Society, Morals and Ideals
We are not alone in the world; that is the rub for the egoist; that is the comfort and solace to the collectivist; that is the problem for the moralist; and that is the enigma that inspires the idealist; Human nature is complex and it is at once egoistic, collectivistic, moralistic and idealistic. It is easy to dwell upon one of the elements of this complexity, and emphasise it against the others; but the emphasis on one or the other does not abolish the complexity and unless we find a true equation and reconciliation of the elements of the complexity, we cannot realise any true harmony and peace. And in the meantime, we shall have enough room for debate in favour of one or the other, which will be found to have some kind of inconclusiveness.
At lower levels of existence, Nature has provided some kind of disorderly order, and instincts of self-preservation, on the one hand, and herd-instinct, on the other, are found to be so balanced that the individual and the collectivity sub-serve each other, — not irreductibly and ideally, — but in some rough measure for the immediate purposes. As one begins to ascend higher and higher, the demands of self-assertion begin to collide with the demands of the collectivity, and in human life, this collision is sought to be resolved by erecting moral values and ideals, and even then resolutions are found to be superficial or temporary, giving rise to major maladjustments and maladies of oppression and injustice. It is only at very high levels by the discovery and practice of the largest ideals, self-aware wisdom, self-conquest and mastery and compassion that we find effective clues to progressive harmonisation.
We are all aware of the moral theories of hedonism, hedonistic utilitarianism, ideal utilitarianism, intuitionism, and other higher
formulations of ethical and spiritual norms. They are all presented as universal doctrines intended to be prescribed uniformly for all people, but if we take human individual and human collectivity to be evolutionary in character, and if we take elements of the complexity of human nature in an ascending order rising from the infra-rational to the rational and from the rational to the supra-rational, we may be able to gain insights into an evolutionary mode of reconciling conflicting morals and ideals.
From this point of view, there are four main standards of human conduct that make an ascending scale. The first is personal need, preference and desire; the second is the law and good of the collectivity; the third is an ideal ethic, the last is the highest and divine ideal and law of the nature. Standard of conduct, which is pre scribed by psychological and ethical but egoistic hedonism, falls into the first category; its argument is that because every individual psychologically seeks satisfaction of his personal need for pleasure, — because everyone psychologically prefers pleasure to pain and because every individual seeks the satisfaction of personal desire for pleasure, every individual ought to seek one's own pleasure. Students of philosophy and ethics are familiar with this argument and its criticism, such as whether each human being necessarily seeks pleasure or some other things also, and if pleasure alone, whether there are different kinds of pleasures, some inferior and others that are superior. They are also familiar with the naturalistic fallacy that is committed when it is argued that because pleasure is desired, pleasure is desirable. But in spite of these arguments, it has to be conceded that there is a strand, although at a lower level of the spectrum, where psychologically, egoistic hedonism and ethical egoistic hedonism seem to be relevant and even compelling.
In this connection, it may be mentioned that although consumerism cannot strictly be described as hedonistic, much of the consumeristic economics derives its force from three assumptions:
a) That human nature is driven by wants, which are largely self centred, and which seek their satisfaction and satisfied pleasure;
b) That the increase in wants, which leads to increase in consumption, is beneficial to increase in production, competition, efficiency and prosperity; and
c) That consumerism is the natural way to enhance freedom of each individual and promote general welfare.
These assumptions, which lie at the root of competitive economics, were greatly attacked by thinkers like Ruskin and others. Later on, they were combated by Marxism, and they have also been criticised by those who advocate the combination of freedom and justice, freedom and equity, and freedom and equality. Moralists and spiritual idealists also oppose consumerism as they perceive that the human nature should not be viewed in narrow terms of what is only primary, ignoring what is the chief motivation in human life. According to them, basic necessities of physical life are only primary, but the chief wants of human life are rational, aesthetic, ethical and spiritual.
