Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 13: The Normative Features of Ethics and Morality

The character of selfhood, or the self-identical affirmation in feeling and consciousness, asserting each individual to be what it is, and not anything other than what it is in itself, would be a good foundation to assess the relation that one individual evidently maintains in respect of others. The primary identity that everything maintains in regard to itself and the fact that nothing would brook an interference by others into its self-identity and specific individuality must show that no one, nay, nothing, would wish to be in any way subservient to what it is not essentially. Everyone regards himself as an end to be achieved and not a means to the achievement of some other end dissociated from oneself. In this sense, the world would reveal itself as a 'Kingdom of Ends', and nothing in the world is a means to somebody else. The first principle of ethics and morality seems to be, then, the great law that no one can be used as an instrument for one's own purposes. No one is a means to an end, but everyone is an end in itself. Exploitation of any kind, that is, the utilisation of anyone as a tool or an instrument, is ruled out in a universe of self-complete ends in themselves. Such ethical standards as implied in statements like 'Do unto others as you would be done by', 'Do not mete out to others what you would not like to be meted out to yourself', are pronouncements of this basic truth of everything being a centre of common aspiration.

It was held by thinkers like Immanuel Kant that there is also another way in which we can ascertain what is right or proper. Assume, for awhile, if you would like everyone in the world to behave in the same way as you, and watch the consequences of such a proposition. Would a thief like that everyone in the world should also be a thief? In that case, theft would lose its meaning, because the significance of theft is in that there are some people in the world who are not thieves. If everyone tells only untruth, it would lose its purpose. Untruth seems to succeed because there are some persons in the world who speak the truth. If everyone is equally violent in respect of everyone else, the purpose of violence would be defeated. When a conduct, behaviour or intention cannot be permitted to be adopted by everyone in the world, such a policy should be regarded as contrary to the expected norms of ethics and morality. Kant also held a third principle as important in this case, namely, the 'imperative' character of the impulsion in people to do what is right and just and an inward abhorrence automatically arising in oneself to do what is improper and unjust. That is to say, no one is spontaneously, from the bottom of one's heart, impelled to do the wrong: perhaps the one who does a wrong is aware that he is doing a wrong. The awareness of the wrongness of one's action should indicate that the roots of human nature are disharmonious with wrong and wickedness, especially as every wrong action, though deliberately done, brings with it the trail of remorse, insecurity and unhappiness. Man's conscience in its essentiality is not an accomplice of harm and injury being done to anyone. It is necessary for the evil one intending to destroy others to destroy his own conscience first. The self of the killer is killed much before the act of killing takes place.

Since human conduct is necessarily directed to the survival of the human individual, no one would be so insensible as to violate this same instinct in others, inasmuch as the existence and activity of others is a limitation on one's own conduct. One cannot have that kind of freedom that is a denial of the same in the case of other people. Ethical norms centre round the need to accept the existence of other people than oneself and the compulsion to accede and grant to others the very same freedom that one would like to be granted to oneself. Morality is a principle that restrains human behaviour, firstly on account of the necessity to concede these values as associated with other people, and, secondly, due to the greater need to see that one's outlook and behaviour does not contravene the need of the soul to progress upwards towards a larger expansion of its immortal essence.

Another insistence of Kant is that the very structure of reason, which is rationality, requires the universe to be a presentation of order, method and harmony, and nothing that can be regarded as an irrational element can be permitted to be operating within this structure. The nature of reason is harmony and a self-adjustment of its parts in such a way that it would not allow an irreconcilable something to be present somewhere outside its domain. The universal reason is an all-enveloping adjustment of parts, so that reason becomes a non-exclusive wholeness, in which case alone can reason be what reason ought to be. The rationality of the universe is reason's vision of its own perfection and anything that reason would regard as unreasonable, unjust or wrong cannot be present in the world of reason. Reason would stultify itself and reduce itself to unreason if its pervasive character does not include everyone and everything, in the absence of which the very existence of others would be unreasonable. Reason's supreme stand is akin to the position assumed by the Judge of the Cosmos to whose presence none is barred entry and whose impartial judgment would not be detrimental to the aim of the existence of anyone. This superior reason declares that equity has to be the mode of dealing with and evaluating persons and things; this, again, because the world, as stated, is a 'Kingdom of Ends'.

The basic principles of ethics and morality have been stated to be harmlessness extended to all beings, truthfulness in one's behaviour with other people, and self-restraint in regard to one's own self (Ahimsa, Satya, Brahmacharya), since the character of self-integration highlighting one's own person is going to determine the purposefulness and progressive welfare of the world.

The hedonistic and utilitarian doctrines of ethics which make out that the quantum and kind of happiness available to the largest number of persons is the principle of ethical goodness, or that the extent of utility in life is what determines conduct, have a flaw in their doctrines. What does one mean by saying that the largest number of people should have the greatest happiness? How many people are we to include within this largest number? Perhaps, the entirety of the human species in the world. But is it possible to imagine a state of affairs where every human being in the world is equally happy? Secondly, what is the meaning of 'the greatest happiness'? Where does one reach its limit? It is clear that the happiness of the mind is superior to the pleasures of the body, an obvious fact which does not require an explanation. But, is not the joy of the spirit greater than even mental satisfaction? Where do we actually land ourselves in our computation of the greatest form of happiness? It is the famous opinion of the Upanishad that, supposing there is a ruler of the whole earth, uncontested by anyone, youthful, healthy, educated and cultured, good and loved by all people – if such a person can be imagined to be existing at any time – the happiness of such a person would be one unit of happiness. A hundred times mare than the happiness of such an emperor is the happiness of the denizens of the higher regions known as the Pitrs (forefathers). A hundred times the happiness of the Pitrs is the happiness of the Gandharvas (celestial musicians). A hundred times the happiness of the Gandharvas is the happiness of the celestials, or the gods in heaven, who have earned that state by their meritorious deeds. A hundred times the happiness of these gods is the happiness of the gods who are gods right from the time of creation. A hundred times the happiness of these perpetual gods is the happiness of the ruler of the gods, Indra. A hundred times the happiness of Indra is the happiness of the preceptor of the gods, Brihaspati. A hundred times the happiness of Brihspati is the happiness of Prajapati, the Creative Principle. Beyond all this is the Absolute, Brahman, whose happiness cannot be calculated by arithmetical multiplication. It is also to be added here that the increase of happiness by a hundred times at every higher stage mentioned is an increase not only in quantity but also in the quality of happiness. Here we have a grand concept of what 'the greatest happiness' can be. That utility is the test of true happiness is something to be set aside as a reliable principle, since what is considered to be of utility now need not be useful tomorrow, and what we thought as useful when we were little children is not so when we become mature of age. The whole doctrine smacks of sensationalism, empiricism gone to a dangerous precipice.