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Speeches

G. Dastagir & R.I. Molla: Faith-based Ethical Reform for Social Stability and Development

Essay published in Dialogue & Alliance, Winter 2010 issue


We are living in what appears to be the age of ‘super-high’ technology where the next challenge for the scientists is believed to be not just how fast objects could be moved, but how objects would be moved not by other objects but by just thinking about objects. Despite the amazing advancement of science and technology, our globe is facing multifaceted crises such as increased violence, intolerance, tension, alienation, and agitation that seem to have no end. On one hand, we seem to be blessed with a world in which our knowledge of science, technology, economics, and politics stands superior to that of any ‘golden age’ of the past; on the other hand, our un-self-critical ultra-modern society faces unprecedented moral problems.

Our global village is suffering most from degradation of morality and disintegration of traditional values. Deplorably, knowledge seems to be divorced from values, as people are trying to gain great power without insight. Our existence is in jeopardy; humanity is at stake, the reason being more of moral crisis and spiritual confusion than political instability and economic recession. ‘A hungry man is an angry man’ type philosophy does not seem to apply in curbing tension and frustration among the youths, because we know that aggression and arrogance, in reality, usually spring up more from those who are richer.

Moral decadence and corruption of various forms are the common features of individual and social behaviors in most societies and cultures in the world. If Transparency International’s Reports are accepted at least as an indication of the nature of things, then the situation in most high- and low-income countries and cultures is very alarming. Finding solutions to this problem is the cry of the day all over the world. As a result, we find almost everywhere a strong realization of the need for ethics-based knowledge as the key to lasting solutions to that problem. But one of the tragic features of our present education and research programs and policies is the stress on highly specific knowledge and skills, sidelining traditional values, religious morals, and ethical principles. Ethical and moral orientations of the subject matters of studies are mostly absent from the academic curricula. There is, therefore, an urgent need for a proper revision of academic and research programs at universities and other institutions that would promote ethics-based knowledge and culture. Ethics shapes the behavior of individuals and society, and morality is the standard of measurement of that behavior.

Therefore, morality is rooted in ethics, which is rooted in religious values. But morality and ethics are not always viewed from this religious perspective. These are also viewed from secular or universal (natural) perspectives, particularly in cultures and societies that de-emphasize faith-based values. In this paper, we shall address ethics from its religious perspective to analyze how more studies and better understanding and practices of religion can improve our ethical and moral standards to substantially reduce corruption and immoral practices in society. In this discourse on the epistemology of ethics we would like to focus on the nexus between secular and faith-based ethics and morals.

Crux of the problem and need for ethical reform

Not the interfaith conflict but rather the clash between divine values and secular values and between secular civilization and religious civilization seems to be the crux of the problem facing society in the present world.

Since the seventeenth century, religion has lost its dominance and grip on the world order, giving way to the rise and triumph of the secular culture and civilization. Religion has been pushed to the back yard as an outdated way of life having no relevance to the reality of modern society. With its popular intellectual and political appeals, the ‘secular’ was able to replace the ‘sacred’ in the world order, giving rise to conflict between the atheistic civilization (of the West) and the religious civilization (of the East) as reflected in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996). The secular order is primarily based on atheistic and materialistic humanism, which pursues the philosophy of ‘survival of the fittest’ with a value system that maximizes sensual pleasure, rejecting the role of conscious pursuits of higher goals of life.

Material gain and political power set the standard and tune of morality; ethics is an obsolete concept and has no appeal. The approach is managerial performance – ‘do it, no matter how, but do it.’ Having no care or respect for human values, humankind is thus transformed into a lower animal. Thus moral decadence, atrocities and oppression, social instability and disintegration, exploitation and injustice at individual and state levels aided by scientific and material advancement without commitment seem to have become essential phenomena of the present secularized world order characterized by drug and sexual abuses, promiscuity, homosexuality, and aggression. Arnold Toynbee described this human degradation and malaise and menace of the secular world order as the sickness of modern society and sought a solution through spiritual development based on religious foundations.

Epistemology of ethics

Though the terms ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ are often used interchangeably, strictly speaking, they have different contextual connotations. The term ‘morality’ is used to mean moral standards and moral conduct while ‘ethics’ indicates the formal study of those standards and conduct. Moral philosophers have proposed a number of theories regarding the determination of standards of judging ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Some of the major theories are: standard as law, standard as pleasure, standard as perfection, standard as determined by evolution, standard as given by intuition, and standard as value.

