A complete spiritual development involves an interaction with and an understanding of both nature and society, because people are shaped and influenced both by natural and social forces. Such development is nourished by society and by nature, bringing about prosperity and happiness.
If people are to live together in peace—even just two people—there must be boundaries and means to regulate behaviour. When many people live together there is a necessity for rules or agreements on behaviour, of what should be done and what should be avoided, in order to bring about harmony and safety for each individual. (Even an individual person has conflicting desires and requires self-discipline in order to live well.)
Take the example of numerous drivers arriving at a junction from different directions: each person is in a hurry and vies to pass first. They thus all get stuck and no-one can advance, causing chaos and disputes. If they are willing to lay down a set of regulations, however, everyone can pass comfortably. Likewise, a community or society requires a set of rules.
Apart from rules, there is a collection of inherited social systems, customs, traditions, cultural practices, institutions, and a body of technical knowledge, which give shape to a particular society. These factors shaping society also shape individuals, instilling in them properties that conform with society. At the same time individuals influence the society. Individual people and the society as a whole are thus interdependent.
Nonetheless, when a society has a clearly defined shape and form, it tends to become rigid and inflexible, resulting in a one-sided exchange of people being shaped by society in order to meet society’s needs and expectations.
People, however, do not exist solely to uphold society. Society exists to benefit individuals and on a fundamental level it was created for the increased wellbeing of people.
From this perspective, society is only one supportive factor in people’s lives, and on its own it is unable to lead people to a truly virtuous life, because social institutions themselves were created simply to establish a sense of order and discipline. Once people live together in harmony, there is something besides maintaining social integrity which it is incumbent on them to realize. Besides social institutions, people need to pay attention to nature, and the most supreme blessing of life is obtained through an understanding of nature. This is because the truth of life is essentially grounded in nature.
Society is simply one supportive factor in people’s lives, which can either help to foster an increased intimacy and knowledge of nature, or it can have the opposite effect and cause an alienation from nature. In any case, even though society may have a clear and strictly defined shape it is not the only factor influencing people.
If people are able to apply wise reflection, they can escape from the controlling power of society. Wise reflection enables a person to transcend or see through society and to realize the underlying timeless truth of nature. A person endowed with wise reflection is able to be free from the power of social conditioning, to attain higher levels of virtue, and to return in order to shape society in a fully attentive way.
People require a code of conduct in order to live together in harmony. Society thus needs a moral code as well as a compatible set of rules for people to follow. It is true that this moral code can simply become a way to limit people’s freedom or it can even be a way of enslaving people to a system of control, if it is simply a set of prohibitions and rules which people observe by blindly following one another. And it can lead to other ill effects if it is maintained through coercion or deception.
Similarly, actions which are alleged to be ‘free’ may only be expressions of a mind subject to defilement and suffering. In this case, it is simply a freedom to give expression to mental bondage, freedom to be a slave, or freedom to allow people to be enslaved. This form of freedom involves disenfranchising others in some way or other, directly or indirectly.
In contrast, people who are free from the power of mental defilement, and who are able to apply wisdom without the obscuring power of social conditioning, do not require prescribed moral standards. They are endowed with an inherent moral discipline, and, moreover, they are able to comply with any moral code that they recognize as benefiting other human beings.
The important link here is that a moral code is a good thing when it is set down and followed with a correct understanding of its objectives, that is, moral conduct must be accompanied by right view.
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From chapter 14 of Buddhadhamma on the wisdom factors of the Eightfold Path, by Venerable Phra Payutto.