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Submitted / Updated On: Thursday, November 2, 2006 | Written By: Rajiv Krishna Saxena | Hits since Feb 1, 2014: 1243

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Various religions tell us that the morals are derived from Gods. In the modern age of science however, the faith itself is under attack. Under the influence of rapidly growing results of scientific inquiry, belief in God as a creator and regulator of this world is losing steam especially with modern day thinkers and scientists. If the faith is lost, how can we then explain the basis of morals? Can there be a biological rather than a divine basis of morals? Please read on. Reader’s comments are welcome at - Rajiv Krishna Saxena


What is the foundation of morals?

This question is often asked. Why should I be “good”? If I need a particular thing possessed by some one else, why should I not snatch it by force? Why should I respect the elders and be kind to all? Why should I not lie, deceive and kill if that serves my purpose? Is there an absolute definition of good and bad? Who has given that definition? What is the authority of the definition giver? If a religious leader says that good and bad are defined by God or a messenger of God, as given in such and such scripture, that answer would mean little in today’s world. This is the era of rational and scientific thinking and many people are not satisfied if they are asked to blindly believe in what ever is written in a given scripture. Then again, different sets of scriptures believed by different bodies of followers may contradict each other. One scripture may say that killing as such is bad but other scripture may say that it is justified to kill non-believers in that faith. One scripture may prohibit killing and eating of cows while other may find nothing wrong in it. Which one do we believe? Are there any absolute definitions of good and bad? Is it at all possible to arrive at reasoned out and rational definitions of moral rights and wrongs? To answer these questions, it is necessary to look at the very genesis of rules right from the era when human beings did not exist. We shall first discuss the biological basis of “good” and “bad”.

Natural morals derived from Biology:

Nature is ruthless. Biological processes are not associated with morals. Aim of an individual member of a given species is to compete with other individuals for the limited resources and survive. Likewise aim of a species is to survive in face of other competing contemporary species. A species is successful if it survives and is prolific in producing off springs. At the level of an individual or a species only the fittest one survives. Nature sheds no tears when an individual or a species dies. The principle of survival of the fittest ensures that only those individuals and life forms survive that are better adapted in the art of survival under a given set of circumstances. In such a scenario, any trait that helped survival would be a good trait. Any trait that decreased the chances of survival, would be bad. Besides these good and bad traits, Nature seems to have no other morals.

Individual animals have survival instincts which they use to save their lives from immediate dangers. Yet animals do not contemplate and would not “worry” about the survival of their species. Animals live from moments to moments in present, cut off from past or future. A bird engaged in the laborious task of building a nest for future lying of eggs would not “know” why she is doing so. It is just following the instincts. Animals are therefore like programmed computers; programmed to evade dangerous situations, programmed to seek out food, programmed to procreate and programmed to do numerous other activities which are linked to their survival as an individual and as a species. While we humans may ascribe noble motives to many actions of animals, in reality their actions are internally programmed and played out quite mechanically without any contemplation. Till the time human beings with their ability to observe and contemplate arrived at the scene, the process of evolution and the attendant struggle for survival went unobserved. No one was around to pass moral judgments.

Evolutionary emergence of a contemplating man:

About a million years ago, human beings emerged on the scene. They had a new and unique capability of thinking and problem solving. They observed and contemplated. They developed language to communicate ideas and transmit the ideas to subsequent generations. This marked a qualitative departure from the scene thus far. Before them, genetically programmed instincts alone were transferred from generation to generation of animals. In human beings, life time experiences were also transferred to the off springs through the process of education and learning. While rational thinking was getting established amongst human beings, they found it difficult to comprehend their own behavior arising from their deeply rooted animal instincts. Ancient instincts created overpowering internal urges that they were unable to understand. Urge to procreate and the attendant internal compulsion of finding a mate was instinctive and overpowering. Similarly the natural instinct to nurture the newly born was very strong. These natural instincts generate emotions like love, hate, anger and fear. We cannot understand these emotions at a rational level. As the saying goes, heart has its reasons that the reason knows not.

Without the power of contemplation, the evolutionary struggle for survival was played out like a computer program amongst animals, and there was no one to observe the process. Human beings with their newly found capacity to think, however tried to understand the purpose of this struggle. This transition is beautifully depicted in the story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve ate the metaphorical forbidden fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden that brought them untold misery. Acquisition of this trait of higher thinking made the man an undisputed master of all life forms, but also, for ever, left with him the burden of having to find meanings in his actions, his struggle of survival, and his very purpose of being. Man would indeed be miserable for ever.

Due to immensely superior mind, man soon conquered the animal kingdom and was no longer in competition with them for survival. Man learnt to grow food, make shelter and was not obliged to participate in a constant, brutal and bloody struggle for survival amongst themselves. He learnt to coexist peacefully in societies where each member of the society performed defined duties for working towards a common goal of survival of the society. Man became a social animal. He also realized that the ancient internal instincts could not be followed indiscriminately in a social setting. While internal urge to procreate prolifically by indiscriminate sexual couplings with maximum number of females was very powerful in human males, acting out these instincts would have destroyed the very basic social fabric that sustained the societies. Voluntary constraints were therefore required to control natural urges. Curbs needed to restrict natural urges for greater benefits of the society became morals. Morals therefore invariably go against natural instincts that threaten to disrupt the society. Natural instincts would exhort an individual to steal his food, but it is immoral to steal. Natural instincts would push a man towards breaking his marital vows of monogamy and have clandestine sexual encounters, but that is immoral too. Natural urges would rather have a man act in a selfish manner and think only for his own survival, but to be morally correct is to be selfless. Indeed, societies made laws to curb individual acting out of natural instincts. A little deviation and society would frown upon the perpetrator, but a bigger deviation will put him behind bars.

