The Evolution of Morality

By Prabhakar T. Överland

The roots of morality1 may be found in primitive life. The existential mainstays of animal life are very basic or even crude: foraging for food, sleeping, procreating and survival. The means to sustain them may be even cruder: spying on prey, deceiving them, tearing opponents and their families apart before devouring them, poisoning them, etc. On the bright side, Nature seems to assign certain civic duties to developed animals, such as learning the dos and don’ts of life, taking care of their offspring, etc. Prior to humans, developed animals have indeed formed families and societies based on physical needs.


Human beings came into existence with such diverse moral notions engraved into their DNA. On one hand, wild and brutal impulses threatened to make humans behave aggressively in any challenging situation. On the other hand, they instinctively knew there was a system and a discipline to life. As such, the moral position of primitive humans was frustratingly complex, to say the least, but also constructive. Their struggle against those evil, violent expressions of animal survival instincts actually brought them close to the human stage.

Human morality is at first a battle against the firmly established crude expressions of prominent basic instincts, and an evolution from the harsh and brutal behaviour towards subtler sensibility and sweeter sensitivity. Moral development, the clash of the primitive and the sublime, takes place within families, localities, societies, educational and other societal institutions where people evolve to think, act, and deal with each other in increasingly more meaningful and rewarding ways. Even the crudest morality systems, such as those that allow for cutting off people’s limbs and murdering them for their crimes, aim at certain civilisable functions, such as disciplining individuals and society, and governance.

Objectivating Morality

The first step in the development of formal morality and ethics is objectivating morality. What does “objectivating” mean here? An objectivating system or state of mind tends towards conceiving of things and entities as objects. For instance, a car manufacturer’s basic interest lies in selling as many cars as possible. Whether customers actually are suited to driving a car is not a main concern of sales representatives; driving schools are supposed to take care of that. In the same way, a system of objectivating morality aims at manufacturing behaviour within certain pragmatic limits: “Don’t steal,” “Pay tax,” etc. The emphasis of an objectivating system is not on evolving people’s moral faculty but on making them act desirably and keeping them away from doing things viewed as undesirable by authorities.

From antiquity to the present day, a number of objectivating moral codes and principles have been developed. Examples include ancient Egypt’s Maat and the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The Confessions of Goddess Maat2 is rich in moral objectivism, consisting of 42 moral observances, such as not being unfaithful, killing, stealing, “I have not used witchcraft against the king,” etc. Stealing seems to have been a bit of a problem in ancient Egypt, even among temple-goers. Maat admonished worshippers not to take “the bread of the gods from the temple”, neither should they steal “the khenfu cakes from the altar of the deceased” and “none of the priests’ cows on the way home”. These are objectivated, reified moral principles in all likelihood established in the interests of some social class or the other.

Likewise, the Ten Commandments of the Bible present an objectivating code of morality: “not hankering after the neighbour’s house, his or her partner, nor any manservant, maidservant, nor the neighbour’s ox, ass, nor any thing that is the neighbour’s,” etc.3 Without any further ethical and spiritual guidance, objectivating morality such as this remains a goal unto itself, “morality for morality’s sake”, i.e., morality in the interest of some moral authority; motivated by a particular vested interest, class or other power.

Looking into history, we find that objectivating morality has worked as a double-edged sword, sometimes cutting against vice, at other times against virtue:

  • Moral codes have played a role in disciplining individuals and society, have been essential to developing criminal and other fields of law, and have been instrumental in evolving governance and creating public welfare.
  • On the other hand, objective morality has been made to generate social disparity and exploitation. At times, cruel and inhumane standards were applied to those at the bottom of the societal ladder whereas those at the top enjoyed quite another set of rules borne out of their privileged status.

In fact, bigoted morals borne out of social, religious, economic and other types of dogma become the norm whenever the rule of a particular class starts to dominate the whole of society. Certain values benefitting the ruling classes become the morality of such ages.

Objective-Subjective Humanist Morality

The expansive human intellect allows for sensing and intuiting a greater human existence. Empowered by enlightened personalities, systems of objectivating morality became springboards for blending primitive and increasingly subjectivating systems of morality. Besides the above examples, some affirmations of Maat, such as “I am not a deceitful person,” “I have not shut my ears to the words of truth,” and “I have not acted with arrogance”, indicate a subjectivating trend.

Here “subjective” pertains to development of the inner being, that is to say, not a moral code only watching over objective standards but one aiming to develop human standards and potentialities in general. Indeed, the goddess Maat was conceived of as a feminine manifestation of the universal fundamentally ethical power whose ultimate nature is found in her consummate state with the all-pervasive supreme being.

