The Natural and the Moral Action

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Now, in general, what is akhlāq or, in the expression of the Noble Messenger, akhlāq mukarramatī? From where should we begin? We have said that we shall begin from the admitted opinions and indisputable facts. For the meanwhile, we are not concerned with doubtful issues which one school of thought may regard as ‘moral’ while another school of thought may not regard the same as ‘moral’. What is certain is that most of the human actions are natural actions and they are called ‘natural’ and not ‘moral’. In these actions, morality is not applied. For example, a person would leave this session and go home; he feels hungry so he eats; he feels thirsty and he takes a drink; he feels tired and he lies down and goes asleep. These actions are called natural actions; that is, common actions. Human nature necessitates such things. A child feels hungry and she suffers from this feeling; she also knows that eating food brings joy and comfort. In order to end this suffering and experience joy and pleasure, she eats food. When she grows up and realizes the benefit of food, she knows that her wellbeing and life depends on this food. If she does not take any food, her wellbeing and life will be in danger. So are sleeping and hundreds of other actions. All actions in life which a person does so as to live a normal life are ‘natural’ actions. A merchant is busy in his trading office, engaging in transactions in order to gain profits. This is a normal and natural activity for a person, and it stems from the desire for gain or profit and fear of loss which a person wants for himself. When a person feels sick, he consults a doctor in order to prevent any loss and harm, because getting sick is a loss. This is also a normal and natural activity in the level of animal actions.

To this extent, these actions are not worthy of praise or appreciation such that we say, “Bravo to so-and-so for eating food after getting hungry! Bravo to so-and-so for sleeping after getting tired! Bravo to so-and-so for looking for money!” Neither are they condemnable, reproachable and despicable such that we say, “Woe to so-and-so for eating food after getting hungry! Woe to so-and-so for taking a drink after getting thirsty!” Here, neither appreciation (bravos and hoorays) nor condemnation [is applicable]. None of them exists here. They are but natural and normal activities. Just as [natural] animal actions are worthy of neither appreciation nor condemnation, man’s natural actions do not necessitate appreciation and praise, or condemnation and reproach so long as they are done with the natural motives and without any other purpose. We call them ‘natural’ actions. Traits or attributes which are also related to natural actions are ‘natural’ traits or attributes. Human desires which are also related to these actions such as desire for eating food, desire for sleeping, desire for drinking water, and sexual desire are ‘natural’ desires, and they are neither appreciable nor condemnable; they are normal; that is, they are in a normal level, not higher or lower. Ideas or thoughts related to such actions are also exactly like that; they are normal and ‘natural’ ideas. They thoughts are neither worthy of appreciation and praise, nor worthy of condemnation and reproach.

The human being, however, is uniquely such [that he has moral actions] and these are things which do not exist in non-humans. As such, if the human being is defined as a moral animal, this definition is not wrong; that is, moral action is a human action just as immoral action is also related to the human being. An animal can be able to do neither a moral action nor an immoral action. It is always in that normal level it has.      

Now, what is a moral action? Its first indicator is that it necessitates appreciation, praise and acknowledgment; it requires honour and kudos. Everyone who can see or hear honours such an action, the trait which is the origin of that action as well as the idea which is related to it. The doer will be appreciated, praised or acknowledged. He will be told, “Kudos!” Let me cite an example. First of all, I will not cite stories of religious-moral figures, because such things exist in the human conscience of the whole humanity, including those irreligious persons.

Peter the Great[1] – who was the Russian Tsar that brought glory to Russia approximately two hundred years ago and perhaps a contemporary of Nādir[2] – is considered one of the great personalities in the world and even the current communists hold him in high esteem. In his Histoire Générale (a series of textbooks in history), Albert Malet[3] writes that this man died at the age of 53 due to pneumonia. In winter, in a month of January, he was standing near a river. A boat with some people riding on it was passing by. He sensed that the boat was sinking and there was nobody else there to rescue the passengers. He immediately threw himself into the river in order to rescue them. (I am not sure whether he succeeded in rescuing them or not.) As a result of this action, he was afflicted with pneumonia and died.

