Criteria of Ethical Perfection and Integration
of Total Being: An Exploration
Human nature is complex and it is at once egoistic, collectivistic, moralistic and idealistic. In its pursuits of idealism, it is not limited merely to ethical idealism; it conceives and pursues rationalistic idealism or aesthetic idealism; it also conceives and pursues idealism that religion prescribes; it conceives and pursues spiritual idealism and even spiritual perfection. The road is long; the labour involved in arriving at reconciliation of conflicting elements of human nature is arduous. On this long and arduous road of human nature, everyone finds enough room for debate in favour of one solution or the other. These debates, when examined, leave us in some kind of inconclusiveness. It is easy to surmount inconclusiveness by taking recourse to dogmatism or to the certainty that some spiritual experiences provide or seem to provide; or even in the field of spiritual enlightenment, there are claims and counter-claims, which require to be reconciled in some synthesis, if that is possible.
At lower levels of existence Nature has provided some kind of disorderly order; and instincts of self-preservation, on the one hand, and herd-instincts, on the other, are found to be so balanced that the individual and the collectivity sub-serve
each other, — not irreducibly and ideally, — but in some rough measure for immediate purposes. As one ascends 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; major maladjustments and maladies of operation and injustice appear before our view. Higher levels of discovery and practice open up, and we are led to the exploration and practice of the largest ideals; vistas begin to appear before us of self-aware wisdom, self-conquest and mastery and compassion; and we are required to undertake a journey in these vast vistas in order to find effective clues to progressive harmonization.
Four Main Standards of Human Conduct: Their Conflict
We are all aware of the ethical theories of hedonism, hedonistic utilitarianism, ideal utilitarianism, intuitionism, and other higher formulations of ethical and spiritual norms.44 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 infra-rational to the rational and from the rational to the supra-rational, we may perhaps be able to gain insights into an evolutionary mode of reconciling conflicting ethical standards and other 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 the divine law of the nature.
(i) Standard of conduct which is prescribed 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 needs for pleasure, — because everyone psychologically prefers pleasure to pain, every individual ought to seek one's own pleasure. The familiar criticism arises from the perception that human beings do not necessarily seek pleasure alone but some other things also; if, however, it is insisted that the other things which are arguably perceived as having behind them only one basic aim, viz., pleasure, even then, it is argued, it cannot be denied that there are different kinds of pleasures, some inferior and others that are superior; and this perception leads to the recognition that apart from pleasure there is something else which accounts for the hierarchy of pleasures. There is also the familiar argument which points out the naturalistic fallacy which seems to be involved in the argument that because pleasure is desired, pleasure is desirable.
In any case, however attractive descriptions we may make of this philosophy rooted in the human egoism and human demand for pleasure, it cannot be denied that the collectivistic idealism and higher forms of altruism, too, have their own roots in human nature. The law of competition, which is rooted in the egoistic psychology, is not the only possible law for organizing the life of the individual and of society; cooperation, too, is rooted in human nature, and co-operation is not necessarily an offshoot of egoism. It is true that in the early phases of battle between competition and co-operation, the former
wins the race; — not because co-operation, 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 civilized, gets defeated, as history has repeatedly shown, by what is primitive and barbaric, at least, in the first rounds of the battle.
Collectivistic ideals are morally superior and egoistic Hedonism 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.
(ii) If we examine the history of thought, we shall find that egoistic hedonism came, in due course, to be defended in the name of altruism and, eventually, was 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 maximum number of people. To use the term of Indian philosophy, the demands of samasti came to be pressed forward against the claims of aham bhdva. The existence of the collectivistic law 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 idealism is found to be incapable of arriving at any satisfactory solution. 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 point of view would be to create a society that existed not for itself, but for the good of the individual and his fulfillment, — 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 corn-promise, which sometimes gives an upper hand to the claims of the individuals and sometimes to the claims of the 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 higher level of thought and action, where the life of personal need, preference and desire begins to be touched by a greater and elevated light, and the aesthetic, intellectual and normative ideals begin to preponderate over the demands of the physical and vital nature.
(iii) At this higher level, search for pleasure, egoistic or altruistic, gives way to a search for higher ideals like knowledge and character. Hedonism itself tends to be modified, and as in Bertrand Russell's "Conquest of Happiness",45 adequate and significant space is given to the development of impersonal pursuits, and of cultivation of faculties. Hedonistic utilitarianism begins to be over- passed by what has come to be called ideal utilitarianism, which, as formulated by Rashdall, advocated the combined pursuit of three ideals of character, knowledge and happiness.46 But even this ethical theory could not sufficiently be defended within the formula of utilitarianism or consequentialism, because while utilitarianism
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. There has always been in the field of ethics a search for the realm of ends, which are intrinsic and which are valuable in themselves, and this search has come to be asserted from time to time, particularly when a larger canvas of human aspiration is unfolded and normative demands in human nature begin to turn to the perception of some superlative ranges of consciousness in which the ideas of unconditionality, absoluteness and perfection begin to preponderate. In India, there was an early discovery of dharma, of an ideal law of harmony, of values of righteousness and of action that had to be performed with a sense of equanimity as far as consequences of action are concerned. In the West, in the tradition of Sermons of love and forgiveness, in the philosophy of Conscience and Intuitionism, similar ideas were put forward.
(iv) A culminating point on this line of development in ethical philosophy came to be formulated by Kant, who discovered the presence of the Categorical Imperative in the normative part of human nature, and he derived from the deliverances of that imperative the doctrine of duty for its own sake. Kant even went farther and attempted to give formulations of the Categorical Imperative in the light of which standards of action can be determined.
At that level, the primacy of universal values came to the forefront which, in turn, 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 assessment was that the true individual was capable of liberating himself from the
clamour of desires into a realm of ends-in-themselves. Kant even declared that the individual himself should be looked upon not merely as a means but as an end-in-himself. A consequence of this acknowledgment was to affirm the validity of individualism; but this individualism could not be conceived in the terms of the affirmation of the egoistic limitations of the individual. It was clear that according to Kant, the individual in his true nature can rise above his appetites and desires and can become capable of uplifting himself to a state where actions can be determined in terms of intrinsic and universal values.
In the light of this and similar developments, the solution that the moralists presented to the problem of the conflict between the individual and the society was that the individual shall cherish no desires and claims that are not consistent with universal love, universal truth and universal 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.47
The moralist's ideal is being pressed in all the upward endeavours of the contemporary humanity. This ideal compels us to examine once again various doctrines of rights and duties, of the good and the virtue, and of the law of dharma, and in varying degrees we tend to formulate our preferences in favour of one formulation or another. Philosophers like Cottingham seem to prefer the Aristotelian account of virtue as a golden mean between two extremes, some others might prefer to go still to a more ancient formulation of the Socratic doctrine that virtue is knowledge' and there are still others who might find in the Buddhis concept of dharma a most comprehensive gospel of right
action. In some quarters, the concept of rita is being pressed. An impartial seeker, who is confronted with plurality of religions and who is consequently required to determine which one of this plurality of religions he should choose for his own pursuits, is advised that he should decide, not on the basis of the merits of religious doctrines but on the basis of the highest ethics that a particular religion permits or promotes. But the problem becomes perplexing when it is seen that just as there is plurality of religions, there is also plurality of highest forms of ethical doctrines. Moreover, the highest concepts or moral ideals, when followed in actual situations of life, fail to apply adequately or up to their expected standard. The human mind, one-sided and rigid in its construction, puts forward a one-sided mental 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.