In Medieval China, with Confucius (551-479 BC), moral philosophy became the basis of education, and institutions even began to admit even capable, deserving commoners to its ranks, and not just nobility. The genuinely human began to put its stamp on society. The tradition of Chinese ethical thought concerns itself with subtleties of human life: what goes into a worthwhile life, how to balance duties toward the family versus duties toward strangers, whether human nature is predisposed to be morally good or bad, how one ought to relate to the non-human world, the extent to which one ought to become involved in reforming the larger social and political structures of one’s society, how one ought to conduct oneself when in a position of influence or power, and so forth. The personal, social, and political aspects are often found intertwined in classical Chinese ethics.4

Humanist morality is focussed on human needs and potentials. It supposes that subtle (“non-natural”) facts embrace objective moral facts.5 “According to the tradition of western classical moral philosophy, the task of the moral philosopher is to formulate fundamental moral truths, normative principles, from which other moral truths can be deduced.”6

Evolved humanist ethics are highly intellectual but still unable to penetrate into the spiritual. Its rationality continues to be human-centred, such as “In the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.”7 In the absence of any spiritual direction, this statement ends up drifting towards the subjective-objective, ignoring the subject of living beings other than human. Humanist morality does not treat plants, animals and the entire inanimate creation with the same moral concern with which it treats human beings. This is a dangerous trend, as the immorality perpetrated against non-human beings will soon spill over to the treatment of human beings as well. The current environmental crisis is a good example of this danger. Even, humanist morality may be reduced to a certain group or section of humanity—economy for the money-minded, freedom for the rich, etc.

By making object of the rest of the world, humanist morality excludes the existential value of the entire environment, our planetary system, and indeed of the entire Cosmos. Humanist morality views the entire Cosmos, out of which the human being was created, only as a utilitarian object and not as an entity in its own right.

The high point of humanist morality, where it approaches the beginnings of subjectivating morality, is encapsulated by the so-called golden mean or principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This universal expression of human conscience is often ascribed to Confucius. The same idea is also found in the Mahabharata where the wise Vidura advises the newly anointed King Yudhisthira to “treat others as you treat yourself”. Vidura and Yudhisthira lived a thousand years before Confucius and are the oldest known source of this idea. For the rest, human-centred morality is limited to the nearly eight billion individuals on this planet, who are all different from any intellectual point of view and who therefore would find it very difficult, in the absence of more comprehensive ethics, to agree on policies that would benefit both themselves and other living species.


The fundamental shortcoming of objectivating systems of morality is the limitation of the physical world. Any system that takes the physical world as its essential object of reference will fail to deliver justice and peace, because of the limited nature of the physical world and its reflection on the human mind.

Human beings cherish the genuine and the balanced. They tend to admire and respect people of personal integrity, moral courage, and expressed values. In fact, all human beings have the potential to express characteristically human traits such as decency, closeness, warmth, service-mindedness, morality, sense of responsibility, conscience, compassion, and magnanimity of mind. Other examples of cardinal human values are grace, forgiveness, selflessness, love, friendship, dignity, nobility, and pity. We are all eager to experience such touches of another human being and see them expressed in our collective existence. Human values are really a family affair, the concept of the universal, joyous, great family.8

In fact, we find the same fundamental human values constitute the base of legislation, the formation of nations, and other developments towards the realisation of individual and collective welfare. Today, most countries have a solid body of enlightened law, based on notions of sin, virtue, morality and ethics, and values such as those mentioned above. However, due to corruption and abuse of power those lofty factors are not getting adequately expressed. In many places the problem is not the laws themselves but their practical implementation. A good judge sees the human being and its potentialities, and not only its so-called bad action.

Are sublime human values something abstract or concrete? To evolved minds, they are psycho-spiritual realities and dire necessities for the continuation of life on this planet. Throughout history many great personalities have expounded such sublime values, urging humanity to move forward towards justice and dignity for all. To materialist, object-ridden minds, such values may appear as abstract and even undesirable, making a system of subjectivating morality all the more important and needed.

Subjectivating Morality

In the course of human evolution, we eventually arrive at purely subjective, spiritual morality. Serving as a dependable vehicle throughout the existential journey of human beings towards their all-round liberation is its main mark. This kind of morality was termed as niiti in ancient Sanskrit texts,9 defining morality as “that which leads towards the ultimate existential state” (kśemárthe nayanam ityarthe niiti).10</sup. Perhaps such an ultimate yardstick of morality was with us all along, hidden in every elevated expression of living being, civilization and culture.

Buddha, a contemporary of Confucius, formulated a subjectivating form of morality known as The Noble Eightfold Path.11 He used the term “Sadhu” for those who did to others as they would want others to do to them, and placed that concept in a cosmic karmic perspective:

“Think once before you speak. If you have the eyes to see, cast a quick glance before you look at anything, otherwise, do not look at all, because whatever you see will influence the mind. Don’t listen to anything which is not worth hearing. Only listen to that which purifies and elevates the mind. O Sadhu, control your eyes, control your ears, control your sense of smell, control your tongue, control your speech. Control your mind, Sadhu; control everything. Then you will never suffer from sorrows.”12

Thousands of years prior to Confucius and Buddha, a great spiritual teacher lived in North India. His name was Sadashiva, or Shiva. He propounded a moral code consisting of five principles of externalised control, called Yama in Sanskrit, and another five principles internalised regulation called Niyama. Yama and Niyama constitute the classical subjectivating morality of the spiritual practices that arose from ancient India. Any practitioner of the classical system of the ubiquitous Astauṋga Yoga knows Yama and Niyama as the first two parts of that eightfold system.