In any case, whatever silken garment we may put on consumerism and however attractive description we may make of this philosophy rooted in the human egoism and human demand for unrestricted indulgence, it cannot be denied that the collectivistic idealism and true altruism have their own roots in human nature, which are independent of that aspect of human nature which, in the words of Hobbes, is nasty and brutish. The law of competition, which is rooted in the egoistic psychology is not the only possible law for organising human society; cooperation, too, is rooted in human nature, and cooperation is not necessarily an offshoot of egoism. It is true that in the early phases of battle between competition and cooperation, the former wins the race; not because cooperation, as a principle, is weak in human nature or lower in value but only because the law of competition is primitive and has the force of early primacy; that which is morally superior, that which is more civilised, history has repeatedly shown, gets defeated by what is primitive and barbaric, at least, in the first rounds of the battle.
Collectivistic ideals are morally superior and consumerism certainly obstructs the higher collectivistic law, but humanity which bears within its heart deeper and higher aspirations will continue to pursue collectivistic ideals and will also continue to fight for the victory of those ideals, in spite of earlier failures.
If we examine the history of thought, we find that egoistic
ethical hedonism came, in due course, to be defended in the name of altruism and, eventually, run over by universal ethical hedonism that embodied the force of collectivistic ideals. This moral law advocated, in effect, the search for maximum pleasure for maxi mum number of people. To use the terms of Indian philosophy, the demands of vyashti and samashti came to be pressed forward against the claims of ahambhava. The existence of the collectivistic law external to the individual suggests a power other than that of personal egoism and induces or compels the individual to moderate his average demands, to discipline his irrational and often violent movements and even to lose himself sometimes in a larger and less personal egoism. And yet, the collectivistic morality or ideal ism is found to be incapable of arriving at any satisfactory solutions. Consequently, claims of society and claims of the individual continue to confront one another. There is a demand of the group that the individual should subordinate himself more or less completely or even lose his independent existence in the community. On the other hand, the ideal and absolute solution from the individual's standpoint would be a society that existed not for itself, but for the good of the individual and his fulfilment, for the greater and more perfect life of all its members. An ideal society of either kind does not exist anywhere, and in actuality, the society somehow attempts to work out some kind of a compromise, which sometimes gives an upper hand to the claims of individuals and sometimes to the claims of collectivity. In the end, the complexity of the problem increases and multiplies its issues. A need is felt to call in a new principle, and humanity begins to climb to a level of the pure mind, where the life of personal need, preference and desire begins to be touched by a greater and elevated light, and the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional desires begin to preponderate over the demands of the physical and the vital nature.
At this higher level, search for pleasure, egoistic or universal, gives way to a search for higher ideals like knowledge and character. Hedonistic utilitarianism begins to be overpassed by what has come to be called ideal utilitarianism, which in the history of Western ethics was formulated powerfully by Rashdall, who advocated the combined fulfilment of three ideals of character,
knowledge and happiness. But even this ethical theory could not sufficiently be defended within the formula of utilitarianism, because while the utilitarian judges an action by its consequences, it was found that things like knowledge and character are ends in themselves and cannot be judged in terms of their consequences. This forced the ethical thinker to develop a search for the realm of ends, which are intrinsic and which are valuable in themselves. In India, there was an early discovery of dharma, of duty, of values of righteousness, and of action that had to be performed with a sense of equanimity as far as its consequences are concerned. In the West, in the philosophy of Conscience and Intuitionism, similar ideas were put forward, and they came to a culminating point in the ethical doctrine of Kant, which enjoined duty for its own sake and attempted to give a standard of action that had to be judged not by its consequences but by its own intrinsic value.
At that new higher level, the primacy of universal values came to the forefront and began to influence the new equations between the individual and the collectivity. The question came to be asked as to what was the real nature of the individual, and Kant's own answer was that the true individual was capable of liberating him self from the clamour of desires into a realm of ends in themselves. Kant even went one step farther and declared that the individual himself should be looked upon not merely as a means but as an end in himself. In other words, it was affirmed that while individualism is valid, the individual in its true nature is not an egocentric entity subject to appetites and desires, but an entity capable of uplifting himself to a state of intrinsic and universal values.
