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Divine Commands: Meta-ethics and Moral Epistemology in the Islamic Tradition


The Islamic Medical Society of University of Birmingham invited Hamza Andreas Tzortzis to deliver a lecture on medical ethics in Islam. The lecture was entitled “Divine Commands: Meta-ethics and Moral Epistemology in the Islamic Tradition”. The lecture was held on 12 March 2018 and the room was filled with medical students and people from the general public.

The lecture focused on meta-ethics and moral epistemology from an Islamic perspective. Hamza used the medical example of voluntary euthanasia as a case study. Meta-ethics refers to the foundations, nature and scope of moral truths. It tries to answer the following questions: Does morality exist? What kind of value is a moral value? Where do moral values come from? Why are moral values binding? Moral epistemology focuses on what is moral. It aims to answer the question: how do we know what is good and bad?

Hamza started the lecture with this picture of invasive spinal surgery:

An example of spinal surgery taking place in an operating theatre

Hamza asked the following question: “If the surgeon deliberately snipped the spinal cord of this patient for no reason, would you consider it morally wrong?” The audience raised their hands in agreement. Hamza then asked the following question, “Would it be objectively morally wrong?”

The audience, once again, raised their hands.

However, Hamza raised a final question: why is it objective?

Hamza answered this question by defining the word ‘objective’.

A basic definition is that the term refers to considering or presenting facts without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions. In the case of morals, objective means that morality is not dependent or based on one’s mind or personal feelings. In this sense, it is ‘outside’ of one’s personal limited faculties. Mathematical truths (1+1=2) or scientific truths, like the Earth going around the Sun, are true regardless what we feel about them. Therefore, if these morals are ‘outside’ ourselves, they have to be grounded. In other words, they need a foundation. If objective morals do not depend on our limited faculties, then answers to the following questions are required: Where did they come from? What is their nature? In order to answer these questions, a rational foundation is required. This will explain their objective nature and provide a rationale for where they came from. These questions refer to an area in philosophy known as moral ontology.

Another way of describing objective moral truths is that they transcend human subjectivity. For instance, the fact that killing a five-year-old is morally wrong will always be true, even if the whole world were to agree that killing a young child is morally right. Not only do we recognise that some morals are objective, they also provide us with a sense of moral obligation or duty. In other words, there are some things that we ought to do and other things that we ought not to do. We have moral duties and obligations, and these seem to come from outside the limited self.

So coming back to Hamza’s question: why is it objective? The answer is simple. The morals that we consider to be objective are so because God exists. This conclusion is based on the fact that God is the only rational foundation for objective morals. No other concept adequately provides such a foundation.

God provides this foundation because He is external to the universe and transcends human subjectivity.

In Islam, God is believed to be a Being of maximal perfection. He is maximally knowledgeable, powerful and good. Perfect goodness is God’s essential nature, one of His names is Al-Barr, which means the source of all goodness. When God makes a moral command, it is a derivative of His will, and His will does not contradict His nature. Therefore, what God commands is good because He is good, and He defines what good is.

Many atheists respond to the above argument from morality by citing Plato’s dilemma or Euthyphro’s dilemma. It goes like this: Is something morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good?

This dilemma poses a problem for theists who believe in an All-Powerful God because it requires them to believe in one of two things: either morality is defined by God’s commands or morality is external to His commands. If morality is based on God’s commands, what is good or evil is arbitrary. If this is the case, there is nothing we as humans should necessarily recognise as objectively evil. This would imply that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with, say, killing innocent children—just that God puts the ‘evil’ label on it arbitrarily. The other horn of the dilemma implies that some sort of a moral standard is completely outside and independent of God’s essence and nature, and even God is obligated to live by this standard. However, that would be clearly undesirable for the theist, since it would make him admit that God is not All-Powerful or independent after all; rather, He has to rely on a standard external to Himself.

This intuitively sounds like a valid contention. However, a little reflection exposes it as a false dilemma. The reason is due to a third possibility: God is good.

What Professor Akhtar is saying is that there is indeed a moral standard, but unlike what the second horn of the dilemma suggests, it is not external to God. Rather, it follows necessarily from God’s nature. As previously discussed, Muslims, and theists in general, believe that God is necessarily and perfectly good. As such, His nature contains within it the perfect, non-arbitrary, moral standard. This means that an individual’s actions—for example, the killing of innocents—is not arbitrarily bad, because it follows from an objective, necessary, moral standard. On the other hand, it does not mean God is somehow subservient to this standard because it is contained in His essence. It defines His nature; it is not in any way external to Him.

An atheist’s natural response would be “You must know what good is to define God as good, and therefore you haven’t solved the problem”. The simple reply would be that God defines what good is. He is the only Being worthy of worship because He is the most perfect and moral Being.

In summary, moral truths are ultimately derivatives of God’s will expressed via His commands, and His commands do not contradict His nature, which is perfectly good, wise, pure and perfect.

Many atheists argue that there are alternative explanations to answer why some morals are objective. Some of the most popular alternatives include biology, social pressure, and moral realism. For a detailed discussion watch the lecture here.

The second part of Hamza’s lecture focused on moral epistemology, which tried to answer the question: how do we know what is good?

Since the basis for objective morality is God’s commands, then finding out what His commands are will facilitate moral knowledge. Where can we find these Divine commands? In the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions. Since God is The Wise and The Knowing, it follows that He has the total of moral knowledge and we do not. Therefore it is only rational to follow His commands:

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” The Qur’an 2:216

Hamza continued the lecture by contrasting Islamic ethics and ethical egoism on the medical ethical question of voluntary euthanasia.