The Spartans of ancient Greece reportedly placed weak or deformed babies out on the hills to die. They considered this approach to be both moral and necessary to build a society that was strong and able to protect its citizens and way of life. In today’s world, such actions would, in most places, be considered to be highly immoral and reprehensible. Yet even today, there remain adherents of this approach, who prefer to kill off those weak or poor rather than aid them and help them succeed in spite of any adversity they experience.
In certain ages and cultures, women were held to standards of dress and roles in society that made them clearly subordinate to males, who were held to different standards. This was considered right and moral in those times and places. In other times and places, women were treated as equals, with even-handed treatment in their participation in the society, at least, under the prevailing moral code in the land, if not in actual fact in all instances, and in some places, women were granted a superior role in terms of governance, respect or inheritance. In their own time and place, each of these positions was considered right and moral and the opposite was considered immoral.
Similarly, child labor and human slavery have been considered right and moral in certain times and societal settings, while in others, they are seen as immoral and unacceptable. Today we look upon both of these as past stages out of which humanity has evolved, again, in the prevailing moral code if not entirely in practice. Some societies believed that a community of people shared its resources for the benefit of all and private ownership was immoral and unhealthy as it led to greed and inequality and created consequences based on division and separation; other societies believed that morality lay in private ownership and use of wealth and power to dominate and control, at the expense of those who have neither the drive, the social positioning, nor the training to succeed in such a system.
In the teachings of the major religions, certain actions are set forth as defining the code of morality for their adherents. Some of these codified rules are clearly transient manifestations of the society from which they arose, while others define longer-term principles that stem from a divine Truth not yet fully realised in humanity.
Nietzsche spoke of a concept he called “beyond good and evil”. The superior man was supposed to not be bound by arbitrary standards erected in one society or another as the arbiters of right and wrong. His philosophy was used, albeit grossly distorted, by the leadership of the Third Reich in Germany in the mid-20th century and led to abuses of killing, torture, slavery and destruction not seen in modern times. The concept was accompanied by the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the vital being of man, rather than being based in the true spiritual relationship to the Divine from which such a concept arises.
In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo observes: “If we are to be free in the Spirit, if we are to be subject only to the supreme Truth, we must discard the idea that our mental or moral laws are binding on the Infinite or that there can be anything sacrosanct, absolute or eternal even in the highest of our existing standards of conduct. To form higher and higher temporary standards as long as they are needed is to serve the Divine in his world march; to erect rigidly an absolute standard is to attempt the erection of a barrier against the eternal waters in their outflow. Once the nature-bound soul realises this truth, it is delivered from the duality of good and evil. For good is all that helps the individual and the world towards their divine fullness, and evil is all that retards or breaks up that increasing perfection. But since the perfection is progressive, evolutive in Time, good and evil are also shifting quantities and change from time to time their meaning and value. This thing which is evil now and in its present shape must be abandoned was once helpful and necessary to the general and individual progress. That other thing which we now regard as evil may well become in another form and arrangement an element in some future perfection. And on the spiritual level we transcend even this distinction, for we discover the purpose and divine utility of all these things that we call good and evil. Then we have to reject the falsehood in them and all that is distorted, ignorant and obscure in that which is called good no less than in that which is called evil. For we have then to accept only the true and the divine, but to make no other distinction in the eternal processes.”