Now, what could anyone who hears it say? This person could have done one of two things. One was to be an indifferent onlooker – to see whether the boat would really sink or not, with this idea in mind: “Shall I throw myself on water in this winter and frost in Russian winter at that in order to rescue others? Shall I endanger myself just to save some people? Why should I do this? On what basis should I do this?” Another option was to endanger himself and unconditionally do so without those questions – as he actually did. Anyone who would hear it will say that it was a humanitarian and moral act. This action was above the common level; it deserves appreciation. Anyone who would see or hear it will say, “Bravo! Hooray! What a man! He sacrificed himself in order to save others.” This will be considered a ‘moral’ act.

Some years ago, our esteemed friend and great scholar, the late [Muḥammad Ibrāhīm] Āyatī [died in a car accident]. The cause of death of this man was that he was driving a car when a dog suddenly crossed the street. As he avoided hitting the dog, he bumped on something else and he died. If it were somebody else, he would just hit the dog. Now, anyone who would hear this story of a person who would not be pleased at endangering the life of an animal will appreciate the act. He will say, “Bravo! Kudos!” An action which is worthy of appreciation is called ‘moral’. This act belongs to a lofty level.

Certain stories are narrated. This story has been written along with the same story of Peter [the Great] by one of our friends in the introduction to his book, and it is an interesting story. He says, “One day I was talking with a materialist person. I have cited these allegories to him and told him, ‘How could these be reconciled with the logic of materialism?’ and he gave no reply.” He wrote that one day a young man was coming by walking from a far distance in a desert while he was extremely hungry, thirsty, tired, and his feet were wounded. Some individuals spread their table-spread near the highway. Just in order to survive, he told them, “I am hungry; please give me a morsel of your food.” At that time, a dog was also littering around with the expectation that they would throw it some food. They told him, “We will throw some food over there. Anyone of you – either you or the dog – that gets it first will be his or its.” They threw some bread and meat. Both he and the dog tried to get it first and he got it first. As he was taking the food, he saw that the dog remained there standing and staring at him. He threw the food to the dog. That is, he gave preference to the dog over himself. “I am hungry and this dog is also hungry. As a human, I sacrifice myself for this dog which is an animal.” Here religion and religious belief are not an issue either.

What can anyone who witnesses such an incident think and say? Will he take this act as something above normal or natural level, or not? Can he consider this act [just] ‘natural’? It cannot be reconciled with the logic of nature. The logic of nature dictates that you have to strive and exert efforts for your own self. In the logic of nature, the centre is the ‘I’; the centre is the ‘self’ – ‘myself’. I work for myself. It is me. ‘M’ stands for myself. But here [in the story], the ‘self’ does not exist; what exists is other-than-myself. I prefer the non-self other than myself. What this act can be called? It is so clear that it is an act worthy of appreciation, praise and acknowledgment. Even someone, who could not do it in such a situation and has no determination to put it into action, will appreciate the one who did it, saying: “I am not such a man but I do salute and appreciate anyone who would do it.”

In one of the battles fought by the early Muslims, some Muslims were lying on the ground wounded. As you know, whether the weather is hot or cold, a wounded person would feel much thirsty as blood is coming out of his body and he will immediately water and produce his own blood. One person came to these wounded companions. As he sensed that they were very thirsty, he immediately brought water to one of them. The wounded pointed his finger to another wounded companion. As the rescuing person approached the second wounded person, this one pointed to a third wounded companion. As he approached the third one, the latter would die due to thirst. As he approached the second one, this one would also expire. As he approached the first wounded person, this one would also breathe his last. The water was not able to quench the thirst of anyone of the three. In the words of the Qur’an, each of them offered self-sacrifice:

But they prefer [the Immigrants] to themselves, though poverty be their own lot. (59:9)

That is, while almost in utmost need, they prefer others over themselves.

Now, what will you call this? Whatever you want to call it – morality or whatever – it is an appreciable act. No one can afford not to appreciate it, acknowledge it, or in the words of the Noble Messenger (), honour it. It is honouring and giving it high regard.               

[1] Peter the Great or Peter I (1672 – 1725) ruled the Tsardom of Russia and later the Russian Empire from 1682 until his death, whose cultural revolution and reforms made a lasting impact on Russia, and many institutions of Russian government traced their origins to his reign. [Trans.]

[2] Nādir Shāh Afshār the Great (1688 or 1698-1747) ruled as Shah of Iran (1736-47) and was the founder of the Afsharid dynasty. [Trans.]

[3] Albert Malet (1864 – 1915) was a French historian and author of scholarly textbooks. [Trans.]

(Source: Murtada Mutahhari, PHILOSOPHY OF ETHICS, trans. Mansoor Limba, pp. 15-19)

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