The study of values comes under the broader field of ethics, which is the field of enquiry that looks into what is good and correct with respect to standards which may be personal or cultural, and which can be used as a normative standard for behavior.
Values can be defined as ethical principles that determine honorable and praiseworthy conduct, where acting contrarily is shameful and worthy of condemnation.
Philosophers have debated since time immemorial about whether there are such things as universal values. There is agreement that shared values exist on a cultural level. Specific societies all have norms and values that are derived from custom, tradition, or religious belief. The dispute is whether there are any values that transcend the confines of a particular society or culture and are shared by all of humanity.
The dispute hinges on the question of the true nature of values. Is there an absolute and objective standard of what is good? Is “good” something universal? Or is it always relative and subjective, dependent on the interests of an individual or group?
This is a point of fierce philosophical debate that has engendered numerous schools of ethical thought, including utilitarianism, pragmatism, and idealism, as well as a host of applications for economics, politics, and political science. I will not dwell on each of these schools of thought on its own. Rather, I will discuss two general philosophical tendencies, that of moral relativism and that of universalism. Then I will discuss what Islam teaches about this matter.
Moral relativists believe that there are no universal values. position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social and cultural circumstances that vary according to time and place. Conditions for people living in the Arabian desert are different than those for people living in a valley in the Himalayas, or on the Chinese coast, or the Indian coast, or along a great river delta.
Then – the relativists argue – there is the obscurity and capriciousness of how moral standards are conceptually understood. There are various concepts of property, of family, of marriage, of reason, and of God. Norms of conduct that prevail one environment in a given historical era could very well be destructive if transplanted to another. Each society faces specific challenges at various times in its history. The ideal solutions to these challenges will necessarily differ.
Consequently – the relativists argue – the idea that there are universal normative truths that are suitable for guiding the lives of all people at all times is simply absurd.
Moral universalists hold the opposite view, that there is a single and timeless ethical standard. Some system of ethics applies universally to all people regardless of culture, environment, or historical era. The same standards hold true for someone in China, Spain, or Paraguay. They were the same for the people of Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe as they are for us living today and as they will continue to be for all times. What was evil in the past will remain evil in the future. Moral laws do not change with the times. Ethical standards are neither “Eastern” nor Western”.
The idea of moral universalism can be traced back to the revealed religions, especially those religions which claim to have a universal message. The Philosopher Hunter Mead expresses this idea in the context of Western Christianity, explaining that the idea that there is a single deity who governs the affairs of the world which He created is the basis for Western religious thinking.
This idea has also been defended on the basis of logic. This approach was taken by Kant, who may well be the most famous of all philosophers of ethics. He believed that analysis can consistently demonstrate that the violation of moral law is simultaneously the violation of logic. Anti-ethical behavior is always contradictory.
One of the examples that Kant gives to illustrate this point is making a promise. When a person makes a promise that he has no intention of fulfilling, his behavior is morally wrong. This is because his behavior is based simultaneously upon two contradictory principles. The first of these principles is that people should believe promises. The fact that I have broken my promise expresses another principle – that an individual has the right to break his promise. This is the case as long as we accept that moral law applies to everyone. However, if every person who makes a promise breaks it, then no one would believe a promise. This results in a principle that no one should believe promises, which is directly contradictory to our first principle.
The Islamic Perspective
As Muslims, our intellectual outlook supports the existence of shared values. The basis for this belief is as follows:
1. Islam establishes the idea of absolute equality between all human beings and that they are descended from a common ancestor. They have one Lord and they share one father. Allah says: “O humankind! We have indeed created you from a man and a woman and made you into nations and tribes to know one another.” [Sûrah al-Hujurât: 13]
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “O humankind! Your Lord is one Lord, and you have one father. All of you are from Adam, and Adam is from dust. The noblest of you is the most God-fearing. No Arab has and superiority over a non-Arab, no non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab, no black person has any superiority over a white person, and no white person has any superiority over a black person – superiority is only through piety.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhî]
2. Islam asserts that all human beings are created with a natural inclination towards goodness, towards, truth, and towards faith in Allah. Allah says: “So set thy purpose (O Muhammad) for religion as a man by nature upright - the nature (framed) of Allah, in which He hath created the human being. There is no altering (the laws of) Allah’s creation.” [Sûrah Rûm: 30]
No matter how protracted and never-ending the debate might be among philosophers whether moral values are universal or relative, common sense tells us that shared values do exist. The best proofs for this are the human faculties of reason (which Descartes considered the greatest thing distributed among humanity) and of language.
