Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

The Baha'i Faith is much more focused on morality than on theology and metaphysics. The purpose of a system of ethics is to achieve human happiness through right human action. This involves "drawing closer to the Threshold of Almighty God," which means acquiring the divine attributes such that human actions are more closely aligned to the divine standard. Acting in accordance with the divine attributes such as trustworthiness, truthfulness, purity of heart, and patience, is according to Baha'u'llah, "the highest and most laudable of all acts." To follow this path enables human beings to discover their true selves, which are spiritual.

The Baha'i moral code, while claiming to be rational and reasonable, does not base its authority on this. Rather the Baha'i scriptures are the foundation and inspiration of Baha'i ethics. Baha'u'llah stated that scripture is the "unerring balance," the standard for what is good and evil, and that the commands in the scripture are in agreement with the reality of things. While individual morality and the virtues that human beings are urged to acquire remain much the same over successive religious dispensations, human society changes and evolves and so the social virtues are in need of adjustment from time to time. This is one of the main reasons for the succession of prophets through the ages. But within each age, the word of the Manifestation of God (the founders of the world religions) is the authority even for social laws. Human beings do not have the right to change these; if they need to be changed, God sends a new Manifestation. This general rule in the history of humanity has been altered to some extent in the Baha'i Faith with the institution of the Universal House of Justice, to which Baha'u'llah gave the authority to lay down and abrogate social legislation, supplementary to what is in the Baha'i scriptures.

On Virtue:
From Baha'u'llah's Writings

Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility.  (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, no. 130)

The Baha'i scriptures do not lay out a Holy Law giving humanity detailed instructions on what to do in each situation. Rather they list and describe a large number of spiritual qualities that human beings are urged to acquire in the course of their lives. One way of classifying these spiritual qualities would be to divide them into three areas:

  1. Those that relate to God include such attributes as love of God, trust in God, submissiveness before God, self-surrender (surrendering one's own will to that of God), steadfastness (fortitude and courage in keeping to the path laid down by God), patience (reliance on God in times of trial), servitude toward God (which paradoxically becomes the true source of human liberty), humility before God (which paradoxically becomes the source of human exaltation and glory), and piety.
  2. There are also the virtues associated with making spiritual progress. These include detachment (from the things of the world and turning toward the spiritual realm), purity (of mind and heart, of motives and intentions), and chastity (control of one's passions and desires).
  3. Finally, there are the virtues that apply in a human being's relationships with other humans. These include truthfulness (regarded as the foundation of all human virtues), sincerity and honesty (which manifest truthfulness in dealings with others), trustworthiness (which is regarded as the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world), justice (through which one can know of one's own knowledge and not through the knowledge of others), moderation, wisdom, love, mercy, and compassion. This classification is not however clear-cut. Steadfastness and patience, for example, while listed as virtues that relate to God are also needed in one's relations toward other human beings. Furthermore certain inner moral qualities are associated with certain outward attributes; for example, inner purity is associated with personal cleanliness. The actual list of virtues in the Baha'i scriptures is much longer than these few mentioned here, however.

Some of these virtues have a particular application in social ethics—for example, justice (upon which social order and good governance depend) and moderation (Baha'u'llah stated that many aspects of human civilization that were good have become a source of evil because they have been carried beyond the bounds of moderation). Perhaps the prime social virtue, the Baha'i scriptures would maintain, is unity (a social expression of the personal virtue of love), without which no social progress can be made.

As well as commending and encouraging the above-named attributes, the Baha'i scriptures also condemn their opposites, such actions as lying, hypocrisy, pride, envy, malice, and greed. Not only must human actions be good, motives and intentions must also be pure. For example, a charitable act can be negated if the intention is to make oneself look good. Baha'u'llah reserved some of his strongest words of condemnation for backbiting, which he taught quenched the light of the heart and extinguished the life of the soul, hurting the person who said it, the person who heard it, and the person about whom it was said.

The Baha'i scriptures give specific guidance for pursuing the above spiritual qualities. This guidance includes following the laws given by Baha'u'llah (for example, the obligation to pray and fast); investigating reality for oneself; keeping to a path of moderation (avoiding for example, monasticism and asceticism); controlling one's base passions; and creating united, just communities that can foster spiritual development. God holds humans morally responsible for their actions and for the path that they choose for themselves. God is, however, just and allows for all of the circumstances of an individual's life.

Most important in considering the whole area of ethics is the statement of Baha'u'llah that the "essence of faith" consists in "fewness of words and abundance of deeds"; thus the emphasis in the Baha'i teachings is on correct action (rather than correct beliefs). How should one live one's life? By what values should society function? 'Abdu'l-Baha is regarded as the embodiment of these qualities and Baha'is look to him as a role model and guide. Since Baha'u'llah taught that the following of this spiritual guidance is the pathway most conducive to human happiness, Baha'is are instructed to follow it not reluctantly as a "mere code of laws" but rather with joy and contentment. Of course, the above list of spiritual qualities to be acquired by human beings appears to be a formidable challenge. The expectation in the Baha'i scriptures is, however, that people should try to make progress a little at a time.

Opening Passages of the Kitab-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book) by Baha'u'llah

They whom God hath endued with insight will readily recognize that the precepts laid down by God constitute the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples. He that turneth away from them is accounted among the abject and foolish. We, verily, have commanded you to refuse the dictates of your evil passions and corrupt desires, and not to transgress the bounds which the Pen of the Most High hath fixed, for these are the breath of life unto all created things . . .

O ye peoples of the world! Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures. Thus hath it been sent down from the heaven of the Will of your Lord, the Lord of Revelation . . .

The Tongue of My power hath, from the heaven of My omnipotent glory, addressed to My creation these words: "Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty."

Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power. To this beareth witness that which the Pen of Revelation hath revealed. Meditate upon this, O men of insight!


Study Questions:
     1.     What achieves happiness for human beings according to the Baha'i teachings?
     2.     What is the standard for morality according to the Baha'i teachings?
     3.     The Baha’i teachings do not lay down detailed instructions for what human beings should do; what do they do instead?
     4.     List and describe some of the virtues that human beings are urged to acquire?
     5.     How do the Baha'i teachings suggest that individuals should pursue spiritual development?

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