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The Baha'i Faith Approach to the Ethics of Decision Making

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

What is ‘ethics’?

It is difficult to ascribe a single definition to the word ‘ethics’ because ethics means many different things to different people. At its most basic, ‘ethics’ is, according to the Oxford Dictionary ‘moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity’

or ’the moral correctness of specified conduct’. Ethics is, therefore, about deciding between

good and bad, or right and wrong.

Ethics falls within the school of moral philosophy. According to Thomas Hobbes, ‘moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good and evil in the conversation and society of mankind’.

We all like to think of ourselves as good, ethical people. Research reveals that unethical decisions are more likely to occur when:

  • the person making the decision fails to see the decision as involving any ethical issues, or

  • when a person making a decision believes that any ethical issues that can be identified can be overcome.

This is because people generally believe that they view the world objectively and we ‘see ourselves as more fair, unbiased, competent, and deserving than average; and to be overconfident about our abilities and prospects’.

Ethical theories

Virtue ethics

The difficulty we face in making ethical decisions tends not to be at the extremes of good and bad or right and wrong, but where our options are in the grey area — where the choice of action may be just a little more correct or a little more wrong. The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384–322 BC), believed that one became a good person by making good choices. He developed a philosophy he called ‘phronesis’, or practical wisdom. Aristotle believed that the ability to choose wisely should emerge from genuine personal reflection about virtues.

Aristotle’s concept of virtue suggests that one should focus on the virtuous character of the

individual. In doing so, one should ask ‘what kind of person should I be in order to be a good person?’ This question is different to the question ‘what is a good action?’ Virtue ethics is therefore person-based rather than action-based.

Virtue ethics looks at the virtue or moral character of the person carrying out an action, rather than at ethical duties and rules, or the consequences of particular actions. Virtue ethics not only deals with the rightness or wrongness of individual actions, it provides guidance as to the sort of characteristics and behaviours a good person will seek to achieve. In that way, virtue ethics is concerned with the whole of a person’s life rather than particular episodes or actions.

Virtue theorists posit that there is a common set of virtues all human beings would benefit from, rather than different sets for different sorts of people, and that these virtues are natural to mature human beings — even if they are hard to acquire. These virtues are traditionally said

to include the following:

  • prudence

  • justice

  • fortitude

  • temperance.

Deontological theory

While virtue ethicists such as Aristotle focused on self-reflection, other ethicists have focused on actions. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) believed that certain types of actions (including murder, theft and lying) were absolutely prohibited, even in cases where the action would bring about more happiness than the alternative. In other words, we are morally obligated to act in accordance with a certain set of principles and rules regardless of the outcome of so acting. This school of thought is formally known as a ‘deontological’ or ‘rule-based theory’.

The word ‘deontological’ comes from the Greek word deon, which means ‘duty’. Deontological theories hold that some acts are always wrong, even if the act leads to an admirable outcome. Actions in deontology are therefore always judged independently of their outcome. An act can be morally bad but may unintentionally lead to a favourable outcome.

Kant’s deontological theory derives from human reason. Kant’s theory is based on his view of the human being as having the unique capacity for rationality. According to Kant, the moral worth of an action is determined by the human will, which is the only thing in the world that can be considered good without qualification. Kant believed that moral principles should be seen as laws that issue from mankind’s reason. According to Kant, these moral principles should be based in laws, codes and rules and that the moral principles should be absolute and focused on fairness.

Teleological theory

Another school of thought, or theory about ethics, is utilitarianism, whose best-known proponents are John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). Utilitarianism is ‘the moral theory that an action is morally right if and only if it produces at least as much good (utility) for all people affected by the action as any alternative action the person could do instead’ (Audi 1999). In this theory, in contrast to the deontological theory discussed above, answers to questions about the ends we ought to pursue determine the principles of right and wrong. In other words, the ends justify the means. This theory is known as a teleological theory. In teleological theories, (moral) right is derived from a theory of the (non-moral) good, or what is good or desirable as an end to be achieved. In Greek, ‘telos’ means ‘goal’ or ‘aim’. Moral behaviour is goal-directed or aim-directed.

Hedonism is a variation of the teleological theory which connects the consequences of human behaviour to the moral concepts of ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’ and ‘moral and immoral’. The hallmark of most teleological moral theories is that they identify these moral concepts with pleasure and pain, or happiness and unhappiness. Hence, moral acts are considered good, right or moral insofar as they lead to pleasurable consequences, and bad, wrong, or immoral if they lead to painful consequences.

