Monday, 20 June 2011

The Nature of Moral Values - Light of Islam

The Nature of Moral Values



A Study of the Views

Allamah Tabataba'i and Martyr Mutahhari


Ali Naqi Baqirshahi

The problem of the eternity of moral values is an
ancient problem traceable to the very beginning of the
history of philosophy. Thinkers from all over the world
have been interested in discussing this problem.

The origin of this subject in Muslim philosophy is
traceable to the period of Ash'arite-Mu'tazilite
controversies regarding ethical predicates.

Later on scholars of usul al-fiqh (Islamic
jurisprudence) also took up this issue at the
philosophical level. Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i
(1902-1981), the most original thinker of the
contemporary Muslim world, inspired by the scholars of usul,
particularly the late

Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Isfahani, threw a new light on
this issue in a manner unprecedented throughout the
history of Muslim philosophy. The outcome of his
philosophical contemplation is the sixth chapter of his
book Usul-e falsafeh wa rawish-e riyalsm ('The
Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism').
Murtada Mutahhari, a pupil of Allamah Tabataba'i, wrote
detailed explanatory notes on this book, adding his own
views in the form of critical comments on Tabataba'i's
views. He seems to have certain basic differences with.
Tabataba'i regarding certain moral issues. Speculative
Wisdom and Practical Wisdom (Hikmat-e Nazariand Hikmate

Reality is the subject of 'speculative wisdom' while
ethics comprises a part of 'practical wisdom.' According
to Mutahhari, by reality we mean theoretical principles
and by ethics we mean practical principles. Practical
wisdom consists of normative sciences, and the study of
reality is included in speculative wisdom which may cover
theories of positive science too. It is not possible to
bring the principles of practical wisdom under the study
of reality, for speculative wisdom addresses things as
they are while practical wisdom addresses man's actions
as they ought to be.

In the texts of Muslim thinkers, speculative reason
and practical reason are regarded as two different types
of man's potentialities, but they did not discuss in
detail their features and differences. However, they did
suggest that the former potentiality is inherent in the
self, which by means of this potentiality attempts to
discover the external world, whereas the latter consists
of a series of perceptions controlled by the self, which
is the administrator of the body. Practical reason is the
physical aspect or power of the self, while speculative
reason constitutes the methaphysical aspect or power of
the self. Therefore, some thinkers are of the view that
two forms of attainments are open to man, speculative
attainment and practical attainment. Regarding the
concept of potential and practical reason they hold that
the self has a series of laws which enable it to
administrate better. This is considered to be an
elementary step towards attainment of perfection.[1]

Early Muslim philosophers defined justice in terms of
freedom. Since the self fails to attain speculative
perfection without the proper use of the body, the self
ought to establish a balance between those two
potentialities in order to utilize the body justly. The
potentiality which establishes such a balance between
self and body is an efficient or active force. In case
the balance takes place, self is not dominated by body;
contrarily body will be subordinated to self. They
considered justice to be a kind of co-ordination between
body and self in which body is controlled by self and
self is kept in check by body.[2]

Ibn Sina (980-1030), in his book Kitab al-shifa'
(The Book of Healing [of the soul]) divided philosophy
into two branches: speculative and practical. He dealt
with these issues in detail, yet there exists some
ambiguity in his approach to practical reason. Some
Muslim philosophers consider practical reason as the
self's faculty of perception.

They say that our reason is capable of two kinds of
perception. One is the faculty of perception used in
speculative sciences and the other is the faculty used in
practical sciences. But others, like Mulla Hadi Sabzawari
(1833-1910), hold that the term 'reason' is used for both
theoretical and practical aspects of the perceptive or
cognitive faculty. But it can be maintained that it is an
efficient faculty capable only of action.[3]

