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The Nature of Moral Values

A Study of the Views of
Allamah Tabataba'i and Martyr Mutahhari
By 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 'Amali):
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 time.[7]
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 accidental.
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 accidental.
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 also.
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 conception.[11]
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 evil.[12]
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 ambiguous.
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 superiority.[15]
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 undisputed.[16]
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 valid.[19]
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 values.


1.'Abd al-Karim Surush, "Jawidanegi wa Akhlak" "Yadnameh-ye Ustad-e Shahid Murtada Mutahhari, ed. 'Abd al-Karim Surush, (Tehran, Sazman-e Intisharat wa Amuzish-e'Inqilab-e Islami, 1360 H. Shams.),vol. 1, p.384. 2. Ibid. p. 384.
3. Ibid. p. 385.
4. Ibid. P. 385.
5. Ibid. p. 389.
6. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, (London, George Allen Enwin, 1984), p.133.
7. 'Abd al-Karim Surush, op. cit. p. 392.
8. Ibid. p. 392.
9. Ibid. P. 393.
10. Ibid. p. 398.
11. Ibid. p. 400.
12. Ibid. p. 402.
13. Ibid. p. 402.
14. Ibid. p. 407.
15. Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p.130.
16. Ibid. p.133.
17. 'Abd al-Karim Surush, op. cit., p. 405.
18. Ibid. P. 411.
19. Ibid. p.414.
20. Ibid. p.416.


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