Society, Individuality and Law

Views of Society

What is society? An atomistic view conceives of society as an amorphous grouping, a sum total of discrete individuals who consciously interact and relate to one another and formulate agreed upon rules of governance. An institutional version of the atomistic view conceives of society as consisting of various levels and functional types of organizations – family, community, economic, financial, civic, religious, transportation, communication, educational, healthcare, recreational, governmental, legal – all of which are subsets of the social whole. In both cases, society is conceived of as the sum of discrete groups and component parts, each of which can be further broken down into smaller subdivisions by geography (Ivy League, PAC12, Big Ten), type (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim), hierarchy (municipal, county, state, federal), etc. Since all of these subsets exist in relationship with all the others, society may be conceived to include their interrelationships. The single citizen or person is the smallest unit in the collective. The society is a sum or assembly of parts, components and interrelationships, rather than an integral whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. This view is especially useful for understanding the role of the separate parts and functions, but fails when it attempts to define the precise relationship between the parts and between the parts and the whole. 

An alternative (call it evolutionary) view is to conceive of society as an amorphous, undifferentiated whole with unknown and perhaps unlimited potential for development.[1] This whole progressively subdivides and differentiates itself through the formation of different types and levels of activities and organizations in order to develop each region, functional capacity, and specialized activity to its full potential. According to this view, all the subsets and levels subsist as aspects or partial expressions of a single organically unified whole, as the components of the human body are integrated, although this unity does not prevent the various aspects from aligning themselves in opposition to one another. The underlying unity is illustrated by the speed with which new fashion (i-Phone), rumors, changes in investor and consumer sentiment (panics, recessions), public protests (Gandhi’s Quit Indian Movement, American Civil Rights 1950s, 1968 campus anti-war protests, Arab Spring) ripple through society, nationally and globally.

The development of society involves an evolution of forms – groups, organizations, systems, behaviors, customs, traditions, structures, laws, beliefs, values – to give expression to the latent potentials and aspirations of the undifferentiated amorphous whole. At the deepest level, that undifferentiated whole can be conceived of as a huge reservoir of undeveloped capabilities, unrealized aspirations and unfulfilled intentions. The universal striving of human communities for physical survival and security, comfort and convenience, control and dominance, exploration and expansion, discovery and invention, interaction and enjoyment, creativity, freedom and self-expression constitute the common subconscious urge that drives the whole to further differentiate and develop itself. These universal strivings are akin to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which are best conceived as a subconscious propensity of each individual and social grouping.

The evolutionary view helps us to discover the relationships between the different levels and aspects of the already developed social whole. However, when we turn to examining humanity as a whole, we do not yet clearly see the whole of which the various national entities, international agencies and individual citizens are aspects, because the unity of the whole which is founded on the deepest level of human commonalty, subconscious universal human nature and conscious universal human values, is still in the process of becoming conscious.

Role of the Individual

What then is the status and role of the individual according to these different perspectives? The English word individual admits of two distinct but related meanings, which is a potential source of confusion. In the atomistic view, the individual is the separate person, the single citizen, the basic unit of the collective, who exists in his own right independently of all others but consents or is compelled to live as a member of the collective. The individual has his own strivings, often independent of or in conflict with the strivings of the collective. Either by force of compulsion or conscious choice, the single member chooses to associate with the collective and cooperate with other members for common benefit.

In the evolutionary view, the term ‘individual’ is not synonymous with a single member of the group. The individual is rather the final product of differentiation of the collective, a single member who by a process of conscious development emerges from subconscious identification and unthinking imitation and conformity with the behaviors, capacities, attitudes, beliefs and values of the collective to become a distinct and unique person with his/her own individualized thoughts, values and capacities.[2] Here too, the individual can emerge in juxtaposition and conflict with the society from which he has sprung, especially during the later stages when he consciously differentiates himself and acquires an increasingly unique set of characteristics.

The essential relationship between individual and collective differs significantly in the two views. The atomistic view conceives of the individual as the smallest separate mechanical part of a vast machine, who subordinates his independence to play a role in the smooth functioning of the collective and later asserts his independence from it. The evolutionary view conceives of the individual as an integral aspect and most conscious expression of the subconscious and conscious aspirations and strivings of the collective, who by that process of differentiation and self-expression becomes an instrument for the evolution of the collective. In this view, the explorer, entrepreneur, inventor, social innovator, revolutionary leader, artist, original thinker and saint represent the conscious peaks of the evolving human collective. The individual gives fresh expression to the cumulative endowments acquired from the collective and is the channel through whom the whole seeks to further its own collective development. The individual is the conscious instrument for the evolution of the collective.

