Morality vs. Ethics
20 Nov, 2005
- I had a conversation with a young Muslim who insisted if it were not for religion people would commit incest and nothing would stop them to sleep even with their own mothers. I asked him whether he personally lusted after his mother and whether Islam was the only deterrent that stopped him from fornicating with her? He seemed insulted, but before he responded, I added if you are nauseated even by me mentioning such a thing, then realize that many others are just like you and feel and think the same way.
A big portion of our morality is part of our instinct. Incest for example is not condoned in any society whether religious or not. There are of course individuals with abnormal mental development who are exceptions to the norm. In fact, except for Bonobo chimps of Zair that rub their genitals together for social binding, no ape commits or procreates by incest. Usually the male individual visits other clans to find his mate. The young lions are forced to leave the pride to find mates in other prides while the lionesses stay.
Interestingly, marriages between children that grew-up together in one foster home are rare or non-existent, even though these kids are not related to each other by blood.
But some moral issues are not as clear as the above example. What is moral and immoral depends on time and culture. It may even vary from person to person. What was moral; say, a thousand years ago may be immoral today and vice versa. Also what is moral in one part of the world may not be so in others.
Take the example of promiscuity. Many cultures consider promiscuity to be immoral. Yet there are some cultures that accept it as the norm. To us, “western minded people”, having multiple sex partners simultaneously is considered promiscuity and immoral. Yet for a Muslim who practices polygyny, it is a “mercy of Allah”. In some parts of the world, women practice polyandry. Among the Inuit, a man would offer his wife to his guest to spend the night with, hoping that he may impregnate her. Which practice is immoral? And who is to determine it?
Is showing parts of your body immoral? In the heart of Amazon Jungle some tribes are completely nude. Is that immoral? That is to them the way of life. In some Islamic countries women are required to cover every part of their body (like children playing ghost). Is that good morality? If that is the definition of morality are all those Muslim women who cover everything except their faces immoral? What about those who dress adequately yet do not use Hijab? Are they immoral? Now what about bikini wearing beach going women? Are they immoral? And finally, what about those who like to show it all in a nudist camp? Are THEY immoral? Your answer to this question depends on who you are and what is your own personal standard of morality.
Let us take another example: Slavery. Is slavery immoral? Slavery was practiced for centuries even by very pious people. Muhammad not only had slaves but he benefited from reducing free people into slaves and selling them. Was he immoral? If yes; why should we follow an immoral person and if no; why should we condemn its practice?
What about pedophilia? Obviously we all cringe at the thought of it and think that it is a shameful act of immorality. But during the time of the Prophet having sexual intercourse with a 9-year-old child was not immoral. In fact Aisha’s father after a little bit of trepidation consented to give her in marriage to Muhammad when Muhammad suggested it. At that time no one raised an eyebrow. The question is, if sleeping with a nine-year-old child was not deemed bad and therefore was not considered immoral, was it okay? Not everything that a society accepts as moral is right. Having sex with a minor may not have been immoral for Arabs 1400 years ago, but it is as it was then, unethical. Moralities are defined by circumstances, but ethics transcend time and space. They are rooted in logic. Morality can vary from culture to culture, from time to time and from person to person. Who is to determine what is moral and what is not?
A Man in Pakistan may think that if his wife meets her male-cousin with whom she has grown up without the presence of a third person she has committed an immoral act, has sullied his honor and the only way to restore his honor is to kill her. For him the meeting of two cousins is immoral but killing a human being is not.
We have to distinguish between those moralities that harm the society and those that do not. What harms others must be called unethical and discouraged. Slavery, for example, infringes upon the freedom of another human being. Therefore regardless of whether a society or a culture sanctions it, it is an unethical practice. 1400 years ago it was not immoral to have slaves. But slavery is ethically wrong and that transcends time Even the Prophet knew that slavery is wrong. That is why he advised his followers to manumit their slaves as an act of charity. Nonetheless he himself kept adding to his slaves by raiding city after city and capturing free people who were then reduced to slaves.
Because of what the prophet said, Muslims manumitted their slaves when they were old, could not work and needed care. Manumitting the slaves when they were young was an act of charity and moral but manumitting them at old age without provision was unethical. The Holy Prophet failed to mention that and the old slaves ended up as beggars in the streets while their masters gained the pleasure of Allah on one hand for manumitting them and exonerated themselves from having to take care of them in their old age on the other; thus killing two birds with one stone.
