The Origins of Human Morality

An enlightening excerpt from ‘Way of the Seekers,’ by Khalifatul Masih II (ra), on  how human morals have their origins in the physical properties of elementary particles. Comment below if you have any thoughts!

Morals Defined

Of human actions, those that relate to human beings and are inter-human in character are called moral. The same actions, when they relate to God, are called spiritual and form part of the spiritual life of man. A man who lies to other men is a liar; he commits the immorality of lying. If he lies to God, it means he is dead spiritually. To be pious and religious, a man has to be right on both counts. Moral actions which obey the Law of Shariah become spiritual actions and a part of religious faith and life. The same actions without reference to the spiritual part, when carried out as part of social tradition or culture are called moral. A person who is mindful in respect of such actions is called a moral human being.

Thus the moral and spiritual states are closely connected. The only difference between the two is that when our activities are directed towards man, they are called moral activities; when they are directed towards God, they become spiritual. Hence when I speak about morals, I should also be understood to be speaking about the spiritual side of man. The difference is obvious. One kind relates to man, the other to God. I shall observe this difference wherever necessary.

What is Khulq?

To deal with morals as a subject, we first need to have some kind of definition of the terms moral, morality or Khulq as they say in Arabic. On this apparently very simple subject, all religious teachings and philosophies, excepting those of Islam, have made mistakes. They have defined this term in a variety of ways. (1) According to some Khulq is a deep-rooted instinct or faculty which enables a person to choose and adopt a course of action instantly, without having to weigh or consider and judge; or to reject immediately a course of action, without any rational consideration. (2) According to a second way of thinking Khulq is a kind of sensitivity implanted in man, as evidence of the existence of a Being like God. (3) According to a third way of thinking, Khulq is a capacity which has evolved slowly and is now inherited from generation to generation. It consists of making and appreciating moral distinctions. Western philosophers seem to have arrived at this view.

To my mind, a moral state or moral activity comes into play when a person’s natural disposition begins to function in collaboration with his reason, and he or she becomes capable of choosing or rejecting the natural play of this disposition. If this play proceeds from a being devoid of reason, then the play is natural, not moral as in the case of animals or children. Animals love or behave in a friendly manner. But nobody calls them moral. Sometimes activities resembling human activities appear even in plants or metals or stones. We call such activities natural.

This part of the subject is difficult. But it is an essential link between what I have said so far and what I am going to say further.

I define moral action as action proceeding from a person who is capable of thinking and reasoning, also of choosing or rejecting a course of action. Such action could be good or bad.

A good moral action has been variously defined. Some say good moral actions are the exercise of natural capabilities under the direction of reason and understanding. Others say good moral actions are actions productive of real happiness.

Still others think good moral actions are actions which entail self-sacrifice and secure others’ good at the cost of one’s own.

Some say good moral actions are actions directed and regulated by reason involving self-sacrifice with a view to serving one’s own self-interest.

According to Muslim Sufis, good moral actions are actions guided by reason and the laws of Shariah.

This, by the way, is Imam Ghazali’s definition. But there is room for improvement in this definition. Reason and Shariah are, of course, essential elements in good moral actions. But there are other conditions they must fulfill. They should be chosen and willed by the agent whose action they are supposed to be and be within his capability. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the actions will not be moral in our sense of the term. For instance, if a person — who is half-asleep — gives a coin to another person, but when awakes shirks ordinary charitable deeds, his gift of the coin when half-asleep will not count as a moral action. This is because the act of apparent charity, performed in semi-sleep is not a chosen and willed action.

Another requirement of a good moral action is that it should be consistent with the attributes of God. Moral action to be ‘good’ must be free from all defects and this is possible only if the action can be fitted into the divine profile. Nothing that seems error-free or evil-free to us is really so, unless it can be shown to be consistent with divine wisdom and divine character. God is the Ultimate Norm. Only He is Perfect in attributes, free from all defects.

I now turn to the important subject of the Origin of Morality. Where do morals spring from? Wherein are they rooted? Again we confront a variety of answers. According to some, morality springs from control by human reason of aggression and sex. Aggression and sex are like two wild horses. Reason is the rider controlling both. When he does it well, controlling each, he displays moral activity. If the rider makes a mistake of one kind or another, he deviates from the moral path. This power to think — to weigh and consider and judge — is called Nafs-i-Natiqa, or the rational self, by Mohyuddin Ibn Arabi. According to him all morals spring from a mixture of these three dispositions, a mixture, say, of reason and sex, or of reason and aggression, or of all the three viz., reason, sex and aggression. Elaborating the metaphor, he regards reason as the male partner and aggression and sex as his two wives. The union of man and woman gives birth to a child; in the same way, reason and aggression or reason and sex give birth to morals.

