The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates, who is believed by many to have been the first ethical philosopher. The good life is a life spent in knowing, loving, and seeking the moral good. Philosophically, universal ethics (that is, the idea that all humans have some rights) and monotheism (the belief that all humans have one supreme God) strongly entail each other. Consider the statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” It is itself merely a claim: is life not worth living for ferns, cockroaches, or butterflies? What makes this question about the nature and purpose of life possible and necessary is our very ability to reflect, evaluate, and judge. But where does this ability come from? Where does life itself come from? Socrates was not alone; much of human philosophizing across time and space points to the human quest to know the answers to these questions. But Socrates and his likes, despite their brilliance, could not proceed beyond their thought
of one God to either the worship
of one true God or to balanced, feasible ethics. Recall that it was Socrates who suggested, in Plato’s famous Republic
, that all must be governed by one all-wise philosopher, and that women and children are to be communal property rather than individuals within their families, that children should be separated from their parents at birth and placed according to their natural capacities so as not to receive undeserved love, and so on, effectively proposing a plan for the most racist and loveless society imaginable.
How could the man known to be the first and greatest philosopher of ethics come to a conclusion that, by all accounts, appears the most deplorable and unethical? Because the human mind, even at its best, cannot be trusted to play god; only God is above blind spots and errors. In fact, humans intuitively know of their imperfection and have an unquenchable thirst for seeking what is infinitely good and perfect. We all seek God even when we do not know it.
A typical book on the history of ethics will teach you that the philosophical discipline of ethics was born in ancient Greece precisely to wrestle with the kinds of questions we have listed above. But this is merely a secular, Eurocentric narrative: humanity has never existed without divine guidance and hence ethics. Allah created the first human being with the ability to know right from wrong and the imperative to follow divine guidance when it is sent through divine messengers. The Almighty addressed our father Adam thus, “When guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows My guidance—there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve” (2:38). Divine guidance, we learn, was not sent haphazardly or post hoc when the human experiment went awry but was from the beginning part of the divine plan. Given this, humans never lived without the benefit of divine guidance. Humans can be divided into two kinds, however: those blessed like the ummah of the Final Prophet ﷺ who have clear access to it in unaltered form, and those for whom the guidance had been forgotten except in distorted and partial forms.
The lynchpin of that guidance has always been to recognize the truth of one God, to worship Him alone, and to be good to one another. Logically, the Almighty could have limited His religion to worshiping Him alone, but out of His perfect mercy and wisdom, He has made goodness to the creation part of faith in Him, placed goodness to others and all creation in our nature, and reinforced it through His revealed guidance. But humans are forgetful, both as individuals and as communities. Human history is filled with cycles of human forgetfulness and divine reminder. Over time, that guidance would become dim, lost, or adulterated to the point that people would fall back into polytheism and mutual oppression.
We must, therefore, reject the Eurocentric fiction that Greek philosophers of sixth to fourth century BCE invented ethical reflection, for it is possible that the pagan Greek philosophers or those who influenced them had access to some remnants of revelation in the same way that the pagan Arabs did. And just the same way that there were ḥanīf
s—monotheists who searched for divine guidance—in pagan Arabia before Islam, some charitable interpreters classify the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as monotheists of sorts.
Historical evidence suggests that without denouncing polylatry (worship of many gods) in practice, these philosophers’ search for truth led them to conceptual monotheism
Hindu philosophers of the Upanishads, similarly, while remaining polylatrous, had gestured toward conceptual monotheism in the same way that pre-Islamic Arabs attributed ultimate power to Allah while justifying idolatry.
This means that either through remnants of divine guidance or their own virgin thinking, humans naturally come to believe in one Ultimate Reality, but often cannot advance beyond this point without the benefit of divine revelation, devolving into endless disagreement and confusion. We need revelation to arrive at the attributes of the One True God and the right way to live that is pleasing to God.
