Intentions and Actions

I was excited to see “The Sea of Precious Virtues” as an option on this shelf. A “mirror for princes,” it purports to be a leadership guide, but is more about living a good Islamic life than leadership per se. As I’ve been reading more about religion, one of the major philosophical differences that has occurred to me is between a focus on interpersonal relations/actions in this world, and a focus on purity of thought/the afterlife. There’s a story that appears in the book regarding two brothers, one of whom lives a virtuous life, while the other is debauched. On the same day, each experiences an epiphany of sorts, and decides that he is wasting his life. The virtuous brother gets off his prayer rug and heads upstairs to join his brother’s party, while the sinner realizes the frivolity of his ways and heads down to join his brother in worship. The two men pass each other on the stairs and both die instantly. In this story, the one who resolved to pray goes to heaven while his brother goes to hell, due to their intentions at the moment of death.

I find two aspects of this particularly challenging to my own sense of morality: first, that the lifetime of good (or bad) deeds is negated by one’s final acts, and secondly, that in this case the only “act” was a preparatory one- going up or downstairs, and intentions are privileged beyond acts. There’s an incentive-based logic to prioritizing the moment of death: even a lifelong sinner is not past redemption and even someone with decades of good behavior can’t rest on his/her laurels. But it seems to come at the expense of a more holistic view of justice, and one could imagine a “discount rate” by which one’s actions (and thoughts) closest to death are weighted more heavily than earlier ones without trumping them altogether. Relatedly, intentions are within everyone’s control, whereas someone who is poor or an invalid may have a harder time giving charitably, making a pilgrimage, or performing other good deeds, but it is easy to imagine this emphasis on “right mind” leading to eremiticism or other self-isolation in the pursuit of purity that is antithetical to my own sense that community and care for others matters, not merely one’s own elevation. I would like to know more about how important the “going downstairs” is as a preparatory action- in U.S. law, for example, saying “let’s rob a bank” would not be sufficient to indict for conspiracy, but taking actions such as procuring explosives and a getaway car would. But I believe that mindset matters too; there’s a tendency in the corporate world to focus solely on results without recognizing that results are partly a function of other variables outside of an individual’s (or organization’s) control (e.g., bonuses awarded or not based on revenues or earnings without any comparison to peers or alternatives). A little bit of re-emphasis on one’s approach might be healthy.

At the same time, the text does concern itself with the physical world: there was a rule that if you have water flowing through your property to your neighbor’s and he has plants, you may stop the flow (though it’s preferred to let the water reach them as well), but if he has animals, you may not. Presumably the logic is that while in either case you have an impact on your neighbor’s livelihood, your own is of equal value, but in the case of the animals, they may die of thirst. This injunction is grounded in the impact on other sentient beings of our actions in the current world and deriving impacts on property rights, rather than starting from an abstract and absolute right and applying it regardless of the consequences.


The book displayed more misogyny and anti-Semitism than I’d hoped (quote: “G-d divided avarice into ten parts, nine he gave to the Jews, and one to the rest of the world,”) but was also more – by the 16th century it was clear that the notion of the “greater jihad” as spiritual rather than military already existed. There is a tendency in thought (as well as politics) to either romanticize the past or dismiss it as ignorant. I lean more in the former camp (partly out of contrarian reaction to the seemingly endless celebration of technology I tend to encounter), but I’m hopeful that further study will help me to recognize the weaknesses and frailties as well as the wisdom and fortitude of earlier times.

P.S. Other than my writing goals, I’m pleased with how well I’ve stayed on track with my goals: I did my 34th day of pull-ups this year earlier this week, have finished the NY Times crossword puzzles through August of 1996 and have been reading over 30 pages/day. I was also delighted to choreograph the fights for “Mr. Burns” which opened this weekend.

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