THEOSOPHY, Vol. 87, Issue 4, May/June 1999
(Pages 159-162; Size: 7K)


[Article number (3) in this Department]

What is the difference between personal and universal morality?

Plato may have given us the first debate over morality when he related the myth of Prometheus in Protagorus. We have struggled ever since as individuals and as citizens to determine what morality is and how to put our convictions into practice. When we are applying a sense of morals to daily life or to our public affairs, are we sure of our boundaries? Public outcry full of moral outrage is a well-recognized strategy to incite action, and the desire to demonstrate zero tolerance for certain crimes, for instance, can gain the support of the majority for exacting punishment. The problem is we so often draw different lines of distinction than do our neighbors, if not those immediately nearby then to those farther afield. From righteous indignation to authoritarian codes of justice, society is fraught with well-intentioned guardians of morality. Theosophical insights, however, lead many of us to see these issues of morality differently than the mainstream moralist. Several students of theosophy give the following comments while exploring different facets of inquiry.


Opinion is to truth as personal morality is to universal morality. As personalities, our moral outlook is tinged by our likes, dislikes, desires, beliefs and all sorts of qualities that are susceptible to constant change. There is no basis here to build a meaningful moral philosophy. On the other hand, when we can use a principle as a basis for action and that principle is universal in scope, in other words spiritual, then we move into the realm of what we might call universal morality.

Universe means "the one turning." Universal morality is predicated upon the oneness of life, the fact that we are all turning (evolving) together. When we realize there is a web of life, an invisible interconnectedness, we begin to act in a more inclusive way than before. Our sense of moral imperative expands throughout all the kingdoms of nature, and we begin to realize how far reaching are the effects of our actions.

A kind of meta-moral realm opens up to us. We partake in direct ethical perception, which is another name for active conscience. It is here on the plane of causation that the laws of life are to be discerned. It is here that concepts like universal unity, harmony, spiritual evolution and karma take on a vital reality as they are expressed and set into motion by human ideation on the spiritual level. This would seem to be the realm of universal morality.


Universal morality is the law of life, and the law of life is selfless love, or compassion. Personal morality is what happens to that selfless love when it is filtered through the perceptions of kama-manas (the personality, or the personal ego) and thereby given a personal and therefore selfish bias. Universal morality says, "Love one another, enemies as well as friends." Personal morality says, "Love those we are attracted to and hate those we are repelled by." Universal morality says, "Act for and as the self of all." Personal morality says, "Act only for and as yourself and those you care for."

Evolution is a war between the selfish-tainted thoughts and desires of the lower man and the original pure impulses of the higher man that manage to penetrate into waking consciousness. As in any war, the lower nature will use every deceitful means at its disposal to win. It will outwardly profess universal morals and inwardly practice personal ones (in the Bhagavad-Gita this is called being a "false pietist of bewildered soul"). Or it will justify its selfishness by claiming true universal morals to be impractical ("too naïve, too idealistic," it says). Or it will interbreed vices and virtues to form bizarre hybrids ("enlightened self-interest," "killing for peace"). As evolution proceeds, the compassionate forces gradually overtake the self-centered. Selfishness dissolves. Selflessness prevails. The battle-scarred warrior becomes a master of wisdom and shows us how personal morality can shine forth as a true reflection of universal morality.


Universal morality is synonymous with justice and universal law; i.e., justice prevails in a universe of law by virtue of the unity of life. Whatever causes are set in motion must be harmonized by the causal center. Therefore, whenever one thinks or acts as a law unto one's self, without a concern for the whole of life, an inharmonious disturbance might be set in motion, thereby affecting the quality of life in a negative way.

Separative thinking tends toward selfish acts thereby disrupting the unity or harmony of the One life. Affirming this idea, Wm. Q. Judge writes in "Antecedent Words" of The Bhagavad-Gita:

The Bhagavad-Gita tends to impress upon the individual two things: first, selflessness, and second, action; the studying of and living by it will arouse the belief that there is but one Spirit and not several; that we cannot live for ourselves alone, but must come to realize that there is no such thing as separateness, and no possibility of escaping from the collective Karma of the race to which one belongs, and then, that we must think and act in accordance with such belief. (Gita, xvii.)
Socrates says that when the virtues of wisdom, temperance, fortitude, or courage are practiced, ultimate justice is the result. Such ideals as human solidarity and the Theosophical Movement's first object (to form a nucleus of universal brotherhood) are but reflections of absolute morality.

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(July/August 1999)
[Article number (4) in this Department]

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