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Abstract

In contemporary human existence morality practitioners are dynamic in their practice of ethical theories. They do not decide which ethical theory to follow before acting or believing like religious people, specially, Islamic people. There is a difference between moral action and ethical discussion. Moral conducts not based on divine revelation such as Quran are largely a consequence of human social conditioning and inter-personal sentiments and impulses. Whether one follows ethical Egoism or Kantianism whatever we perceive to reason or act based on are motivated by our impulses and sentiments. This paper discusses various theories of moral conduct.
Ethical Theories: What is Right and Wrong?
M. Alashari/Mohammad M Rahman
Contents
Introduction ............................................................................................................................................ 2
Moral Relativism ..................................................................................................................................... 3
Ethical Egoism ......................................................................................................................................... 4
Kantianism .............................................................................................................................................. 4
Utilitarianism ........................................................................................................................................... 4
Social Contract Theory ............................................................................................................................. 4
Islamic Moral Theory ............................................................................................................................... 5
Liberalism ................................................................................................................................................ 6
Racism, Nationalism, Tribalism ................................................................................................................ 7
Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................... 7
Introduction
Humanity has never ceased to debate right and wrong, good and bad just like truth and
falsehood. Perhaps they will never cease to. This debate has given rise to various ethical
philosophies which are just a philosophical study of morality. Perhaps this debate was a human
endeavor to find harmony and peace but then again what are harmony and peace?
There are couple of ethical theories proposed over the history of philosophy all which revolve
around the following themes or rather parameters of argument: benefit and harm, happiness
and sadness, mental, physical and sensual pleasure, right and duty, order and chaos.
What do these terms mean? Perhaps it is an innate understanding of concepts which drive us to
accept beliefs and actions, to perform them, acquire them and adhere to them or to reject and
abandon them.
Happiness and pleasure have a difference. A person may find happiness even in self sacrifice
and loss. Pleasure is more towards senses and physical acquirements. It is a feeling either in our
mind and/or limbs and organs.
Order and chaos are a social stability standard where order must be achieved and chaos
avoided even at the expense of limited violence, limited harm to others or doing the wrong
thing whatever wrong might mean, however.
Right and duty are what others ought to do towards you and what you ought to do to others,
respectively.
Morality however is the concept of right and wrong, good and bad related to belief and action
which can be universalized. Hence to say that murder is wrong is a moral assertion but to say
that this coffee is good is not a moral assertion. Morality has been the domain of religion for a
very long time that we have been habituated to think morality in terms of religious prescription.
Hence to think and rationalize murder is wrong is a belief we have acquired from religion
mainly the ten commandments which are also like Islamic laws. Science is however amoral, but
ethics is used to do science and science also helps us to know ethics. Questions such as cloning
and stem cell research how moral are they? Questions such as this medication has been
scientifically proven known to harm pregnant women so how moral is it to sell it in the
market?
Moral rules can be sourced in to three categories: ego, reason and authority. Moral relativism,
Ethical Egoism or Utilitarianism can be said as egoistic. It is because the judgement of the moral
value is subjective here, if we ask which actions can be stated to give the greatest good or
greatest benefit if we consider Utilitarianism? Same with Moral Relativism when we decide
egoistically to accept all moral constructs as true without reason or authority. On the other
hand, Kantianism and Islamic moral theory are rooted in reason while as Islamic moral theory
and Social Contract theory are also rooted in authority.
We need to also ask why does man choose good or evil? What makes man decide good or evil?
Why are they not like beasts which purely driven by sex and hunger? It is because man is
unique and has a purpose. Man is spiritual and not purely biological. There are parameters of
this spiritual human nature that decides man's choice of good and evil and ethical judgement,
but the question is are these parameters deterministic and constant in all man or variable from
man to man? Quran has said God has imbued in man the sense of good and evil
1
, right and
wrong. On this basis we can say all mankind has a deterministic set of parameters to common
conscience of good and bad. This is why we see mankind generally agree universally on some
common morals and ethics. Four essential parameters that are intrinsic and determine man's
moral and ethical preferences are ego, order, reason and curiosity. Ego drives secular outlook
and curiosity drives religious and metaphysical outlook to discover self-identity. Another
essential parameter is survival instinct (individual or group) which also drives moral and ethical
outlook. It is God and not some biological evolution that designed these parameters in us
because biology is amoral. These parameters define how and why man chooses good and bad,
right and wrong. God has sent prophets and messengers with moral and legal codes for man to
choose from to maintain the balance of his moral and ethical parameters and so that man does
not deviate to what is against the divine guidance. However, man has deviated and has chosen
ethical and moral outlook solely based on the parameter of human ego which makes him the
center of his world and not God. By divine design this is self-destructive to man.
