Ethics, Desire and Karma

It is quite natural for the vital nature of man to desire success, well-being, vital fulfilment in our lives. This involves the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. This actually acts as the motive spring or impulsion behind our actions in the vast majority of cases. We have framed our ethical concepts to incorporate the satisfaction of these impulsions, and thus have created a measure for our ethical framework that insists on such achievement.

Sri Aurobindo points out, however, that ethics as a conceptual principle can be seen, and should be recognized, in the absence of specific attainment of desire. In fact, an ethical framework tied to overt or subtle achievement of pleasure or avoidance of suffering is more in the nature of a bargain than a truly ethical act. “…true ethics is dharma, the right fulfilment and working of the higher nature, and right action should have right motive, should be its own justification and not go limping on the crutches of greed and fear. Right done for its own sake is truly ethical and ennobles the growing spirit; right done in the lust for a material reward or from fear of the avenging stripes of the executioner or sentence of the judge, may be eminently practical and useful for the moment, but it is not in the least degree ethical, but is rather a lowering of the soul of man; or at least the principle is a concession to his baser animal and unspiritual nature.”

Human law is tailored to more or less conform to the expectation of desire and mete out punishment for acts which cause pain and suffering, and reward those who act within the framework or who have been victimized by acts deemed worthy of punishment.

The law of Karma, as popularly conceived, “…is expected…to deal with man on his own principle and do this very thing with a much sterner and more inescapable firmness of application and automatic necessity of consequence.” Thus, we have created the cosmic law in the image of our human law, and turned it, in our normal view of the matter, into a system of meted out rewards and punishments.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 102-103,