The Moral Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda

/, Public Articles/The Moral Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda

The Moral Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda

IN THIS PAPER WE PROPOSE to discuss if Swami Vivekananda has a moral philosophy of his own. If he does have one, our question is how to characterize it. We want to begin this paper by referring to certain statements scattered in his lectures or writings, which clearly embody his conception of ethics. From these statements one can readily understand the uniqueness of Vivekananda’s approach towards morality, which distinguishes it from that of the Western ethicist. The statements quoted here are mostly from his lectures on ‘Practical Vedanta’:


(i) The only definition that can be given of morality is this: That which is selfish is immoral, and that which is unselfish is moral.1
(ii) My idea is to show that the highest ideal of morality and unselfishness goes hand in hand (2.355).
(iii) The more selfish a man, the more immoral he is (2.352).
(iv) Perfect self-annihilation is the ideal of ethics (2.63).
(v) The vain ideas of individualism … have to be given up—say the laws of ethics (2.62).
(vi) Ethics is unity; its basis is love (1.432).
(vii) In all our actions we have to judge whether it is making for diversity or for oneness. If for diversity, we have to give it up, but if it makes for oneness we are sure it is good (2.304). What all these remarks boil down to is that morality prevails when in our actions there is complete effacement of the self and the realization of the essential unity of all human beings. Abnegation of the self makes for detachment, which is the foundation for Vivekananda’s ideas on ethics.


What Swamiji’s Moral Philosophy is Not

Swamiji had an ethical philosophy of his own. It would be wrong to construe it as an academic philosophy, and, as such, it may not be accommodated within the framework of Western ethics. Ethical discussion, however, is divided into two branches: meta-ethics and normative ethics. Meta-ethics is about the nature of ethics and moral judgements—whether we act from self-interest or not; normative ethics determine the content of moral behaviour and is about setting norms for standards of conduct. The word ‘meta’ means beyond or after; meta-ethics therefore involves a distant or a bird’s-eye view of ethics. Swamiji does not discuss the question whether moral judgements are objective and, hence, his ethics does not develop into meta-ethics. The ethics of Swamiji sets itself the task of specifying norms for human conduct and may be construed as a kind of normative ethics. But the standard or norm is in no way comparable to the norm set by the Western ethicist. Normative ethics in brief is:

We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Since I would want people to feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people. Using this same reasoning, I can theoretically determine whether any possible action is right or wrong. So, based on the Golden Rule, it would also be wrong for me to lie to, harass, victimize, assault, or kill others.2


From a Western perspective, the central question for normative ethics is whether the moral value of an action is to be judged in the light of its consequence or by the fact that it is done for the sake of duty. The ethical theory which evaluates the moral value of actions on the basis of consequence is known as ‘consequentialism’ or ‘teleological’ ethics. On the other hand, the theory that proposes to judge action by reference to duty is known as ‘deontological’. However, this dichotomy is not relevant to the moral philosophy of Vivekananda, for it cannot be accommodated within the straitjacket of either consequentialism or deontological ethics as conceived in the West.


Consequentialism is of various kinds, of which mention may be made of ‘hedonism’ and ‘utilitarianism’. For both these theories, either pleasure or utility as consequence is the determinant of the moral value of action. Vivekananda has criticized utilitarianism in very clear terms besides lambasting hedonism. The term utility has been defined as the greatest good of the greatest number of people. Hedonism is simply the pursuit of pleasure. Vivekananda rejects utilitarianism on the ground that the standard set up by this theory cannot explain the ethical relation of humans and ‘we cannot derive any ethical laws from considerations of utility.’3


What repels Vivekananda in utilitarianism is the singular emphasis laid on the consequence as determinant of the moral value of an action, which is measured by utility. Vivekananda was not oblivious of human distress, and so the production of utility as a means of ameliorating human unhappiness was his prime concern. Distress must be removed, happiness of the masses must be ensured; but it must be the result of an action that is unselfish or proceeds from love for all. Thus the ethical philosophy of Swamiji could be branded as ‘utilitarianism with a difference’. It is not the consequence of an action, but the motive that is important. An action is moral to the extent it is motivated by selfless love towards humanity.


