08.28.08

The Ethics of Death

Posted in Ethics at 8:32 am by Haider

This post is not about whether it’s moral or immoral to die. I think we know the answer to that question!

It’s about how Muslim preachers remind people of their impending death in order to jolt them towards morality. The basis of the argument is that you will soon be held accountable by God, and you should, therefore, make sure you are prepared for judgment, and make use of your time on earth to improve the outcome of the life you’ll live beyond the grave.

How Morality is Understood

Muslims, in general, see morality as a list of actions that we must perform, and others that we must avoid, in order to be graded on the Day of Judgment. The value of morality is seen in the rewards we expect to receive in heaven, and the torments we wish to avoid in hell.

Many preachers usually counsel their fellow believers when facing difficulties to uphold Islamic ethics by pointing out that non-Muslims seek the pleasure of this world, whereas Muslims should seek the pleasure of the akhirah (the after-life, i.e. life after death). This argument is bizarrely used to explain the rationale behind Islamic practices: “Practice X doesn’t make sense in this world, but it makes sense from the point of view of the akhirah.

This approach can be and is being used to justify any practice, since the criteria of the “akhirah” is very vague. If you think you can blow yourself up in a crowded market and enter heaven, then you can easily justify burying young girls (the practice of pre-Islamic Arabia, which the Holy Koran vehemently condemns) and enter heaven as well. Both practices don’t make sense on earth, but they can equally be justified if you can assume that God has sanctioned them.

The idea that morality is only for the after-life is based on the following assumptions:

- That morality is something noble, and this world isn’t. Therefore, morality cannot be seen to serve a purpose on earth

- Morality isn’t a tangible subject. Therefore, it shouldn’t be measured by “worldly” instruments, such as reason, knowledge, science, philosophy, etc.

- Morals aren’t based on principles, but commandments. Therefore, the basis of morality is obedience in order to secure a better life after death..

The Collapse of Morality

The ethics of death separates morality from principles and principles from understanding. If you subscribe to the ethics of death, then you do not know why you observe the moral instructions that you observe, apart from the rewards or punishments you expect after you die. In other words, you cannot determine the consequences of your actions, or evaluate the consequences you experience on earth.

This understanding of morality doesn’t promote morality, but death. It asks you to shun this life and to work for the day you die. And if we wish to blame anyone for the collapse of morality, then we should turn our attention to these preachers, and the idea of morality they are promoting.

8 Comments »

  1. Laialy_q8 said,

    August 28, 2008 at 8:52 am

    This topic makes complete sense to me, you did a great job of explaining it and putting it into words

  2. Haider said,

    August 28, 2008 at 9:45 am

    I’m glad you liked it.

    I recommend you read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s a novel, but there’s a 40 page (?) speech that gives an outline of the Objectivist philosophy, and deals with the “ethics of death” in much greater detail.

    Reading that speech is transformational, in my opinion.

  3. Salah said,

    August 28, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Interesting…

    as usual!

  4. Seth said,

    August 30, 2008 at 3:14 am

    You are reading her novels now? Bravo, Haider! They are even better than the non-fiction. Sometimes it’s interesting for me to contemplate that the volumes of her work, essays and novels and playwrights, all spring from a very basic assumption: A is A. Sometimes I think scientists forget this basic tenet of all reason. To think they are still trying to find an ‘elegant, simple’ equation to explain all of existence, and it’s been there for thousands of years.

    Anyways (sorry to go on my Ayn Rand admiration stint), if morality is to be geared towards the physical world, to what extent should the living be concerned with the ‘after life?’

  5. Skinnybumblebee said,

    August 30, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Morality is a system of ideas like everything else they change
    sure we still abide by things from the past but how sure
    are we that they are correct?

    I agree on the preachers though no
    One should be voiceing out their ideas in such ways
    Thats why everyone should live by
    Their own standrads as long as they are not harming anyone ofcourse…

  6. Haider said,

    August 30, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Salah: Thanks :)

    Seth: Ok, I have a confession to make!

    I read half the book, then read the book, For the New Intellectual (with the speech)! I was reading her novel at the same time as I was trying to get my head around her philosophy, so I kept reading the non-fiction books, as well.

    As for concern for the after-life, I’ll be writing a post on that soon. In any case, I don’t think the after-life should be used to determine what is and isn’t moral, and certainly not to overlook the earthly consequences of our actions.

