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The Bases And Philosophy Of Ethics - Part 3

6- Ethical Conscience:

Some scholars from the East or West, including Kant, contend that man is created in such a way as to come across with good ethical acts or bad ones through the guidance of his innate powers; and in practice he finds himself in a position as to either carry them out or stop doing them altogether.

The criterion for judgments of this sort is referred to as "ethical conscience."

Kant, the German philosopher, who died in 1804, accounts for this in the following way:

Speculative intelligence, i.e., the agent inside the mechanism is not of high value; but the practical intelligence, i.e., the agent for carrying out the practical affairs, which is also referred to as "ethical conscience" has a definite practicality and its commands are binding.

Kant believes that man, in accordance with ethical conscience, recognizes the nature of good and evil deeds and finds himself responsible to carry out the commands issued by it. An act is considered to be ethical when it has the following characteristics:

a) It is voluntary. An act which is carried out compulsorily can not be ethical.

b) The carrying out of the act should only be for the sake of duty and nothing else. For instance, a person's act is not considered ethical if he carries it out for a friend, for social acceptance, for material benefits, or for the world hereafter. He has to carry it out only for its own sake. An act may be good but unethical;

c) It should be all-inclusive so that it may include the acts of all of those who want to carry out such acts;

d) The ultimate goal for that act should be man himself, not other minor objectives;

e) It should include man's prosperity although not for his delight.

Of course, this hypothesis has the following positive aspects:

a) There exists in man an agent which, with the help of heavenly inspiration, can distinguish good deeds;

    "فالهَمَها فُجُورَها وتَقوَاها"

“Then He inspired it to understand what is right and wrong for it”.50

And when man opposes it, he is tortured by the scourge of rebuke, driving him crazy:

    "لا اُقْسِمُ بِيَومِ القِيامَةِ ولا اُقْسِمُ بالنَفْسِ اللوّامَة 

“Nay! I swear by the day of resurrection, nay! I swear by the self-accusing soul”.51

b) Man knows, through his conscience, that he is not forced to do an act.

Mawlawi says:

When you say should I do this or that;

My friend, this shows you are free.

c) The best sort of prayers is to carry out a task as thanks to God.

d) Man's status and his magnanimity are higher than for him to fall prey to other desires. Every thing is created for his use. Nothing equals him.

    "مَنْ كَرُمَت عَلَيهِ نَفسُهُ هَانَت عَلَيهِ الدُّنيا" 

“The world is of little importance to one who regards his soul to be noble.”52

e) All human beings are equal and are therefore, equal in front of human rights.

    "اَحبِب لِغَيرِكَ ما تُحِبُّ لِنَفسِكَ واكره له ما تَكرَهُ لها"

“Love for others what you love for yourself, and dislike for others what you dislike for yourself.”53

Kant's hypothesis suffers from the following defects, however:

a) Our conscience is not strong enough for its recognition to be flawless.

As the speculative intelligence needs guidance and protection, practical intelligence too should be guided and protected. The latter, too, might be unable to distinguish facts, or due to practice and repetition of wrong deeds, might lose its sensitivity.

As we know, the nomadic Arabs used to bury their daughters alive and the people of Fiji Island had a ceremony of burying their parents alive and this gave them a lot of delight.54 Sometimes the professional murderers enjoy carrying out murders; For instance, Nero made a song when he set Rome on fire and the murderers of Karbala, upon the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (as) and his followers, in the presence of ‘Ubaydullah bin Ziyad, boasted with honor. They even shamelessly asked for prizes for their wicked deeds

b) It is true that in some cases, the conscience orders us to do good and commands us to stop doing evil, but its commands are not always absolute, nor are they universal. Rather, conscience orders differ in accordance with the degree of the perfection status of people. Some do good things in order to do their duties. Some others do this to enjoy benefits and to avoid losses.

An example will make the point clear: suppose a ill-intentioned person, having a knife in his hand, asks a person for another person's location. If the former tells the truth, then the latter's life will be in definite danger, Is the command of conscience absolute here as Kant puts it, or is it better to tell an expedient lie?55

c) If the carrying out of one's duties equals man's perfection in spirit, then this will lead to his prosperity as well. Separating these two is not right unless we translate prosperity as sensual pleasure.56

d) Kant considers goodness subordinate to duty.

But the reverse is true when we see that Allah orders the doing of justice and the doing of good and forbids evil:

    "اِنَّ الله يامرُ بالعَدلِ والإحسانِ واِيتاءِ ذي القُربى ويَنهى عَن الفَحشَاءِ والمُنكَرِِ والبَغي" 

Surely Allah enjoins the doing of justice and the doing of good (to others) and the giving to the kindred, and He forbids indecency and evil and rebellion.57

In other cases Allah commands people to do good things:

    "وَاَوحَينا اِلَيهِم فِعْلَ الخَيراتِ واِقامَ الصَلواتِ وإِيتاءِ الزَّكاة" 

“We revealed to them the doing of good and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of the alms.”58

As Allama Tabataba’i in his Tafsir al-Mizan and Allama Mutahhari have said the prior to duty justice, sacrifice and evil and the nasty nature of being evil and the good aspect of doing good have been revealed by God.59

For further defects of Kant's view we refer you to other works in the literature.

Notes:

50. Qur'an, 91:8.

51. Qur’an, 75:2.

52. Tuhaf al-‘Uqul, p.278.

53. Nahj al-Balaghah, letter 31.

54. Refer to the book called Islam and Human Rights written by me, p.20.

55. Ustad Mutahhari, The philosophy of ethics, p.82. Lectures on the philosophy of ethics, p.92.

56. The philosophy of Ethics, pp.45-52. Education in Islam, pp.3-72.

57. Qur’an, 16:90.

58.Qur’an, 21:73.

59. Tafsir Al-Mizan, vol.4, p.305; The philosophy of Ethics, p.55.

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