Prerequisites of a Moral Conduct
Mohamed Helal 285

Prerequisites of a Moral Conduct

Prerequisites of a Moral Conduct[1]

     There are two conditions for a value-based action to be described as good or evil:

1. An action should be recurrent to the extent that it is considered a permanent habit of a person in order for it to be sufficient evidence of the existence of a fixed tendency towards a choice. Likewise, a rare action cannot be a sufficient reason for identifying a person's trend and knowing about one’s innate qualities or tendency towards good or bad action. Without being recurrent, an action cannot therefore be taken as a basis to judge a person's values as good or evil.

2. An action should be done out of free will of the doer away from any external pressure such as fear, threat, coercion, shyness, showing off or other factors that sometimes force one to carry out certain actions against her/his own will. Therefore, this cannot be a valid means for knowing someone’s true innate nature. Consequently, such forcible actions cannot be validly described as good or evil; and the same applies to their doer. Thus, it is a key condition for an action to indicate one's true values to be carried out spontaneously out of a person's free will.[2]


Moral Values are Liable to Change

     With reference to the above-mentioned statement noting that a value is a well-established entity within the self, do we mean that a value is an inborn quality which is non-changeable and cannot be replaced by another opposite value? To put it simply, can values be changeable? Thinkers provided the following different answers to the previous question:

1. Some thinkers hold the view that a value is non-changeable and that a person is born either good or bad and continues to be so throughout the entire life. Their examples to this case are a baby lamb which is born gentle and remains so, compared to a tiger which is born a predator and also continues to be so. According to this group of thinkers, ethics cannot change a person's values or replace them with better ones. They rather claim that the key role of ethics is to describe people's morals and their habits in the same way natural history describes organisms and their life habits. In this view, a human being is forced by inborn evil or good nature to do evil or good actions respectively, and that a person's feeling of free will is just an illusion or deception.[3]

2. Another group of thinkers hold the view that values are changeable and that a human being is ready to acquire both good and evil values. Socrates is considered one of the early philosophers to say that moral values can be changed by knowledge. In line with his school of philosophy and ethics, knowledge is viewed as a virtue while ignorance is considered vice.

     Muslim philosophers of ethics adopt this latter view as they assert that moral values are changeable and can be improved. They argue that if they were unchangeable, then there would be no reason for sending down divine books or messengers and that there would be no wisdom behind educators' efforts or calls for reform. However, since God Almighty has sent down His Messengers to bring glad tidings and warnings to humankind, the goal has been to purify their souls and improve their innate qualities by virtue of His guidance and laws. Thus, it is clearly invalid to say that characters are impossible to change in response to one's tendencies towards good or evil actions. The following Qur’anic verses that deal with this subject are almost in line with this view of human double readiness to have bad or good characters: God Almighty says,

“Surely We have guided her/him upon the way, whether to be thankful or most disbelieving.” (Qur’an 76:3)

“We guided her/him on the two highways (of good and evil)?” (Qur’an 90:10)

“By the self and that (i.e., the Command) which molded it, so He inspired it to its impiety and piety!” (Qur’an 91: 7-8)

     Imam al-Ghazali cites the Prophet (PBUH) as saying, “Improve your manners,”[4] as evidence of the fact that values are changeable. He explains, “If it was impossible for characters to change, then there would have been no benefit of giving religious advice, encouragement, and warnings. How could we deny the fact that human values are changeable, given the clear impact of reason on behaviors, while we assume that animal' behavior can be changed?”[5]

[1] Prof. Aḥmad Muḥammad Aṭ-Ṭayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, “Essential Features of Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 165.

[2] Muhammad ‘Abdullah Draz, Drasaatun ‘Islamiyyah (Islamic Studies), Dar ul-Qalam, Kuwait: 1980, p. 89.

[3] Many philosophers of the modern times, such as Schopenhauer, Kant, Spinoza, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and David Hume hold this view. (Cf. ibid, p. 90 ff.)

[4] Imam Malik reported another narration in the same meaning; cf. Al-Muwatta', 2: 902 (One of Kutub al-Sunnah collections).

[5] Imam al-Ghazali, Mizan ul-'Amal (Scales of Action). El Gendy Library: Cairo, Egypt, p. 63. 




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