The debate between individualism and collectivism lies at the heart of all modern political debates, but it is obvious that we could not live without both. If everyone acted individualistically, society—which hinges on cooperation—could not exist; there could be no common agreement on social laws that aim for the greater collective good over (sometimes) individual good. If on the other hand we prioritized the collective good over individual good, there would be no incentive in the individuals to act out of their own agency, resulting in the relinquishment of individual responsibilities. What is the right balance between individualism and collectivism? This question hinges on the problem that these two ideas seem to be fundamentally contradictory and this post hopes to show that they are not.
Table of Contents
The Replacement of Morality with Legal Laws
Morality is contextual, but the legal laws are universal. When morality is replaced with legal laws, many innocent people are unjustly punished, and many guilty people get off scot-free. To trap those guilty people, even more laws are enacted, which has the same result—even more innocent people are trapped by the laws while many guilty people find the loopholes in the laws and again get off scot-free.
To enforce the growing number of laws, catch the guilty and indict them into punishment, the government machinery has to grow concomitantly. This growing legal and policing machinery requires growing taxes on the citizens, and the price of a few guilty is paid by even the innocent. As the taxes increase, most of people’s earnings are lost in maintaining the government machinery, and the people struck by poverty now resort to crimes, which needs more laws, more regulatory machinery, more taxes, greater debt, followed by more crimes, and the cycle repeats endlessly.
Decline in morality therefore makes most people poor, debt-ridden, and overburdened by taxes, unable to control their destiny, and the gloomy outlook in their life makes them unhappy, depressed, and prone to crime, sloth, disillusionment, and frustration. Under these pressures, society collapses .
Left and Right Wing Politics
The right-wing politicians argue for lesser government intervention—meaning fewer laws and governmental control, letting the people decide what is best for them—but they don’t replace the laws with a higher moral standard. The left-wing politicians argue for greater governmental oversight with higher taxes, and hope that they can replace morality with man-made laws, but all they achieve is a higher level of debt, poverty, destruction of individual agency, and growing crime.
The cooperation promulgated by the left-wing politics makes hard-working people who make good choices pay for the lazy, inept, and morally decrepit; the argument is that the well-to-do people have to lift those without adequate means out of their miserable condition. However, without the moral education about the purpose of life, monetary benefits don’t truly change their conditions.
The competition promulgated by the right-wing politics makes the well-to-do morally decrepit people exploit the poor and miserable to further their power and riches, keeping them helpless, while they exploit lesser governmental oversight to commit greater crimes—using the common and shared resources toward their selfish ends and making everyone pay for their consumption.
Morality is a Natural Law
The thing that goes unsaid in both political ideologies is that you can escape the laws of the government, but you cannot escape the natural laws. Nature has its own laws of morality—which are contextual and not universal—which means that you are being judged according to the time, place, situation, and role you are in, and the consequences of your action create a subtle material reality called karma that lies dormant as possibility, and cannot be observed at the present until it becomes a reality later.
The laws of the government are meant to make you more moral—i.e. prevent you from creating bad karma—which means that the government has a moral duty to guide its citizens toward greater morality. This duty begins by educating the population in the moral laws of nature. If the ruler doesn’t educate the population about these laws, he or she is naturally implicated in the dereliction of duty.
But even more importantly, the moral laws of nature don’t apply equally to everyone. The crime of a hungry man stealing food to satisfy his hunger is not as big a crime as a kleptomaniac who steals out of his habitual compulsions. The judgment of right and wrong is relative to the duties, opportunities, abilities, and intentions of a person. Unintentional wrongdoing is therefore not as bad as intentional wrongdoing. Similarly, when the opportunity disallows the ideal action, then the non-ideal action is not a crime. If the person has no ability to pay taxes, then the non-payment cannot be a crime.
The natural laws of morality are contextual, but the legal laws are universal. Inducting the context into the process of decision making is the preliminary step to arriving at any moral judgment.
The Four Principles of Morality
Vedic texts describe four key principles of morality—truthfulness, kindness, austerity, and cleanliness. These are general principles with wide implications, but they don’t generally stand alone. For example, a truth that is unkind is immoral. Similarly, austerity meant to hurt others is immoral. Only a combination of the four principles—when all or most of the principles are upheld—constitutes morality.
The legitimate use of competition is the pursuit of greater morality—truthfulness, kindness, austerity, and cleanliness. The competitors can aim to exceed each other in pursuing the moral principles. And yet, this competitive stance also constitutes greater cooperation among the people because the very pursuit of these moral principles benefits the others, even as it profits the practitioner with better karma.
The competition to exceed one another in the practice of moral principles is an individualistic enterprise—the person wants to become a better person—and earns good karma in the process. And yet, the effort of becoming a better person sets the example for others to be better as well. It also benefits them materially, socially, economically, and culturally, improving their lives too.
