Ethics itself is not the end, but the means to the end. If the end is not there, why should we be ethical? Why should I do good to others and not injure them?
CW: Vol. 2, Jnana-Yoga, Ch I, The necessity of religion
The fundamental question we must ask is, “why should we do good to others?”
‘Not I but Thou’, ‘Not mine but Thine’ – are these empty statements made by a ‘poverty-seeking saint’ or are they statements with living power that describe, in essence, the ethical ends of human beings?
To answer the question, “why must I do good?” I must ask a more serious question, “who am I and what is the purpose of my life”.
If I am the senses, then is it not enough to seek pleasure at whatever be the ‘acceptable’ cost? ‘Acceptable’ - referring to the conflicting dimensions by different members of a society and the social safety values needed to maintain order in a society.
If I am the body, then this question is answered by saying, all that enables the preservation of a body and health may be treated as ethical.
If I am a member of society, then clearly the overall good of a community must be balanced with individual good.
If I am a member of humankind, then clearly the overall good of humankind must be balanced with individual community good, and individual personal good.
All these definitions of “I” underlie the various ethical structures that humankind has followed and argued over centuries.
A little thought will reveal that in all these approaches – the central notion is the balancing of conflicting interests and the creation of a “space” – where ethics are defined by circumstance and interpretation. This power and interest analysis combined with explorations of these “spaces” have led to the numerous interpretations, literature and conflicts in ethical behaviours among men.
None of them, however, answer the core question: Are human beings a creation who must ‘bargain’ with their environment and define ethical behaviour that is ultimately unique, or are they beings who begin with a total notion of ethics that cuts across time, place and circumstances?
The answer is provided by Vedanta. Who am I? If my real nature is that of the Infinite Self, in essence, the Universal Reality, then I am you and you are I. There is no difference between us because we are one, we are of the same essential nature.
Then if I am selfish – you are included in that selfishness – and so are all members of my community and yours – of my society and yours – those who I like and those who I don’t, those who are good and those who are bad.
This is the ideal of the Vedanta. The ethics of total inclusion of all beings. In this ethics can there be “balancing”? Can there be bargaining? Can there be anything other than a single idea: “I want all of me to be happy – and that includes me, you and all of us”.