Erecting an Independent Ethical or Moral Standard Does Not Resolve the Conflicting Drives for the Individual or the Society

As humanity develops beyond the purely material and vital impulse level through the influence of the mental consciousness, it begins a process of trying to understand how to manage the vital impulses and desires within a larger framework, not just of the collective desires of human as embodied in a society, but with an eye towards a larger ideal principle that exceeds and transcends the force of desire and attachment active in the vital being of the individual and the social structures within which he lives and acts.  This leads to the development of abstract mental formulations of ideals which translate into moral and ethical standards and laws.  While these attempts help to transcend the pure force of desire in the relations of individuals in the society, they do not entirely solve the issues and conflicts continue to arise, now no longer just between the drives of the individual and the society, but also between the individual, the society, and the ideal standard being erected.

The mental power tends to see things as “all or nothing” so there are attempts to enforce these codes on everyone in the society, through coercion, pressure, even torture and death as we saw in the case of the “holy inquisition” that took place in Europe, or the witch burnings in later times, etc.  At the same time, the principles invoked, not only led to fanaticism, but also led to widespread failures due to their strict nature and rigid formulation, and we saw then arise a double standard where even moral and ethical leaders would say one thing, while practicing something else for themselves privately.

Sri Aurobindo notes in The Synthesis of Yoga:  “But even this success that he has gained is rather a thing in potentiality than in actual accomplishment.  There is always a disharmony and a discord between the moral law in the individual and the law of his needs and desires, between the moral law proposed to society and the physical and vital needs, desires, customs, prejudices, interests and passions of the caste, the clan, the religious community, the society, the nation.  The moralist erects in vain his absolute ethical standard and calls upon all to be faithful to it without regard to consequences.”

“The first reason is that our moral ideals are themselves for the most part ill-evolved, ignorant and arbitrary, mental constructions rather than transcriptions of the eternal truths of the spirit.  Authoritative and dogmatic, they assert certain absolute standards in theory, but in practice every existing system of ethics proves either in application unworkable or is in fact a constant coming short of the absolute standard to which the ideal pretends.  If our ethical system is a compromise or a makeshift, it gives at once a principle of justification to the further sterilising compromises which society and the individual hasten to make with it.  And if it insists on absolute love, justice, right with an uncompromising insistence, it soars above the head of human possibility and is professed with lip homage but ignored in practice.  Even it is found that it ignores other elements in humanity which equally insist on survival but refuse to come within the moral formula.  For just as the individual law of desire contains within it invaluable elements of the infinite whole which have to be protected against the tyranny of the absorbing social idea, the innate impulses too both of individual and of collective man contain in them invaluable elements which escape the limits of any ethical formula yet discovered and are yet necessary to the fullness and harmony of an eventual divine perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Four, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual freedom, pp. 45-46

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