Still others think that man’s strongest desire is to seek pleasure or happiness. When desire for happiness combines with reason, it gives rise to morals.

In my view the question of the origin of morality — moral qualities, moral actions — has not been adequately understood. It has to be spread over a wide enough context. Muslim philosophers should have considered the question in the light of the Holy Quran, but they have not done so. I have applied the principle of the Quran to the question and have found that the origin of morals or morality is very deep and goes far back into the origin of things. If morals were the prerogative only of man, descriptions and definitions by ordinary men would have been adequate, at least relevant. But morals or pseudo-morals are to be found in beings lower in the scale of life. For instance, it is said that reason, sex, and aggression, give rise to moral qualities like love, but love is found in animals also. Then it is said that reason and sex, or reason and aggression mixed together give rise to morals. Animals do not have reason. But they do display the quality of love which counts as a moral quality in human beings. Thus it seems that the matter is not so simple. Reason, sex and aggression, among them, fail to account for all moral qualities. Animals also display something which is similar to morals, yet they don’t have reason.

I believe I have come across something which has illumined for me the whole subject of morals. It is all due to the grace of God. My thinking proceeds along the following lines. Morals or near-morals are rooted in certain faculties or dispositions. They are to be found not in human beings only, but are found also in animals, plants and even stones. They are to be found not only in units but even in particles of which units are composed. Thus, as you move down from man to animals you can see in animal behaviour something similar to human behaviour. You can see pugnacious behaviour in both men and animals. You can see loving behaviour in men and in animals. Going still further down, we find in plants behaviour similar to the behaviour of man and animals. There are obvious differences, of course. Plant behaviour is subtle. But its similarity to the behaviour of man and animal is unmistakable. The tendency to give and take so obvious in man and animals is present also in plants. It is now accepted on all hands that there is sex in all or nearly all plants. The Holy Quran announced this long ago. It is when the male and the female plants unite that they yield fruit. This has been known about the date-palm for thousands of years, which shows there is sex in plants. The Indian scientist, Sir J. C. Bose, demonstrated this by means of sensitive instruments. Plants also display other responses and emotions like displeasure, disapproval, etc. The well-known plant called ‘Touch me not’ shrinks and dies at the slightest touch. If you touch its flower or fruit, it throws its seed, itself shrinking into a small size. An American tree loves meat. Take a meaty substance near it, it tends to burst with pleasure. If it is allowed to touch the substance, it shrinks away, then sucks the blood of the substance before throwing it away. These examples show that plants, like men and animals, can be stimulated. They respond to stimuli in characteristic ways.

Let us look lower down still at the minerals. Love is said to be a typically human moral quality. But what is love? It is to draw something to oneself. Does not a magnet draw a piece of iron to itself? One could say the magnet loves in a rudimentary manner. On the other hand, if two substances are charged with electricity of the same kind they begin to repel each other, as though they hate each other. This shows minerals in their way, at their level, display responses similar to those of men, animals and plants.

These responses are demonstrated by the tiniest particles. Without mutual attraction, there would have been no conglomeration of particles, no world. If particles did not have the disposition and faculty to attract each other and form bodies, it would have been impossible for anything to exist and survive in the world. It is this faculty of attraction which unites the particles into bodies. From all of which it follows that morals have their roots deep down into the last particles of matter. The deeper we go, the more and more examples, albeit of a rudimentary kind, of morals we find. At least their roots can be identified.

These examples should make it clear that the elements which make up moral qualities are to be found in their rudimentary form, at lower levels of existence, in animals, plants, minerals and down to the most elementary particles. I will now give some account of the elementary qualities which grow eventually acquire the character of moral qualities. Briefly, let me say that all forms of matter, including the most elementary forms, are spread out in six directions. These are the physical directions of up-down, right-left and front-back. Spiritual directions too are found in pairs. The same direction is up relatively to some things and down relatively to others, right relatively to some, and left relatively to others, in front relatively to some things, and at the back relatively of others. That is how we have the physical and the spiritual worlds spread out in three pairs, or a total of six directions. The pairs are active-passive or masculine-feminine or those capable of activating and those capable of being activated. It is obvious that anything incapable of being activated will not be activated. A good example is baker’s dough. Thrust your fist into it, the dough will make way, but not the hard top which does not accept the hand thrust. It follows that nothing can take place unless there is an efficient agent, on the one hand and a passive and ready to receive recipient, on the other. Every particle that exists is capable of both attracting and being attracted by something else.

The first spiritual direction or faculty we call attraction, the power to draw. Paired with it is the faculty to incline, to be drawn. As soon as conditions permit, a particle will either begin to draw another particle to itself or would be ready to be drawn towards some other particle. The same is the case with the faculty to repel and the correlated faculty to turn away or to be repelled.