Moral Relativism
It proposes “who are we to judge”? Implying that all moral constructs of cultures are true and
correct and that we should accept all of them. This is however dangerous and a contradiction.
In some cultures, bribery is wrong hence accepting it by another culture where honesty is the
norm can be destructive and harmful. Also, the hypothesis that all moral constructs are true
and correct and that who am I to judge is a contradiction. If a society X or a culture X believes
child marriage is wrong, then how can it accommodate and accept child marriage of another
society Y or culture Y residing in it? Hence moral relativism does not work as a moral theory.
Moral relativism also defeats other ethical philosophies such as social contract theory and
Kantianism.
1
Quran 91:8
Ethical Egoism
It is the philosophy that every person should focus exclusively on his or her self-interest. Hence
a moral action is good only when it leads to one’s personal long-term benefit, happiness or
pleasure. It is a selfish individualistic and egoistic moral theory. This is dangerous and
destructive. It is a disregard of duty and responsibility, order and law and self-sacrifice. Ethical
egoism is the foundation of modern capitalism.
Kantianism
This theory proposes universal moral principles based on reason. It asks questions such as what
if every people acted that way and treats people as moral equals. Kantianism is strict and offers
no flexibility in bending moral rules. People will face realities and situations when they are
unable to act on the universal moral code. Say in famine a poor person steals from the rich to
support himself and his children and family, would he or she be punished? Under Kantianism
stealing is wrong and it is a universal moral code. In Kantianism mistake has no place because
everything is universal, and nothing can be particular. Also, as Kantianism offers the people’s
universal acceptance as standard of morality then it follows that even human sacrifice can be
good and right as Aztec society’s acceptance of this shows or Sodomy is good and right as
practice of Sodom and Gomorrah shows.
Utilitarianism
In this theory an action is good if it’s benefits supersedes it’s harm and it is bad if the opposite
happens. This theory is based on the greatest happiness principle. Rule Utilitarianism proposes
that a rule is morally good and right when it leads to the greatest benefit possible more than
any possible harm under all circumstances while act Utilitarianism proposes that a specific act is
good if it leads to greatest happiness in that situation.
Act Utilitarianism is dangerous. Suppose in a communal riot all the people blame the minority
and want their punishment or else riot will not stop but however the judge has found the
minority innocent so will the judge punish the innocent minority who by doing this will achieve
the greatest benefit or happiness possible which is prevent communal riot or the judge will
release and protect them from the rioters?
Rule Utilitarianism is also defective as it always assumes that rules must be followed without
exceptions and that there is no flexibility under exceptional circumstances.
Social Contract Theory
This is a political theory where morality is based on the keeping of order and avoidance of
chaos through laws and regulations. People agree on a social contract to achieve this, a
contract/covenant between people and the government. This is a voluntary but necessary
contract as no man has authority over another. The essential theme of this philosophy is all
actions are good which preserve order and all actions are bad which destroy order and create
chaos. Autocratic governments are based on this moral philosophy. Any justified dissent or
criticism which can create protests and chaos are then bad and wrong.
Islamic Moral Theory
In Islam the source of morality is divine revelation. Whatever God has said as good is good and
right and whatever He has stated as bad and wrong is so. Muslim theologians have also
believed that reason can perceive morality to some extent. They have stated some aspects
of morality are innately perceived, some are perceived through reason and some cannot be
perceived either innately or by reason but through revelation while others have stated all
morality sourced in revelation. However, it should be stated that perception is different from
legislation as what we apparently perceive may not have the same moral ruling as revelation
has prescribed. Islamic theologians and jurists have consensus that Quran and Sunnah are the
sources of law including morality and that its legal texts are taken literally. This is a discussion
for Islamic jurisprudence and not here.
Islam also believes in the priority of morals. This is useful in case of conflicts such as if a person
says kill him or I kill you”, then what is the moral action to do? Here we face life of oneself
against life of others. Some Islamic jurists have stated right of other is to be safeguarded as this
is prior based on texts which are more pronounced in protecting other’s right while others have
stated which will cause greater harm? Assume one person has a family who depends on him
while other person has no family but a bachelor living himself. If the family man kills bachelor,
he can save greater harm which is harm from many people of his family depending on him. But
the true position here is the command of God which is prohibition of taking a life is universal
unless in places where Quran and Prophet clarified.
Islamic jurists have laid down principles of textual and legal conflicts discussed in Islamic
jurisprudence. In short if textual rules or legal rules conflict either reconcile between them or
prioritize one over other or one is abrogated and other authoritative.