What would have been the right thing to do was not to take slaves in the first place. But the wealth of Muhammad and later on the Islamic rulers came from slave making and trading.
Hijab, no-hijab and even nudism does not have a material effect on anyone except on the person who practices them. This is not something that the society should intervene. It must be left to the individual to dress the way he or she deems appropriate. Imposing a dress code is infringing upon the human rights of the individual and restricting his or her freedom. It is unethical. Although I believe licensing nudism in the streets violates the rights of others who do not want to be shocked by exhibitionists, I have no objection for nudists to have a designated place to go and show off and get over it. As long as they do not rub it in my face, I have no right to impose my morality on them. I have no idea what makes nudists to take off their clothes, but if what they do does not materially affect me, it is none of my business.
Despite the Muslim's claim that laxity in dress code breeds violence quite the opposite is true. The same thing can be said about Hijab. This must be left to the individual. If a person likes to wear Hijab no one should stop her. But no state should enforce it on its citizens by law because that would be violating their freedom.
Now let me answer your concern about wife swapping. Well, that is adultery. Even though it is mutual and consensual. Your question is what an irreligious society should do in this regard. My answer is the same that Pierre Trudeau gave in the Canadian Parliament. He said; “The State has no place in the bedroom's of the people”. He delivered that speech more than 30 years ago and the Canadian government took that recommendation to heart. However I do not see my fellow countrymen offering their wives to each other.
Frankly it is none of my business what my neighbors do. As Muslims say, I am not going to be buried with them in the same grave. Why you and I should even be talking about it?
Now look at Islamic countries where state regulates the private lives of its subjects. Women victims of rape are stoned to death in the most horrendous way. Is that moral? People are flogged for eating during the moth of Ramadan. Women are beaten and bloodied because their scarves slipped and some of their hair became visible in the public. Tell me please which morality is more evil?
In final accounts, we must distinguish between what is immoral and what is unethical. Moral issues should be left to the individuals; ethical issues must be taught in schools and be enforced by law or code of ethics. Is promiscuity immoral or is it unethical? The answer to the first part of this question depends on who you are. If you belong to the “ultra” liberal faction of the western society or if you are a practicing Muslim, it may not be immoral for you to have multiple sex partners. But if you are an average westerner, you may think it is immoral. This is a matter of taste, culture and upbringing. We should not be concerned about the morality of this question. What consenting adults do in their bedrooms is none of our business. The question is whether it is ethical?
If promiscuity is institutionalized i.e. polygamy, is it still immoral? Those who practice it may not think that way but it certainly is unethical. Marriage is a social institution that affects more than those who make the vow. Not only children are affected but the whole society that would eventually have to take the tab to support such families that turn up to be dysfunctional will also be affected. The society has to pay for the education of the kids, their food and clothing as well as suffer the consequences of dealing with misfit individuals that would most likely result from such dysfunctional and highly patriarchal families. Polygyny must be outlawed not for its immorality, that as we said is a personal matter, but because it is unethical. It harms the children and it harms the society.
What is moral is fuzzy. Religious morality does not seem ethical any more. And what we consider to be moral is not so for religions. Polygyny, slavery, animal sacrifice, marriage with the minors, etc are not immoral in Islam. But it is immoral for women to travel alone, not wear hijab or enter in an elevator alone with a stranger.
Therefore morality should definitely be left to the individual’s discretion as it is subject to change. But what is ethical is well defined. Ethical values are driven from logic and the Golden Rule. They are universal and not subject to change. In nutshell, what hurts other people and violates their rights is unethical. In fact, even animals have rights that an ethical society must protect and respect.
The religious morality is the morality of the ancient man. Patriarchal societies imposed codes of moralities on women that would give men more control on their wives. Religious morality is not divinely ordained. It reflects the fears and the possessiveness of the men who made them. Islam imposes Hijab. Has this anything to do with Muhammad's worries as an aging man who wanted to control his beautiful wives and protect them from being seen by young men whom he feared as rivals? He constantly kept emphasizing the importance of obeying one's husband. Did this have anything to do with the fact that most of his wives were teenagers an as such rebellious that he needed to control?
