms
Its important to understand the key terms that are being used in this article, so here are the definitions:
Morality – identifying intentions to be either right or wrong.
Postmodernism – according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.
Objective Moral Values (OMV)- Values or morals that are widespread within the population, regardless of experience, time, or place.
As defined above, morality is knowing the right from wrong, so the next logical question is, what is “right”? There is a poem that explains the delicate nuances of this question:
One man waters a plant to share the beauty of its flowers with others.
Another man waters a plant to scratch people with its thorns.
The point the poem is making is that these two men are performing exactly the same acts, yet, any sensible reader will be able to identify that one of the men is doing something “good” by watering the flowers, and the other is being “bad”, even though the act is the same. So the first important thing to acknowledge is that acts themselves are neither good nor bad, every event has a context and every action an intention, and its that intention that will identify the action to be either morally good or bad. What is particularly interesting and relevant to theology, is that it seems the judgement of these intentions is universally agreed upon by humanity, if one were to ask a random person whether it is acceptable for a person to kill another with no reason, every sane person would say it is not acceptable. So to clarify, the action of events alone can not indicate any “goodness” or “badness”, in order to understand the morality of an event, the intention of the outcome needs to be known, and it is that which determines the “goodness” or “badness” of any event.
Another example of this is the situation of one person killing another, without the context of the situation, it is impossible to know if this is morally wrong or not, for example, consider the following circumstances:
- The victim is trying to kill another person.
- The victim is on the opposing side of a war.
- The victim is actually an animal.
- The victim is an edible animal and the killer is hungry.
Again, the context is crucial, but what actually does context mean? If the actions are irrelevant, then how does the context influence morality? The reason some things are morally right or morally wrong is based on their consequences, there is an inherent acceptance of causality, some actions done for certain reasons will lead to certain effects, and it is these effects that will decide if something is morally good or bad, so the context gives the reason for the action, once this is known, one can decide whether such action done for such a reason will cause benefit or harm. A worked example can help, if we imagine a person who habitually lies for no good reason, then we can see that if someone is dishonest and we apply this to society as a whole, there are certainly going to be negative consequences, society will not function as well, no one would accept this as morally good.
The vast majority of people will hold a moral opinion on the intention of an action, either being right or wrong. Morality is not simply about loss or gain, so something can be morally right, even though it appears that the individual is losing out in some way, eg charity. Very few people would see giving some spare money to charity as wrong. Nor would many people see rape as right thing to do, so the principle of holding a moral opinion is widespread and taken as read.
Objective Moral Values (OMV)
The interesting issue regarding morality is that humans agree about moral positions, they can objectively look at events and tell if they are good or bad, regardless of their experiences, this is termed Objective Moral Values. Facts are normally statements about how the world is, such as 1+1 = 2, rain comes from the sky, chickens come from eggs etc, morals are truths but they are not based on a tangible reality, but on what reality should be, morals are like commands or aspirations for our Utopian society. The term “objective” here refers to their timeless, universal nature, so when a person says “its morally wrong to rape someone”, they do not mean for a specific place, time or location, they mean it is always wrong, anywhere, anytime.
Source of Objective Moral Values
The existence of such objective morality is at least suggestive of some higher authority, as there needs to be a source for these aspirations, its is not possible for there to exist a command, without there being a commander, just like there can’t be something that is being carried unless there is something else that is carrying it. There can’t be something that is popular unless there are lots of people that like it. So to summarise, if moral facts are a command, what is the source of this command?
Morality is of over-riding importance, it implies a universal system of justice and reward. If someone morally ought to do something, then this supersedes any other considerations. It might be in an individual’s best interest not to give any money to charity, but morally they should do, so most do, even though it actually makes them poorer, and it has no tangible benefit to them at all. It might be in one’s best interest to pretend that there too busy to see relatives, but morally they ought not to, so all things considered they ought not to, and they should go and see their family. If someone has one reason to do one thing, but morally ought to do another thing, then all things considered they ought to do the other thing. Morality over-rules everything. Morality has ultimate authority. Commands, though, are only as authoritative as the person that commands them.
As morality has more authority than any individual or institution, the moral argument suggests, morality can not have been commanded by any human person or institution. As morality has ultimate authority, as morality over-rules everything, morality must have been commanded by someone who has authority over everything. The existence of morality thus points us to a being that is greater than any of us and that rules over all creation. Therefore the source of morality must be the creator of the universe, the ultimate being in authority, God.
One well-known presentation of the moral argument is that of the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was the author of Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason.
Kant’s moral argument can be summarized as:
- Moral behavior is rational behavior, and therefore it is quite reasonable on our part to respect morality in our lives. If one ought to do something, one has a reason to do it. For instance, a person who knows that he ought to give money to charity has good reason to give money to charity. Moral behavior, Kant said, is always rational.