Consequently, it came to be advocated that the needs and desires of individuals are to be surpassed in obedience to the moral law, and even the social law has no claims upon him if it is opposed to his sense of right and denied by Conscience or by the categorical imperative. In regard to the conflict between the individual and the society, the solution that the moralist presented was that the individual shall cherish no desires and claims that are not consistent with love, truth and justice, and that the collectivity shall hold all things cheap, even its safety and its most pressing interests, in comparison with truth, justice, humanity and the highest good of the people.
The moralist's ideal of the categorical imperative is basically individualistic, and when his ideals are applied to the society, the inadequacies of these ideals come to light. For justice often demands what love abhors. Man's absolute justice easily turns out to be in practice a sovereign injustice; for his mind, one-sided and rigid in its construction, puts forward a one-sided partial and rigorous scheme or figure and claims for it totality and absoluteness and an application that ignores the subtler truth of things and the plasticity of life.
The fact is that the categorical imperative of ideal law does not signify the end of human search of the truth that harmonises and delivers. We discover that the moral nature of the human being is not the last and the highest component; there is, in us, it will be found, a divine being that is spiritual and supramental. In that component of our complex nature, it is claimed, is the integrating power; in it the truths of the individual and the collectivity coalesce; there we discover, we are told, that the individual and the collectivity are not what they appear to be in the lower or infra rational parts of our being. Individual is not, it is discovered, fundamentally egoistic in nature; ego is only a temporary construction, but behind it there is the unegoistic centre of universality, such that the individual finds its fullness in universality and universality finds its concentrated centre of fullness in the individual. As Sri Aurobindo points out:
There alone can we touch the harmony of the divine powers that are poorly mispresented to our mind or framed into a false figure by the conflicting or wavering elements of the moral law. There alone the unification of the transformed vital and physical and the illumined mental man becomes possible in that supramental spirit which is at once the secret source and goal of our mind and life and body. There alone is there any possibility of an absolute justice, love and right —far other than that which we imagine — at one with each other in the light of a supreme divine knowledge. There alone can there be a reconciliation of the conflict between our members.*
*Sri Aurobindo: The Synthesis of Yoga, Centenary Edition, Vol. 20, p. 190.
Beyond the moral law are spiritual ideals. These ideals are not limited to moral data but embrace the totality of our being and totality of existence. The true divine law is not fully represented in exclusive formations of the mind or even in religious creeds that collide with other religious creeds. That is the reason why exclusive religions, even when proclaimed to be universal, have come to be combated by other exclusive religions with similar claims; and no social harmony can be achieved in that state of conflict.
The true spiritual and supramental consciousness takes into account the truth of all that is manifesting in this imperfect but evolving world and supports each truth in its proper place and harmonises it with all the rest. This seems to be the ideal of lokasangrah (solidarity of the people) of which Sri Krishna speaks in his message to Arjuna. The true universality and unity resolve lower discords into a victorious harmony and point to the ideal of the creation of what may be called a spiritualised society, where love would be absolute and equality would be consistent with hierarchy and perfect in difference. In that society, absolute justice would be secured by the spontaneous action of the being in harmony with the truth of things and the truths of oneself and others and, there fore, sure of true and right results. In that society, the quarrel between the individual and the collectivity or the disastrous struggle between one community and another would not exist, since the cosmic consciousness imbedded in the embodied beings would assure a harmonious diversity in oneness.
But before such a spiritualised society could come into existence, much serious work needs to be done, and human nature has to climb up from the infra-rational to the rational and from the rational to spiritual consciousness. It is true that humanity as a whole has already crossed several strata of consciousness and even rationality has been greatly generalised, even though it has not still been able to overpower the forces of Unreason. But the stage where we stand today is that of acute crisis and we are in search of a solution where the individual and the collectivity can live in harmony with each other. Because of the earnestness of our search and the imperative need of all-round harmony on a
global level, we can have an inner assurance that the ideals that are to be actualised may not take too long in their coming to the forefront, and, in the meantime, we need not hesitate to dream greatly and accomplish greatly.