Can we identify the ethics of Vivekananda as an instance of deontological ethics? Deontological ethics is the ethics of duty; the term ‘deon’ means duty in Greek. Thus deontological ethics stands for the theory that requires one to act for the sake of duty and not for the sake of desire or self-interest. Since Vivekananda asks us to practise self-effacement in all our actions, it is an exhortation to work for the sake of duty. Put in this way Vivekananda’s ethics contrasts with Immanuel Kant’s concept of moral action. An action has moral worth if it is done from the motive of doing one’s duty.


For Kant, duty is a compulsion, a person’s ethical obligation. Duty must be performed. Thus conceived, duty is a load on our shoulder as it takes away our freedom. It drags us towards an ideal that is basically uncompromising, demanding, or even exacting. Vivekananda compares duty with the ‘midday summer sun which scorches the innermost soul of mankind’ (1.103). In Vivekananda we find a definition of duty that is different in spirit from that given by Kant. For Kant duty is a compulsion, a person’s ethical obligation. For Vivekananda duty ‘is the impulsion of the flesh, of our attachment; and when an attachment has become established, we call it duty’ (ibid.). For him such duty is slavery. He says: ‘How easy it is to interpret slavery as duty—the morbid attachment of flesh for flesh as duty! Men go out into the world and struggle and fight for money or for any other thing to which they get attached. Ask them why they do it. They say, “It is a duty.” It is the absurd greed for gold and gain, and they try to cover it with a few flowers’ (ibid.). Vivekananda’s moral philosophy is not a philosophy of attachment and not an ethics of duty.


We have arrived at a negative conclusion: the moral philosophy of Vivekananda is neither pure and simple consequentialism nor deontolog y. How should we name it? But before that, it will be well to remember that Vivekananda made Advaita Vedanta his point of departure. The elixir of Advaita Vedanta is that Brahman alone is real and the individual selves are not different from Brahman or the supreme Self. The essential oneness of all human beings is the quintessence of Advaita metaphysics. This identity or non-duality constitutes the foundation of Vivekananda’s conception of universal religion. It is non-duality, again, which makes for human fellowship or universal brotherhood.


Foundation of Vivekananda’s Ethics

The moral philosophy of Vivekananda is a corollary of his concept of religion. It should be noted that for Vivekananda religion is not a doctrine, nor a theory, but one’s realization of the essential Divinity that pervades all individual selves. The ethics of Vivekananda is based on the oneness of all human beings.


Vivekananda tells us: ‘Oneness is the secret of everything. All is one, which manifests itself, either in thought, or life, or soul, or body, and the difference is only in degree’ (2.299). From this non-dualistic thought follows certain moral codes that seem to parallel Western thought.


Since all are one, there is hardly any difference between myself and others. In fact, there is no other who stands in contrast with myself. The distinction between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ vanishes. So I cannot do anything harmful towards anybody, for that will be doing harm to myself. This is the very idea contained in a version of Kant’s categorical imperative. Codes of conduct or moral codes must be universally applied. What is good for me is good for another. If an action is not good for me, it cannot be good for you. Universality is the outcome of the oneness taught in Advaita Vedanta.


Another corollary of the above thesis is that human dignity must be respected. If all is one, we have no right to look down upon those who may not come up to our level of development. Therefore, the saying ‘condemn none’ is the most universal moral principle. Elsewhere Vivekananda writes that hatred is opposed to truth. What is the test of truth? Truth is that which makes for oneness. This is the quintessence of religion. Naturally, ‘Everything that makes for oneness is truth. Love is truth, and hatred is false, because hatred makes for multiplicity. It is hatred that separates man from man; therefore it is wrong and false. It is a disintegrating power; it separates and destroys’ (2.304). This conception of truth entails a criterion of goodness of human conduct. Whatever action makes for oneness is good and whatever action makes for diversity is bad. Goodness does not only qualify our action, it also characterizes our thought. Vivekananda says: ‘We have to decide whether they make for disintegration, multi-
plicity or for oneness, binding soul to soul’ (2.305).