As subjective morality is directly linked to and promotes spiritual progress, these principles of morality serve to liberate from crudeness and are not about condemning. Among other things Yama and Niyama tell us that we should:

  • Not be a hindrance to the development of others.
  • Be ready to face adversities in order to develop ourselves and others.
  • Cultivate a sober lifestyle of a balanced mind, allegiance to eternal truth, and other subjectivating points.13

Subjective values are based on subtler realities of the inner world of human beings. A moral code enlightened from within provides a unifying sense of the universal human and its obligations. Such more advanced moral compasses give both external and internal direction as their aim is to improve the entire sphere of human existence and not only the outer. In the words of the spiritual teacher Shrii Shrii Anandamurti (1922 Jamalpur-1990 Kolkata):

“Where animality ends, humanity begins, where humanity ends, divinity begins. The meeting point of the highest attainment of humanity and the blossoming of divinity is the base on which the cardinal human principles are established.” 14

Yama and Niyama

The ten principles of Yama and Niyama evolve a greater sense of differentiating powers, soul and spirituality. These ten principles are not grounds for punishment per se, but of rectification and existential transformation towards greater subjectivity. They provide the necessary objective-subjective approach necessary for humanity to properly adjust its actions with the requirements of a blossoming new global society with sufficient rights and opportunities for all. These ten cardinal moral principles are:

External control (Yama):

  • Not to intentionally harm others with one’s actions, words or thoughts (Ahimsa).
  • To use one’s words and one’s mind for the welfare of others; benevolent truthfulness (Satya).
  • Not to take what rightfully belongs to others, and not to deprive others of what is their due (Asteya).
  • To respect and treat everyone AND everything as an expression of the Supreme Consciousness (Brahmacarya).
  • Not to accumulate wealth or indulge in comforts which are unnecessary for the preservation of life (Aparigraha).

Internal regulation (Niyama):

  • To maintain the cleanliness of one’s body and the environment, as well as mental purity (Shaoca).
  • To maintain a state of mental contentment and peace (Santosa).
  • To alleviate the suffering of the needy through personal service and sacrifice (Tapah).
  • To read and endeavour to gain a clear understanding of spiritual books and scriptures, and listen to wise teachings (Svadhyaya).
  • To accept the Cosmic Consciousness as one’s shelter and goal (Ishvara Pranidhana).

Moral development is not an isolated affair, but an aggregate of human existential, civil, and cultural developments. For the all-round development of a world society and its citizens, a morality that embraces all living beings, and not only secures the interests of a few persons or groups, is required. While visiting Caracas, Venezuela in 1979, Anandamurti offered:

“A subjective approach is the final thing, but while moving on towards the subjective goal, you must maintain adjustment with the objective world. There is no alternative. And when human society accepts this goal and is ensconced in this supreme idea in the very near future, this will knit, will construct, a human society on this planet.”15

1 The term morality derives from the Latin moralis, “customary practice”, whereas the term ethics derives from the Greek ethikos; “virtuous practice”. In this article, morality is treated as a common understanding of vice and virtue, whereas ethics is treated as a scholarly and formally approved proposition of the same.

2 Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. M. Karenga. Psychology Press (2004).

3 Exodus 20:2-17, The Old Testament, The Bible.

4 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5 Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Law. Oxford University Press (2011).

6 “Classical Moral Philosophy and Metaethics”, E.M. Adams, The University of Chicago Press Journals, Ethics, Volume 74, Number 2.

7 (accessed 20.09.2022).

8 The Cosmic Kaleidoscope, P.T. Överland, Ananda Marga Gurukula (2022), pp 214-215.

9 Such as in Niti Shastra by Chanakya (375-283 BCE);

(accessed 20.09.2022).

10 “Niiti and Dharma”, Subháśita Saḿgraha Part 21, Supreme Expression Volume 1, Baba’s Grace, The Great Universe: Discourses on Society.

11 Ariya atthangika magga in Pali; Aryastangamarga in Sanskrit)

12 Dhammapada 360-361.

13 A Guide to Human Conduct, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, Ananda Marga Publications (1957).

14 “Social Values and Human Cardinal Principles”, Discourses on Neohumanist Education, A Few Problems Solved Part 2, Prout in a Nutshell Volume 2 Part 7, Supreme Expression Volume 2.

15 “The Four Types of Progress”, Ánanda Vacanámrtam parts 14 & 31.

Prabhakar T. Överland (b. 1956) is a long-time student of Shrii Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar. He is a retired journalist and counselor, residing in Stockholm Sweden, and has published works on psychosynthesis in Norwegian and Swedish.