The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
.Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Moral Philosophy of Zarathushtra[i]
By: Kambiz Sakhai
In this paper I would like to discuss the uniqueness of Zarathushtrian moral philosophy and its revolutionary approach to life. In this regard I will briefly look into the three dimensions of Zarathushtrian Ethics, namely, its rationality, its emphasis on happiness and its being founded on the idea of freedom. I would also discuss the distinguishing characteristics of each one of the above-mentioned dimensions, which is the result of their synthesis. I will argue that Zarathushtrian reason is not instrumental, its happiness is not narcissistic pursuit of pleasure and its freedom is not impulsive.
In the history of ethics there has always been a tension between the trend that emphasizes the rational dimensions of life, on the one hand, and the tendency that underscores the striving for happiness, on the other. Pursuit of happiness is usually considered to be an individualistic endeavor while rationalization is supposed to promote the cause of the collectivity. Thus, the false dichotomy between reason and happiness. This dichotomy is itself founded on another groundless assumption, namely the incompatibility of the individual and his or her society. Zarathushtrian moral philosophy is free from this kind of dualism. Moral commands are considered rational only if they contribute to the happiness of human beings and protection of the environment. In Yasna 31 verse 19 we are told that the one who pursues the truth becomes a life healer (ahumbish). Pursuit of happiness, on the other had, is judged as ethical only if it could be grounded in reason. There is an intrinsic connection between the life affirming tendencies of the Zarathushtrian ethics and its appreciation of reason. In Yasna 30 verses 3&4 we are told that the confrontation of good and evil is the source of life and its negation.
The rational morality introduced by Zarathushtra is very similar to Kant’s Moral Philosophy. In both cases autonomy requires one to obey no authority other than the authority of his or her reason. Zarathushtrian moral philosophy, however, does not stop here. The rationalistic moment is integrated with the Hedonistic one. Zarathushtrianism considers joyful participation in life and promoting happiness a moral obligation unlike Kant for whom the pursuit of happiness and acting in accordance with ones inclinations would cancel out the moral character of ones actions.
Zarathushtrians do not have to reject the life in order to reject the unjust society in which they are living. They do not have to mortify themselves in order to be able to conduct a productive life. There is no self-mortification or any other kind of rejection of life, recommended. Neither is there any type of activity that is slave-like and whose purpose is not clear to the individual. Finally, there is no blind fate or predestination that takes the control of the person’s life out of his/her hands. Zarathushtrians are only encouraged to find out what is enjoyable for themselves and others and then try to actualize it in a way that is not harmful to the environment. In other words they are not asked to dominate anything or anyone, including themselves. They are asked to enjoy the life while they respect their own needs, other people's needs, and the needs of the environment.
Thus, it is possible to claim that Zarathushtrian ethics is based on a completely rational approach to life, although we are talking of a very specific type of reason here. Reason in this tradition promotes life and happiness instead of justifying death, sorrow and sheer power. It does not require the denial of human intelligence in order to justify the existence of the evil in the world. There are no contradictions that have to appear congruency. A completely rational approach to life would have been impossible if the creator of the world were declared to be the same god who creates death and destruction. The same could be said about the glorification of the one who has brought about the evil in the world. There is no almighty god whose claim to omnipotence has to be reconciled with his impotence in eliminating the evil from the world. The Supreme Being in this tradition is not omnipotent in the sense that it can do the impossible. It is not even completely realized yet. It is in the process of being realized and human beings are the facilitators of its realization. Its complete realization requires the elimination of death and destruction that will be accomplished through the collective efforts of the human beings.
The other qualification of the type of rationality upon which the moral philosophy of this religion is founded is that it is not oriented merely toward success. Zarathushtrianism condemns instrumental and strategic reason with the same rigor that it despises ignorance and blind faith. It is based on discourse ethics that is the kind of ethics, which is dialogical in addition to being rational. That is, it is based on the kind of reason, which is not merely oriented to domination, the reason that is not merely procedural, not based on a life denying attitude but the type of reason that is concerned with the mutual understanding and consensus of the human beings who apply it. Thus, the welfare of the human beings and not the success is the criterion of rationality. The behavior and/or mentality that is based on manipulation and deception cannot be rational, according to Zarathushtrianism, even if it were successful.
Thus, the intellectual activities and social actions have to fulfill a number of requirements in order to be considered rational. One of the main requirements, as we said, is the satisfaction of the prerequisite of happiness. Reason is responsible for the promotion of happiness and affirmation of life in addition to the determination of right and wrong. Zarathushtrianism considers all kinds of denial of life, happiness and joy as the wrong existential choices. The choices that strengthen the forces that struggles against creation. The choices that promote death and destruction. The demonic choices. Delight in life and pleasures that it has to offer is in itself an ethical act. It is the denial of this enjoyment that is demonic.
So there is no contradiction between reason and pleasure in Zarathushtrian thought. The conflict of good and evil is not synonymous with the conflict between the desires of the individuals and their rationality. One does not have to give up gratification of his or her needs in order to be moral and behave in an ethical manner. Zarathushtrian reason is the kind of reason that is compatible with the satisfaction of human desires. Satisfaction of human desires, in this tradition, however, is not synonymous with egotistic following of ones interests. Pursuit of happiness does not reduce the reason to an instrument that serves the egotistic purposes of the individual because the individual is not considered to be alone in the world. The whole world is an arena in which the struggle of good against evil is going on and human beings are the main agents of this struggle. The world is the place in which happiness is established through the struggle of life affirming, honest and free human beings against the forces of oppression and ignorance. Happiness is the good and could be achieved through eradication of the evil, which is the same thing as death and destruction.
