Some Reflections on Moral Philosophy

A Dialogue between Edmund Pincoffs and Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli

<div>Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli views ethics in a different light, as a principled pursuit which aims at and draws from the human soul.</div>

Edmund Pincoffs, a professr at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of the foremost ethicists of the 20th century. He is known as one of the main proponents and modern revivers of “Virtue Ethics” in modern ethics, and was a prominent critic of both the deontological and consequentialist schools of ethical philosophy. His primary critique of these two ethical approaches was that they do not account for individual characteristics and subjective qualities of a human being; rather, they attempt to resolve difficult ethical problems by presenting objective and universalized truths. Being very skeptical of such general ethical theories, he would claim that “[Moral rules] do not tell us exactly what to do so much as they indicate what we should struggle toward in our own way. But since we are already moral beings with characters formed, the way in which I will abide by an order/rule is not the same as the way in which you will. In fact, I have to decide not only what the rule is that governs the case but also how to go about honoring it. In deciding this, it is inevitable that I will not approach the problem in a vacuum, as any anonymous agent would, but in the light of my conception of what is and is not worthy of me.”[i]

He argued that these ethical theories must account for each individual character and his particular situation. One cannot establish ethical theories without accounting for the personal conditions and specific characteristics of a person. According to Pincoffs, “A moral problem, then, is defined, not by the ethical theory that one holds, but by the standards and ideals that one has or shares: no standards or ideals, no problems.”[ii] Because of such premises, therefore, this ethical theorist would call for a relativistic ethical approach. He did not pursue grand ethical theories, and did not see such pursuits as applying to all people equally in all situations.

Plurality in Ethics

Pincoffs would take issue with consequentialist ethical theories in the following ways. In his view to think about acting ethically, a person does not need to think about attaining a particular good or end. Rather each individual and group must be given time to obtain what the ideal good is for himself or themselves, and for them to pursue that goal through their own means. As such, it is entirely inappropriate for us to evaluate particular end-goals and to contrast such various end-goals with each other, for us to declare one greater than another. The only end he allowed for is that his actions must not go against the will of the majority.[iii]

Pincoffs believed that the language of ethics allows for more than one perspective in ethical decision-making.[iv] It is on this basis that he preferred a pluralistic view of virtues. He argued that the virtues cannot all be deduced from a single virtue or principle. Rather there can be multiple ethical perspectives without the need for a hierarchy. Nor is it the case that all the ethical rules or principles return to a single rule or principle, which in turn relates those derivatives.[v]

Following this logic, he would also reject the notion of an ethical hero or saintly figure, who could possess such universal virtues. “Now take the distinction between obligation and supererogation. Again, it does not follow that because a person has more guide rails than the rules that in his opinion should apply to everyone, he is either a saint or a hero, that he is morally extraordinary. In fact, a person’s character is likely to exhibit itself in his making obligatory for himself what he would not hold others obligated to do. A person does not attain moral stature by what he demands of others but by what he demands of himself; that he demands more of himself than others is not something in itself admirable, but is what is to be expected if he is to have a distinct moral character.”[vi]

Ethics According to Ayatullah Jaw?d? ?mul?

Pincoffs basically argued that the pursuit of universal ethical principles or issues is futile, and his entire intellectual project was based on this rejection. But Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, through explicating an ethical philosophy, seeks to present his reasons for why these universal ethical principles must exist. He begins by clarifying the primary ethical inclinations and goals of a human being. As opposed to viewing ethics as primarily subjective, he argues that ethics derives from a “real source of inclination, desire and goal, and not constructed ones.” “Man is a thinking, volitional being and reality. It is evident that a constructed reality cannot affect the external world. Rather constructed and subjective realities, with the aid of certain means are derived from the external world. A constructed thing becomes the basis for a constructed reality, just as events in the external world—which are external and existential—affect plants and animals, and each adapts it to those external contingencies. Man also corresponds his world to fit those events in the external world. Thus his constructed reality is based on the external real world.”[vii]