'Allamah Tabataba'i's Ethical Views and Mutahhari's
Critique: Allamah Tabataba'i maintained that whatever we
ascribe to practical wisdom is connected with the world
of norms or non-factual ideas, which comprise commands
and prohibitions and all those notions which are dealt
with in 'ilm al-'usul. By speculative wisdom is
meant thoughts which consist of the ideas of facts, which
are real representations of the actual things and the
objective world. He thus makes a distinction between two
types of philosophy, one which deals with "what
is" and the other that deals with "what ought
to be". Regarding the concept of 'ought' he says:
Nature has in itself some ends towards which it moves. In
the domains of inert things, plants, animals, and man,
all activities so far as they fall in the domain of
instinct, it is nature that moves towards its goal. At
the human level also, so far as they are instinctive
activities, it is nature that moves towards its goal.
There is a set of acts at the human level which takes
place by the means of volition and contemplation. In such
acts, man has his own objectives which should be attained
by volition. These ends are also the ends of nature, but
nature cannot achieve them directly; it has to make use
of man's will and thought. It is here that a need for
"ought" or values arises and they come into
existence automatically. For instance, man's nature, like
that of plants, needs food, but he should acquire it by
means of volition and contemplation. Unlike plants, which
acquire food directly through roots, and animals, which
are attracted towards food innately, man performs the
same act by volition and not by instinct only. Here
Tabataba'i says that, that the system of instinct is not
exactly defined so far. Man is unaware his ideas itself
is constructed on the system of nature, and nature uses
man as its instrument in order to achieve its goals. Man
innately possesses some systems: the system of nature as
well as the system of choice and will. The latter is
subject to the former. The natural end is reflected in
the form of a need or desire in man's soul (e.g.
inclination towards food). Tabataba'i concludes that at
the back of every voluntary act there is a hidden command
of nature as to 'what one ought to do' or 'what one ought
not to do'. It is this very 'ought to' which motivates a
person to move towards his natural objective. Mutahhari
comments that Tabataba'i has probably reduced all willed
acts to ideas or values.

Mutahhari also compares this view of Tabataba'i with
the moral theory know that Allamah Tabataba'i, of
Bertrand Russell, and is surprised to without having read
Russell, developed a theory similar to that of his, 40
years ago, probably at the same time when Russell was
developing his moral philosophy.[4]

Russell in his History of Western Philosophy
elaborates his view in the context of his analysis of
Plato's view regarding ethics. He says that according to
Plato, practical wisdom and speculative wisdom are
identical. He holds that morality means that man should
desire the good and the good is independent of the self;
therefore, good is cognizable, such as the objects of the
study of mathematics or medicine, which are independent
of human mind.[5]

Russell further says:

Plato is convinced that there is "the good"
and its nature can be ascertained; when people disagree
about it, one is making an intellectual error, just as
much as if the disagreement were a scientific one on some
matter of fact.[6]

Russell himself holds that "good" or
"bad" are relative terms whose meaning is
determined by man's relation to things or objects. When
we have a goal to achieve, we say "it is good".
Hence it is wrong to hold that "good" is an
objective quality inherent in the nature of a thing like
whiteness or roundness. Plato held a view opposed to
this, for he regarded "good" as an objective
fact. Mutahhari concludes from this discussion that
"goodness" and "badness" are not
concrete and objective qualities of objects that can be
discovered like other natural matters. If one treats
moral issues like the objects of scientific study, he
remarks, this error then gives rise to another issue:
Whether such norms are mutable or are there two types of
norms, one changeable and the other permanent? In this
issue, Mutahhari's view is opposed to that of Western
Philosophers. incidentally 'Allamah Tabataba'i is of the
view that values are of two kinds: mutable and immutable.
He has given the example of justice and cruelty and said,
the beauty of justice and the ugliness of cruelty are
self-evident. There are, hence, some values which are
immutable, while there are other values which change with

There is no doubt that some 'oughts' are particular
and individual. For example, if one needs a certain kind
of education, he might say, "I ought to study this
subject", while another who does not need that
education says, "I ought to study some other
subject." Accordingly, individual and particular
'oughts' are relative.[8]

The question in ethics is: Is there any universal and
absolute 'ought' which is generally shared by all human
beings? Mutahhari says that in case there is such an
'ought', as every ought is directed towards some goal, we
have to ascertain if there is such a common goal that may
be the basis of the universality of value. If we could
prove such universality and eternity of values, we shall
have to accept that they originate in an abstract self,
and that man is not confined to physical nature only[9] Allamah Tabataba'i holds that animate
beings and inanimate things are different in terms of
their movement towards their objectives; i.e. inanimate
things move towards their ends in one direction alone
which is predetermined. Nature, in the course of its
normal process, is equipped with the means through which
it moves towards its goal. Animate beings also, in
respect of their physical being (not as mental and
rational beings), in their own world move like plants
directly towards their end.

