If most people are asked about the source of the ethical impulse in man, they would reply that it is a function of the relationship of the individual to his society. This line of thought holds that man is essentially self-centered on his own, and begins to modify his behaviour in response to pressure from the society, whether family, friends or the larger communities within which he lives and interacts. And there is a certain amount of truth to the idea that behaviour does take into account the demands of the societal relationships within which an individual lives. It must be noted, however, that one can identify numerous examples in which a society establishes certain mores or ethical rules, and yet, the ethical impulse of the individual conflicts with or contradicts the societal norms expected. This points to a different source of the ethical impulse in man, and points also to a deeper underlying basis for the evolution of ethics in the society as well.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “…ethics only begins by the demand upon him of something other than his personal preference, vital pleasure or material self-interest; and this demand seems at first to work on him through the necessity of his relations with others, by the exigencies of his social existence. But that this is not the core of the matter, is shown by the fact that the ethical demand does not always square with the social demand, nor the ethical standard always coincide with the social standard. On the contrary, the ethical man is often called upon to reject and do battle with the social demand, to break, to move away from, to reverse the social standard. His relations with others and his relations with himself are both of them the occasions of his ethical growth; but that which determines his ethical being is his relations with God, the urge of the Divine upon him whether concealed in his nature or conscious in his higher self or inner genius. He obeys an inner ideal, not an outer standard; he answers to a divine law in his being, not to a social claim or a collective necessity. The ethical imperative comes not from around, but from within him and above him.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15, The Suprarational Good, pg. 151