Truthfulness builds trust, and prompts another person to be truthful. Kindness shown to other people helps them be kind to others. Austerity and renunciation sets the example for others to also renounce their narrow selfish interests. And systematic and organized living creates the example for others to emulate. You don’t always have to force others to be moral if you can set the moral example.
The Economic Benefits of Morality
This doesn’t mean the dissolution of the legal and governmental machinery, because there will always be some people who want to behave immorally. Laws, courts, and government must exist for regulating them. However, it does mean a significant reduction in the enforcement machinery, followed by the reduction in taxes, more money in people’s hands, and more individual responsibility.
When most people behave morally, the number of laws needed to control behavior reduces. The government machinery to enforce the laws, and taxes to maintain that machinery decline. The poverty and debt that follow from the taxes diminish. The individual agency and enterprise—coupled with responsibility—increases. Society is not only more moral, but also more prosperous.
The primary purpose of the government is not enacting laws, exerting taxes, and policing the people. The primary purpose is the dissemination of the understanding of the natural laws of morality such that even if a person escaped the government’s laws, he or she would not escape nature’s laws.
The hunger for power and position is not evil, if it is used toward greater morality, the uplift of society, and producing greater agency and accountability as a consequence of that. The glue that binds people in a social order is not society as a whole, nor is it the individual gain itself. The glue is the higher purpose—morality—that transcends individual and collective interest, and yet delivers both.
Religion and Morality
The principles of truthfulness, austerity, kindness, and cleanliness are not sectarian. Every religion prevailing today, or which may have prevailed in the past, upheld these principles to various extents. Indeed, religions became despicable when they rejected these principles for individual or collective well-being, treating the propagation of an ideology superior to the upholding of morality.
The real question we might be asking ourselves is this—why only these principles and not others? There are two answers to this question. First, you can take any other moral virtue—e.g. honesty, integrity, or respect—and you will find that it either reduces to the above four or follows from them. Second, it follows from the first that you can draw a ‘space’ that maps all moral values and you will find that the above four principles constitute the orthogonal dimensions of this space. This means that other values are produced through a combination of these dimensions. Respect, for instance, is a combination of truthfulness and kindness, and we have to grasp these principles in their essence; these are not just words but fundamental principles that embody the core essence of being moral.
These principles are also the leading lights for making choices. Every choice boils down to a decision between doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing. But how do we define the right? Only something that is truthful, kind, sacrificing, and clean constitutes the right; we may be able to achieve these in a given context to varying degrees, and when they are not perfectly achievable, we have to prioritize between them—trading off some over the other. The science of morality is identifying that prioritization when all of them cannot be achieved simultaneously due to the constraints of the given situation.
The Prioritization of Moral Principles
There are often situations in the material world where the combination of all four principles is not practically possible. For instance, should we show kindness to the criminal, just because kindness is a moral virtue? How about renouncing your property for the selfish and greedy?
The conversation on morality suffers from the problem of universalization. The principles are universal but their application is contextual—if we understand the law of karma. For instance, being unkind to a criminal by punishing him is not actually unkind, because the criminal will eventually suffer the outcomes of his misdeeds. Similarly, renouncing for the selfish and greedy will further drag them toward greater selfishness, and create an even more miserable condition for them.
Therefore, being unkind or selfish with a criminal is not truly a violation of the moral principles of kindness and renunciation. It is rather a contextually just application of the morality. If we renounce the understanding of the natural principles of karma then we also create enormous confusion regarding the application of the moral principles. Therefore, in the practice of morality we have to keep both the principles, their contextual application, and above all the law of karma in mind. Only with this fuller understanding of morality can the universal and non-sectarian principles be applied correctly.
Free Will vs. Freedom
The goal of life is not to serve your fellow human being. The goal of life is also not to serve yourself. The goal of life is to serve a higher principle—the principles of morality—because by serving these principles both the self and the others are served adequately. The consciousness of the soul—called sat—connects us to others when we become aware of them, and it is sometimes called sambandha or relation. But this conscious connection creates a role for the individual in relation to the other roles.
The desires of the individual—called ananda or prayojana or purpose—are therefore bounded by their duties dictated by the role. Through the desires we are free. But through the dictates of the role in relation to others we are bound. Morality is therefore the constraint on our free will. We are not completely free, and we are not completely bound. We are rather contextually situated in roles which place restrictions on our desires, but they don’t eliminate the desires themselves.
We can call our desires free will and we can call the role in which we fulfill these desires freedom. The actions we perform using this free will within the limits of freedom are called abhidheya or give and take transactions, which correspond to the chit of the soul. Thus, the three aspects of the soul—sat, chit, and ananda—represent a complete understanding of how the soul has free will, bound by the restrictions of his relation to others, and performs his actions—ideally—within those bounds.
The spiritually enlightened person understands this model and adheres to it. The spiritually ignorant person abuses the model and gets implicated in its consequences called karma. Therefore, karma is not a permanent feature of reality; it exists only when we don’t understand the nature of the soul. Spiritual enlightenment thus frees the person from the outcomes of immoral actions.