But as the laws and means of nature do not suffice to
direct animate beings towards their desired goals, they
employ their mental and perceptual faculties also to
achieve their goals. In fact, there emerges a kind of
harmony between physical nature (which is unconscious)
and mental processes which enable a being possessing
consciousness to attain the end desired by nature.
Consciousness directs a being to move towards certain
other ends also, which are supposed to be different from
the ends of nature. Man thinks that perhaps the harmony
between the movements towards natural and willed ends is

But Tabataba'i believes in a kind of
"pre-established harmony" between physical and
mental processes. The natural, mental makeup of man and
animals is such that, as they perceive and conceive an
object, there arises a desire for it, and they seek
pleasure in attaining it. In case they fail to do so they
feel some pain. For instance, by nature man seeks
pleasure and avoids pain.

The past experience of pleasure in eating some food
stirs his appetite for it, and he moves in the direction
of satisfying it. This act is governed by particular
mental processes, but at the same time it also serves to
attain the end of nature too, for a body requires food by
its own nature.

Eating serves both the ends; the person takes pleasure
in it and at the same time nature satisfies its need
also. Hence the question arises: Are these two acts
unconnected with each other that accidently occur
together? Is it the natural urge to seek pleasure which
requires certain natural means to serve it or is it the
natural urge which makes a man feel pleasure in
satisfying an appetite? In other words, it may be asked
does pleasure-seeking serve the end of nature or does
nature serve the purpose of attaining pleasure? It is
difficult to decide which one of the two is fundamental
and which one is secondary. However, Mutahhari holds that
there is some kind of harmony between the natural and
conscious ends, and this harmony is pre-planned and not

Further, in dealing with this issue, he refers to Ibn
Sina's view according to which the purposive movement is
confined to conscious beings only. Tabataba'i says that
nature itself pursues certain ends, so all the beings
move according to those ends. Hence all movements in
nature are purposive, that is, governed by some ends.
Man's purposive activity is also a part of the general
purposive scheme of nature. But Mutahhari does not agree
with this generalization made by Tabataba'i.[10]

Tabataba'i says further that one of the values is that
of 'employment' (istikhdam), which is concerned
with man's relation to his limbs and faculties and this
relation is objective, real and creative. The power of my
hands is under my control, which is a natural matter;
that is, this power is naturally and congenitally at my
disposal. All bodily organs of man are owned by man and
form an integral part of his being and are at the service
of man. He says that all external objects may be
considered to be tools for survival used by man. Not only
inanimate beings plants, etc. are means for man, but even
other men are supposed to be at an individual's service.
In other words, all beings, including men, who fall in
the field of one's activity, are tools for a human being.
Man thus extends his limited existence to the spheres of
other beings. Mutahhari says that according to Tabataba'i
this human tendency or approach to other beings is
instinctively natural, which is not confined to non-human
beings but includes a man's attitude towards other men

Mutahhari does not agree with Tabataba'i and remarks
that the Allamah, in this respect, seems to agree with
the evolutionists and accept the Darwinian principle of
the struggle for existence. In his view, Tabataba'i has
used a more respectable term for the Darwinian idea. In
the struggle for existence every man uses others as his
tools and makes them his employees.

Perhaps both Tabataba'i and Mutahhari were
unacquainted with Heidegger's similar notion. According
to Heidegger's existential philosophy, all other beings
falling in the field of human existence are tools or
means of extending and developing one's existence. The
quality of other beings as distinguished from human
beings is their 'Handiness' that is how far they are
useful for a human being. Had Mutahhari been familiar
with this principle in Heidegger's philosophy, he would
have claimed for him an affinity with the
existentialists. It is to be noted that Tabataba'i
developed his principle of 'istikhdam' in the
course of about. twenty years unaware of a similar theory
being formulated by a European existentialist. Not only
in his major philosophical work Usul-e falsafah wa
rawish-e riyalism, but also in his scholarly exegesis (tafsir)
of the Qur'an, al-Mizan, he has referred to the principle
of employment on many occasions in the course of dealing
with various aspects of human existence. Mutahhari seems
to be more conservative on this issue, for his dubbing
the Allamah as a Darwinist shows his displeasure with the
basic idea of employment of other human beings by every
individual human being. Similarly, Mutahhari's not
accepting Tabataba'i's doctrine of relativism of certain
moral values reveals his adherence to the Platonic
tradition as well as the traditional Islamic philosophy.

