The Evolution of Morality

By Prabhákar T. Överland

The roots of morality may be found in primitive life. Prior to humans, developed animals have formed families and societies based on physical needs. The existential mainstays of animal life are very basic or even crude: foraging for food, sleeping, procreating and survival, and the means to sustain them may be even cruder: tearing opponents and their families apart before devouring them, or even spying on their prey, deceiving them, poisoning them, etc. On the bright side, Nature seems to assign certain civic duties to developed animals, such as learning the dos and don’ts of life, taking care of their offspring, etc.

Human beings came into existence with such diverse moral notions engraved into their DNA. On one hand, wild and brutal impulses threatened to make humans behave aggressively in any challenging situation. On the other hand, they instinctively knew there is a system and a discipline in life. As such, the moral position of primitive humans was frustratingly complex, to say the least, but also essential. The moral struggle against those evil, violent expressions of animal survival instincts actually brought living beings close to the human stage. Human morality is at first a struggle against the firmly established crude expressions of prominent basic instincts, and an evolution from the harsh and brutal behaviour towards subtler and sweeter sensitivity and sensibility.

Moral development takes place within families, localities, societies, educational and other societal institutions where people evolve to think, act and deal with each other in increasingly more meaningful and rewarding ways. Even the crudest morality systems, such as those that allow for cutting off people’s limbs and murdering them for their crimes, aim at certain civilizable functions, such as disciplining individuals and society, and governance.

Before we move on, we may add an appropriate question here: Is capital punishment moral? The death sentence is usually reserved for those convicted of murder. Who is actually responsible for such crimes? If we consider society’s shortcomings in the care and nurturing of the accused as a contributing cause to individual behaviour, we cannot absolve society of its responsibility for serious crimes carried out by individuals. Those individuals are also part of society, and it is the duty of society to bring all its members onto the constructive path, irrespective of their bio-psychological makeup, social background, etc. Now, if neither society nor individual can be blamed exclusively, there should at least be some sharing of the responsibility for crimes, even for murder. The best approach seems to be to acknowledge that offenders are in need of correction and rehabilitation, and not punishment. As such, killing the offender is the one thing that must never take place as it would forfeit the opportunity of both parties—the criminal and society—to be rehabilitated and make good by realising their potentialities. By evolving our moral understanding of the need to correct and cure murderers and not just punish them in the extreme, as a society we need to move this issue on from being an instinctual expression of animal morality (“an eye for an eye”) towards treatment based on more developed human ethics. Here it should be mentioned that the term morality derives from the Latin moralis, “customary practice”, whereas the term ethics derives from the Greek ethikos; “virtuous practice”. In this article, morality is treated as a common understanding of vice and virtue, whereas ethics is treated as a scholarly and formally approved proposition of the same.

Objectivating Morality
The expansive human intellect allows for the sensing and intuiting a greater human existence, and the first step towards it is objectivating morality. What does “objectivating” mean here? Any objective system turns out or presents certain things and entities—as objects. For instance, a car manufacturer’s basic interest lies in selling as many cars as possible to anyone irrespective of the customers’ driving skills. The car and its commercial profit are the main interest and primary object of car manufacturers. The development of customers’ driving skills is not a main concern of car manufacturers; driving schools are supposed to take care of that. In the same way, a system of objectivating morality aims at manufacturing—disciplining, habituating and governing—objective behaviour that may be applied in social control and stratification, etc.

From antiquity to the present day, a number of objectivating moral codes and principles have been developed. Some examples include ancient Egypt’s Maat and the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The Maat offers numerous examples of moral objectivism. “The Confessions of Goddess Maat” consists of 42 moral observances, such as not being unfaithful, killing, stealing, “I have not used witchcraft against the king,” etc. Such objective principles say: “If you do not steal you are moral; if you do, you are immoral and punishment awaits you.” Stealing seem to have been a bit of a problem in ancient Egypt. Some of those commands of Maat admonished worshippers not to take “the bread of the gods from the temple”, neither should they steal “the khenfu cakes from the altar of the deceased” as well as “none of the priests’ cows on the way home”. These are all objectivated or reified moral principles, in all likelihood established in the interests of some social class or the other.

In the same way, the Ten Commandments of the Bible present an objectivating code of morality: “not cheating on one’s partner,” “not hankering after the neighbour’s house, his or her partner, nor any manservant, maidservant, nor the neighbour’s ox, ass, nor any thing that is the neighbour’s,” etc. Without any further ethical and spiritual guidance, objectivating morality such as this remains a goal unto itself, or “morality for morality’s sake”, i.e., morality in the interest of some moral authority, often motivated by a particular vested interest, class or other authority.

When considering the history of morality, we find that authoritative morality has worked as a twin-edged sword, sometimes cutting against vice, at other times against virtue:

  • Moral codes have played a role in disciplining individuals and society, have been essential to developing criminal- and other fields of law, and instrumental in evolving governance and creating public welfare.
  • On the other hand, objective morality has been made to generate social disparity and exploitation. At times, cruel and inhumane standards were applied to those at the bottom of the societal ladder whereas those at the top enjoyed quite another set of rules borne out of their privileged status.