Zarathustrianism teaches us that the empirical universe is a world that has not yet become a cosmos. It is the arena in which the process of cosmization is taking place. The existing world, according to Zarathushtrianism has to be transformed and improved in order to become a cosmos. Human beings are the agents of this transformation. So this religion advocates the revolutionary change of the existing world. What is preventing the empirical universe from becoming a cosmos, however, is death and destruction. Consequently Zarathushtrian moral philosophy requires human beings to eliminate death and destruction from the face of the earth and facilitate its becoming a cosmos. The revolutionary transformation of the empirical world to the ordered cosmos is the result of the struggle of the human beings, the creators of the cosmos, to replace death and destruction with life, happiness and joy.
Thus, the whole world is in the process of becoming and human beings will facilitate this process through the celebration of life and happiness. The more people promote life and happiness the more they eliminate violence, fury, death and destruction and as a result of that they advance the cause of Supreme Being. Yasna 49 verse 4 tells us that evil is the intellect that promotes fury and cruelty. And in Yasna 30 verse 6 the same assertion is made about those who afflict the human existence with their wrath. In Yasna 53 verse 9 it is claimed that the evil doers in their anger defile truth. And in Yasna 48 verse 7 we are told to put down fury and check violence.
There is a strong emphasis on the social and environmental factors in Zarathushtrian approach to happiness. Being concerned about other people’s self-actualization, and even the protection of the environment, is intrinsically connected with the individual’s rational pursuit of happiness. Happiness, according to Zarathushtrianism, is not considered a merely inner state of mind, something that can be achieved through contemplation or ecstasy. It is actualized through the struggle of human beings against dishonesty, destructiveness, necrophilia, etc. In Yasna 53 verse 8 the struggle against evil is said to be linked to promotion of peace and prevention of killing, wounding, and affliction.
This leads us to the other main requirement of this rational Moral Philosophy, which is the satisfaction of the prerequisite of freedom. In Zarathushtrian tradition, human beings are considered free and intelligent. As we saw they can choose to promote life and happiness or death and destruction. They are free to choose to become either the co-creators of the cosmos or prevent its realization. Their participation in the process of eradication of death and destruction from the world is based on a conscious decision.
Zarathushtrianism teaches that forced action and blind faith are the enemies of reason. Thus in Yasna 30 verse 2 we are told to listen and chose between good and evil for ourselves. As we mentioned before, the criterion according to which the rationality is determined is not success and efficiency. Reason is not reducible to its instrumental dimension. Rationality has to be oriented towards understanding. A claim is validated if everyone who is involved with it can and will participate in the process of its corroboration. For example an action is just if and only if it can be proven to be in accordance with the norms of behavior that have been freely and consciously agreed upon by the people who are concerned with it. Thus an action is rational not only when it contributes to the cause of happiness and the protection of environment but also if it promotes freedom. This is discussed in yasna 31 verse 11 where the free will is considered the bases upon which the choice of each person is founded.
Therefore, reason is not the only dimension of Zarathushtrian thought that is defined in a manner that is protected against the instrumental and strategic deformations and promotes the cause of emancipation. Freedom too is uniquely defined in this tradition. And this is valid for the original Gathic tradition as well as the later Zarathushtrianism. In a text that probably belongs to the ninth century (shkand-i-gumanik vichar) it is declared that even Ahura Mazda is not free to do the impossible. So freedom cannot be extended beyond the boundaries of reason. Freedom does not mean use and abuse of oneself, other human beings and/or the environment. The entity that does that is not free but totally determined by its evil nature. Thus, the exploitative approach to the world is not based on freedom. It is a compulsive act. Exploitation, abuse and plunder of the world and its inhabitants are not compatible with the Zarathushtrian understanding of freedom. Unlike most of the theocentric religions its understanding of freedom, even the freedom of god, is not connected with power. Freedom is the result of rational reflection and deliberation. It is not intrinsically related to omnipotence. An act is free when it is not compulsive, when it is not against ones reasoned decisions.
Thus freedom, reason and happiness are the intertwined dimensions of the Zarathushtrian Ethics. Freedom is not synonymous with sheer power but means being rational and capable of making decisions that could be defended in a rational discursive way. Rationality itself is not an instrument that helps the person to dominate the world and use it for his or her egotistic purposes but what facilitates communication between the individual and his or her fellow human beings. It is the type of rationality that makes the process of reaching consensus a dialogical one. So that the normative agreements would become linguistified, redeemable and subject to critical evaluation. Reason in this sense will make it feasible to challenge the rightness of dominant norms without fear of punishment. It is related to the promotion of life and happiness. It is not an instrument for the justification of the power of god or the existence of pain and suffering in the world. Finally, happiness is neither an individualistic pursuit of pleasure, in the sense of immediate gratification, nor a disembodied affair that requires the denial of pleasure altogether. Happiness is dependent upon the struggle against death, destruction, ignorance, blind faith, oppression and requires eradication of the forces that prevent people from actualizing their life affirming potentials.
[i] This paper based on a presentation made by the author at the 13th N. American Zoroastrian congress held in San Jose, CA
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)