Morality vs Ethics
Religious people believe that morality comes from religion and when religion loses its grip, people will become immoral. Is morality a product of religion? Are irreligious people immoral?
I had a conversation with a young Muslim who insisted that if it were not for religion people would commit incest and nothing would stop them to sleep even with their own mothers. I asked him whether he personally lusted after his mother and whether Islam was the only deterrent that stopped him from fornicating with her? He seemed insulted, but before he responded, I added, if you are nauseated even by me mentioning such a thing, then realize that many others are just like you and feel and think the same way.
A big portion of our morality is part of our instinct. Incest, for example, is not condoned in any society whether religious or not. There are of course individuals with abnormal mental development who are exceptions to the norm. In fact, except for Bonobo chimps of Zair that rub their genitals together for social binding, no ape commits or procreates by incest. Usually the male individual visits other clans to find his mate. The young lions are forced to leave the pride to find mates in other prides while the lionesses stay.
Interestingly, marriages between children that grew-up together in one foster home are rare or non-existent, even though these kids are not related to each other by blood.
But some moral issues are not as clear as the above example. What is moral and immoral depends on time and culture. It may even vary from person to person. What was moral; say, a thousand years ago may be immoral today and vice versa. Also what is moral in one part of the world may not be so in other parts.
Take the example of promiscuity. Many cultures consider promiscuity to be immoral. Yet there are some cultures that accept it as the norm. To us, (western minded people), having multiple sex partners simultaneously is considered promiscuity and immoral. Yet for a Muslim who practices polygyny, it is a “mercy of Allah”. In some parts of the world, women practice polyandry. Among the Inuit, a man would offer his wife to his guest to spend the night with, hoping that he may impregnate her. Which practice is immoral? And who is to determine it?
Is showing parts of your body immoral? In the heart of Amazon Jungle some tribes are completely nude. Is that immoral? That is to them the way of life. In some Islamic countries women are required to cover every part of their body (like children playing ghost). Is that good morality? If that is the definition of morality are all those Muslim women who cover everything except their faces immoral? What about those who dress adequately yet do not use Hijab? Are they immoral? Now what about bikini wearing beach going women? Are they immoral? And finally, what about those who like to show it all in a nudist camp? Are THEY immoral? Your answer to this question depends on who you are and what is your own personal standard of morality.
Let us take another example: Slavery. Is slavery immoral? Slavery was practiced for centuries even by very pious people. Muhammad not only had slaves but he benefited from reducing free people into slaves and selling them. Was he immoral? If yes; why should we follow an immoral person and if no; why should we condemn slavery?
What about pedophilia? Obviously we all cringe at the thought of it and think that it is a shameful act of immorality. But during the time of the Prophet having sexual intercourse with a 9-year-old child was not immoral. In fact Aisha’s father after a little bit of trepidation consented to give her in marriage to Muhammad when Muhammad suggested it. At that time no one raised an eyebrow. The question is, if sleeping with a nine-year-old child was not deemed bad and therefore was not considered immoral, was it okay? Not everything that a society accepts as moral is right. Having sex with a minor may not have been immoral for Arabs 1400 years ago, but it is, as it has always been, unethical. Moralities are defined by circumstances, but ethics transcend time and space. They are rooted in logic. Morality can vary from culture to culture, from time to time and from person to person. Who is to determine what is moral and what is not?
A Man in Pakistan may think that if his wife meets her male-cousin with whom she has grown up without the presence of a third person she has committed an immoral act, has sullied his honor and the only way to restore his honor is to kill her. For him the meeting of two cousins is immoral but killing a human being is not.
We have to distinguish between those moralities that harm the society and those that do not. What harms others must be called unethical and discouraged. Slavery, for example, infringes upon the freedom of another human being. Therefore regardless of whether a society or a culture sanctions it, it is an unethical practice. 1400 years ago it was not immoral to have slaves. But slavery is ethically wrong, and that transcends time. Even the Prophet knew that slavery is wrong. That is why he advised his followers to manumit their slaves as an act of charity. Nonetheless he himself kept adding to his slaves by raiding city after city and capturing free people who were then reduced to slaves.
Because of what Muhammad said, Muslims manumitted their slaves when they were old, could not work and needed care. Manumitting the slaves when they were young was an act of charity and moral but manumitting them at old age without provision was unethical. The Holy Prophet failed to mention that and the old slaves ended up as beggars in the streets while their masters gained the pleasure of Allah on one hand for manumitting them and exonerated themselves from having to take care of them in their old age on the other; thus killing two birds with one stone.
What would have been the right thing to do was not to take slaves in the first place. But the wealth of Muhammad and later on the Islamic rulers came from slave making and trading. The so called Golden Age of Islam is a misnomer. It is actually a shameful age because the wealth generated in those days was not through industry and commerce but through looting and slavery.