Moral Agents and their Deserts The Character of Mu'tazilite Ethics
The book in a nutshell. In histories of Islamic thought, the Mu‘tazilites have often occupied a special place as representatives of a brand of theology whose hallmark was its reliance on reason, particularly in questions of ethics. It is a feature that has made them an appealing destination for those interested in engaging Islamic theological ethics philosophically. One of the key questions that organised the field of Islamic ethical debates was a question that we may recognise as a version of the one discussed by Socrates centuries before in the Euthyphro: “Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” In Islamic theological terms: does the religious Law command certain acts because they are intrinsically good, or are these acts good because (or in the sense that) they are commanded?
The Mu‘tazilites took the former view, articulating an account of ethics that sought to uphold the objectivity of value and its accessibility to human reason. The notion of desert formed a cornerstone of this system, serving as an element in the definition of moral terms and accounting for the connection between actions and consequences like punishment and reward. My aim in this book is to carefully examine the Mu‘tazilite notion of desert in the background of a larger concern as to whether, and to what extent, Mu‘tazilite ethics repays philosophical attention. In the course of this investigation, I look more closely at a number of topics, including the role of the notion of rights or claims (ḥuqūq) in the Mu‘tazilite moral scheme, the Mu‘tazilite justification of punishment and the Mu‘tazilite notion of personal identity. Several of these topics have formed subjects of intense preoccupation in recent philosophy, yet they are ones that encounter special challenges in the Mu‘tazilite context given some of the more unusual elements of the Mu‘tazilites' intellectual scheme.
Reviews. The book has been reviewed in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 72 (2009); Review of Middle East Studies 43(2009); Choice (2009); Philosophy in Review 29 (2009); Turkish Journal of Islamic Studies22 (2009); Falsafeh 34 (2010); Journal of Islamic Studies 22 (2011); Journal of the American Oriental Society 132 (2012); Ilahiyat Studies 3 (2012), Religious Studies Review 43 (2017).
The book was the recipient of the 2009 Albert Hourani award granted by the Middle East Studies Association.