There is a third theory according to which it is impossible that man should do anything which is unrelated to the domain of his self and has no relation to his personality, being exclusively in the service of something external and without being related to the realm of his being. Man, however, has two selves, higher and lower. That is, man is a being with dual aspects. In one aspect he is an animal like other animals and in the other he has a higher reality.
It is amazing why Allamah Tabataba’i did not advance such a view, for it is consistent with his own principles including those relating to ethics. When we speak of `man’s nature,’ we mean man’s reality, not merely his physical nature. Man has an ontological reality and his emotional being is subordinate to that reality. The ontological being of man in one plane consists of his animal being and on a higher plane of his spiritual being.
Man completely realizes this higher self in himself or rather considers it his more original self. When animal needs conflict with his judgement based on reason and will and he wishes to subject his animal needs to his reason there may be two kinds of consequences. At times he succeeds and at other time he fails.
For instance, in the matter of food and its quantity, reason has its own judgement whereas his appetite requires something else. When man yields to his appetite he has a feeling of defeat, and when he overcomes his appetite he feels victorious, while in reality he has neither been defeated by anyone nor has he been victorious over anyone. Here one aspect of his existence is dominated by another aspect.
Apparently, he should feel either defeated or victorious in both cases, for both belong to the realm of his existence. But practically we see that it is not so. When reason dominates over appetite, he has a feeling of victory and when appetite overcomes reason he feels defeated. That is because his real self is the one associated with reason and will, and his animal aspect constitutes his lower self. Actually the lower self forms a prelude to his real self. If we believe in such a duality in man’s being then we can justify ethical principles in the following manner.
Man has certain perfections by virtue of his spiritual self. These perfections are real and not conventional, for man is not only body but soul as well. Any act that is consistent with man’s spiritual perfection is valuable, and any act that is irrelevant to the higher aspect of our soul is an ordinary and mediocre act.
I agree with the Allamah, Russell, and others that good and bad, ought and ought-not derive from man’s likes and dislikes. But the question is: the likes or dislikes of which self are to taken as the criterion, those of the higher self or those of the lower self? Moral value arises if it is the higher self that likes. This is the reason why ethics is felt to have a higher station.
That man sees one aspect of his existence and acts pertaining to it as possessing sublimity is not a mental construct or convention. Rather, that is because he feels that aspect to be a more perfect and stronger aspect of his being. All his perfections derive from that aspect of his existence and its intensity, and all defects derive from its weakness.
In accordance with this approach, virtues like honesty, truthfulness, kindness, mercy, beneficence and the like are notions which have affinity to the higher self. The philosophers have also said that practical wisdom relates to voluntary acts from the viewpoint of being more perfect and excellent. They relate the matter ultimately to the soul, and maintain that the human soul possesses two kind of perfections: theoretical and practical.
Theoretical perfection of soul lies in the knowledge of the realities of the world and the higher virtues are considered practical perfection of the soul. That is, they develop the soul practically and brings about a harmony in its relation with the body and pave the way for the real perfection of the soul. Here we reach a most significant Islamic principle which has not been discussed by the philosophers.
That principle is as follows: man has an innate nobility and sublimity which is the same as his spiritual being and the Divine breath. Subconsciously he senses that dignity within himself. In confrontation with actions and habits he ascertains whether they are compatible with his innate nobility or not.
When he feels that there is a compatibility and harmony, he regards it as good and virtuous, otherwise as evil and vicious. In the same way that animals are guided by instinct to what is beneficial or harmful for them, the human soul has perfections transcending nature and some actions and habits are compatible with those perfections.
Universal values relating to good and evil, oughts and ought-nots may be justified in the following manner: Human beings are created alike in respect of that in which their spiritual perfection lies, with similar and uniform likes and viewpoints.
Although physically and naturally all men live in different conditions and situations and with varying physical needs, but they are equally situated in respect to their spiritual perfection. Inevitably, in that domain likes and dislikes and notions of what is good and evil assume a uniform, universal and permanent aspect.
All moral virtues, whether individual or social, such as patience and the like, can be explained from this viewpoint. The two theories mentioned earlier can explain only social values like self-sacrifice, helping others, etc., but they cannot explain values like patience, fortitude and so on. The last theory on the contrary can explain all moral values. Though I agree with the view that all perceptions of good and evil signify a thing’s relation with its perfection, nevertheless such perceptions of good and evil can be universal and permanent.
Source: Excerpt taken from “Eternity of Moral Values” by Ayatullah Murtadha Mutahhari