Social Evolution

The individual and the collective both seek to evolve by a similar process into more conscious, organized and effective organisms – the personality of the individual integrating with that of the collective and the organization of the collective integrating with that of all its individual members. Individual personality and social organization are complementary aspects, formed expressions of human potential. Beyond lies the still undifferentiated capacities that are yet to acquire form and capacity for effective self-expression. The interaction between individual and collective becomes the mechanism through which the latent unorganized potential of the person and collective seek to express and fulfill themselves.

The animal kingdom provides numerous examples of this evolutionary view. Each species shares a common inherited pattern of traits and capacities which constitute a subconscious endowment of the species. In most cases, especially among mammals, the single members exist and function as members of a larger grouping and act in coordination with one another. Ants provide a striking illustration of subconscious social behavior in which each member plays a specific role within the collective and serves the aims of the entire community. But most mammals also display similar attributes of a ‘herd mentality’, in which the commonalty between members is very prominent, and the differences in behavior minor or imperceptible. Of course, the determinant of this conformity is not conscious instruction, social custom or law, but rather a common subconscious inheritance.

Early humanity exhibits the same characteristics, but with a difference. The mechanism for conformity is no longer restricted to inherited characteristics of the species, though they continue to exert a strong influence. In addition, human beings are capable of consciously imitating one another and of also imposing conformist behaviors on one another. As the animal grouping has a repertoire of instinctive behaviors designed to promote its survival, the primitive human collective imposes its authority on its members to ensure the preservation of the group. Gradually these acquired behaviors become codified as habit, custom, tradition and law, enforced by the authority of the collective by various means according to the stage of its social organization.

Society undergoes a continuous process of evolution driven by the latent aspirations and capacities of the collective and its individual members. The urge of the individual for greater mastery, power, accomplishment and self-realization compels him to continuously test new behaviors which challenge the collective status quo. The collective typically responds with initial resistance or ridicule of the deviant behavior, but once it proves successful, with imitation, replication, dissemination and organization of the new behavior into a norm of the society. The collective, in turn, progressively discovers that its own continuous development is made possible by permitting and encouraging greater initiative, innovation and freedom to its individual members. The more evolved the society, the greater the freedom permitted for individual variation, the greater the support given for development of each individual, and the greater the tendency of the collective to imitate, support and organize to incorporate more successful adaptive behaviors exhibited by its members. Thus, we see an increasing tendency over time for the individual to espouse the cause of freedom, liberty and equality and an increasing propensity of the collective to embrace and provide institutional support for these values.

Law and Social Organization

Through this process, society converts amorphous social potential into organized social capacity. In the animal this process is completely subconscious and instinctive. In human beings, it becomes progressively conscious. The raw, unskilled and undirected energies of the collective and its members through experience or training gradually acquire increasingly levels of skill. These energies are directed, organized, channeled and expressed by hierarchical structures, systems, traditional beliefs, custom, law and shared values into a variety of discrete activities designed to serve the interests of the collective. Thus, social development is a process of consciously organizing subconscious human energies to achieve the objectives of the collective.

In this view, customs, manners and traditions are informal patterns or organizations of social behaviors implicitly accepted and internalized by the members of the group and ‘enforced ‘ by habit, consensus and social pressure. Law is a more conscious form of social organization – a formal codification of the rules of acceptable social behavior – backed and enforced by the conscious authority of the collective. Idealistic values are a mental form of social organization which are espoused by leading individual members of the society, which may or may not yet be codified into law or expressed in customary behavior. As society evolves, it progressively shifts the emphasis from subconscious customary tradition to conscious law and from law that codifies accepted custom and power structures to law that enshrines emerging universal values. Tradition, custom and earlier law represent the past that seeks to sustain itself. Prevailing sources of social power represent the present which seek to enhance its privileges. Idealistic values represent the future which is yet to emerge.

Evolution of Law

In sum, society evolves from unformed energy to formed social organization, from subconscious inherited patterns of behavior to consciously formulated patterns, from isolated activities and groups to an increasingly integrated and unified social whole, from customary privilege and distribution of power to legally defined rights and privilege based on prevailing social principles, and from prevailing values reflecting the status quo to values reflecting universally acknowledged principles of justice.

A study of the process of social transformation in Revolutionary France, post-Civil War USA, or Apartheid South Africa may illustrate various aspects of the evolutionary social process. I am not particularly well-informed about any of them, but they may still serve to illustrate.


