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Why Should an Individual be Ethical?

Jul 20, 2010

by Dr Khalid Zaheer

The question is again to be viewed from both secular and Islamic standpoints. No worthwhile effort can be undertaken without a strong motivational compulsion. People are motivated by different factors. Material benefits being high on the list of motivators, ethical behaviour is viewed as difficult to be pursued because it is seen to run contrary to the objective of achieving those benefits. However, there are reasons both at the secular as well as religious levels for individuals to behave ethically.

At a secular level, there are many who consider virtue to be its own reward. Ethically good behaviour is, in other words, an end in itself. The pleasure of satisfaction one derives is a strong enough motivational reason to continue behaving ethically.

Another reason why ethically good behaviour is considered to be desirable is that, in some cases, it is materially rewarding as well. People do tend to patronize those businessmen who are known for their honesty and trustworthiness.

The collectivity to which one belongs expects a certain standard behaviour from its members. A behaviour below par is viewed as bringing a bad name to the collectivity. Affiliation to a collectivity is a strong reason why many members of groups find themselves compelled to behave well. These affiliations may be at the level of a family, tribe, club, political party, nation etc.

At the religious level, there are two motivating forces — both originating from the same source: belief in Allah. The proper Islamic understanding of belief in Allah entails a behaviour from the believer imbibed in a spirit of yearning to earn the pleasure of the Almighty on the one hand and the earning of a place of success in the eternal life of the Hereafter on the other.

The Qur'an emphasizes that the good conduct of the believing Muslim is always inspired by an urge to seek the pleasure of Allah. It is not meant to gain any worldly benefits. That does not necessarily imply that the goal of achieving worldly gains is never acceptable Islamically. However, for an act to qualify as ethical and virtuous, it must be done with the intention of pleasing the Almighty. This intention is not only required to be cultivated in acts traditionally known to be religious but in all others seeking to be qualified as ethical. Any act claimed to be ethical but inspired by a different intention would stand rejected in the eyes of Allah and would, therefore, not be regarded as one worthy of being rewarded by Him.

The other important motivating force for the believer is the desire to get rewarded by the Almighty, not in this world but, in the Hereafter. The believer sacrifices some of the temptations of worldly gains coming through unethical practices by pinning his hope on better rewards in the Hereafter. The believer's entire life is dominated by his obsession to gain a place of eternal pleasure and satisfaction in the life to come.

Many critics would, however, disapprove the suggestion that life Hereafter is a morally acceptable motivating factor on the grounds that it sounds selfish. To some, acting for any purpose other than the pleasure of Allah is mundane. In the opinion of others, even the ideal of pleasing Allah does not appear particularly impressive. One should be virtuous, in their opinion, only to benefit others. All other objectives that motivate ethical behaviour are below the ideal of true altruism.

In response to this objection one can argue that even the purest altruistic behaviour is compelled by an inner desire of the doer to see others getting helped and as a consequence get a feeling of satisfaction. If the doer is unable to get even a feeling of satisfaction on doing an act of virtue, is it possible that he would still keep doing it? If the answer to the question is in the negative, then the motive of getting inner satisfaction and seeking pleasure of Allah should also be considered as selfish objectives. If on the other hand, these are legitimate objectives without which an individual should not be expected to be compelled to do good deeds, then the other non-worldly objectives should also be considered worthy of being acknowledged as acceptable.

The motive of getting an abode of peace in the life Hereafter can in no way be described as material, selfish, or mundane. It is, in fact, a motive based on the promise of reward from the Almighty that is going to be offered in a life to commence (or continue) after death. Selfishness is a this-worldly concept, whereas a desire for a reward after life is a that-worldly motive. Why should it be considered as selfish in this life?

In actual fact, it all depends on one's understanding as to whether life Hereafter is a reality or not. If in the opinion of an individual it is a reality, to struggle for achieving a place of success in the eternal life would be the most rational behaviour. If however it is only a creation of human desires, in that case indeed it would be foolish to pin one's hopes on it. Thus, it is primarily on the question of one's confidence in the truthfulness of the concept of that life that one's behaviour would depend.

One of the arguments to support the idea of Hereafter-based action is that, in the absence of a life after death, morally correct behaviour would seem inconsistent with the general mood of the creation. If there is no encouragement offered anywhere to morally correct behaviour, such behaviour should not be the worry of any one but the most irrational people. On the other hand, if ethically guided behaviour is to find encouragement, only then it should be considered worthy of being followed. Success in the life Hereafter is nothing but a promise of reward by the Creator for the ethically correct behaviour.

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