Ethics vs. Morality - By Ali Sina Back   Home  
Religious people believe that morality comes from religion and when religion loses its grip, people will also lax their morality. Is morality a product of religion? Are irreligious people immoral?

I had a conversation with a young Muslim man 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? Then, before he got time to react feeling insulted, I added if you are nauseated even by me mentioning such a thing, then be advised that all people 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 practiced in any society. There are of course individuals with abnormal mental development who are exceptions to the norm. In fact except Bonobo chimps of Zair, that rub their genitals together for social binding, no other ape commits or procreates by incest. Usually the male individual visits other clans to find his mate.

Interestingly, marriages between children grown 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 depend on time and culture. It may even vary from person to person. What was moral; say, a thousand years ago may be immoral now 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. 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 guest to expend the night with and hopefully 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 nudes. 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 (reminding me of my little brother who used to play ghost at six or seven to scare my great grand mother). Is that moral? 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 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 (pbuh) 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 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 holy Prophet having sexual intercourse with a 9-year-old child was not immoral. In fact Aisha was given to Muhammad with the consent of her parents and 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 okey? 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 logics. 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 if his wife meets her cousin with who 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 irrespective of the fact that a society or a culture may sanction it or not 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 did not walk his own talk and kept adding to his slaves by raiding city after city and capturing free people who were then reduced to slaves. But because of what the prophet said, Muslims manumitted their slaves when they were old and needed care. Manumitting the slaves at old age 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.

Hijab, no-hijab and even nudism affects no one, except the person who practices it. 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 cloths, but if what they do dose not affect me, it is none of my business. Also despite the Muslim's claim that laxity in dress code breads 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.

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 Mulsim, 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 that. What people do in their bedrooms is none of our business. The question is whether it is ethical?

If promiscuity is institutionalized in the form of polygamy, then it is unethical. Because marriage is a social institution that affects more than those involved. Not only children are affected but the whole society that would eventually have to take the tab to support such family 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 un-functional and highly patriarchal family. 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 dose not seem moral any more and what to us is moral is not so for religions. Polygyny, slavery, animal sacrifice, etc are not immoral in Islam. But women traveling alone, not wearing hijab, working with men alone, etc are immoral acts. 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 a 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 to control his numerous 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. Dose this too had something to do with the fact that most of his wives were teenagers that he needed to control?

Morality is something personal and something that parents should teach to their children. But the true morality dose not drive 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 drives from human consciousness and our spiritual awareness. The more we mature the more sanctified becomes our conduct. We won’t have to live a moral life for the greed of a reward 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 us. The true morality is never in contrast with ethics.

Morality has nothing to do with religion. It 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 that would last forever.

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 or a religion. An imposed morality is not morality. One who leads a chaste 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 immoral. 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 the 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 or if someone promised him a new car if he could write the theory of relativity? You may 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; they want to impose their outdated morality on you by threatening you with hell and enticing you with heaven. 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.
Published in I feel it is the way we interpret the religious teachings. So.. instead of finding faults in religion.. we should find if we are understanding the religion we follow properly or not.