Although the rights of every individual are enshrined in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, evidently America’s founding fathers did not consider slaves to be individual citizens as referred to in the constitution. Why did not law in the 1790s reflect the constitutional position? If it actually did, then how did the situation change? Some facts are available. Gradually morale sentiment toward slavery changed in Europe, leading one after another nation to ban both slavery and participation in the slave trade. The industrialization of the Northern states advanced without dependence on slave labor. Indeed, it was found that paid labor was much more efficient and cost effective than the cost of sustaining a slave labor force. Advances in mechanization of agriculture made this even more true. While economics no longer made slavery compelling, social habit, custom, traditional racial beliefs and vested political interests in the Old South clung to an increasingly economically ineffective and morally objectionable practice – morally objectionable because of changes in prevailing social values from the time the nation was founded.

The Civil War was fought primarily over the issue of states’ rights, but slavery was constitutionally abolished as a result. During the following century, law evolved to reflect the new constitutional status, but social custom and social values in the South largely prevented the constitutional rights from being translated into practice.

The situation changed from the mid 1950s. What happened? Rising levels of education and prosperity after WWII led to a groundswell of aspiration among the Black community, which included many who had fought bravely during the war, won recognition and a measure of equality within the armed forced. Courageous individuals emerged to speak out on behalf of the community. Democratic values espoused during the war and in the founding of the UN proved contagious. The dissolution of colonial empires abroad – the US strongly pressurized UK to give freedom to India –compelled greater attention to oppression and inequality at home. Laws were changed. The Court established new interpretations of equal rights and equal access.

It is evident here that changes in society and social values led to the changes in constitution and law and that only as a secondary consequence, constitutional right and law were applied to enforce changes in social values. Evolving law reflected more fundamental changes in society – economic, educational, intellectual, political, moral, etc.


A similar analysis can be undertaken of the end of Apartheid in South Africa. What factors led to the abolition of apartheid? What was the impact of changes in social consciousness, attitudes, aspirations, expectations and values on changes in constitution and law?

Corruption in India

Corruption is illegal and unconstitutional in every country, but it still thrives in many. That was true in 19th century Europe and well into the 20th century in America. Things do change over time. Countries which once accept it no longer deem it acceptable. In India, corruption has increased dramatically over the 60 years since Independence, not due to changes in law or changes in the degree of enforcement, but due to changes in social attitude, rising social aspirations, the urge of the population for prosperity, the shift of power and prestige from caste and class to money.  From thousands of rupees, it has gone to millions and billions. Now quite suddenly there is a widespread public uproar, a demand for vigilance and enforcement, pressure for new laws targeting political corruption, a host of high profile arrests and prosecutions against the previously untouchable elite. The press begins to clamor. Civil society is active and insistent. The courts are becoming more severe, even against corrupt members of the judiciary. Here is an instance in which changes in law and enforcement of existing law are being driven by changes in public awareness and opinion.

My own understanding is that higher levels of education, greater prosperity, greater exposure to the West, greater tolerance and liberalism in society now compel previously passive victims of public corruption to clamor and demand change. That change in public opinion is compelling changes in the formulation and implementation of law.

The unfolding protests in Russia following rigged national elections depict a similar process. No one expected tens of thousands to gather in Red Square. Even less did they expect the media channels to cover the protests. As one protestor expressed it, “I have a good salary, but I cannot bear the thought that my children will ask me why I did not protest this mockery of political democracy.” Why indeed does he and so many others do it now, and not before? Why indeed does the media cover an event which earlier it would have simply ignored?

Application to Global Rule of Law

When it comes to international law, we find that tradition, custom, established behaviors and formal rule of law is far less developed and defined. But here too we see that the interpretation and formulation of law evolves over time. Here too we can conceive of a substrata of social attitudes, beliefs and values pertaining to relationships between people and nations that has been changing rapidly during the modern era. Recent events in Europe resulting from threats to the Euro illustrate how the pressure of public opinion, including the opinion of private investors, is compelling changes in law in favor of a more centralized political union among states in the region. We see the battle between public opinion for and against collective action, assertion of national over regional priorities, countered in turn by those pressing to retain the hard won benefits of the EU arrangement. Through crisis, nations and individuals are compelled to change their attitudes toward sovereignty and widen their sense of identification with the wider European association of peoples.


A comprehensive knowledge of the process by which law and society develop and the precise role of the conscious individual and the individual act (micro-legal event) can reveal the energy points and steps by which organizations such as the World Academy can consciously accelerate the process of general social awakening and the translation of that new awareness into legal statute and practice. Once we arrive at a clearly formulated approach, law relating to abolition of nuclear weapons is an appropriate field for application.

[1] The term evolution is not used in the Darwinian sense of survival of the fittest. It is us in Sri Aurobindo’s sense to denote that what manifests in society already exists in unformed potential and has an intrinsic urge for self-development and self-expression, e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  That which is involved evolves.

[2] The term subconscious is used to denote instinctive or unthinking imitation and conformity with the norms of the collective, arising from a shared “human nature”, inherited characteristics or acquired social conditioning.