Morality and Reason

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The following is an excerpt from Islam Between East and West by ‘Alija ‘Ali Izetbegović (1925–2003), which was first published in 1984. I shared a previous excerpt here titled The Meaning of Humanism. The best remark that can be made about this book is one that I came across in a review posted on Amazon in 2011 by Julia Simpson: “This is a heady distillation of intellectual Muslim thought, demonstrating the kind of man Izetbegovic was. I once gave this book to my father (an agnostic) who said, ‘He’s so intelligent it’s scary.’ Islam Between East and West is a modern treatise on cultures and civilization which attempts to show how so many philosophies have failed to give human beings what they need.” I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.


The function of reason is to discover nature, mechanism, and calculus, in other words, to discover itself in everything. This is why reason constantly rotates in place, for in nature it can find nothing but itself — the mechanism.Hence the paradox of some ethical theories which end their complex reasoning with conclusions such as unselfishness equals selfishness and negation of pleasure equals pleasure — the paradox, which caused Voltaire to establish his famous reduction ad absurdum (Sacrifice of one’s own life out of one’s own interest).

Reason’s (logical) analysis of morality reduces it — perhaps to the observer’s surprise to nature, selfishness, and egoism. In nature, the mind discovers general and omnipresent causality. In man, it discovers nature again: the instincts (the power of two masters — pain and pleasure) which reflects man’s slavery, his non-freedom. It is this very same mechanism of thinking which reduces God to the First Cause (the Immovable Mover), the soul to the psyche, and art to work and technique. The attempt to base ethics on reason cannot take us further than so-called social morality, the rules of behavior necessary for the maintenance of a certain group, in reality, a kind of social discipline.

Morals, for that matter, also cannot be called a product of reason. Reason can only examine and determine the relations between things; it cannot give a judgment of value when the question is of moral approval or moral renouncement. For instance, every man understand the principle that the spiritual uniformness of people could not be admitted, but this very principle could not be rationally justified and proved. It is impossible to prove scientifically that something is not good in the moral sense of the world, just as it is impossible to draw the exact, scientific distinction between art and kitsch or between the beautiful and the ugly. Nature or reason (since it is the same) does not distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil. These qualities do not exist in nature. Then, what does man as an unrepeatable individuality mean to science? A scientist must be more than that — he must be a man — to understand that premise. The famous ethical maxim that a good man is always happy and a bad man unhappy cannot be understood rationally. Christian ethics do not lend themselves to a teaching in scientific terms. All of their moral demands are portrayed in one ideal personality: that of Jesus Christ. The three famous principles of the French revolution (equality, freedom, and brotherhood) cannot be derived from science, nor can they be obtained in a scientific way. Science would rather establish three opposite principles: inequality, absolute social discipline, and anonymity or alienation of human units into a perfectly organized society.

Could Jean Valjean resort to science to solve the moral problems he faced? Should he have sacrificed the interest of so many people to save a simple and innocent man? What kind of answer would that have been? Would not science have taken the side of so-called common interest? The problem in question cannot be the subject of science, nor would the answer be to it, if possible, reflect the wish of any man. What Victor Hugo described in so excited a way in [The Strom Under a Skull] “La tempête sous un crane” is not a conflict in the reason of a man but a conflict between reason and the soul, the destructive clash of arguments that belong to different sides of the human personality. Essentially, it is a dialogue between reason and conscience, one in which two opposite kinds of argument alternate. However, this discussion is only apparently logical, and no definite conclusion is to be expected. The arguments are of two different qualities, of two different categories, and they consequently cannot be compared. They are from two different worlds from heaven and earth. Only man can make a choice for himself and in himself when facing this dilemma. The decision that Jean Valjean makes is the defeat of reason but the victory of man, a victory which cannot be rationally explained or justified but one with which all people side with a silent and unanimous approval.