Morality is an inner faculty, like rationality, and is contained in love of truth, beauty, and goodness. Morality is derived from the sense of morality of the rational being with good intentions. Goodness is not a capacity or potentiality but an activity that can be good if it springs from rationality. A good person is the one who acts rightly and justly. Moreover, a just person is one who possesses good conduct, which is again not a capacity but a habit or custom of voluntary actions. Morality, therefore, is not a principle but an action and history, whereas ethics is the principle of that act of morality. We, however, note that religion reinforces the ground of morality and reshapes our moral standard of conduct; therefore, ethics is more deeply rooted in religion.

Philosophical ethics, or secular ethics, as it is known in the West, is primarily a part of the quest for truth. Ethics aims at finding out the rightness and wrongness of the conduct of human beings living in societies, and conduct is a collective name for voluntary actions. The basic questions raised in ethics include: what does it mean to be right or wrong? How can one differentiate good from bad? Are morals objective or subjective? Are morals relative or universal?

Religious and non-religious roots of ethics

The term stating the closest meaning of ethics is perhaps justice with fairness. In an analytical manner, we can identify morality as doing the right thing while avoiding wrong doing, with ethics as the guiding principles in determining what is right and what is wrong. This basic issue of right and wrong can be addressed by asking the question who we are, how we are, and for what purpose we are. An individual cannot find dependable answers to these basic philosophical questions without the support of religious worldviews. Setting up of these guiding principles (ethics), therefore, is tied up with a religious worldview that serves as the lens through which all understanding and thinking of an individual (or society) can take place to the extent that human minds with different hierarchies of mental capacities can exhibit. Thus, we may argue that morality through ethics is ultimately rooted in religion. It may be regarded as the standard of measurement of religious achievement.

Indeed, morality is linked to religion in many ways. But we may have different viewpoints in this regard. Some claim that religion is prior to morality, whereas others say the opposite. There are also striking claims that morality is independent of religions. Some go even further and argue that religion obstructs human freedom and human development. However, modern philosophers such as Locke (1632 – 1704), Descartes (1596 – 1650), and Paley (1743 - 1805) hold that the source of all morals lies in the commandments and wills of God. They argue that although people are free, their will is not, for their will is determined by God’s will. To be moral, people must follow God’s commandments without any question. For persons who subscribe to religious morality, the rules are handed down to them from the Supreme Being, who makes them unbreakable and unquestionable. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) holds that morality, which is the highest commandment of pure reason, leads individuals ultimately towards religious belief, ‘through which it extends itself to the idea of a powerful Lawgiver, outside of mankind’ (Kant, 1793, 3). Kant’s theory of moral heteronomy was endorsed by James Martineau (1805 – 1900), John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), and so on.

There is an influential philosophical tradition that maintains that ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry without any support of religion. It is argued that ethical judgments can be formulated independently of revealed religions and that humans can cultivate practical reason and wisdom and, by its application, achieve virtue and excellence. However, for secular thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) and Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), the existence of an objective moral standard is not dependent on religious commitment, and the non-existence of God does not preclude the possibility of there being an objective standard on which to base moral judgments.

James Rachels (2002) in his doctrine of cultural relativism holds that moral codes are subjective and that there is no objective standard or universal truth in ethics, since the concept of morality differs from culture to culture. In his view, God’s existence cannot be proved on the basis of morality and one who believes in God cannot be a free moral agent, for to believe in God is to obey the commands of God, ceasing the freedom of will. Rousseau (1712 – 1778) in his Social Contract, considers religion as an obstacle to moulding good and honest citizens. Russell (1872 – 1970) in Why I Am Not a Christian goes several notches down and labels religion as the ‘dragon’ guarding the door of the golden age of mankind, just as Marx (1818 – 1883) supposes religion to be the ‘opium’ of the poor. Furthermore, some philosophers argue that social justice can be established without religious influence and that religions are not prerequisites for an individual’s obligations and responsibilities toward others. In many cases, thus, people would find the source of morality outside of religion, such as the inherent value of all human beings. Thus, secular humanists claim that there is no need to derive morality from religious belief, because there are moral people who do not espouse a religious doctrine. For secular humanists, ethical conduct is, or should be, judged by critical reasoning, and their goal is to develop autonomous and responsible individuals, capable of making their own choices in life based upon an understanding of human behavior. However, the Pope in the homily he gave at the synod’s opening mass in St Peter’s Basilica in 2005 (the Daily Independent, October 3, 2005, Dhaka) asserts that when man makes himself the only master of the world and master of himself, justice cannot exist but arbitrariness, power, and interests rule; and so it is hypocritical to exclude religion from decision making in public life.

