As long as the human individual lives in a community or society, whether a small family or tribal grouping, or a larger highly organised societal structure such as a modern day nation state or major religious grouping, there is a certain level of tension between what the individual desires or aspires to, and what the society demands of the individual as a price for participation in that society. While the society can only make progress through the progress of its individual members, it nevertheless exercises dominant control over its members through the sheer weight of its influence and power. Thus, the individual is frequently restricted, held back or constrained by the societal order and its expressed or implied needs.
Add to this a dynamic that is frequently overlooked, namely, the power of what we now can term “mob psychology” whereby individuals are frequently overpowered and emotionally drawn or coerced into supporting things in a mob setting that they would not ever dream of supporting in their own individual life and “one on one” actions. Many authoritarian societies work to harness this power to control the members of its society. Anyone who does not go along will be branded as an outsider, and the power of the mob, both in terms of potential exclusion or ostracism, as well as incarceration or threats of bodily harm or death, make people go along, either overtly and outwardly vocal in their support, or at least silently acquiescing in things that they disagree with.
Morality and ethics therefore take on the general tone and direction of the society within which they develop, and in some cases are developed as a control mechanism over its members, while of course in others, they represent true growth and development of a wider understanding slowly impressing itself on the individual members of the society.
In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo observes: “In itself this seemingly larger and overriding law is no more than an extension of the vital and animal principle that governs the individual elementary man; it is the law of the pack or herd. The individual identifies partially his life with the life of a certain number of other individuals with whom he is associated by birth, choice or circumstance. And since the existence of the group is necessary for his own existence and satisfaction, in time, if not from the first, its preservation, the fulfilment of its needs and the satisfaction of its collective notions, desires, habits of living, without which it would not hold together, must come to take a primary place. The satisfaction of personal idea and feeling, need and desire, propensity and habit has to be constantly subordinated, by the necessity of the situation and not from any moral or altruistic motive, to the satisfaction of the ideas and feelings, needs and desires, propensities and habits, not of this or that other individual or number of individuals, but of the society as a whole. This social need is the obscure matrix of morality and of man’s ethical impulse.”