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The Bases And Philosophy Of Ethics - Part 1

Why are some deeds such as sacrifice, forgiveness and chastity considered proper and others such as injustice, lying, megalomania, and treason condemned? What are the criteria behind these judgments? Scholars have differing concepts toward these issues. Each one has a specific view on these questions depending on their world-views. Some of these conceptualizations follow:

1-The School Of Personal Sensuality:

Both in the past and at the present there have been philosophers who believe in nothing except pleasures of life. They say, "The future is uncertain; death might arrive at any moment and may destroy our life. Therefore, we should make best out of our time."

The forerunner of this school was Socrates’ student named Aristocles.

According to this school, any action which satisfies man's temporary pleasures is considered an ethical action albeit in its satisfaction some other people get hurt.

But this approach to life degenerates man to the status of an animal and disregards the Hereafter. Too much involvement in the mundane enjoyments does away with security in life and the poor will suffer the most.

Since material pleasures can not satisfy man's spirit, and their satisfaction is neither possible nor beneficial, therefore to found ethical deeds over transitory desires is one step toward nihilism and avoidance of ethics.

2- Epicurism Or Personal Expedience

Epicure, the Greek philosopher (270-341 BC), too, put personal interests as the foundation of ethics. He did not mean temporary or transitory pleasures, however. He is after a pleasure which either lacks later suffering or involves little amount of suffering. He believes man should shun a suffering which does not contain pleasure either now or later.

Epicure has divided pleasures into three groups:

a) Natural and necessary pleasures, such as eating, drinking and sleep;

b) Unnatural but unnecessary pleasures, such as sexual drive;

c) Natural but unnecessary pleasures, such as desire for fame and money.

Epicure, then, goes on to say that the first type of pleasures should

be fulfilled to a rational degree. The means to these ends should also be employed.

But, according to Epicure, the second type of pleasures should also be satisfied normally. Going to extremes in this regard will lead to troubles.

But, the third type of pleasures which are neither natural nor necessary should be avoided altogether.

As you will see, the last hypothesis is more moderate, well-founded and wise than the previous one. However, it suffers from the following defects:

a) In this notion all aims are directed toward personal worldly interests. Whereas, according to the premises of the notion of the abstractness of self, the avoidance of the integument into material desires in this world may lend a better and flowery chance in the other world. This fact is not included in this notion, however.

b) This notion, like the previous one, reduces man's status to that of animal's in that it is concerned only with personal interests and not with collective interests and has shunned man's heavenly status altogether and has emphasized beastly stomach – filling, anger and lusts. Man, on the other hand, could, through training his skills, soar into the heavens and make the impossible seem attainable.

c) In this notion, the ethical goodness is defined only in the fulfillment of personal interests ignoring common interests as a whole.

The unnaturalness of this view is clear when we observe that others have a right to live like ourselves, too. How is it feasible to enjoy one's interests by destroying other people's rights?

d) A person's interests vary greatly according to one's status. They vary as well with individuals. Therefore, man's interests could not get regularized. On the contrary, ethical orders are highly systematic and well – organized, or else they would bring out chaos.43


43. The Bases of philosophy (Mabani-e Falsafe) p 374.

    The philosophy of ethics, pp 62-68.

    Husn wa Qubh ‘Aqli (Rational soundness and unsoundness) p 125.

Adapted from: "Imam 'Ali's First Treatise on The Islamic Ethics and Education" by: "Zainol Aabideen Qorbani Lahiji"