Akhlaq (Arabic: أخلاق) is an Arabic term referring to the practice of virtue, morality and manners in Islamic theology and falsafah (philosophy). It is most commonly translated in English dictionaries as; disposition, nature, temper, ethics, morals or manners (of a person). This article will outline what the Islamic view of ethics is, and how it differs to other theories.
There are three ways to understand ethics, normative, descriptive and meta ethics.
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts. Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. To put it another way, descriptive ethics would be concerned with determining what proportion of people believe that killing is always wrong, while normative ethics is concerned with whether it is correct to hold such a belief. Hence, normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive, rather than descriptive. However, on certain versions of the meta-ethical view called moral realism, moral facts are both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time. The most common applied Normative ethical system is Deontology.
Descriptive ethics is a form of empirical research into the attitudes of individuals or groups of people. In other words, this is the division of philosophical or general ethics that involves the observation of the moral decision-making process with the goal of describing the phenomenon. Those working on descriptive ethics aim to uncover people’s beliefs about such things as values, which actions are right and wrong, and which characteristics of moral agents are virtuous. Research into descriptive ethics may also investigate people’s ethical ideals or what actions societies reward or punish in law or politics. What ought to be noted is that culture is generational and not static. Therefore, a new generation will come with its own set of morals and that qualifies to be their ethics. Descriptive ethics will hence try to oversee whether ethics still holds its place.
Because descriptive ethics involves empirical investigation, it is a field that is usually investigated by those working in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology or anthropology. Information that comes from descriptive ethics is, however, also used in philosophical arguments.
Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the four branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being descriptive ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics.
While normative ethics addresses such questions as “What should I do?”, thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as “What is goodness?” and “How can we tell what is good from what is bad?”, seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.
Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that we must impart ideas of moral intuition onto proper action before we can give a proper account of morality’s metaphysics.
Descriptive ethics: What do people think is right?
Meta-ethics: What does “right” even mean?
Normative (prescriptive) ethics: How should people act?
Applied ethics: How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?
How does Islam view the world of Ethics?
The first thing to realise is that Islam, and most religions, give a frame of reference for ethical behavior, so it immediately tackles some of the Meta-ethical dilemmas that can occur, such as “who is to say what is right or wrong?”. When following a religion, an individual can at least say “God can”, and then we can act accordingly. As for the descriptive element, Islam subscribes to a view that humanity is blessed with an innate moral compass that gives the user a guide to morality, so for example humanity generally agrees rape is wrong, killing innocent people is wrong etc. The normative part is more tricky, partly because of the differing views and also because Islam is not 100% teleological or deontological, but somewhere in between. Read this article to find out more on Islams moral position.