Utilitarianism and hedonism are examples of ‘consequentialism’. Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether something is right by what its consequences are. For instance, most people would agree that lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would help save a person’s life, consequentialism says it is the right thing to do.

There are of course difficulties with either theory outlined above. For example, how do set rules deal with ambiguity? If the ends justify the means for the greater good, what about an individual client’s need to maximise profit, for example by investing in something which produces great harm to the community?

Each of the above schools of thought, as also described in Figure 1 below, offer a number of interesting ideologies for financial advisers to consider when dealing with clients ethically, and in particular the unique relationship between the financial adviser and the client. These ideologies can assist in making ethical decisions. The next section of this topic will address some of the obstacles to ethical decision making that can arise.

Baha'i View On the Difficulty of Dealing with Ethical Questions

The question of whether a certain behaviour is permitted or prohibited, good, evil, or neutral, is a question of ethics. A Bahá'í who wants to know how to act in a given situation, will begin by turning to his conscience, and since this has been formed by the revealed Word, to the Scripture, i.e. the sum of the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh and the authoritative interpretations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. What might appear to be self-evident for every religious person is not necessarily so, as we shall shortly see.

Today the presentation of concrete ethical standards has become problematic in our society. Certainly, the highest ethical values in the Bahá'í Revelation, the love of one's neighbour and of all humanity, or the cardinal virtue of justice, are sure to meet with approval. One can agree to these highly abstract values without having to commit oneself to changing any patterns of everyday life. However, when it comes to assessing actual everyday behaviour affecting one's own self, especially when it comes to prohibitions, irritation can set in quickly.

The Bahá'ís are living in this society and are influenced by the prevalent ways of thinking whether they want to be or not, and in this society, thinking in moral categories is becoming more and more unfashionable. Many people are unaccustomed to it. To many it seems increasingly questionable that there should be such things as rigid norms and unalterable duties which unequivocally state what should or should not be done. This is concomitant with the decay of religion and the resulting erosion of the Christian value system.

In many parts of the world morality, called an "honourable form of stupidity" by Friedrich Nietzsche, has not only lost its general binding force but also its self-evident importance and is actually seen by many as a kind of stupidity. It has largely disappeared from everyday speech and is almost only used with an ironical undertone. A person who maintains moral points of view is considered a "morality apostle", with whom no one wants any interaction. This is evident in political discussions or in talk shows on television where interlocutors are admonished, for God's sake not to moralise. Especially in regard to so-called "social fringe groups" (criminals, social outcasts, prostitutes, drug addicts, homosexuals) or on the issue of abortion one should kindly refrain from any moral approach whatsoever. Persons who fail to do so disqualify themselves, exposing themselves as Pharisees and die-hard reactionaries. This process of "demoralisation" began with sociology; how far it has already spread can be seen by the semantic cleansing of our language, which bans the use of all terms that might hold any moral reproach.

Of course, Bahá'ís do not think that way. Experience with these issues shows, however, that they often have similar feelings, which is not surprising in this social climate. Therefore, a person presenting ethical demands and thus drawing an ideal of humanity "in light of which one's own everyday existence fails a thousandfold", is easily suspected of affectations or insincerity by being a moralist, a hell-and-brimstone preacher, as well as by violating the cardinal norm that prohibits self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is a distorted form of righteousness. According to Confucius the self-righteous are "the spoilers of morals." They were frequently and uncompromisingly rebuked by Bahá'u'lláh even as He praised the truly righteous, "well is it with the righteous that mock not the sinful, but rather conceal their misdeeds". When someone uses the pretext of moral responsibility to scrutinize commonly accepted social norms of behaviour, isn't that person preoccupied with the faults and sins of others? In the end, doesn't such a person violate the imperatives of his or her own ethics?

If this were the case, it would actually be totally inadmissible to be concerned with Bahá'í ethics, which as in all religions do make up a substantial part of our theology. However, we are not dealing here with a specific individual's unique and personal behaviour, but rather with abstract human behaviour. And to judge this behaviour in the abstract is not only permissible, but imperative, since God's Book is the "unerring Balance" "in which all who are in the heavens and all who are on the earth are weighed", through which "truth shall be distinguished from error". At a time "when no man knoweth how to discern light and darkness or to distinguish guidance from error", we are challenged to reflect what our duties are, whether certain ways of acting, accepted or disputed in society, are permitted or prohibited. How else could we then accomplish the task which 'Abdu'l-Bahá defined in a prayer: "to refute what is vain and false" and "to establish the truth"?

From Dr. Udo Schaefer, a chapter from "In A Blue Haze: Smoking and Bahá'í Ethics"

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