We are living in a time of extraordinary confusion about moral values for the simple reason that people don’t know what is right and what is wrong. In the last century, scientific developments shook the very foundations of traditional religious and moral beliefs, leaving many to wonder if moral truths even exist. Today there are young people who think they can do anything and get away with it.
Are moral values a matter of social convenience, or do they exist in the natural order? Are moral values only subjective? Or are they universal?
The Western either /or approach
In the West, moral values traditionally have been viewed as absolutes—right or wrong, good or bad. This type of moral rigidity actually makes a person less moral, not more so. The extremes of self-righteousness which this view permits has led to the Crusades, the witch-burnings, the Spanish Inquisition, and countless other ungodly acts committed in the name of God.
How, you might ask, was it possible for religiously minded people to imagine that they were serving God by such deeds? Only one answer suggests itself. They believed in the absoluteness of right and wrong. Convinced that the authority of the Church was an absolute good, they persuaded themselves that any challenge to that authority was a threat and therefore absolutely evil and wrong.
They considered themselves the champions of the good. Whatever means they used in defense of their convictions were thus, to them, inconsequential.
Nihilism: life has no meaning
The discovery of the relativity of time, space, motion, and nearly everything else in the universe has undermined people’s faith in the existence of absolute moral values. Not only the young, but many people now insist that values are “merely relative” and that no higher law exists. Many have embraced the philosophy of nihilism—that life has no meaning.
Jean-Paul Sartre, a proponent of this philosophy, maintains not only that life is meaningless, but that every human being is free to determine his own moral values, and no one else can decide questions of right and wrong for him.
Are moral values truly arbitrary and subjective? Can we really say people can just do what they like, and that there are no personal consequences they will have to suffer, outside of the need to maintain social order?
The example of Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin was the ideal of Sartre’s philosophy. Here was a man who was completely lacking in conscience. He bowed to no God, honored no laws, and scorned the most time-honored traditions. His only values were those which suited his own convenience. If the populace opposed him, he was perfectly capable of causing millions to perish.
But he was not free. He was a slave of countless fears and suspicions. As he had dealt fairly with no one, so also was he incapable of imagining fairness or goodwill to be genuinely a part of anyone’s nature. Always he was steeled to meet his foes, lest they spring on him unawares.
Stalin’s life was an example of a simple, universal fact of human nature: If a person acts to hurt others, or if he ruthlessly opposes the interests of others, he will automatically—indeed, necessarily—steel himself to receive their opposition in return. The man of ruthless ambition can never relax trustfully. Forever tensed (since he knows not when the opposition may strike), he is unable to find even a moment’s peace.
And so, too, for other crimes. Anyone who makes his living by thievery may be completely amoral, and not at all perturbed that he is behaving in a way that others consider wrong. But he punishes himself nonetheless.
The thief has several fears. He has the normal concerns of ownership. He also knows that what he’s taken is not rightfully his and is therefore in constant danger of being reclaimed. And, since he sees the world with the consciousness of a thief, he suspects that the world is full of people who want to rob him of all that he owns.
Happiness—the key to moral values
Paramhansa Yogananda writes that everybody wants basically only two things: to find happiness and to avoid pain. What we see is that some people find it and some people don’t. Why? Because there are principles involved, and they’re universal.
One of the most natural impulses in life is toward self-expansion. All creatures reach out for new experiences, new knowledge, broader identifications. To help someone in need is a virtue not because scripture or society says so, but for the simple reason that nature implants in us an urge toward self-expansion.
When you think of others, you’re expanding your own awareness. Jesus Christ taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It is more blessed, indeed, because giving is self-expansive and creates joy in the giver. The generous heart beholds a trusting, not a hostile, world.
A self-serving attitude, by contrast, is contractive because it goes against that natural impulse toward self-expansion. To kill someone, to desire to hurt another living being in any way—or even to harm our environment, which too, in varying degrees, is alive and conscious— is to go against that natural urge for self-expansion.
The moral justification for behavior
Moral principles thus have their roots in our own nature. The moral justification for generosity is not that some deity, or society itself, demands it of us, but that our own fulfillment depends on expanding our awareness and sympathy from that which we know to infinity. Sooner or later, everyone who lives in the right way will find himself becoming happier and happier.
Similarly, it is wrong to steal from others, or to injure them, not because of societal or scriptural strictures, but because one is punished by his own nature, which causes physical contraction and tension, and a mentally self-defensive attitude. As a consequence, we experience pain.
If the goal of every person is to avoid suffering and attain happiness, then the eternal question of right and wrong can be decided quite simply by this criterion. What makes an act right? The answer: its capacity to increase happiness. And what makes an act wrong? The answer, again: its power to lessen happiness and increase suffering.
The more selfish you are, the unhappier you are. The more selfless and giving you are, the happier you are. It’s a formula that never varies.
Judging the rightness of an action
The philosophy of nihilism is thus ultimately self-defeating. But the answer is not a return to moral absolutes. Values, along with everything else in the universe, are subject to the vagaries of relativity. In the realm of daily, practical living, right and wrong must be considered in the context of specific acts and situations.
To give an example: Were a lazy fellow one day to declare with energy, “I’m going to go out and get a job, and then work hard to become a millionaire!” everyone, including saints, would applaud. Were a nobler person like Gandhi, on the other hand, one day to make the same announcement, his decision would be met with universal dismay, even by worldly people.
In true moral law there are no absolutes, only directions. We should therefore view moral and spiritual perfection as a directional development, and not demand absolute perfection of anyone.
The Indian attitude toward morality is directional, not absolutist. In India, perfection is viewed as a goal toward which one must strive. The Indian attitude accepts everyone as being at a different stage of development, and encourages him to grow toward perfection, however distant the horizon may seem at the moment.
Is it not better, after all, to encourage a baby to crawl than to scold it because it can’t run? A truly generous person, for example, might find joy (as St. Francis did) in giving away his last possession to a beggar. A selfish person, on the other hand, might suffer acutely in being forced to give away even his second piece of cake.
There are degrees of maturity. The rules must necessarily change according to the degree. Action that too far outstrips a person’s actual understanding may result only in frustration; certainly it will not result in meaningful growth. That is why the Bhagavad Gita says, “In doing the activity appointed to one’s own state of being, one does not acquire any fault.”
Expanding beyond relativity
Values at every level of society should be taken out of the rusty enclosure of absolute definitions and viewed as a directional development. The “good” should motivate one to achieve the “better,” and the “better’ should inspire one toward the “best.”
However, the spiritual challenge that every great master delivers to humanity is no mere exhortation to be “moral.” It is to become as perfect as God is! We are asked literally to expand our sense of selfhood to infinity.
It is in contact with the deeper Self that the natural urge toward self-expansion comes into its own. Ego-consciousness belongs in the realm of relativity, but true bliss is found in that deep state of consciousness which is the very heart of existence, and is beyond relativity.
This article first appeared in print in Fall 2009: “What Makes Something Wrong?,” Swami Kriyananda, Clarity Magazine.
From Out of the Labyrinth, Crystal Clarity Publishers, and talks and articles.