Faith-based ethical reform movement

Humanity is now at the crossroad of secular (atheistic) and sacred (religious) approaches to civilization. Strategically, all believers are called upon to make the pattern of history (i.e., the world order) follow revealed principles. All religious communities are under the sacred pledge of bidding the good and forbidding the evil. They cannot allow the world to fall in the hands of the ungodly. They are duty-bound to restore the lost unity of the natural and moral world. This call for ethical reformation of the social order is a movement, a call to all humans – come one come all – to join hands under the philosophy of cooperation to build knowledge, institutions, and a world order based on common eternal and universal values enshrined in major religions, particularly the revealed ones (Molla, 2005).

Privileged position and the cutting edge of faith-based ethics

Major world religions inherently contain supernatural elements. It is this supernatural and divine reference that makes morality universal. Some thinkers tend to confine morality to a single domain, but we must not forget that religion has no reservation for any particular community or nation; it teaches and preaches the brotherhood and unity of humankind; its outlook is humanitarian. We argue for the necessity of ONE God in religion, because if there is no such God each person must define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in ways that will benefit him or her, since individuals do have radically different moral intuitions and notions of standards of moral judgment. Morality, in that case, loses its universality, because if each person defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for himself or herself, there can be no objective moral standard, and we may turn to the Sophist ethical system of judging ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by the standard that ‘man is a measure of all things.’

We feel the necessity of God for morality in the sense that since God is absolutely good, God’s commandments serve as an objective and absolute standard of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ God’s goodness is manifested and based on good evidence, our purpose for living, scriptural data with clear directives to choose freely good from evil, guidance, messages from messengers, and the like. God made us free to exercise our freedom of will to shape our moral life, for which we are judged as good or bad. We argue for the necessity of religion on the ground that although morality may exist in a way without any support from a religion it would be a different morality.

Indeed, the existence of God is ‘a postulate of the useful if not of the necessary kind in ethics.’ Moreover, the theists claim that humans possess a basic moral standard implanted by God. This is consistent with the basic innate moral principles and unchanging ethical codes applicable to all rational beings. However, it may be argued that they do not contend that all moral decisions are drawn directly from people’s innate moral understanding; rather that only general principles are innate and that people must use reasoning to arrive at specific moral decisions. Since humans are created as rational and free moral agents and they possess the power to conceive of alternative moral codes, it is imperative that they use this power of choice in making decisions. That is why some people appear to be more morally sensitive than others.

Religion not only gives objectivity to moral values but also implies a certain metaphysical outlook. As religious people, we believe that ‘the voice of the conscience is the voice of God within us’ and feel that ‘there is in our human nature an urge towards what is higher and better which can never be explained in merely natural terms.’ Thus, divine ethics reflects human ethics. In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith’s theme that a ‘sympathy faculty’ exists side by side with the self-interest faculty in human nature is a reflection of this human ethics.

Religion covers a wide area of human conduct; for example, Islam, which is a complete code of life, tells us what is required, recommended, permitted, discouraged, and forbidden. It affirms freedom of will. The object of moral judgment is not only the end, but the means, intention, and the result as well. God, who is essentially of ethical nature, is the necessary postulate for moral judgment. From this perspective, Islam, for example, subscribes to three categories of ethical concepts: those that refer to the ethical nature of God, such as ‘merciful,’ ‘just,’ ‘benevolent,’ etc.; secondly, those that describe the basic attitudes of people towards God; and thirdly, those that refer to the principles and rules of conduct regulating the ethical relations among individuals who belong to, and live within, the religious community as well as the international community that includes all religious and non-religious communities, on the basis of their humanity and will to peace alone (Izutsu, 1966, 17; Al-Faruqi, 1987; AbuSulaiman, 1987).

In secular ethics, pleasure is desirable and the maxim is ‘the highest pleasure for the highest number of people.’ On the contrary, religion attaches importance to peace more than pleasure. That is how we find in Islam a religion of moral law, in Buddhism an ethic of the eight-fold path and compassion, in Christianity an ethic of love and brotherhood, and in Judaism an ethic of divine commandments. The list goes on. In fact, the origin and development of moral consciousness began in ancient Greece, India, China, and Iran with primitive religious beliefs, myths, ancient religious scriptures, etc.

Throughout the ancient and medieval periods, ethical thinking in the West was largely determined by the moral traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But, in recent times, moral philosophers have tended to divorce moral virtues from religious traditions and rely heavily on human critical thinking. However, it cannot be denied that our customs and conventions, out of which customary ethics arise, are influenced and shaped by religious morals. In fact, religions can and most of them actually have adopted customs, with necessary modifications in form and substance, into their ethics. Both Plato and Aristotle emphasized this customary ethics to form the social custom based on morality in a bid to purge the evil from the human character. This view is widely accepted by John Dewey (1859 – 1952) in modern times.