Vivekananda proposed a religion for all human beings, reared on the foundation of Advaita Vedanta. In a letter he said a person can look at all communities and religions with love and affection only from the point of view of Advaita. Vivekananda believed this must be the religion of the future human society. This is the essence of practical Vedanta, which looks at the whole world of human beings as one’s own Self.


The philosophy of equality that Vivekananda preached for the world has its roots in Vedantic non-dualism. The concept of equality will be empty without an understanding of the identity of the individual and the supreme Self.


If you harm another person you will harm yourself, because what you call the other is really your own self. You pervade everything under and above the sun. You exist in every soul—the rich and the poor, the ignorant and the wise, the weak and the strong. The realization of yourself as ubiquitous makes you sympathetic toward everybody. The lesson of this monistic approach is if you do evil to others you degrade yourself. Thus it is clear that Advaita, oneness, is the basis  of morality. Other theories of morality can impart moral education but cannot explain why
one should be moral.


Ethics and Renunciation

The ethics of Vivekananda may be described as the ethics of renunciation. He said: ‘Renunciation is the very basis upon which ethics stands. There never was an ethical code preached which had not renunciation for its basis’ (2.62). He also stated that various ethical laws ‘have that one central idea, eternal self-abnegation. Perfect self annihilation is the ideal of ethics’ (2.63).


The above statements do not only bring out the essence of ethics, it also unfolds Vivekananda’s concept of religion. The most significant characteristic of religion is that it exhorts us to give up selfishness and to transcend the ego. The motto of ethics is effacement of individualism.


We hear from Vivekananda that ‘the highest ideal of morality and unselfishness goes hand in hand with the highest metaphysical conception’ (2.355), and therefore the more unselfish a person, the more moral he or she is. Understanding the relation between morality and self-abnegation requires a deep look at Vivekananda’s philosophy of action and its apparent similarity with the philosophy propounded in the Bhagavadgita. Let us refer to karma yoga, which Sri Krishna preached to Arjuna. For Sri Krishna an action binds one to bondage so long as it is done with a desire to reap its fruit. An action is moral to the extent it is performed with complete detachment towards its result.


An action must produce its result. The question is to whom such result is to be consecrated if the doer does not share it. The metaphysics of the Gita establishes God as the sole agent of everything that happens in the world. We perform actions as mere instruments of God who is the real agent of them. Humans are not the real agents of their action, since they act as instruments of the divine agent, they cannot have any right to demand enjoyment of the result of action. The Gita therefore says that the result of all human actions should be consecrated to the supreme Person, God. Once we assume this point of view we do not take ourselves off from the field of action but become more active with the peace of complete detachment.


Vivekananda’s ethics of renunciation is actually connected with his concept of duty. He tells us ‘it is work through the sense of duty that leads us to work without any idea of duty’ (1.66). Vivekananda believes this is how work becomes worship. Duty imposes no obligation on us so we can work without any expectation. its head. When the ego is neutralized love takes its place making an action unselfish and moral.


The moral philosophy of Vivekananda has a wider implication providing a basis for his much coveted spiritual socialism. The world has witnessed social upheavals intended to usher in revolutionary changes leading to establishment of socialism. One can refer to the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, which were initiated to bring fraternity and equal opportunities in human society. Human society all over the world is cursed with social and economic inequality, which must be removed. Vivekananda was deeply moved by the miserable conditions of the poor of India. He realized the distress of the poor and the downtrodden cannot be removed unless inequality of every kind is eliminated from human society. The different revolutions mentioned above could not realize the goal they were intended to reach. They succeeded only to replace one kind of imperialism by another.


The intention of Vivekananda was not to awaken the moribund masses of India and turn them into a political power. His was not a violent revolution effected through armed violence. It was a silent non-violent revolution making people aware of their oneness and inherent Dignity, which is the essence of Advaita Vedanta. It is a call to humanity to realize that all are equal thus paving the way for a kind of socialism aptly named Vedantic Socialism.


(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)



1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.110.
2. See James Fieser, ‘Ethics’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; < ethics/> accessed 9 November 2013.
3. Complete Works, 2.63.
By | 2018-06-12T12:42:37+00:00 June 7th, 2018|Prabuddha Bharata, Public Articles|0 Comments

About the Author:

Retired Professor of Philosophy, Calcutta University