Ibrahim Lawson: latest response
For those arriving late – this is an ongoing dialogue between myself and Ibrahim Lawson, head of a Muslim school, (and of course, many others), focusing on his remark that “In any good Islamic school, Islam is a given and never challenged”.
Ibrahim now writes:
It is good that you have raised the issue of ethics and morality as this brings us closer to the live issues we began with. It was useful to thrash out a few metaphysical matters, albeit superficially, and I fear we must return to this ground sooner or later, even though, in view of recent events in Algeria for example, it sometimes feels as though we are indulging in intellectual speculation as ‘the luxury of the weak’
However, by shifting the focus in this way, we introduce a new element: that of ‘authority’, and associated concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘will’.
We can rephrase the non-question “why be rational?” as an inquiry into why we should feel obliged to be rational; what authority does or should rationality have over us? Why? How?
And similarly, ‘why be moral?’- and ‘why be religious?’- become: ‘what authority does morality have over me?’- or God? Or indeed any discourse or text?
It seems to me helpful to distinguish three elements: the authority, in the sense of that which has to power to command us (the authoritor?); the submitter to authority, i.e. the one who accepts that command (the authoritee?); and the relation of authority itself, the sense in which it is a power to command.
In ethics, there are two commonly held explanations: the deontological and the teleological. There are also some unsuccessful attempts to dissolve the problem, such as Ayers ‘emotive’ theory that ‘X is good’ is merely a way o saying ‘I like or approve of X’ which merely shifts the burden of explanation onto the purported ‘objective correlative’ of the emotion: what exactly is it that I approve of?
I think Kant’s deontological view, that if we act from any motive of desire for a specific end (i.e. teleologically) then we are not acting ‘morally’, is correct. This seems to entail, however, that the ‘moral law’ (‘do the right thing’) is necessarily empty, since any substantive justification of a moral action provides extrinsic, practical grounds for its desirability. Thus, someone who gives to charity ‘because it is the right thing to do’ cannot say “it is right because etc etc” since what ever might complete the sentence would give reasons for doing the act which would describe the outcomes of the action and make those the justification instead. For example: … it benefits those less fortunate than myself; …. I feel guilty if I don’t; ….society is a better place thereby; … it makes me/them happy; etc. Desire is not a moral power.
The question also then arises as to what is ‘good’, in the specific moral sense, about the intended outcomes, and then what is good about that, and so on until we arrive at some foundation for ‘good’ which is not justifiable by referring to the concept of ‘good’; is ‘good’ without explanation; simply IS good. And this doesn’t answer the question about what it is we know when we know something is ‘good’.
This probably seems much too convoluted to many people; but the relevant point is that unless we have a viable theory of morality, we cannot explain our moral judgements, even to ourselves; i.e. we don’t understand them and cannot use them in an argument against people who we disagree with on ethical grounds. Call it general scepticism about morality.
Then we re-assert the principle you invoked before in reference to rationality: that ‘unjustified’ or ‘unexplained’ does not equal ‘immune to critical review’. Then I ask again, where do we go from here? If we cannot without circularity use rationality to justify reason, or ‘good’ to justify moral judgements, to what criteria can we resort for the, shall we say, ‘warrantability’ of rational, or ethical, or, moreover, religious judgements? Whatever we use will be no more ‘rational’, ‘moral’ or ‘religious’ than the definition of ‘true’ can be true.
And I don’t see that such scepticism condemns us to nihilism, that we cannot be true, good or reasonable. I just resist the idea that we have to define these things so narrowly, so ‘technologically’ I want to say, as to create problems for ourselves.
Returning to the issue of authority, wherein lies the prescriptive power of morality? From where do we get the sense that we should not steal, or example? Is it simply that we would not like it if someone stole from us? If so, what is moral about that? No, I think there is a ‘naked’ sense of duty, of obligation, but what is that? Ethics has no answer, which is why many, orthodox, Muslim theologians refuse to engage with the matter.
Again, why do we feel obliged to accept the dictates of reason? Why do I feel I have to accept the truth of the conclusion of a deductive argument whose validity I have accepted along with the truth of its premises? (I’m not saying I don’t feel I have to, just asking what the authority is here).