Moral values are necessary conditions for any development—social, moral, economic, and human. Social values are different in types and ends in accordance with the social status and structure. A rule may be highly regarded in a certain society, but at the same time it may be deemed bitterly harmful in another society. It is believed that moral codes vary considerably according to the conditions in which the operation is committed and the society in which a certain group or community lives. Values—social, religious, moral—are at stake in society especially in a developed country where people believe in uncommitted individual freedom without regard for religious virtues. Morality without subscription to religion, in that case, is likely to be antisocial, subjective, or promiscuous, as it leads to the breakdown of moral standards.

Social values can be viewed in terms of how much and what kind of freedom is provided and what laws are framed to protect the individuals and the society from moral breakdown. Laws have foundations on which they stand. It is widely argued that we need laws that are based on religious morals, since the purpose of law is to enforce moral and religious principles. Such laws, if adopted rightly, can lay the foundations of the society towards the right path or the path most people would expect to follow for a moral life. For example, many of our laws are based on the principle of honesty, and the value we place on this principle is very much influenced by our religions. A great advantage of these laws founded on religious ethics of humanitarianism advocated by the major religions of the world is that they are naturally dynamic and accommodate adjustments to suit the changes in attitude over time.

A society in which moral, social, and religious values are respected and practiced is expected to be much more peaceful than other societies. For example, in a society where adultery or sexual promiscuity is not considered a crime by law, people may abstain from committing adultery not because of social punishment but because of religious conviction. Religious values, therefore, can safeguard people from what is considered immoral and unethical from the moral point of view.

This illustration can be compared to any country in which people are more inclined to indulge in their individual whimsical desire not to believe in religious principles. Our youths are extremely frustrated with their misdeeds. Both societal and moral laws are needed to arm them with core ethical virtues such as honesty, responsibility, respect, civic duty, courage, and cooperation. As a pathway for curbing corruption from society, business leaders must avail themselves of the great ethical traditions found within the world’s religions and cultures. Much of our civil law is rooted in religion.

The major religions of the world contain three canonical elements—belief or faith, practice or action, and virtue or value. Religion is the source of the ethical values of most people, and laws reflect these ethical values and set minimum standards with which citizens must comply. Therefore, to be effective, the laws of a country must properly reflect the ethical values of its people. When the values reflected in a country’s laws stray too far from the values of its people, those laws are likely to lose support, leaving coercive force as the only means of obtaining compliance. That is why law and religion at times exist in tension.

A.K. Bruhi (1988) and Manzoor (1989) are convinced that secular humanism with no theology of its own and promising no answer to the riddle of death is dubious both in nature and organic structure. It is hardly in a position to give guidance about the meaning and purpose of life. Moreover, any social system or civilization, to be operationally successful, effective, and sustainable, must have three fundamental components: legitimacy, order, welfare/well-being, with legitimacy as the first and foremost condition (Rashid, 1997). As a result, any civilization founded on secular ethics and having no legitimacy (i.e., divine backing) has the greatest risk of failing to function and sustain itself. A social order based on religious ethics, on the other hand, has a better chance of being successful and sustainable.

Cultures and religions are intermingled in our society. Culture means cultivation of the mind and thus becomes synonymous with life and its activities, both inward and outward, whether this life is of an individual or of the class or group to which we belong. In its group aspect, it manifests itself in our language and literature, art, and philosophy, customs and traditions, norms and laws.

Every culture is, at bottom, an attitude of mind, a living idea, which inspires and moulds our life. The cultures which religions aim to promote are reflections of the harmony which prevails in the divine working of the universe containing twin principles—individual peace and happiness and the peace and happiness of humankind as a whole through moral progress with clear-cut directives of what people ought to do to achieve this end.

Religion is an integral component of cultural values. Its content is the lens through which all our understanding and thinking take place. It is, therefore, the essence and core of civilization in that if culture is the body of the society, religion is its mind and soul. Thus, religion shapes culture and civilization; when body and soul work in harmony the result is social stability, and achievement reaches its highest peak.

Optimism of the movement

To counter and reverse the trend of secularization of the world order and moral decadence and disorder, we come across the move for a faith-based intellectualism and activism, with Islamization of knowledge leading the way. Sardar (1989) observes that like the early crescent, contemporary Muslim thought has made an appearance. In the same vein Manzoor (1989) is optimistic that even though the secular tradition has penetrated deep into society and shaken its religious foundation, it could not detach society from religious roots; the unity of faith and world will reemerge soon. Mazrui (1994, 1995) is hopeful that religion and policies (state) will be reunited in new ways. He therefore advises Huntington and other protagonists of secular civilization to reexamine the efficacy and validity of their models. He calls them to come closer to the social microscope and look again to discover that they are in fact in the fault-lines.