Mutahhari infers the Darwinian principle of the
struggle for existence from Tabataba'i's philosophy in
the context of his view that a man has to make
adjustments with other human beings in the form of
friendship and co-operation or other means, so that he is
able to survive in the struggle in which every human
being tries to use other men as his tools. Mutahhari
remarks that though Tabataba'i has not said explicitly
such a thing, his principle of employment leads to such a

Tabataba'i regards his principle of employment as the
criterion of good and evil, right and wrong. Here two
questions arise. One is whether man has a natural
inclination towards evil, or in other words, is evil
inherent in his nature? Mutahhari answers that from
Tabataba'i's viewpoint every individual has a natural
tendency to attain his own desired ends, which makes him
treat others as if they were his employees to serve his
ends. This tendency not to treat other men as equals to
one's own ends is in Tabataba'i's view nothing but

The other question is related to the possible identity
of employment and the principle of the struggle for
existence. Mutahhari does not say that both are
identical, but holds that as both of them lead to the
same end, that is, an individual's growth (here, in the
moral sense), they may be described as having a close
affinity with each other.[13]

However, Mutahhari does not totally reject
Tabataba'i's views regarding man and. morality. What he
disagrees with Tabataba'i's is generalization of the
principle of employment. Mutahhari; while stating his own
position, says that a distinction is to be made between
inclination (natural tendency) and will. Animals act
instinctively by natural inclination, while human beings
act voluntarily. Mutahhari makes a further distinction
between two types of human acts by adding the element of
will to man's instinctive acts; man can refrain from
eating food or certain kinds of food willingly though he
has an inclination to eat. Instinctive acts are passively
done under the compulsion of nature; while performing
these acts, man's reason is suspended. Therefore they are
determined acts. On the contrary, voluntary acts are done
under the guidance of reason. He, therefore, maintains
that will is freedom. Man is free because he can act
according to his will, and his acts are not deterministic
like those of animals.

Mutahhari makes another significant point regarding
willed acts. He says that in his natural or impulsive
behaviour man is under the control of the external world,
while in willing he withdraws himself from the external
world and internalizes his being to make a choice and a
resolution. In willing, man re-collects his being
together, while in acting impulsively his being is
scattered. Regarding the question as to whether will is
totally absent while acting impulsively, or it is only
weak, Mutahhari says that will is there, but it is weak.
With the increase in impulse, will weakens
proportionately. He criticizes Mulla Sadra, Hadi
Sabzawari and Ibn Sina for considering desire and will as
one and the same thing.

Though Ibn Sina occasionally made some distinction
between the two, his criterion of demarcation is

Now the question which arises is: How can ethical
issues be demonstrated? How can we argue as to "What
is good" and "What is bad'"? 'Allamah
Tabataba'i is of the view that these are undemonstrable,
for non-factual matters cannot be proved either by
deduction or induction. We can only explain them on a
linguistic basis, and that also would be relativistic
with views differing from man to man. Moral values are
not a factual or objective matter. We can prove
rationally or empirically ideas or theories only
concerning objective reality. On this basis he regards
moral values as subjective and relativistic.

Practical philosophy is concerned with good and bad
and these concepts are inferred from 'oughts' and 'ought
nots'. These terms depend upon loving or desiring
something or otherwise. In the matter of loving or
liking, individuals differ from one another. Therefore,
moral values, which depend upon loving or hating some
objects, depend upon the individual's subjective
experience. Hence they are both subjective and relative.
Here it can be pointed out that 'Allamah Tabataba'i is
close on the one hand to G.E. Moore, who regards values
as indefinable, and is similar to Russell, on the other.

