Extracts of Dr Amyn B Sajoo’s Introductory Remarks to “The ‘Good’ Society: An Ethical Perspective”
On the face of it, you could be forgiven for wondering: when the whole idea of civil society is about promoting the public good by enhancing the rule of law, pluralism, and respect for individual and communal spaces and engagement, what can a further discourse on the ‘Good’ Society add to this? If by the ‘Good’ in this context we mean only that which is beneficial to the material welfare of the majority in a state, or for the stability of the polity, then it does not seem that there is ‘value added’. Yes, we may draw closer attention to ‘civic virtues’ – but is that all there really is to ethical discourse? From Confucius’ Analects to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, through Augustine, Spinoza and the great Muslim neo-Platonist influenced philosophers – Farabi, Miskawayh, Ghazali and Tusi, among others – the claim is made over and over that ethics is a primary element of political as well as personal existence, even that it is the foremost expression of human intellectual capacity. In a classic Muslim text on political organization, Farabi’s al-Madina al-Fadila or The Virtuous City – written in the 10th century – ethics sits at the heart of political organisation (siyasa), just as good character (akhlaq) is the overriding aim of the rational individual’s existence. But when we assert that social ethics is about a shared conception of the good as a matter of moral preferences, then we run into some serious resistance about its role in the sphere of civil society. It is argued that such conception will stifle pluralism and diversity. Even as thoughtful and sensitive a political philosopher as Charles Taylor says that the maximum we can reasonably aim at are shared civic values like the rule of law, individual rights and freedom. Isaiah Berlin was even more adamant, of course, in insisting that freedom is strictly about non–interference in individual preferences by society and the State – what he called ‘negative liberty’.
Which brings us to the argument that any claims about a shared conception of the good will be conservative at best, repressive at worst. Karl Popper in defence of ‘the open society’ launched a blistering attack on Plato as totalitarian, for what he saw as his passion for preserving the status quo at all costs. And Alasdair MacIntyre – in After Virtue – went after Aristotle for similar reasons. Modern polities, these critics are saying, are far too complex for medieval recipes about the good life. Indeed, should Muslims today not be skeptical about a shared conception of the good that involves the State?
A host of recent experiences of imposed social morality, of which the Taliban in Afghanistan represent the most extreme example, seem to vindicate the warnings of Western liberals. Still, there is obviously a problem with throwing out social ethics in the name of liberty. If civil society is about building social capital, then what could be more congenial than Muslim ethical values relating to communal solidarity, charity and volunteerism, personal and institutional accountability and integrity, and non–violence? Are these not indispensable for a critique of the public sphere in transitional Muslim contexts?
It seems obvious that we need to bridge personal and social ethics. This idea can be disturbing to some. It troubles those who think of such a bridge as a shortcut to undermining what they see as a firm, secular division between private morality that is inspired by religious principles, and public conduct that should only be based on the needs of public order and civility. And it is problematic for those who insist that social ethics can lapse into ideology, and thence into political programming. So there are some major challenges to overcome in linking civil society and ethical discourse: How do we advocate an ethical discourse which is not perceived as ‘for members only’ by non–Muslims or minority Muslims?
How do we cultivate a shared conception of the good that prizes civic virtues and ventures beyond by giving them moral spine – but is in no way coercive or ideological?
How to contribute to the emerging discourse on global ethics – as the Ismaili community has done in the context of development on issues from gender equity to access by the poor to public institutions – yet not lapse into generalities for the sake of mass consensus?
Happily, we have as our guest speaker someone whose range of professional and personal experience in the fields of ethics and the humanities has spanned multiple cultures, continents and institutional settings.
Professor Peter Singer has argued that ethics deal with values and therefore anyone contemplating acts of right and wrong, good and bad is, consciously or unconsciously, ethically engaged. At the level of society, these issues loom even larger and at a time of convergence among cultures and in global affairs, the persistence and relevance of ethical concerns become central and even universal.
Historically in Islam, ethical perspectives have found expression legally as obligations, or culturally and intellectually as expressions of personal, social as well as environmental commitment. Toshihiko Izutsu in his pioneering study on Qur’anic Ethics underlined the significant shift in the ethical paradigm that took place in pre–Islamic Arabia with the coming of Islam. The late Fazlur Rahman, noted University of Chicago scholar of Islamic thought and modernist Muslim thinker, extended this enquiry by looking at Islam and argued that in its initial phase Islam was moved by a deep rational and moral concern for reforming society, and that this moral intentionality was conceived in ways that encouraged a deep commitment to reasoning and rational discourse.
Like other religious traditions, and particularly Christianity and Judaism, Islam in answering the question ‘What ought or ought not to be done?’ thus had a clearly defined sense of the sources and tools for understanding moral authority.
From a societal perspective, through the concept of the ummah, the Qur’an articulates an expression of institutional living, through a ‘mediating community’ (2:143). Such an ideal of the ‘Good’ Society conceived of individuals as moral agents, shaping society with an ethical underpinning inspired by a sense that such a society would not only serve its own members but also future generations.
Such a moral matrix values societies in terms of an overall commitment to an ethical vision. So, the Qur’an says:
‘O humankind, we have created you from male and female and made you into peoples and groups, so that you may come to know each other. Surely, the most noblest of you in the eyes of God are the most ethically committed.’ (49:13)
In his most recent work Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam laments the contemporary trends in western society for individuals to retreat into themselves, forsaking community. Does the Muslim heritage of the ‘mediating community’, which located individual worth in a larger social context, represent a balancing resource? Such a heritage has been increasingly eroded in modern times and its mere, unthinking restatement or declaration is no solution to the trends Putnam describes.
In the pursuit of a vision that will guide Muslims in their decision and choices about present and future ethical matters, the most important challenge may not simply be to formulate continuity and dialogue with its own past ethical underpinning. Rather, like the Muslims of the past, there is a need to remain open to the possibilities and challenges of new ethical and moral discoveries. These trends are not necessarily exclusive to America or Europe, as these societies face erosion of the cultural capital that has been the glue of their community life.
Muslim societies, like others, need to be increasingly concerned about community and the traditions of 1400 years of institution–building and moral capacity that has inherent lessons in it – for enabling both continuity and revitalisation of the cultural and social values that might inspire more sustainable civil communities.