Morality is something personal and something that parents should teach to their children. But the true morality is not derived from antiquated doctrines and old beliefs. It is sad that some have made morality a hostage to religion. It is absurd to impose the morality of bygone cultures and vanquished worlds on our modern society. Morality is derived from human consciousness and our spiritual awareness. The more we mature the more sanctified becomes our acts. We won’t have to live a moral life for the greed of a reward or the fear of punishment in the afterlife. We will be moral because it enhances our lives. Morality should be part of who we are, just as our knowledge is part of who we are. The true morality is never in contrast with ethics.
Ethics has little to do with religion. As Gandhi said ethics is the matter of economics. The question is where to invest our vital energy for a higher yield. If you invest your energy into sensual pleasures you will get a temporary gratification. If you invest it in more meaningful things you will get greater satisfaction.
Leading a moral life is not about renouncing pleasure. A life that is not gratifying is not worth living. It is about choices. What we choose for pleasure? That is the question. One who invests his energy in the service of humanity gets more satisfaction than the one who indulges in the pursuit of worldly pleasures.
But this is a personal choice, derived from maturity and spiritual understanding. Morality should not be imposed by a higher authority such as state or religion. An imposed morality is not morality. One who leads a moral life for the fear of hell is not a moral person because he has not made his choices freely. Fear and greed, the traditional contrivances of religions, used as incentives to force people into accepting their morality do not make the society moral. No one and no religion should impose its morality on people. The imposition of morality is unethical. Religions that threaten their followers with the hellfire or lure them with the promises of paradise do not make them moral. Stick and carrot have better results in training animals than educating people. Only the person who chooses the higher road freely can be called a moral person.
A moral person chooses to live morally because it gives him immense pleasure. One, who is honest, takes pleasure in being honest. He would prefer to be tortured than to lie or to deceive. Our morality is directly linked to our spiritual maturity. When we evolve spiritually; knowledge, service to humanity and working for peace gratify us more than indulging in sensual pleasures. Nothing is wrong with sensual pleasures. But we get more pleasure in doing something in the service of humanity than gratifying our senses temporarily.
Would a person who loves knowledge require further incentive to learn than learning itself? Would Einstein, e.g. have delighted more in his scientific discoveries if someone promised him a new car if he could write the theory of relativity? You may offer promise a child an ice cream if he did his homework but that would not be necessary for an adult who seeks knowledge and finds his satisfaction in learning.
Primitive religions treat you like children (if not animals). They want to impose their outdated morality on you by threatening you with hell and bribing you with heaven to accept their antiquated and often unethical morality. Whether you are moral because of this fear and greed or because you find satisfaction in leading a moral life, depends on your maturity and spiritual awareness
The religious morality is not divinely ordained. It is the morality of the ancient people, their sages and (in the case of Islam) their charlatans. We do not need the morality of the ancient man just as we do not need his technology, science or medicine. The morality of the ancient man must be buried with his bones. Modern humans must chart their own morality. Morality must evolve just as human knowledge and his awareness evolves.
New morality does not mean immorality. It means coming out of the dark ages of ignorance and raising new generations that are responsible. Humans can no more be chained with foolish fears and threats of the afterlife. Science has shed light on the absurdity of religious concepts and shaken the foundation of the beliefs that our forefathers hold so sacrosanct. The manacles of obscurantism are broken forever. Today we have to raise our kids with awareness. They must learn that mankind is One. Just as our parents taught us the religious lies and we believed, we can teach our children the truth and they will believe. The following is one such truth.
All human beings are limbs of the same body. God created them from the same essence. If one part of the body suffers pain, then the whole body is affected. If you are indifferent to this pain, you cannot be called a human being. - Saadi
We do not need to lie and frighten our children with hellfire to raise them moral, loving and good people. That has never worked. The history of inhumanity of mankind and especially that of the standard bearers of religions stand witness to this claim.
If we love our children, they learn to be loving. If we are honest, moral and ethical they learn that too. We can build a better humanity by acting humanely today. But first we have to teach them love.
Compare the words of Saadi to the words of Muhammad who said only Muslims are brothers to each other and as for the disbelievers:
Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, heal the breasts of Believers, 9:14
As you see, the very belief in Islam is unethical and immoral. We cannot heal Mankind until we do not remove its cancer. This cancer has reached a point that is going to kill us all. It is either the Humanity or Islam. Mankind will not have a future as long as this disease is left untreated. Islam must be eradicated now. Tomorrow it is too late.
Ali Sina is the editor of Faithfreedom.org. He is has contributed in 'Beyond Jihad - Critical Voices from Inside Islam'. His latest book is Understanding Muhammad: The Psychobiography of Allah’s Prophet.