The third spiritual direction is to destroy which is correlate of creation. Everything that comes into existence does so by sending out of existence many other things. Take as simple an act as the movement of my hand from one place to another. The earlier position of the hand disappears and dies and in its place a new position is created. So is the case with the particle of matter. When particles accept influence from outside and acquire a new shape, their earlier shape is gone. Similarly its correlate, destruction, has the faculty to destroy others and at the same time to destroy itself.

The fourth direction is the faculty to survive. Drop a thing; it will be stopped by a wall or a floor. This is the faculty to survive.

The fifth direction or pair of faculties is manifestation. Every particle has the faculty to enlarge other particles and make them manifest. Its correlate is self-manifestation. Every particle has the capacity to become manifest and prominent.

The sixth direction or pair of faculties is screening. Every particle has the faculty to screen another particle. The correlate of screening is the passive faculty of being screened, to accept another particle’s shadow, as it were.

These pairs of faculties, present in the tiniest of material particles, provide the ultimate theoretical basis of human morals. A steady process of growth and composition takes place which in the case of man assumes the most amazing forms. As matter becomes compounded, more and more elements conglomerate and the resulting behaviour becomes more variegated, more precise. Progressive change in the basis results in progressive change in behaviour. As we look inversely at this change we find its manifestation becoming lower and lower and more and more limited. While these properties operate under mechanical natural laws we can call their results good or bad — good or bad in relation to their functions. We cannot describe them as if they were moral qualities. Everything is either good or bad, in terms of its functional nature or efficiency and this grading applies in terms of the six pairs of basic faculties. Can the inter-behavioural modes of the six faculties be called moral? Let this stick drop on someone and hurt him. The person hurt will feel pain but will not blame the stick as ill-mannered or immoral. Similarly if a person chances to find a coin lying on the road, he would welcome the sight and be pleased. But he will not praise the coin for thus presenting itself to him. No credit attaches to the coin. In short, as long as the behaviour of things is in accordance with natural laws, we can call it good or bad only in a limited sense, but we cannot treat it as moral. They are good or bad for our purpose, in terms of our needs.

Often goodness or badness is just relative, from a particular point of view only. A bullet is fired, a man dies or is hurt. His friends will call it bad or unfortunate. But his enemies will have a different view altogether. The good or evil involved here is relative to a point of view. It is not moral in its own right. A natural process or the manifestation of a faculty takes place under natural laws. No will or intention is involved; therefore, it is not moral, though good from one point of view, bad from another.

However, when through progressive change matter emerges in the shape of man, the six paired faculties begin to manifest themselves in a thousand and one different ways. Man is fashioned out of matter but through an infinite number of changes, each more complicated than the last. The resulting behaviour also becomes more and more complicated at every stage. Colour and colour perception provide an excellent example. Basic colours are only a few, six or seven, or even three or four but by mutual adjustment, an infinite variety of colours can be produced. In case of man the basic pairs of faculties begin to express themselves in ever new combinations and compositions. Because these expressions are new, we can call them Khalq. In fact even human behaviour is compounded out of the six pairs of faculties which are to be found in the most elementary forms of matter. When we see them at work in minerals we call them powers or forces. In plants, we call them sensations. When found in animals we call them passions. In man, when they are unaccompanied by will and thought, we call them natural dispositions and expressions of natural instinct. When accompanied by will and thought, we call them Khulq, which is the peak of this progressive change from matter to man. We have this very picture set out in the Holy Quran:

Verily, We created man from an extract of clay. We then placed him as a drop of sperm in a safe depository. Then We fashioned the sperm into a clot, then We fashioned the clot into a shapeless lump, then We fashioned bones out of this shapeless lump, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We developed it into a new creation. So blessed be Allah the Best of Creators. (23:13-15)

Man is the acme of creation. All other creation is below him, under him. He is the top.

Having comprehended the key to the picture, we can see very well how human morality may have emerged by progressive change from the six paired faculties of primitive matter, through a number of emergent changes. Human behaviour and its manifestations cannot be evil in themselves. If they become evil, it is because of their consequences. Otherwise they are just examples of natural dispositions. They will be evil if they are contrary to reason and if the probable consequences are evil. Take cowardice as an example. Cowardice is evil according to everybody. Yet what is cowardice but withdrawal from a situation which inspires fear. Withdrawing in itself is not evil; even withdrawing from fear is not an intrinsic evil. It is only a natural disposition which is neither good nor bad. We call it evil, only in terms of our reason and in terms of its probable consequences. Take another example — a pious man’s withdrawal to his cloister. But somehow withdrawal to the cloister is generally credited with merit. It can be good only if it satisfies our reason and if its probable consequences are good. Call it piety or what you will, names do not matter. Patience or fortitude is another case in point. This too displays the disposition to withdraw. We will call it good only when it is in keeping with the dictates of reason and demands of the situation.