The Reality of Moral Problems

Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli insists that ethical concerns and criteria are indeed real, and argues for this by establishing the human soul as the primary standard to resolve ethical dilemmas. He compares ethics to the medical sciences: “Just as the truth and falsehood of the medical sciences are not understood to be a matter of taste or perception, rather are based on knowledge and causality, ethical truths and falsehoods are also based upon the incorporeality of the soul. It (meaning ethics) is also based upon reality and not mere individual tastes or perceptions. And because it is based upon reality, it can be proven and argued for.[viii]

He has time and again addressed this subjectivist perspective in ethics directly. Although he permits certain places for subjective standards in ethical issues, however, he does not see ethics as an endeavor primarily composed of subjective means. He believes that ethical issues must ultimately be connected to real external factors. “Although ethics is a subjective field of inquiry and ethical questions contain subjective concerns, they are not purely subjective for them to be entirely dependent upon each individual.”[ix]

In critiquing Pincoffs approach to ethics, Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli believes that in ethical issues along with the commands and prohibitions of the Divine Law (Sharia), it is neither permissible nor advisable to act according to individual preferences. “When a healthy person sits at a table filled with different types of foods, he is free to choose whichever food he desires. If all the various foods are healthy and none are harmful to him, he can choose any food based upon his own particular tastes and preferences. Or for example, if he has various colors and styles of clothing, he can act based on individual styles and preferences. Indeed man in these instances of mantecato al firaq is free. However, when it is an issue of religious allowance or forbiddance, or legal permissibility and impermissibility, it is not a matter of freedom anymore. After all, in these instances man is existentially not free. Certainly one of these issues is harmful for him, while the other is beneficial. Not all actions are equal in the face of the incorporeal soul of man.”[x] He concludes from these premises that with regard to ethical issues, subjectivist ethics does not allow for a true ethicist or an ethical hero.

The Eternality of Ethics

Pincoffs believed in the plurality of ethical principles, whereas Ayatullah Jaw?d? ?mul? argues for their eternality and essentially unity. He explains that the soul and the human innate (fi?rah) are such that at all times, in every era, they necessitate a certain type of ethical practice. No fundamental change can occur within either the soul or the human innate.[xi] The fundamentals of ethics are essentially not subject-dependent; rather, they are based upon our very existence as humans, and that primary nature of humankind. And because this innate is present in all humans, its principles can be transformed into a science. In his view, if ethics was an entirely subjective endeavor, neither would it have a place for argumentation and dispute, nor could it be identified as a particular form of “philosophy”. On the one hand, the universality of the principles and issues that are dealt with in ethics from within the field, and on the other, our being able to label and identify a “philosophy of ethics” from without, both point to the non-subjectivity of ethical principles.  There must be a set of universalizable principles and certain eternal standards, for after all, one cannot have universal propositions without some stable, eternal, and abstracted principles.[xii]


Edmund Pincoffs understood that human beings at times find themselves in certain situations where they cannot follow any established ethical law or principle. He tried to resolve this difficult quandary by reframing ethics with primarily subjective standards. He would state that prescribing general principles to resolve all ethical dilemmas faced by human beings is a futile endeavor, and choosing such an all-encompassing ethics does not help us resolve ethical dilemmas. However Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli views ethics in a different light, as a principled pursuit which aims at and draws from the human soul. One can make universal and eternal ethical principles, if:  firstly, the human soul is eternal and does not experience any fundamental change, and second; and secondly, those ethical principles are based upon such foundations as the soul and the human innate. He further emphasizes that if ethics is not based upon sturdy and abstracted principles, neither can an outsider identify anything called an ethical philosophy, nor can an insider benefit from such an endeavor.



[i] Edmund Pincoffs, Quandaries and Virtues, Against Reductivism (University of Kansas, 1978), 25.

[ii] Ibid., 45.

[iii] Ibid., 91.

[iv] Ibid., 65.

[v] Ibid., 85.

[vi] Ibid., 27.

[vii] Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, Mab?d?-yi Akhl?q dar Qur’?n, 26.

[viii] Ibid., 28-9.

[ix] Ibid., 29.

[x] Ibid., 30.

[xi] Ibid., 121-2

[xii] Ibid., 30-1.


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