    Skinnybumblebee: I don’t believe morality is fluid, but it can be flexible, based on the circumstances one lives in. However, morality is related to human nature, and not to time. As long as human beings share similar traits throughout the span of history and in different parts of the world, they will (or should) share a similar moral code.

    I believe that morality should be objective. It should be based on reality, and not on shallow opinions, ignorance or whims. Therefore, we can judge our inherited moral codes by determining how compatible they are with reality.

    And I certainly agree that people should live according to their personal convictions, but this doesn’t mean that people should form their moral code based on personal whims. Even if you don’t harm anyone *else* you will be the first victim of an irrational, subjective moral code.

  7. Nosayba said,

    October 9, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    Very interesting, Haider. I agree with you when it comes to the dangers of separating morality from principles, and using the “Akhirah” concept to justify harmful or insensible practices.

    There are few points that I’d like to share:

    1. When raising such a subject, it is important to explain and distinguish the different preaching approaches in Islam: “Encouragement and Warning”, (in Arabic “Al-targheeb & Al-tarheeb”). Scholars are advised to alternate between those two approaches for the sake of inciting both hope and fear, since neither of them is effective on its own. Now, if we relate those hopes and fears to only after-life aspects -as you claim “most” scholars do-, then it’ll be completely senseless to talk about any Islamic teachings that encourage a healthy life, social reform, etc; basically anything that affects the happiness of people and societies in this Life.

    2. “Muslims, in general, see morality as a list of actions that we must perform, and others that we must avoid”.. & “Many preachers usually counsel their fellow believers..etc”

    But do they? I might slightly disagree with you here.
    Let’s take a concrete example: “Zakah” and charity in Islam. Do muslims -in general- not understand the benefits of Zakah for the society? Do we not have scholars that study, on scientific basis, the Economic system of Islam, or explain why Riba (Money interests) are forbidden, and so on and so forth.

    3. I believe that to some extent it is unfair to blame the collapse of morality on scholars and preachers, alone. Yes, they have a great responsibility, being in the position they are, but along with them there are other significant factors that should be considered if you are going to diagnose the great collapse of morals we’re facing nowadays. The economic degradation, the oppressive political systems, etc..

    Conclusion..
    Easy on the generalizations :D

    Nosayba.

  8. Haider said,

    October 10, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Nosayba, many thanks for contributing your thoughtful insights.

    Responding to the points you mentioned:

    1- I admit that I generalize, in general (:P), but when we are dealing with society and culture, it is important to accept that there are prominent trends which determine the *general* direction society is heading in. That is, it is fair to generalize without dismissing the exceptions.

    I do not deny the fact that there are Muslims and preachers who do not fit the template that I spoke about. But when it comes to Muslim societies, these are the exceptions. The general trend follows the path that I mentioned (of focusing on the reward/punishment to anticipate in the after-life).

    2- While I may dispute some of the “scientific” studies conducted by Muslim scholars, I do not deny that there have been many attempts to find “worldly” wisdom in Islamic rituals and laws. But if I was to say the following: “I do not pay my Zakat.”

    Is your initial reaction:

    “Oh my God! But this will have a negative affect on society’s well-being!!”

    Or:

    “Oh my God! You’re going to hell!”

    I’m not going to generalize, but I believe that a good number of Muslims will think the latter as a knee-jerk reaction. They *may* then use their “scientific” explanations to rationalize their beliefs. However, it’s not because of these reasons that they give Zakat. They give Zakat because they *have* to, and they anticipate punishment if they don’t, and reward if they do.

    3- I don’t believe that people can place the burden of responsibility on other people’s shoulders. Responsibilities are non-refundable and non-transferable. However, in a society that depends on scholars for their understanding of Islam, the scholars are to blame if Islam is misunderstood by the society. If people choose not to live by Islamic teachings, that is their choice. But who determines how Islam is understood? In most cases, it is the scholars.

    They are the ones who represent Islam to the Muslims, and to the world at large. They are the ones most vocal in spreading the teachings of Islam and the most active in defending it. If society turns towards the scholars for guidance, then the responsibility of the scholars is even greater. And if the scholars are casting doubt on people’s ability to think for themselves, and are teaching society that they must turn to the scholars for guidance, then they are the ones placing a greater burden on their own shoulders.

    Behind every extremist group are scholars that justify their actions.

    I don’t deny that there are other factors involved in promoting morality, but the scholars take the lion’s share of the blame for its collapse. Compared to the catastrophes they cause (be it in commission or omission), all other factors play a minor role.

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