Take the example of loving and being loved. This brings the lover-beloved relationship into existence. A disciple loves his mentor or spiritual teacher. The teacher possesses beauty — of learning, of character. This attracts the disciple who, in consequence, inclines towards him. A relationship of love develops. But what does it depend on? If it depends on reason and the requirements of the moment, it is good; it is a moral response to beauty. Otherwise it is just wayward and mean. The two states, however, have the same inner content. One attracts, the other is attracted. The process is reminiscent of what happens at the lower forms of life and matter.

Repulsion is a natural disposition. When it assumes a moral form, it is called courage or bravery. What is courage? The same natural disposition to repel which is present in elementary particles. At the human level, it manifests itself as courage. But it has to be appropriate in terms of reason and circumstances, before it can be called moral and admired. Without these qualifications, it is evil or at best only natural. Similar is the case of people who keep calling names or abusing others. This act too is an expression of repulsion but without endorsement by reason or justification by probable consequences. The motive in both cases is to repel; to repel an accusation, an attack, or an act of supposed cruelty.

Attraction has its own expressions. It draws things to itself. When it appears as greed it expresses itself as scramble for power and financial gain. If it is evil in intent and consequences, it becomes an evil. Pleasant manners, good humour, open countenance, praise, love, loveliness, piety, eagerness in propagation of truth, all fall under loveliness whose manifestations they are.

Manliness, aggressiveness, etc., spring from the disposition to destroy. This disposition (Tahawwur in Arabic) means that man’s own destruction is admitted and accepted by him. He declares his own life is of no consequence to him. This emotion can be both rational and irrational. Rationally motivated it is an emotion of a high order. As did Nemat Ullah Shaheed (at Kabul – 1924). He made a firm decision to sacrifice his life, but not his faith. Thus when manliness is conjoined with reason, it becomes sacrifice. A man sees a light, a fire in front of him and jumps into it to immolate himself. It displays a kind of manliness and courage. But it is not moral but evil as it is not controlled by reason.

Another example of self-immolation is grace, giving up something for the sake of another. In a manner of speaking, a person destroys himself to some extent. That which would promote his own survival, he makes over to others.

Self-immolation is exemplified in murder, arson, viciousness, because the motives of these actions — crimes — have the in-built desire to die.

The desire for survival is illustrated in charity, hope, magnanimity, and other similar morals. Grace has been mentioned before as rooted in immolation. This is because morals do not have single roots. Sometimes they have more roots than one; or, they assume a different quality at different times.

Pride, the desire to outstrip others, courage, self-approbation, all branch out of the desire to manifest oneself. Their ultimate motive is to manifest,

Disclosing a secret, hypocrisy, shamelessness, sincerity, are the mental manifestations of the desire to manifest. Trusting God, chastity, modesty, spring from the desire for secrecy.

Laughter, humour, false witness, keeping a secret, lying, are the mental manifestations of the desire for secrecy.

Some morals are complex, made up of more than one; for instance, jealousy. Jealousy is a complex moral quality made up of attraction and immolation; promising results out of withdrawal and immolation.

Under different conditions some morals assume different qualities; for instance, ostentation or self-display or readiness to fight which means quarrelsomeness may be motivated by sheer withdrawal or hatred. To disprove and challenge what others claim, or to claim and acquire one’s own right are examples. In short the large field of human morals, shows on examination that human morals are a progressive, advanced and complicated manifestation of the preliminary, the primitive pattern of properties which manifest themselves at the lower levels. Their non-material and spiritual profile they owe to the progressive change they undergo. In some cases they become compounds, in other cases compounds of compounds.

Human morals, therefore, are rooted deep in human nature; the physical, biological substratum of full-grown human beings. To demonstrate this is to demonstrate the important fact that morals by themselves are nothing. They are only a species of behaviour which is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. It is the use made of them, the shape, the good style they assume, the total which they produce and in which they live and move which make them moral. All this demonstrates that the world is not without a Being like God. The powers and propensities of man are neither good nor evil. Without a Being like God, there can be no morals or dispositions so deeply rooted and designed and guided at every turn of the evolutionary process. Only a Being like God could have taken care of the roots aeons earlier, which eventually were to assume in man the form of a well-established moral consciousness. It is impossible for man to release himself from such deep moorings. This could only have been the act of a Supreme Power with a Will. He alone could have created man with an innate moral consciousness in exact consonance with the purpose of his creation. That is why man is able to react to moral situations in all conditions and at all ages and has a built-in capability so to react.


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