Bertrand Russell is of those thinkers who arrived at
the same conclusion in his book History of Western
Philosophy. He analyzes Plato's view regarding justice in
the following words:

There are several points to be noted about Plato's
definition. First, it makes it possible to have
inequalities of power and privilege without justice. The
guardians are to have all the powers, because they are
the wisest members of the community', injustice would
only occur, on Plato's definition, if there were men in
the other classes who were wiser than some of the
guardians. That is why Plato provides for promotion and
degradation of citizen, although he thinks that the
double advantage of birth and education will, in most
cases, make the children of guardians superior to the
children of others. If there were a more exact science of
government, and more certainty of men following its
percepts, there would be much to be said for Plato's
system. No one thinks it unjust to put the best men into
a football team, although they acquire thereby a great

At another place Russell says:

The difference between Plato and Trasymachus is very
important, but for the historian of philosophy it is one
to be noted, not decided. Plato thinks he can prove that
his idea of republic is good; a democrat who accepts the
objectivity of ethics may think that he can prove the
Republic bad; but anyone who agrees with Trasymachus will
say; 'There is no question of proving or disproving; the
only question is whether you like the kind of State that
Plato desires. If you do, it is good for you; if you do
not, it is bad for you. If many do and many do not, the
decision cannot be made by reason, but only by force,
actual or concealed.' This is one of the issues in
philosophy that are still open; on each side there are
men who command respect. But for a very long time the
opinion that Plato advocated remained almost

There are two points on which Mutahhari disagrees with
Allamah Tabataba'i.[17]

(1) Mutahhari holds that we cannot attribute
value-oriented activity to allanimate beings, as Allamah
Tabataba'i does. Consciousness of value is confined to
man, who possesses practical reason.

(2) Mutahhari rejects the principle of employment as put
forward by the Allamah. His rejection of it is based on
three arguments, which he elaborated in "Akhlaq
wa jawidanagi
." On the basis of these arguments
he proved his idea of the universality and eternity of
good and evil.

The First Argument:

Man has certain motives which serve to fulfil his
individual needs and demands. Human activity is also
stimulated by another kind of motivation which is called
by Mutahhari species oriented motives. These are
different from individual oriented motives which serve
the interests of the individual only. They may be
connected with one's mate and offspring. The species
oriented motives are general and embrace the whole of
humanity. These are not confined to a particular
environment, situation or time period. Because of these
motives, one can place the welfare and happiness of his
fellow beings ahead of his own welfare. These motives may
be described as humanitarian motives, due to which one is
pained if he sees another man in pain. This kind of
motive may be also defined as gregarious or social
motivation. He commiserates with others, he rejoices at
their joy and grieves at their grief. Mutahhari says that
if we accept the role of these species oriented motives,
Allamah Tabataba'i's view is refuted,

for he believes that man's natural mental make-up acts
in accordance with his natural and biological urges.
Tabataba'i considers his theory of employment to be
applicable to all human beings as a general principle.
According to Mutahhari's view this principle conflicts
with our accepted criteria of morality. It is generally
held that egocentric or selfish motives and acts are
morally inferior, or rather evil, as compared to
altruistic motives and acts. Morality liberates man from
the confines of his selfish interests and is, therefore,
universally applicable to all cases, times and
situations. Thus he affirms the principle of the
universality and eternity of moral values. To the
question "Why righteousness is good"? the reply
is: Because it fulfils the interests of all.[18]

Second Argument:

While Mutahhari based his first argument on the
duality of motives, he based his second argument in
favour of the universality and eternity of morality on
the duality of human self. This view is similar to that
of some contemporary thinkers who hold that it is
impossible to seek a thing unless that thing is linked
with one's own self. Whatever seems to be pleasant for
the individual is ultimately accepted as good for the
whole human species. Durkheim and some other sociologists
argue on this basis that man has two selves: one is the
individual self, while the other is the collective self.
Man, from the biological point of view, is an individual,
but from the social point of view he is a social being
and has a social self also. Therefore, each man possesses
two selves. Mutahhari, with reference to Tabataba'i's
writings, says that the latter also confirms this theory
without being aware of sociological theories, and accepts
that society has a real self, which is not relative. The
sociologists also attribute a personality and self to
society, which is real, objective, and independent of
individual selves: It is not the sum total of the selves
of its individual members, but something different from
it. Every man is possessed of a social self along with
his individual self.

