The Dialectics of Ethics

Moral Ontology and Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy


  • Feriel Bouhafa University of Cambridge



Philosophical and theological ethics in the Islamic tradition tend to be appraised on the basis of a unilateral perspective, which circumvents a moral rational approach to intuition. On this account, moral knowledge is expected to rest on intuitive judgments, which are universally accessible to human beings. Looking at moral ontology and epistemology in Arabic philosophy, I demonstrate that taking intuitionism as the only valid rational discourse to ethics needs to be challenged. In fact, Arabic philosophers do not subscribe to a realist view of the good and evil in relation to human actions, and rather admit a division between cosmic values in metaphysics and moral values in ethics. In so doing, they show how metaphysics ascribes a substantial view to good in existence and a negative theory to evil, while the science of ethics admits a teleological and relative view of the good. Overall, the falāsifa remain committed to Aristotle’s premise that ethics does not rely on abstraction and emphasized the role of experience too. But, they seem to be also attentive to the dialectical nature of Islamic jurisprudence in producing norms considering both principles of the law and its particular application. This is also clear in their epistemology of ethical judgments such as the maxim justice is good. While they ascribe a universal status to ethical maxims, they preclude from granting them an absolute status over the authority of norms construction. Instead, philosophers attribute a dialectical role to ethical maxims to guarantee both consensus over norms and the possibility to produce truthful opinions.

Keywords: Moral ontology and epistemology, The problem of evil, The nature of the good, Moral values, al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā, Ibn Rushd, Legal epistemology, Written and unwritten laws, Ethical maxims, Widely-accepted premises (mashhūrāt), Reputable premises (maḥmūdāt).



2022-01-04 — Updated on 2021-12-31

How to Cite

Bouhafa, F. (2021). The Dialectics of Ethics: Moral Ontology and Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 21(2), 25–54.