Lewis’s “Law of Nature” argumentAugust 27, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man in in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.
Lewis is off to a fair-ish start. We do have “some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are.” As a social species, we’ve learned by experience that each of us, as individuals, benefits from belonging to the group, even though we sometimes compete with other group members for food, wealth, mates, status, and so on. Some behaviors, like stealing and murder and violence, are so disruptive to the group that group membership ceases to be a benefit for most individuals. We call these behaviors “Wrong.” Other behaviors promote the well-being of the group, and thus the benefit to the individual members of the group. We call these behaviors “Right.” Thus, Right and Wrong are values that we have acquired through practical experience, and which we pass on to our children by teaching them to play nice and be good. Let’s see what Lewis makes of this, though.
It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong… Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point, which is this. None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature…I hope you will not misunderstand what I am going to say. I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else. I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.
“I am not preaching…” Yeah, right. Already we can see the direction that Lewis intends to take us, facts or no facts. Our concept of right and wrong is based on our practical experience in social interactions, which are very complicated things. When someone comes up to you with a new, ugly haircut, and says, “How do I look?” which is the “right” response, to be strictly honest and say “Horrible!” or to be politely disingenuous and say, “A new haircut, I like it.”?
Social interactions are dynamic, transactional things. There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all, black-or-white rule that tells you this is right and that is wrong in every conceivable social circumstance. Not even the Bible claims to be able to do that (for example, it says nothing about drugs). Ordinary life brings us an abundance of tricky social situations, and thus abundant opportunities to second-guess yourself, and to end up feeling like “well, I could have handled that better.” Lewis wants to take this latent social insecurity, and turn it into exploitable guilty feelings.
There may be all sorts of excuses for us. that time you were so unfair to the children was when you were very tired. That slightly shady business about the money – the one you have almost forgotten – came when you were very hard up… I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature.
Again with the guilt trip, and the subtle insinuation that we always know what the right thing is, and we deliberately choose to do the wrong thing. Right and wrong are social concepts: to be caught doing what is wrong is to suffer a loss of social status. There’s a very immediate and practical reason why we make excuses for our behavior whenever we think someone else might find it socially unacceptable–we want and need to be socially acceptable! And let’s not forget that sometimes the reason we think of “excuses” for our behavior is because we in fact did have a perfectly valid reason for behaving the way we did.
Lewis wants us to worry. He wants us to be afraid that there’s some universal law which we all know, and which we have deliberately and culpably broken, thus offending the Universal Law-Giver Whom we all know, thus putting ourselves in a very dangerous position. Panicky people are easier to manipulate, and for the Christian apologist, you can’t go wrong starting off your presentation by fanning people’s latent social insecurities into full-blown paranoia, as CS Lewis tries to do here.
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about the universe we live in.
With respect to the great Mr. Lewis, no they are not. They are a muddied, emotional, and irrational foundation for paranoid and superstitious thinking. The reason people have a desire to do the right thing (or at least, to be seen as people who do the right thing) is because there are social advantages to being thought of as one of the Good Guys. It’s not because some Lawgiver somewhere has laid out for us some simple rule which makes it easy to tell right from wrong in every single circumstance. Some, like Mr. Lewis, would like us to believe that there’s an easy answer, just like there are some who claim to have discovered the Simple Rule for how to get rich in the stock market, or the Easy Way to lose dozens of pounds without dieting, or any of the other “easy” and “simple” answers that people offer you for sale. But real life means hard work, hard choices, and sometimes ambiguous results.
I find it fascinating that Lewis would begin a book of apologetics, not with a list of ways in which God shows up in the real world to teach us what He considers right and wrong, but with a clever and manipulative argument designed to inflame our irrational fears and our personal sense of social inadequacy. Such a sly and tendentious approach would hardly be needed if Lewis’s God simply behaved as though He believed what Lewis was saying about Him.