In fact, bigoted morals borne out of social, religious, economic and other types of dogma become the norm whenever the rule of a particular class starts to dominate the whole of society. Particular values benefitting a particular ruling class become the morality of that age.

Objective-Subjective Humanist Morality
Numerous systems of morality, such as the Maat, functioned not only as an objectivating system, but practically as a blending of initial primitive morality and later more developed systems of increasingly subjective ethics. Besides the above examples, other affirmations of Maat such as “I am not a deceitful person,” “I have not shut my ears to the words of truth,” and “I have not acted with arrogance” indicate a more subjective tone. Here “subjective” pertains to development of the inner being, that is to say, not a moral code only watching over objective standards, but one aiming to develop subjective human standards and potentialities as well. Indeed, the goddess Maat was conceived of as a feminine manifestation of the universal fundamentally ethical power whose ultimate nature is found in her consummate state with the all-pervasive supreme being.

In Medieval China, with Confucius (551-479 BC), moral philosophy became the basis of education, and institutions even began to admit even capable, deserving commoners to its ranks, and not just nobility. The tradition of Chinese ethical thought is mostly concerned with questions about how one ought to live: what goes into a worthwhile life, how to balance duties toward the family versus duties toward strangers, whether human nature is predisposed to be morally good or bad, how one ought to relate to the non-human world, the extent to which one ought to become involved in reforming the larger social and political structures of one’s society, and how one ought to conduct oneself when in a position of influence or power. The personal, social, and political aspects are often intertwined in Chinese approaches to the subject.

Thus, between simple objectivating morality and evolved subjectivating, spirit-oriented ethics, an intermediate humanist stage appears. The humanist morality is focussed on human needs and potentials. It supposes that subtle (“non-natural”) facts embrace objective moral facts. “According to the tradition of classical moral philosophy, the task of the moral philosopher is to formulate fundamental moral truths, normative principles, from which other moral truths can be deduced.”

Humanist ethics are highly intellectual, centring on the human experience and rational thinking, such as “In the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.” This is a subjective statement, but one that ignores the subject of all non-human beings, namely plants, animals as well as the entire inanimate creation. By objectivating the rest of the world, humanist morality excludes the existential value of the entire environment, our planetary system, and indeed the entire Cosmos. Indeed, human morality views the entire Cosmos, out of which the human being was created, only as a utilitarian object and not as an entity in its own right.

The high point of humanist morality is encapsulated by the so-called golden mean or principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This universal expression of human conscience is often ascribed to Confucius. The same idea is also actually found in Mahabharata, where the wise Vidura advises the newly anointed King Yudhisthira to “treat others as you treat yourself”. Vidura and Yudhisthira lived one thousand years before Confucius and is perhaps the oldest known source of this idea. For the rest, human-centred morality is limited to the nearly eight billion individuals on this planet, who are all different from any intellectual point of view and who therefore would find it very difficult, in the absence of more comprehensive ethics, to agree on policies that would benefit both themselves and other living species.

Subjectivating Morality
In the course of human evolution, we eventually arrive at purely subjective, spiritual morality serving as a dependable vehicle throughout the existential journey of human beings towards their all-round liberation. This kind of morality was termed as niiti in ancient Sanskrit texts, defining morality as that which leads towards the ultimate existential state (kśemárthe nayanam ityarthe niiti). Perhaps we might find that such an ultimate yardstick of morality has been with us all along, hidden in every elevated expression of living being, civilization and culture.

Buddha, a contemporary of Confucius, formulated a pure subjective form of morality, known as The Eightfold Path. He used the term “Sadhu” for those who did to others as they would want others to do to them, and placed that concept in a greater existential perspective:

“Think once before you speak. If you have the eyes to see, cast a quick glance before you look at anything, otherwise, do not look at all, because whatever you see will influence the mind. Don’t listen to anything which is not worth hearing. Only listen to that which purifies and elevates the mind. O Sadhu, control your eyes, control your ears, control your sense of smell, control your tongue, control your speech. Control your mind, Sadhu; control everything. Then you will never suffer from sorrows.”

About five thousand years prior to Confucius and Buddha, a great spiritual teacher lived in North India. His name was Sadashiva, or Shiva. He propounded a moral code consisting of five principles called Yama (externalised control) and another five principles called Niyama (internalised regulation). Yama and Niyama constitute the classical subjectivating morality of the spiritual practices that arose from ancient India. Any practitioner of the ancient system of Astauṋga Yoga knows Yama and Niyama as the first two parts of that eightfold system. The ten principles of Yama and Niyama evolve a greater sense of subjectivity; of one’s differentiating powers, soul and spirituality. These ten principles are not grounds for punishment per se, but of rectification, improvement, and existential transformation.