Every rational mind recognizes justice and every language has a word for it – a word which is recognized as having a positive and noble meaning. The same can be said for “truth”, “liberty”, “tolerance”, “integrity” and many other concepts. These are praised by all cultures and expressed positively in all languages.
The opposites of these concepts are regarded with derision and rejected, like “tyranny” and “oppression”. If we were to address the most despotic person as a “tyrant”, he would take offense. He would prefer to be described as just. Likewise, even a liar dislikes to be named as such. “Deception” and “bigotry” are likewise words that people have an aversion to, regardless of what cultural background they have. Is this not evidence for the existence of shared values?
These shared values need to be actively promoted in the world today, and not just the essential human rights that are indispensable for human beings to be able to live with each other. Rather, these shared values are much more embracing, like mercy, kindness, and the generosity to help those who are in need regardless of their race, religion, or country of origin. We need to incorporate these values into our understanding of human relations, so that we will not only uphold the principle of human equality in a neutral way, but embrace the “other” with warmth, love, and a true sense of brotherhood.
An old Arab saying – which is found in one form or another in all languages – goes: “Treat others the way that you wish to be treated.”
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said in the hadîth: “No one truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.”
The value of “human brotherhood” is being joined with that of “love” in these words of our Prophet (peace be upon him). Before somebody accuses me of reinterpreting this hadîth for my own purposes, they should know that this is the understanding of the scholars from centuries back.
For instance, the leading Hanbalî jurist, Ibn Rajab said: “The brotherhood referred to in this hadîth is the brotherhood of humanity.” [Sharh al-`Arba`în al-Nawawiyyah]
The same is asserted by al-Shabrakhîtî and many others.
Love is an essential value, since all people desire to be loved. It is extremely rare to find a person who desires to be despised by others.
When love is realized by both parties, hostilities come to an end. Love is an emotional state as well as a mode of conduct. The Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged us to proclaim our love, saying: “If one of you loves his brother, he should let him know it.”
Love is a shared value, since all people are pleased with it, even those who do not act according to its dictates. This is the true test for a shared value – that everyone wishes to be regarded as possessing it. No one wants to be described as “unjust” or “intolerant”.
Such values, in spite of their universality, can wilt and become dormant if they are not nurtured and encouraged. An Arab poet once wrote:
These noble values grow like flowering plants
When they are watered from a noble spring.
One of the most important values that can solve the world’s problems is that of respecting diversity, indeed loving it – regarding it as a source of enrichment and beauty, as an essential element of the human experience.
When we navigate our differences successfully and aspire to conduct ourselves in a most noble manner above and beyond the legislation of human rights, then we establish a basis for applying our shared values to bring harmony from our differences and to bring love in place of enmity.
Allah tells us in the Qur’ân: “Repel evil with what is best, and then the one between whom and you had been enmity will become as your dearest friend.” The message of this verse is that goodness brings about goodness and love engenders love.
Can we not then hope to foster these shared human values by making our own conduct exemplary – by being tolerant, generous, honest, trustworthy and thereby convincing the “other” who is just as human and who shares the same love for these values? Good conduct results in reciprocal good conduct. Generosity cultivates generosity. Convincing others of the ways of goodness is the most important humanitarian issue. We wish to take from Plato his words when he said: “The morality of the world is an expression of the victory of the power to convince over the power of force.”
The values of humanity lie in their ability to have conviction – to convince and to be convinced by various means of substituting one thing for another. There are things which are better and others which are worse. Civilization is essentially the preservation of a mode of life by means of the inherent conviction to respond by choosing what is best.
The use of force, under any circumstances, is a failure of civilization, regardless of whether we are talking about society in general or the individual.
The harmony that we must aspire to is not just between various cultures and societies. We must bring about such harmony within the individual as well. People have a varied cultural heritage, which sometimes develops into a crisis of values within the individual, and which needs to be transformed into inner harmony and a source of personal enrichment. A person can be of Asian origin, Muslim by faith, and British by nationality and upbringing – all at the same time.
By cultivating the value of tolerance over violence and hate, we channel people’s energies into productive activity that contributes to the general welfare. No one should ever resort to warfare or to violence to further their goals.
Religious leaders need to do their part to promote these universal values. They should be part of the solution and not part of the problem, as we have unfortunately found to be the case for certain representatives of all faiths. Religious leaders should not stir up tensions in a hope to gain the approval of their followers at the expense of human solidarity and mutual understanding.
Likewise, the media, the universities, and civic organizations have their roles to play in fostering these shared human values. Political leaders also should do their part. They should find ways to alleviate poverty and oppression whenever they are found. They should look for solutions to the issues of our time, even if they can only achieve partial solutions and partial justice. Military means to solve these problems are unethical and they do not work.