- The rational nature of moral behavior depends on the guarantee that it would be rewarded. But we see that sinful actions often bring profits rather than moral actions, and so sinful actions would become rational considering the profits, of course on the condition that sinful actions bring no comebacks. It is only if sinful actions will surely be punished in the end, we have reason to avoid sinful actions and prefer moral actions. In other words, moral behavior will be rational only if justice is done ultimately by the incurring of due punishments for sinful actions.
- We have no guarantee that justice will be done in this world. For in this world we find good people suffering and bad people flourishing, for life here and now is not fair.
If this is the only life we have, then justice is not done here, and so moral behavior is not rational. But we know in our heart of hearts we have a reason to be good. If so, this life cannot be all that there is. There must be something more. There must be a provision for the prevalence of justice, when all things are considered.
Religion teaches that justice will be meted out to sinners, and the righteous will receive the reward that they deserve. If this view is correct, moral actions become rational. And the rationality of morality establishes that the religious view of the afterlife is correct. And this can be correct only if God exists. Therefore, God exists. If there is no afterlife, then morality has literally no value, one may as well steal and rape as much as they can get away with, as there will be no consequences. We know, thankfully, that the vast majority of people do accept moral values, and they do so knowingly or unknowingly on the basis that there must be rational, logical basis for this, which can only be the case if there is some system of justice which will be implemented beyond this life.
If the moral argument can be defended against the various objections that have been raised against it, then it proves the existence of an author of morality, of a being that has authority over and that actively rules over all creation. Together with the ontological argument, the first cause argument, and the argument from design, this would give us proof that there is a perfect, necessary, and eternal being that created the universe with life in mind and has the authority to tell us how we are to run it. The correct response to this would be to seek God’s will and to practice it.
Quite at variance with the Christian view, Islam teaches that man is created as an innately good being. He is born with an inclination towards all that is good. For this reason, even an atheist or an agnostic, has a natural and inborn bias towards moral actions and an aversion towards evil.
“O’ Hisham! God has two types of guide over the people, one outer and one inner, the outer is the Prophets, messengers and the Imams; the inner is their own intellect and morality”
Narrated from Imam al-Kazim Al -Kafi Vol. I p. 16
As humans become mature enough to use these gifts, they use their freedom of will either to lead a good life of submission to God, or a bad life denying God. Indeed their innate goodness as well as the morality prevailing in human society ought to make them aware of the Source of their being, namely, God.
Some have criticised the existence of universal moral values by stating if there are actually these universal values, why is there still crime, murder, rape and general poor behavior still in existence? The response to this is that there is a difference between knowing something, and acting in accordance with something. A thief does not steal because they think there is nothing wrong with stealing, they steal because they think that their right to have the items is greater than the actual owner’s. If there was then a second thief who tried to steal the same item from the first thief, the first would definitely object to that and not willingly give the item away, hence they know stealing is wrong, they just haven’t applied that knowledge fully.
Some groups have questioned whether objective morality even exists, they argue that there is nothing innately good or bad, and it is only religion that informs the people what is good or bad. The main proponents for this ideology were the Asharites of Iraq around the first millennium. Their argument was that if God decided to put all the good people in hell and all the bad in heaven, that is completely up to Him and there is no law or “system” that God has to abide by, so similarly if God decides such an action is wrong, then it is wrong and humanity can never be able to work out what is right and wrong, as there is no system or law that one can refer to, and it is only religion which can inform humanity of what is morally correct. This type of objection is also raised more classically in the form of Euthyphro dilemma, which is as follows:
Socrates asks Euthyphro whether God loves the pious because it is the pious, or whether the pious is pious only because it is loved by God. They then discuss the options, if the first option is true, then piety is outside of God’s will, and exists alongside of God. If the second is true then why worship a God that defines morality as He likes, allowing the seemingly innocent to suffer and the oppressors to be rewarded?
Socrates is basically asking, is an act good or bad in itself, or is it only accepted that way because of God’s opinion about it. For example, is stealing bad in itself? Or is it only bad because God has told us that it is bad. If we say it is only bad because God has said it is bad, this leads to a paradox, as why accept the religion in the first place if there is no inherent beauty or attraction to its values? Why accept the religion as right, if you have to first have a religion to know what is right or wrong? Is religion simply arbitrary? The other option then is that God has to abide by a higher law, a pre existing notion of right and wrong which He then assigns the religious laws to, this suggests something pre existing God and God is subordinate to it. Then the source of our religion is not God, but the pre-existing morality which God also has to accept. Either way we are faced with a dilemma and this is why it is seen as a paradox, either option leads to a problem for the religious person.