To reiterate, then, although human reason may discover the truth of divine monotheism and ethical truths, it is likely to err; it is better equipped, in other words, to recognize the truth once it is presented than to know it outright. Imām Ibn Taymiyya makes this point by invoking Surah al-Mulk which tells us of the lamenting disbelievers who will declare in the afterlife, “If only we had listened (to prophets) or reasoned, we would not be among the companions of the Blaze” (67:10).
But if human beings often fail to acknowledge and thank their Creator, how much more likely are they to neglect the rights of His creation?
Our contemporary empirical experience confirms both of these observations: the existence of the natural ethical sense (fiṭra
) and its weakness. Even in our hyper-secularized, artificially mechanized, distant-from-nature, and unreflective lives, human beings cannot easily avoid asking these ‘big’ questions.
Human life is impossible without confronting these issues, and our choice is to respond to the truth, neglect it, or deny it. This becomes the foundational moral choice upon which all else depends. We also witness, however, that when led by the self-serving elite rather than divine revelation, human reason degenerates into either endless disagreement and cynicism, absurdities such as atheism, or obscurantist cults that mimic true religion. Against the cumulative judgment of all known human societies, including most human beings today in favor of theistic ethics, a tiny hegemonic global elite produces agnostic or atheistic philosophy and culture, rejecting the truth of God yet ready to believe in the most fantastic tales; like the characters in Alice in Wonderland
, they practice believing six impossible things before breakfast.
Without divine law, no line between good and evil is above philosophical contestation. Homosexual behavior had, until recently, been seen as the greatest immorality across cultures, but now the global elite have decided the opposite.
Some have even taken to justifying incest. Not too long ago, eugenics and racist theories of human behavior justifying the dominance of some races and criminalization of others were mainstream science. Is killing animals (or even vegetables) for consumption really different from killing humans for consumption? Is killing unwanted babies really morally equivalent to murder? As the leading moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre of our time, a Christian, noted in his groundbreaking After Ethics
It is a distinctive feature of the social and cultural order that we inhabit that disagreements over central moral issues are peculiarly unsettleable.
The reason, he contends, is the rejection by the Enlightenment thinkers of the monotheistic religious grounding of these values and its replacement with “secular morality” with which any rational person could agree. Originally religious concepts such as the sanctity of human life, fundamental equality of human beings before God, and so on, were now orphaned, because the warring philosophies could not agree on any basis for them. All values in such a secular culture depend on what feels good or bad, an ethical theory called emotivism
In an emotivist culture, ethical beliefs are merely based on manipulation of individuals by each other and of them all by the more powerful forces of political elites and capitalists.
In the nobly phrased US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was telling only a half-truth when he wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These truths were never self-evident, for the norm in human experience in every respect is difference and inequality; the idea of equality could only come from the belief in a soul given from on high. Whenever access to revelation was lost, humans often returned to beastly existence.
How does post-Enlightenment Western society, defined by liberal philosophy, that MacIntyre labels emotivist, justify moral principles? An American constitutional scholar’s answer is particularly apt: a kind of intellectual smuggling. This has prompted some scholars to accuse them of smuggling ethical values from major religions because they do not have a valid justification for their own.
This truth was expressed more poignantly and much earlier by Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, whose protagonist in Crime and Punishment
(1866) observes the consequence of this emergent late-19th century belief thus: “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.”
In German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s telling, who had himself experienced the consequences of losing his Christian faith, a madman observing the new Europe presciently proclaims what the loss of belief in God that was to overtake Europe entailed,
How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? … Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
With characteristic starkness, Nietzsche declares that when belief in God is shaken, nothing is comprehensible anymore; the moral world is shattered even though people will continue to shut their eyes to its consequences. “It is not the eyes,” says the Ever-living Lord, “but the hearts that are in their chests that become blind!” (22:46). God is Ever-living; what’s dead in truth is the culture that utters and celebrates such blasphemy.