All of us may have an inner certainty of our freedom, but let us prove and explain in a scientific way this certain but still undefinable feeling. All of us agree that it is right to castigate the man who caused an offense by accident; however, this clear and logical attitude cannot be scientifically justified. What the heart simply accepts, science cannot prove or explain. Shall we renounce fulfilling our duty because reason cannot justify or support that inner voice? If not, then we maintain an attitude without knowing why, against our reason, because of a sui generis certainty — because we believe.

What does reason have to do with moral decisions? Hume answers this question clearly and precisely [in his Treatise on Human Nature]: “To our mind, a crime is nothing but a number of motives, thoughts, or actions related to a given personality and a certain situation. We can investigate that relationship, explain the origin and performance of the deed, but only when we let our emotions talk does the disapproval appear, characterizing that deed as morally evil.” He resumes: “All that our mind is capable of is displaying relationships among things; on the other side, in a value judgment, a completely new moment emerges, one which does not exist in a factual judgment, and it can be explained only by the productive power of feelings.”

Francis Hutcheson writes in his System of Moral Philosophy that: “As a higher value of pleasure in art and science is perfectly clear in comparison to pleasure in eating, so it is with the difference between ‘good’ and all other perceptions.” According to him, the ability to discern morals does not depend on intelligence or education. Moral judgments are not mediated by reason; they are immediate.

The contrast between science and ethics is also reflected in everyday life. Science, for example, accepts artificial insemination to conceive babies in a test tube as well as euthanasia or mercy killing. These procedures cannot be imagined without science as they are its product. On the other hand, every ethic, regardless of its nominal attitude toward religion, rejects those acts as contrary to the very principle on which human life is based. Ethics, religion, and art share the same opinion in this regard, although they explain it differently. Religion cannot accept artificial life and violent death because and death are in the hands of God, not of man. From the point of view of ethics, artificial insemination and euthanasia are an offense against humanity for they degrade man to an object which leads ot his manipulation and misuse. To an artist, birth and death are mysteries and should remain so. Hamlet’s three most famous monologues are dedicated to death. To science, death is banal, a physical fact — just remember the scientific definition of death: a biological even in the material world. The chasm is complete; no comparison is possible.

Eugenic sterilization, experiments on man, artificial insemination, and euthanasia are completely rational and logical. There are no rational and scientific arguments against them. How, then, can science prevent its own misuse? The French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences came out against artificial insemination with a quite unscientific argument: “…artificial insemination is a offense against the grounds of marriage, family, and society.” Cuenot expresses a similar thought about artificial death: “The feeling of respect for life and maternity has nothing in common with logic, and I do not believe that euthanasia, which imposes itself in certain cases, can ever be legalized.”

Euthanasia, artificial insemination, sterilization, transplantation of organs, abortion, and the like are the domain of science only in so far as technique is concerned. Their application is a matter of morality, and science can make no decision here. [Jean Rostand states in Humanly Possible: A Biologist’s Notes on the Future of Mankind that ] “The plan to treat people as cattle appears disgusting and at the same time it offends our feeling of personal dignity.” Artificial insemination came to medicine through veterinary surgery. The question again lies in the conflict between humanism and biology or individualism and materialism. This is the same primeval dilemma that man has faced from the very beginning: interest or spiritual imperative. Biology offers him progress in exchange for his soul and his human dignity. [Rostand asks:] “Man refuses that progress which is at hand if he has to achieve it by means disgusting to him, but will he refuse it tomorrow? Will he always refuse it?”

It is only natural that Christians, poets, and artists have the same attitude toward this kind of progress. For Christians it is “luciferian naturalism” and for poets a “bulk of programmed brutality.” It is also natural that materialists are delighted with the prospectives which new developments in biology offer.

The progress of science, no matter how great and spectacular, cannot render morality and religion unnecessary. Science does not teach people how to live, nor does it establish value standards. Those values which raise biological life to the level of human life would remain unknown and incomprehensible without religion. Religion is an initiation to the nature of another superior world, and morality is the meaning of it.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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