Ethical Instinct and Ethical Reason and Will

The concept of instinct defines a more or less “automatic” reaction to life circumstances that has not been processed and developed by the conscious mind.  We can see the action of instinct in the animal world very clearly.  Specific species of birds undertake mating rituals, nest-building and other activities without a formal educational process.  In the debate between “nature” and “nurture”, instinct represents what was provided “built in” by “nature”, rather than what is obtained through socialization or educational processes.  The monarch butterfly in fact requires 4 generations to achieve its migratory instinct from Mexico, through the United States, to Canada and return.  These butterflies from one generation have not experienced what the successive generations will experience!  Instinct implies that there is a conscious intelligence beyond the mental level which has built in these automated responses into the infra-rational life action.   One of the instinctive fields of action involves ethical behavior where an individual simply “knows” that something is right or wrong, without necessarily undergoing socialization or any educational process.  Sri Aurobindo calls this the “infra-ethical” stage, which is then taken up by the rational intellect, defined, purified and codified into rules, laws and codes of conduct.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Our ethical impulses and activities begin like all the rest in the infrarational and take their rise from the subconscient.  They arise as an instinct of right, an instinct of obedience to an ununderstood law, an instinct of self-giving in labour, an instinct of sacrifice and self-sacrifice, an instinct of love, of self-subordination and of solidarity with others.  Man obeys the law at first without any inquiry into the why and the wherefore; he does not seek for it a sanction in the reason.  His first thought is that it is a law created by higher powers than himself and his race and he says with the ancient poet that he knows not whence these laws sprang, but only that they are and endure and cannot with impunity be violated.  What the instincts and impulses seek after, the reason labours to make us understand, so that the will may come to use the ethical impulses intelligently and turn the instincts into ethical ideas.  It corrects man’s crude and often erring misprisions of the ethical instinct, separates and purifies his confused associations, shows as best it can the relations of his often clashing moral ideals, tries to arbitrate and compromise between their conflicting claims, arranges a system and many-sided rule of ethical action.  And all this is well, a necessary stage of our advance; but in the end these ethical ideas and this intelligent ethical will which it has tried to train to its control, escape from its hold and soar up beyond its province.  Always, even when enduring its rein and curb, they have that inborn tendency.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pg. 152