As subjective morality is directly linked to and promotes spiritual progress, these principles of morality serve to liberate us from crudeness and not about condemning ourselves or others. Among other things Yama and Niyama tell us that we should:

  • Not be a hindrance to the development of others.
  • Be ready to face adversities in order to develop ourselves and others.
  • Cultivate a sober lifestyle of a balanced mind, allegiance to eternal truth, and other subjectivating points.

Human beings have an affinity towards authenticity, balance, and genuineness. They tend to admire and respect people of personal integrity, moral courage, and expressed values. In fact, all human beings have the potentiality to express characteristically human traits such as decency, closeness, warmth, service-mindedness, morality, sense of responsibility, conscience, compassion, and magnanimity of mind. Other examples of cardinal human values are grace, forgiveness, selflessness, love, friendship, dignity, nobility, and pity. We are all eager to experience such touches of another human being and see them expressed in our collective existence. Human values are really a family affair, the concept of the universal, joyous human family. In fact, we find the same fundamental human values constitute the base of legislations, the formation of nations, and other developments towards the realisation of individual and collective welfare.

Today, most countries have a solid body of enlightened criminal- and other laws, based on notions of sin, virtue, morality and ethics, and values such as those mentioned above. However, due to corruption and abuse of power those lofty factors are not getting adequately expressed. In most places the problem is not the laws themselves, but their practical implementation. The fundamental shortcoming of objective systems of morality is the limitation of the physical world. Any system that takes the physical world as its essential object of reference will fail to deliver justice and peace, because of the limited nature of the physical world and its reflection on the human mind.

Subjective values are based on subtler realities of the inner world of human beings. A moral code enlightened from within provides a unifying sense of the universal human and its obligations. Such more advanced moral compasses give both external and internal direction as their aim is to improve the entire sphere of human existence and not only the outer. In the words of the spiritual teacher Shrii Shrii Anandamurti (1922 Jamalpur-1990 Kolkata):

“Where animality ends, humanity begins, where humanity ends, divinity begins. The meeting point of the highest attainment of humanity and the blossoming of divinity is the base on which the cardinal human principles are established.”

The age-old code of Yama and Niyama, given a renaissance by Anandamurti, provides the necessary subjective moral approach necessary for humanity to properly adjust its actions with the requirements of the blossoming new global society we see today. These ten cardinal moral principles are:

External control (Yama):

  1. Not to intentionally harm others with one’s actions, words or thoughts (Ahimsa).
  2. To use one’s words and one’s mind for the welfare of others; benevolent truthfulness (Satya).
  3. Not to take what rightfully belongs to others, and not to deprive others of what is their due (Asteya).
  4. To respect and treat everyone and everything as an expression of the Supreme Consciousness (Brahmacarya).
  5. Not to accumulate wealth or indulge in comforts which are unnecessary for the preservation of life (Aparigraha).

Internal regulation (Niyama):

  1. To maintain the cleanliness of one’s body and the environment, as well as mental purity (Shaoca).
  2. To maintain a state of mental contentment and peace (Santosa).
  3. To alleviate the suffering of the needy through personal service and sacrifice (Tapah).
  4. To read and endeavour to gain a clear understanding of spiritual books and scriptures, and listen to wise teachings (Svadhyaya).
  5. To accept the Cosmic Consciousness as one’s shelter and goal (Ishvara Pranidhana).

While visiting Caracas, Venezuela in 1979, Anandamurti offered:

“A subjective approach is the final thing, but while moving on towards the subjective goal, you must maintain adjustment with the objective world. There is no alternative. And when human society accepts this goal and is ensconced in this supreme idea in the very near future, this will knit, will construct, a human society on this planet.”

Moral development is not an isolated affair, but an aggregate of human existential, civil, and cultural developments. For the all-round development of world society and its citizens, a morality that embraces all living beings, and not only secures the interests of a few persons or groups, is required.

Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. M. Karenga. Psychology Press (2004).
Exodus 20:2-17, The Old Testament, The Bible.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Law. Oxford University Press (2011).
“Classical Moral Philosophy and Metaethics”, E.M. Adams, The University of Chicago Press Journals, Ethics, Volume 74, Number 2.
“Niiti and Dharma”, Subháśita Saḿgraha Part 21, Supreme Expression Volume 1, Baba’s Grace, The Great Universe: Discourses on Society.
Dhammapada 360-361.
A Guide to Human Conduct, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, Ananda Marga Publications (1957).
The Cosmic Kaleidoscope, P.T. Överland, Ananda Marga Gurukula (2022), pp 214-215.
“Social Values and Human Cardinal Principles”, Discourses on Neohumanist Education, A Few Problems Solved Part 2, Prout in a Nutshell Volume 2 Part 7, Supreme Expression Volume 2.
“The Four Types of Progress”, Ánanda Vacanámrtam parts 14 & 31.

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