Virtue Ethics and the Wisdom Tradition: Exploring the Inclusive Guidance of the Quran

By Choudhury, Enamul | Global Virtue Ethics Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Virtue Ethics and the Wisdom Tradition: Exploring the Inclusive Guidance of the Quran


Choudhury, Enamul, Global Virtue Ethics Review


Abstract

The paper elaborates the meaning and measures of Virtue Ethics as a distinct form of moral discourse centered on cultivating an ethic of identity or character. In construing this ethic, Virtue Ethics engages in a moral discourse different from the prevalent discourses on ethics. While the discourse on Virtue Ethics remains grounded in the Aristotelian tradition of moral inquiry, the paper considers this to be a restrictive scope for advancing the meaning of the ethic of identity. The paper argues the need to enlarge the scope of inquiry by considering the wisdom traditions as sources from which virtues could be drawn. It identifies scriptures as a neglected source of wisdom, and relies on the Quran as an exemplary source for the understanding and cultivation of an inclusive ethic of identity. The paper explores the Quranic meaning of inclusion - both in terms of consciousness and conduct. Such a meaning is crucial for responding to the diversity that the emerging global consciousness and global context entails.

Introduction

Although never popular or dominant in the contemporary discourse on ethics, nevertheless, learning from the wisdom literature remains a valued approach in both academic inquiry and everyday social discourse. In the prevalent discourse, reflections are circumscribed either by the deontological, utilitarian or situational approaches to ethics, with the scope of ethics restricted to the secular conception of state and society. Virtue ethics offers a point of departure from the prevalent discourse by making the wisdom literature an integral part of ethical discourse, and in doing so, renders religious texts an inclusive part of reflection and deliberation.

For Virtue Ethics, the value of scriptures lie as sources of "wisdom." This consideration does not affect nor judge the broader significance of scriptures in religious consciousness or devotional acts. Wisdom constitutes in how a person uses the knowledge he or she has. It is an attitude toward knowledge as well as toward belief, values, and skills (Meacham, 1990). Wisdom underlies the rules that are brought to bear on judgment formation or interpretation. In their review of the literature on wisdom, Birren and Fisher observe that, "the etymology of the words wisdom and wise suggests that they have always denoted or connoted high or elevated forms of behavior. Thus, being wise and displaying wisdom reflects forms of behavior that are admired, condoned, and encouraged" (Birren and Fisher, 1990: p. 318).

Scriptural wisdom aims to affect transformation in consciousness. Notwithstanding the common secular perception of such transformation as infantile servitude to presumed Divine commands, Scriptures do not dictate the transformation of consciousness as a logical or undeniable imperative. Rather, Scriptures invite its readers to a beneficial opportunity for human flourishing. To what opportunities and conception of flourishing does the Quran invites its readers to embrace? What sort of transformation in consciousness and conduct does Quran points to? What is the global wisdom of the Quran? To address these questions the interlocutor needs to extricate the wisdom of the Quran from its meaning frozen in historical particulars and from the social consciousness and customs of its traditional bearers.

The Quran (1) ascribes to itself the status of a wisdom literature (2:274, 3:80): a continuously available source of guidance to truth (39:41) and a wise reminder (3:58). The Quran also recognizes a variety of ways in which a person may conceive of his or her ethic, both as a function of history and of existential choice. Recognizing this freedom the Quran offers each individual, irrespective of his or her social affiliation, a path to embody a specific ethic: the ethic of being a "muslim."* In the Quran, "sovereignty" belongs only to "God"(2). Therefore, every muslim remains accountable to God for his or her ethic as exemplified in conduct. …

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