The reason Islamic theologians differed on sources of morality i.e. whether partly sourced in
reason or sourced in revelation purely is because of judgement on faith and disbelief in the
hereafter. They have asked whether judgment in hereafter only based on knowing revelation or
whether judgment in hereafter only based on reason and innate conception of morality. So, if a
person never knew of Quran would he or she be judged in hell or paradise? If revelation is the
only source of morality and the person in question has not known revelation then he or she will
be forgiven that includes war criminals, rapists etc. but however, if reason too, is a source of
morality then such a person will be judged according to his actions based on how effectively
and willingly reason was used. One needs to understand that the reason here is the reason
which takes us to an objective morality. It is not subjective morality that we are discussing
because the theologians have mainly asked the question whether divinely revealed moral
conducts can be known by reason or not.
Islam also offers a system similar to social contract but in Islam the contract is between God
and His subjects who are the caliphs or representatives. This contract is realized through Islamic
system of government where the religious, under God, maintains the order and security of
God’s subjects. As God is superior to man then it follows, He has the ultimate authority while
man is there only to realize His authority as His representatives.
In short Islamic morals have objectives to protect the following: Islam, life, lineage, wealth,
honor and intellect. The standard of protection is primarily found by Quranic analysis. Just as
social conditioning creates new perspectives of morality by fashioning beliefs and conscience so
too Quranic faith and praxis fashion a divinely infused moral conscience and taste.
Liberalism
It is the theory that a moral rule depends on it being free to be performed and equally
performed. No matter how much appealing this sounds it has some serious problems. It fails to
include duty. If someone’s duty is to do something towards someone does this necessarily
mean that someone must also be duty bound to return the deed to the former? This erodes
hierarchy and presents an unrealistic social existence. Without people having distributed duty,
order and hierarchy order will vanish and chaos will follow. Suppose it is the duty of a shop
guard to guard the shop, a duty towards his employer but does this mean the employer will
equally return his duty to the guard by guarding his house? If you say the employer is doing his
duty by paying the salary but this is not the equal duty rather a distributed duty where
everyone has his or her unique or shared duty. Same goes with a family where duties of
husband and wife are distributed. However, someone can return the equal duty by will or
choice which is different from duty returned by moral necessity.
Liberalism also fails to explain freedom and equality, clearly and with precision. Freedom and
equality vary from people to people and culture to culture. The freedom enjoyed in a nation is
not necessarily equal to the freedom enjoyed in other nation. Same goes with equality. An
example will be freedom to study, and equality in study, where a student cannot by freedom
and equality choose to study in any university he or she likes even when he or she is eligible
because there are obstacles in place such as immigration issues and inequality in finance
between national and foreigner student. Liberalism does not lay down clear guidelines on how
equality and freedom are defined, explained and implemented rather it is defined by mob rule
resulted from social conditioning.
Racism, Nationalism, Tribalism
This is an ethical philosophy which states moral actions as right and wrong, good and bad based
on what empowers and supports the racial or national or tribal cohesion and survival. White
supremacy is one form of racism which has abused Bible and science to further white racial
superiority and empowerment. Modern slogan such as “for sake of national interest” has been
used to commits wars, war crimes, massacre and all sorts of unjust and unfair economic,
political and social activities. US patriot act is one example or the Nazi Germany’s Gestapo
activities another example. Tribalism can be seen among Gulf states where tribal royal
attachments drive the morality of actions whether in politics, economy, society and even
religion. Pagan Arabia in pre-Islam was also tribal and tribal conscience was a major factor in
moral conducts.
Conclusion
In contemporary human existence morality practitioners are dynamic in their practice of ethical
theories. They do not decide which ethical theory to follow before acting or believing like
religious people, specially, Islamic people. There is a difference between moral action and
ethical discussion. Moral conducts not based on divine revelation such as Quran are largely a
consequence of human social conditioning and inter-personal sentiments and impulses.
Whether one follows ethical Egoism or Kantianism whatever we perceive to reason or act based
on are motivated by our impulses and sentiments. As moral conducts are not scientific we can
never claim to reason it objectively and precisely. Even if we base our standards on prevention
of harm as being objective for example still, we cannot agree on what is harm or cannot say
harming is morally wrong when accepted by someone such as Aztec human sacrifices which
were willing. Even someone refuses to accept harm we may harm him or her by moral action
we accept as right such as capital punishment or intensive military training often physically
bruising and injuring men.
Divine Command theory or rather religious, especially Islamic moral theory proposes moral
actions based on divine revelation. Human impulses and sentiments must be fashioned based
on this. Moral reasoning and practice must be based on the scope and standard of this. Islamic
moral theory offers a complete solution to moral problems and morality practice.
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