Mutahhari here refers to the mystical doctrine of a
universal self.

According to the Sufis and other mystics, there is an
underlying connection between human selves, of which man
becomes aware when his self is purified. Sharing a
universal self and realizing that through it all men are
related to one another leads man to attain spiritual
unity with the universal self.

Sociologists are of the view that society is
constituted of individuals who have a common social or
cultural self which is real. They say that sometimes
man's acts are motivated by individual motives, while on
other occasions his acts are prompted by social motives.
The individual and social motives belong to the
individual and the social self respectively. The former
is natural and biological, while the latter is
collective. It is here that from the duality of motives
sociologists infer the notion of the duality of the self.
Arguing from a sociological viewpoint Mutahhari concludes
that any act which stems from the social self is regarded
as morally good and is determined by a universal and
eternal value-system. Contrarily, any act that stems from
the individual self is devoid of moral good. Hence
morality cannot be relative, individual and changing. It
is governed by values which are universally and eternally

Third Argument:

Mutahhari begins his third argument with the assertion
that man does not do anything which is not related to the
universe of his self. On this basis he refutes
Tabataba'i's principle of employment, according to which
human acts are imposed upon him by some other self. In
elaboration of this argument he takes recourse to the
traditional division of human existence into two selves,
of which one is superior (spiritual) and the other is
inferior (carnal). Man is also an animal, and his
inferior self is ruled by animal desires and motives.
Morality consists in subordinating the animal self to the
higher self. Whatsoever is done for the lower self is not
moral. Moral acts have their origin in the higher self.

Animal selves are subject to nature, while the higher
self, which is universally shared by all men, is subject
to a system of higher values.

According to Mutahhari the higher self is universal
and the values to which it is subject are also universal
and eternal. He wonders why Tabataba'i forgot to refer to
this concept, though he was acquainted with it. He says
that had he referred to it, he would have accepted that
moral acts are those which are done for the satisfaction
of the higher self. In that case he would have rejected
the relativistic doctrine of morality as well as the
principle of employment.

Furthering his argument, Mutahhari says that he agrees
with Tabataba'i, Russell and others that good and evil,
'oughts' and 'ought nots' are based upon man's love for
certain ends and his dislike for other things. He asks,
"But which self's love or hate is the criterion of
good and evil?" and answers that if one says that it
is the lower or animal self whose liking or disliking an
object is the standard of morality, he is wrong, for he
negates the very spirit of morality. The interests of the
lower selves may differ from individual to individual, so
on their basis there cannot be any universal and eternal
moral value. But, on the other hand, if we believe that
it is the higher self which is the basis of morality, we
will have to concede that its values are universally and
eternally valid.

Mutahhari says at the end of his article "Akhlaq
wa jawidanagi

I would like to refer to an Islamic doctrine which is
very significant for resolving the issue of morality, and
is neglected by philosophers. That is, man has an innate
nobility and excellency which may be defined as a
spiritual faculty or a Divine spark. Every man
unconsciously experiences it. While doing certain acts he
contemplates whether they are compatible with his innate
nobility or not. Whenever he finds an act compatible with
it, he regards it as good and virtuous; if it is
incompatible with it, it is regarded as a vice or evil.
As animals know what is beneficial or harmful to them
instinctively, the human self that has metaphysical
virtues recognizes what is good and what is evil, what he
ought to do and what he ought not.... Human beings are
created alike so far as spiritual faculties and virtues
are also alike, their views are also alike. Biologically
and philosophically men may be different from each other,
and under different conditions their physical needs may
also differ. But so far as the ability to attain
spiritual sublimation is concerned they are alike and
necessarily have similar likes and dislikes as well as
similar standards of good and evil. All moral virtues,
whether individual or social, such as patience, can be
explained from this view.[20]

Mutahhari concludes that the above quoted principle
can explain in a much better way the criteria of good and
evil and social and individual virtues, as compared to
all other moral theories discussed above.

This principle also provides the most secure ground
for believing in the eternity and universality of moral


No comments:

Post a Comment