Need of God at a Social level:

In a society, a human being is supposed to live out a life tied down with moral injunctions and fearful of laws lay down by the society. He is expected to be a well behaved child, then a good student, a good worker and a good parent. That is what society expects. In return, one gets the assurance of not having to undergo a jungle like struggle for survival, where only those who are fittest would survive. In a human society, every human being has a right to survive if he accepts and abides by the social laws. Biological evolution characterized by the principle of “survival of the fittest” has more or less ceased for human beings.

Morals were invented for survival of societies, yet this rationale was not powerful enough to get compliance of common members of the society. It was necessary to conceive an almighty all powerful God, who was the guardian of these morals. An individual was supposed to live a morally correct life because God wished so. God watches over all individual actions and punishes the doers of bad deeds. Fear of God was inculcated from childhood, and generally people behaved. In many religions, the role of God is confined to this utilitarian purpose.

Need of God at a personal level:

As the thinking and contemplating abilities got further refined, perceptive thinkers realized the true nature of morals as rules for the survival of societies. They did not need the concept of God as a policeman to oversee the actions of individuals. Yet they were plagued with more profound questions that needed answers.

While the problem of day to day survival stands solved in a society, deeper questions remained. We may live comfortably or painfully in a social set up, but why live at all? This question about the purpose of life is the beginning of true religion and spirituality. Religion is perhaps the wrong word here. The word religion has roots in the word “rules”. Religion should literally mean rules for living a life, a code of conduct. That is in the domain of need of God at social levels discussed above. For spiritually evolved individuals, a more appropriate Sanskrit word is “Dharma”, that means the essential nature of any thing. For example, we say that the dharma of fire is to burn. The question is - what is the Dharma of human beings? If we know that, we can define the purpose of life. Many religions do not provide a clear answer to this important question and restrict themselves to prescribing directions and rules for living a life. It was perhaps only in the religions which originated in the holy soil of India, that an unequivocal answer to this question about the purpose of life was provided. Hindus consider the realization of individual Self () as an indistinguishable part of universal Self (), as the sole purpose of a human life. This Self-realization is the eternal and ultimate knowledge that spiritual seekers strive to achieve.

For spiritually evolved individuals, morals and their justification become unimportant. They look at all activities that go on in nature with a unbiased eye. They view their own actions also in a detached fashion without the ego of a doer. That is the key to internal peace. In Bhagwad Gita the Lord Krishna says:

(Due to ongoing natural processes, various actions keep happening autonomously in this world. Ego in a human being creates the illusion that he is the doer of his actions. Gita, Chapter 3, verse 27)

(Autonomous actions result from the inherent properties of matter in this creation. Those who realize this truth are not perturbed by on goings in the world. Gita, Chapter 3, verse 28)

For a spiritually evolved person, morally good or bad actions do not have absolute values. A given action may be moral from one point of view and entirely immoral from another point of view. A prime example is killing. It may be immoral to kill a human being but killing the enemy during a war is some thing that is expected and therefore moral. Those who develop a relative and detached view of the so called good and bad actions are the yogis who know the truth.

(Such yogi who realizes that good deeds could be bad and bad deeds could be good under altered circumstances, is the knower of truth and understands the real nature of deeds. Gita, Chapter 4, verse 18)

Such an evolved view of human actions cannot be inculcated artificially in any individual. Such exalted state of mind develops gradually and automatically as an individual makes spiritual progress. With such progress, one gradually looses interest in accumulation of worldly goods because he realizes the utter uselessness of worldly things and single mindedly pursues the eternal Truth alone. As the desire for worldly things fade away, so does for him the basic frame work in which morals can be defined. Immoral things are done for pursuing worldly goods and since a spiritually evolved individual has no interest in worldly goods, he does not commit immoral actions. That is why, society views spiritually evolved persons as holy persons. Their moral behavior is however secondary to their loss of interest in worldly things, and not because they follow some strict moral code. They become the embodiment of morals for the society.

In conclusion, we can reiterate following main points:

  • There are no natural morals. Actions of animals with survival instincts are internally programmed with the sole aim of survival and proliferation.

  • Even though human beings constitute an animal species with deeply ingrained instincts like those in other animals, they differ from other animals in having acquired a large neo-cortex, power of contemplation and communication and in having evolved a social set up where the principle of survival of the fittest no longer operates. Animal instincts that human beings possess need to be curbed in order to sustain the society and social structure. These curbs take the form of laws and morals. Morals are thus social survival instincts reflected in individuals.

  • Spiritually evolved persons gradually give up worldly desires and do not need morals to regulate their lives. Yet they are incapable of doing immoral deeds and their lives become embodiment of morals for common people.

* Gita shlokas as Hindi verses have been cited from the author’s work “Geeta Kavya Madhuri” published (year 2002) by Pustak Mahal, New Delhi.