And why do I feel that I have to accept the authority of Allah and His Messenger?
It may be that the nature of the authority relation in each case, moral, rational and religious, is different, as is the nature of the authoritor.
Now, Stephen, it seems to me that we return to the issue of freedom which you appear to invoke in a previous posting. Does ‘I am free’ mean ‘I am my own authority’? (This seems preferable to other explanations, which have their own problems).
If so, how could we explain that? Is it true in all cases? In moral issues you claim it is. Would it hold true for rationality?- and religion? Or are we left with mere assertion, hence your own difficulty in supplying a supporting argument?
In moral issues, I do not see that we can explicate the prescriptivity of moral propositions in terms of some external agency, but only in some sense such as ‘I will (in an active, not modal sense) that I do good’. Indeed, Kant says that the only thing that can be morally good is the will and I think I agree with him. Inasmuch as we have free will, we are able to act morally, but there is no rational explanation of this freedom according to him. (His ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals’ contains the arguments). Was Kant therefore not a moral person?
Of course he was; he was also religious, and famously said “I will that there be a God.”
Since the enlightenment owed much to philosophers like Kant, perhaps we should not dismiss his words lightly but try to understand what he meant by this.
Having rehearsed these preliminary ideas, and arrived at the Enlightenment, I would like to turn to your recent postings, and in particular the idea of liberalism.
Much of what you recount strikes me as revealing of the almost naïve utopianism of liberal thought, which is characteristic of much similar ‘technological’ thinking. By this I mean the kind of thinking that sets up an idealised, theoretical description of some human situation which it then finds impossible to justify or to implement in practice.
John Rawls provides an example in his proposal of the ‘veil of ignorance’ in his attempt to justify our intuitions concerning justice and fairness. The bare, rational intellect which he posits as the essence of the human being behind the procedural veil of ignorance – neither male nor female, young nor old, black nor white, straight nor gay, rich nor poor, Muslim nor Christian etc – and therefore able, indeed obliged, to judge impartially and fairly, exists only as a theoretical construct. Moreover, the perfect society we might imagine such intellects, once embodied, would then go on to form is a lovely idea, but frankly, isn’t going to happen. Most people are never going to be able to be their own authorities, however much we might like that to happen.
And, paradoxically, total personal autonomy, or authenticity (Eigentlichkeit in German; Heidegger has an interesting and pertinent discussion of this in Being and Time) leads, I believe, to a kind of reflexive annihilation which I prefer to understand as ‘submission to the will of Allah’, but that is another story.
I can already hear the cries of ‘Islamo-fascist!’, so to attempt to divert this knee-jerk reaction, I must say that I do not subscribe to the view that it is right to withhold moral responsibility from children; I do believe we should teach them to think and to question; we must equip them with the skills necessary to assume moral responsibility to the extent that they are capable and to resist tyranny and all the other noble qualities of character that Stephen refers to as the fruits of a liberal education. But I do also accept that there is one absolute, benign and eternal authority: Allah. We just have to understand better what that means and what our relationship is to Him.
Now I realise that some readers will now be thinking that they have no idea what I am talking about and that, in any case, whatever it is has nothing to do with the attitudes and behaviour of ‘normal’ Muslims. I can’t help that, it’s normal; as Nietzsche said: life is tragic – only death is perfect.
Finally to your question: “Perhaps Ibrahim could now summarize his case for saying Islamic schools should present Islam as a “given” that is “never challenged”? Why, exactly, is this a good idea?”
I agreed with this comment ‘off the cuff’ so to speak during a radio program, and I stand by it. Islam is a ‘given’ for Muslims in the sense that it is where we start from. Why? Well I hope I have gone at least some way towards explaining that, though the nature of that ‘givenness’ has taken some unpacking and may not have been entirely successful in your eyes. Islam is ‘never challenged’ (again not my formulation of words) in the sense, not that it is not interrogated, but in that Muslims do not imagine that there is a viable alternative, which there isn’t.
This is a good idea because anything else leads to literally endless confusion as we search for the justification of our imaginary explanations and authorities (false gods). Meanwhile, people are dying.