Hammond (1995) notes that in the USA, where secular order in general terms is a settled matter, it still is the object of much attention and dispute; ‘family values’ are the ‘reigning mantra’ of the day. In the USA and Northern Europe, nobody wants a wholly secular order if secular means disconnected from traditional and religious values.

The ‘Islamization of knowledge’ is a part of this grand movement designed to counter secularization and establish a social order based on religious ethics and thereby rescue humankind from the path of degradation and ruination at the hands of the secular thought and civilization. It promises to replace the secular with the sacred. The Islamization of knowledge movement wishes to achieve that through the participation and cooperation of all religious communities (Millahs) and individuals based on the primordial and eternal truth underlying all religions. Muzaffar (1987) calls this a shared spiritual vision. Islam’s ethical reform movement therefore is structured based on:

(1) The fundamentals of truth that everyone is born with a religious nature, that religion is a mercy and divine guidance to enable humankind to live in peace and harmony in a plural global society, and that religion contains guidance that enables humanity to advance perpetually establishing and upholding the right and justice and forbidding the wrong.

(2) The eternal-universal values such as goodness and truth, justice, kindness, equality of mankind and brotherhood, piety and righteousness, freedom of religion and belief, etc., as guidance for establishing the society on earth where God intended people to live in peace. (Molla, 2005)

Conclusion

In today’s fluid world, values do not seem to have any permanent nature for the materialists, who tend to lose the meaning and purpose of life. They float on so-called ‘secular values’ that frequently change and lack specific goals in life and commitment to God, divine laws, and His creations. They end up with despair and frustration, leading to a dangerous way of living on earth. They harm not only themselves but others as well. Religion, on the contrary, confirms individuals’ self-esteem and respect for others as well as commitment to the moral codes and prescribed codes of conduct such as generosity, simplicity, humility, kindness, goodness, and the like that benefit themselves and the society in which they live with others in harmony and peace.

Religious values have universal and humanitarian appeal; religion, therefore, can never be detrimental to social customs, if applied in its pristine sense. Societies can and should benefit from these to reform what can be considered hostile to the moral and spiritual development of human beings – the ‘crown of God’s creation.’ The heart of true believers is purged of all greed, lust, and desire that cause people to take the path of corruption and sin. Their actions and behavior are guided and motivated by the religious codes of conduct attuned to social peace and harmony, which are requisites for sustainable development of a society.

For example, in Islam a believer is guided by five categories of the moral codes of human actions: ‘obligatory’ (wajib), ‘recommended’ (mandub), ‘disapproved’ (makruh), ‘prohibited’ (mahzur), and ‘indifferent’ (ja’iz). They constitute the moral character of an Islamic way of life. This kind of religious ethics is deemed as not only divine morals but also human ethics which is indispensable for modern people to be led and guided by divine laws for moral, spiritual, and social development.

What is the summum bonum (the ultimate good) in life? Secular ethics defines it as that which is desired or that which brings pleasure in life. Religion does not subscribe to this view, because this seems to lead us to the view that whatever gives pleasure is desirable and that people’s devilish mind may very often aspire to many evils, i.e., perverted versions of pleasure, which cannot and must not be acceptable to the people inspired by divine values.

For example, from the ethical-religious point of view we cannot call it an acceptable norm if one finds pleasure in illicit sexual affairs, perverted sexual orientations, or engagement in crime and corruption. Religions vehemently oppose this kind of secular definition of a good life in relation to pleasure. Pleasure or happiness is not all that is involved in the summum bonum in religion. The summum bonum in religious life is obviously a moral and enlightened life, leading to the attainment of ‘peace’ at individual as well as social levels; it is as opposed to the ‘happiness’ of a secular lifestyle. This motivates people of all races and faiths to choose a virtuous life in this world with the hope of a reward of a ‘good life,’ i.e., ‘eternal peace,’ in the life hereafter, as is found in all monotheistic faiths. Therefore, today’s ethical reform movement should focus on reestablishing a religious civilization and replacing the secular lifestyles with the sacred, divine ideals for a sustainable world peace, happiness, and prosperity.

References

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Mazrui, Ali A. 1994. Religion, Politics, and Gender: International and Cross-cultural Experience. A Sri Syarahan Memorial Lecture (unpublished) at University Sains Malaysia, Pinang, Malaysia, May 31.

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