The Role of the Individual In the Development of Moral and Ethical Standards of Conduct

The initial law of existence, “survival of the fittest” sets each individual against everyone else and the environment. This law, as we have seen, is modified by the social group’s efforts to integrate the individual into the larger grouping and modify the purely ego-centred behavior through expansion into the group setting. This leads to the development of social customs, mores, and interactions that govern and mitigate the purely self-centred approach of the “animal-man”. The next phase beyond this is the development of the moral and ethical ideal that is independent of the specific desires of an individual or even the social groupings within which he acts. The attempt to set up these independent standards is the influence of the mental evolution overlaying and guiding the vital-physical being.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that this mental development and progress in the moral-ethical field is naturally the action of individuals, who represent the nexus of mental activity. It is not “society” that “thinks”, but individuals who develop these ideas and begin to communicate them to others. To the extent that the ideas are able to be communicated and adopted, they eventually bring about changes in the social structure where they then get processed, codified and embodied into laws, rules, customs and patterns of living.

“The moral striver is also the individual; self-discipline, not under the yoke of an outer law, but in obedience to an internal light, is essentially an individual effort. But by positing his personal standard as the translation of an absolute moral ideal the thinker imposes it, not on himself alone, but on all the individuals whom his thought can reach and penetrate. And as the mass of individuals come more and more to accept it in idea if only in an imperfect practice or no practice, society also is compelled to obey the the new orientation. It absorbs the ideative influence and tries, not with any striking success, to mould its institutions into new forms touched by these higher ideals. But always its instinct is to translate them into binding law, into pattern forms, into mechanic custom, into an external social compulsion upon its living units.”

This is essentially the process of bringing about new moral and ethical conceptions within a social order. It starts with the individual who conceives the idea. A process of communication and consideration, person to person, takes place, until sufficient influence is levied by the idea in society that it takes on a form in the larger structure, at which point, it becomes fixed and locked into place, essentially unchanging until the next process is able to wield its similar influence in the social order.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 186-187

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