The answer to this problem is to fully understand the concept of God, the paradox assumes that there is a difference between God’s opinion and what is inherently good, and that the “good” is known before God had the opinion that it was “good”. If one accepts that God is essentially good, then He will only do what is ultimately good, then there is no paradox. So what is quite startling is that the morally good, decent, behavior, leads to success, not the opposite, it is not good because it is successful, it is successful because it is good. This is either in the form of the act, or in the form of our objective moral values inclining towards the good deeds. This system of God therefore allows an individual to use his mind and reason to recognise the good, and to uphold it, indeed the gift of reason allows an individual to learn the reality of morality.
Atheist’s are in two camps, one is the denial of OMV, the other is that they exist, but only as a result of evolutionary powers. The denial of OMV is one of extreme prejudice, as to deny them would be the same as denying their sight, hearing or previous experiences, which no reasonable person would do. OMV is an observation in the same manner as any other sense, and if one was to deny something that is essentially true by means of a argument that relies on a less likely premise, that is an illogical and faulty methodology. An example of such a scenario would be a person who is thinking of a red hammer, then a person comes to him and says, you were not thinking of a red hammer, you are mistaken, in fact the hammer was green. There maybe a complicated theory as to why the second person thinks the first was not thinking of a red hammer, but the evidence to the first person was so primary, and without any complex thought or means of generating error, so the original person can be certain that he was right, and he did think of a red hammer. If one was to take it further, any argument or truth could be attacked in this way, for example, one may think there name and age is correct, but they maybe mistaken, they could simply be a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated in a scientific laboratory. Now despite the possibility of this, one must reject it based on every known experience they have, and if that is an acceptable method and evidence, then the same principle can be applied to moral experience, in which case moral experience points to the fact that morality exists and it is objectively shared across humanity. Not many people reject the existence of morality, but there are a few notable exceptions including the famous atheist Professor Dawkins.
Some have argued that despite the universal nature of objective morality, it is the result of evolutionary pressures, such that groups that behave in “moral”, altruistic ways thrive and those that do not, die out, leaving only those with similar morals, thus there is no need for God. This argument really misses the point about OMV, as those that claim its an evolutionary response, must therefore accept that they are not universal, timeless and objective, and as our environment changes the morals must also change, so by following this logic to its conclusion, there may be a set of circumstances where it is good to kill the innocent and steal from the poor. Can any rational person accept this? They would have to accept that their is nothing bad in Nazi’s massacring Jews or occupying Europe for their own gains, or a mass murder killing school children. For most people this is clearly a problem, as these acts are clearly wrong and morals supersede time and circumstances. There is also no evidence for this line of thought, it has never been morally acceptable to steal, harm people, murder or rape. Also there is a serious flaw in the logic of their premise, as their premise is that communities that behave in a “moral” way have a higher chance of surviving, such that now all communities are “moral”, this does not answer the question at all. The issue with morality is that it is not a physical truth, like a wings can make you fly, or a developed brain can allow you solve complex problems, these are physical truths, morality is a concept, as explained before it is not a provable fact, but rather, it is what humanity would like to happen. There is nothing necessary about the existence of morality in itself, for example 1+1 necessarily is 2, this is fact, but there is no non-moral reason why someone should give to charity. So with this in mind, how can one explain why humanity appears to independently agree on something that appears so arbitrary? There is simply no reason to, and that is why if someone were to accept the existence of objective moral values, the logical conclusion is to accept that their origin is from God.
One way arguments are often put forward is as follows, if we take the issue of the holocaust. No matter how many people we ask now “is it wrong?”, they will say “yes”, suggesting some kind of unanimous agreement, but is that objective? Just because we all agree something does not make it objective. To go further, obviously the Nazis did not agree with the notion that the Holocaust was wrong, otherwise they would not have done it, in their view, it was the correct way of dealing with a problem, the moral solution to a social issue. So at that point there was not even an agreement of opinion, let alone objectivity. To deal with this, we must break down morality in principles and applications. The principles are the foundations and underlying concepts of morality, such as “rape is wrong”. Now, no one at any time has ever thought that rape in itself is right, or theft in its self. So the principle that rape, theft and murder is wrong is unanimously agreed upon, and in that basis objective in the human mind. So where does the disagreement fit in? How do we explain why the Nazis and many other groups have justified acts that are immoral? Its because they have applied moral law to create another law, they have applied morality in an incorrect way. For example, lets imagine this scenario, lets imagine that in Nazi Germany some Jews had been corrupt and even killed others. Now they point to that immorality and say “that is wrong, they are harming society, its immoral”, and because of that they say that the responsible people, in this case the Jews must be removed for the sake of upholding society and morality. Now hear the application is completely immoral, but they have tried to use a moral principle to derive a moral application, but clearly failed. So in regards to this example, the principle of “murder” is still wrong to the Nazi, they have not developed a new moral principle, but rather when they apply some moral rules to their environment they have derived some applications that are clearly immoral.
If we now understand the Islamic approach to law, we start at the general accepted principles and then the rules are deducted, rather than inducted.