The Essential Nature of Ethics

We generally look to religion, philosophy or reason to provide us guidance as to what is ethical and moral and how we should frame our actions in the world.  Different traditions emphasize different aspects of what we generally term or ethical being.  For instance, some define ethics in terms of honesty in thought, word and deed; others look at our relationship with other people as the basis for ethics, some try to codify or control specific behaviours such as sexual behaviour, business behaviour, dietary behaviour as the defining elements of ethics.  Sri Aurobindo looks beyond the details of specific prescriptions or codes of ethics to the originating impulse and rationale behind the entire development of ethics as an aspect of human life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In fact ethics is not in its essence a calculation of good and evil in the action or a laboured effort to be blameless according to the standards of the world, — those are only crude appearances, — it is an attempt to grow into the divine nature.  Its parts of purity are an aspiration towards the inalienable purity of God’s being; its parts of truth and right are a seeking after conscious unity with the law of the divine knowledge and will; its parts of sympathy and charity are a movement towards the infinity and universality of the divine love; its parts of strength and manhood are an edification of the divine strength and power.  That is the heart of its meaning.  Its high fulfilment comes when the being of the man undergoes this transfiguration; then it is not his actions that standardise his nature but his nature that gives value to his actions; then he is no longer laboriously virtuous, artificially moral, but naturally divine.  Actively, too, he is fulfilled and consummated when he is not led or moved either by the infrarational impulses or the rational intelligence and will, but inspired and piloted by the divine knowledge and will made conscious in his nature.  And that can only be done, first by communication of the truth of these things through the intuitive mind as it purifies itself progressively from the invasion of egoism, self-interest, desire, passion and all kinds of self-will, finally through the suprarational light and power, no longer communicated but present and in possession of his being.  Such was the supreme aim of the ancient sages who had the wisdom which rational man and rational society have rejected because it was too high a truth for the comprehension of the reason and for the powers of the normal limited human will too bold and immense, too infinite an effort.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 15,  The Suprarational Good, pp. 153-154