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Comparative Moral Philosophy

A Reflection on Imam Ibrahim Amin’s Talk for the DLCC.

The Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion has recently been fortunate to host Imam Ibrahim Amin for a seminar on understandings of compassion in the Islamic tradition, at which he was joined by a number of Oxford philosophers and scholars of the Oriental Institute, and by the eminent Tibetan scholar, Thupten Jinpa.  It is a tradition of the Centre that a Fellow or member write a short reflection after an event has been held, and it is my pleasure to do this for Imam Amin’s rich and lucid presentation.

Imam Amin’s talk was, I think, an object lesson in the kind of comparative philosophical work that the Centre hopes to foster in the years to come.

Comparative philosophy—that is, philosophical work that compares and contrasts ideas from different traditions—is extremely difficult to do well, and often it is done conspicuously badly.  A student of a given tradition spends many years internalizing the explicit and implicit presuppositions of that tradition; he or she learns to communicate in its terms, and to regard certain characteristics as criterial of success.  Accordingly work in another tradition will, to the unimaginative, frequently seem obscure, irrelevant or poorly thought-out, taking a great deal of time to establish facile points or making sweeping claims without appropriate

substantiation.  The usual response is just to ignore these alternative ways of working, and in a way this is a defensible reaction: perhaps some assumptions, at least methodological, are necessary for doing philosophical work; one cannot work with every different possible set of methodological assumptions simultaneously.  At the same time it is equally clear from even a cursory glance at the history of Western philosophy that work informed by multiple traditions may be peculiarly rich: one need think only of the union of Christian and Aristotelian elements in Aquinas or of empiricist and rationalist elements in Kant.

            Imam Amin’s talk was alive to these challenges, and also immensely encouraging as a first step towards overcoming them.  He began by warning us against that most familiar of unscholarly temptations, speaking of ‘Islam on compassion’ or ‘compassion in the Islamic tradition’, when of course Islam has as many strands and variants as Christianity or ‘Western philosophy’.  Nevertheless, as he explained, the many strands of Islam all recognize the authority of the Quran, and each attributes some kind of authority to a corpus of hadith (reports about the Prophet’s life), though which hadith are considered genuine and what significance is attributed to them varies considerably.  He then proceeded to discuss the role of compassion in these sources, including the significance of the phrase by which all bar one of the Quran’s suras are introduced, the basmala, ‘b-ismi-llāhi r-ramāni r-raīmi’, in which God is denoted by the phrase ‘the Most Gracious’ or ‘the Most Compassionate’.  Thereafter he proceeded to examine some of the philosophical debates these sources have given rise to in the Islamic tradition, such as the sense in which a human virtue may be attributed to a transcendent being and the role of compassion in zakat (alms-giving).  In the course of this, and in response to questions, he offered an extremely interesting explanation of the exegetical procedures followed by Islamic scholars in reading the Quran and the hadith.  He suggested that the passages, of which we hear so much in the contemporary media, which might appear to condone harsh or unkind conduct, may be shown by such close reading not in fact to do so.

            Some points of immediate interest for me qua Western philosopher.  I have a long-standing interest in moral epistemology, and in particular in whether and in what manner our sources of moral judgement are universal.  It was accordingly very intriguing to see how complicated moral distinctions that are prized in our own tradition re-emerged, though formulated quite differently: one example that came out especially was a distinction between the kinds of obligations we have regarding our actions, our intentions and our motives, and the varying kinds of culpability we have for each of these.  The distinctions appeared to me to map very interestingly onto those Kant outlined in his Rechtslehre and Tugendlehre, in which he discusses the norms governing action, and intention and motive, respectively; it was all the more intriguing that Thupten Jinpa suggested that related distinctions are also present in Buddhist ethics.  So I am wondering if there is some very interesting comparative work to be done on this subject.  I was also most intrigued by his discussion of what constitutes God’s compassion.  God, being supersensible, cannot be attributed the kind of sensations that embodied creatures have, so His compassion cannot be understood as, e.g., a pained sensation occasioned by another’s pain.  As I understood Imam Amin, the standard view in Islamic scholarship is to give what analytical philosophers would call a dispositional account of God’s compassion, that is, to characterize God’s compassion as manifested in His actions, rather than his sensations.  I should like to learn more about whether these dispositions are thought to actually constitute God’s emotion, or whether they are merely how it is revealed to us, with its nature remaining mysterious.

            But it would be reductive to treat the seminar’s interests purely in terms of these, as it were, low-hanging fruit for the Western philosopher.  The strongest impression I came away with was of a rival tradition of no less depth and sophistication than my own; to learn from it deeply would require a great deal of background work, a very great many more such discussions, patience, tolerance, and critical acuity; but what we might learn could be very valuable indeed.   I was very encouraged by the tone of the discussion, at once respectful and critically aware, and I look forward to many more in the future.

Samuel C. P. Hughes

Fellow, DLCC