Revisiting Lewis’s “Law of Nature”

One samueljames has posted a defense of the “Law of Nature.” in response to my post on CS Lewis’s “Law of Nature” argument for God. One of the things I pointed out in my post is that our personal sense of right and wrong stem not so much from some transcendent, artificial law being imposed on our natures from above, but from the practical experience of humanity, which has been that some sort of moral code is needed in order to gain the benefits of belonging to a social group. Samueljames disagrees, however.

But the glaring problem with this argument is that it flies in the face of almost every human experience. Countless times in human history we have found that the “benefits from belonging to the group” pale in comparison to the power offered to those who can domineer and enslave “the group.” A dictator would then, by definition presented in this argument, have absolutely no ethical sense whatsoever, because he is above the group.

Considering human history, it’s difficult to see why samueljames feels the actual behavior of dictators runs counter to my argument. If my argument were true, then dictators would not feel guilty? Well, ok, but as far as I can tell it is most often the case that dictators do not, in fact, feel guilty. That’s a point against Lewis’s notion of some universally-felt “natural law,” not an argument against reality-based moral standards.

Notice I said that morality is based on what we, as a species, have found to be the behaviors that either contribute to, or detract from, the benefits the individual receives from belonging to the social group. In the dictator example above, it is not the dictator who feels his own actions are immoral, it is the rest of the group, each of whom is suffering a loss of benefits due to the excess benefits being sucked out by the dictator. The dictator may think everything is fine, but in our developing social conscience his opinion is going to be far outweighed by all the people who think his actions are a detriment to the group as a whole.

This is the key point: right and wrong are determined by the real-world consequences of a certain type of behavior, and are judged by society as a whole, rather than any one individual. Morality is a social convention, determined by social experience of real-world consequences, and not some arbitrary, externally-imposed set of laws.

Look at it this way: suppose some deity decreed that hats (including safety helmets) were immoral. Wearing hats does no real harm to society or to the individual, nor do hats have any kind of negative impact on the benefits individuals experience from belonging to society. Under the circumstances, if a deity were to make such a rule, where would the immorality lie, in the wearing of the hats, or in the tyranny of the deity who for no good reason outlawed hats?

This is a fundamental problem with both Lewis’s “Law of Nature” argument and with samueljames’s defense: if morality comes from some deity arbitrarily forbidding things that are not inherently wrong, it is the deity that is behaving tyrannically, and thus immorally. On the other hand, if the forbidden behaviors are inherently harmful, then no deity or “natural law” is necessary: our sense of morality is the practical consequence of the harm caused by the forbidden behaviors. The only way you can make a case for “natural law” is if the deity is demanding abstinence from behaviors that are not inherently wrong, and/or commanding us to practice things that are not inherently right, in which case the natural law itself is arguably immoral.

Meanwhile, samueljames has more objections:

If the sense of right and wrong are simply shorthand terms to describe what kinds of acts are useful or detrimental to the group, then absolutely no one has a right to prescribe what IS useful or what IS detrimental to the groups. You then have the option of majority opinion ethics, something I am sure the author does not intend to espouse. How do we know what is useful or not to the group? And the biggest question is where do we get our sense that we should be useful and not harmful?

I think he’s rather missed my point. It’s not that right and wrong are defined in terms of what is good for the group–far from it! Rather, we have learned to define right and wrong by our experiences (as a species) of what sorts of individual behaviors enhance or impede the benefits we experience as individual members of the group. We’re not starting from scratch here, trying to invent arbitrary standards of right and wrong. We have tens of thousands of years of experience in social interactions, and we’ve acquired, by now, a somewhat reliable sense of what works and what doesn’t. Sure, we can decide, if we like, that we’re just going to walk around and take whatever we like, and act however we like, without regard for what everyone else thinks. But how long do you think we’d get away with it?

Samueljames apparently confuses feeling responsible for immoral behavior and being responsible for your actions.

[A] dictator who has taken over the group does not seek to belong to it. Is therefore everything he says about morality automatically wrong or right? Does he still have a sense that perhaps genocide, slave labor, or crooked politicking is wrong? Or is he so cut out from the source of morality (the group) that he is not accountable for his actions any longer, as he cannot be expected to retain motivations for ethical behavior?

As I mentioned before, historically we’ve not seen too many cases where tyrants did feel that their actions were morally wrong. Quite the contrary in fact–Saddam Hussein apparently went to his death feeling that he was being martyred, for example. But whether or not the dictator feels morally guilty for his actions, is something entirely different from whether or not the rest of us judge him to be morally guilty. Genocide, slavery, and corruption are immoral, from society’s point of view, whether or not the dictator feels justified in participating in such things. And the reason why they are immoral is because of the harm they cause to the rest of us. We want to be moral because we feel as though the benefits of belonging to society are superior to the benefits of running of to live as a hermit on some desert island. But if the society is genocidal, enslaving, and corrupt, we might have second thoughts.

Samueljames continues by quoting a few lines from Lewis that he thinks I “mysteriously” omitted:

Now what interests me about [phrases used in quarreling, like “it’s not fair” or “I was there first”] is that the man who makes them not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some sort of standard that he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies, “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out what he has been doing does not really go against the standard…

The point here is the “group advancement” sociological explanation offered by Evangelical Realism looks nothing like real life. In real-life debate, people try to show why another person is in the wrong, not just unhelpful. Quite a few things in our world that we can condemn as immoral have been extremely beneficial to the group instigating them. You cannot apply this standard of reasoning in this world; it simply does not happen the way ER says it does.

Again, he seems to have misunderstood my point: it’s not that morality is defined by benefit to the group, but that morality arises out of the need to balance the best interests of the group against the best interests of its individual members, in a situation where competing members benefit from belonging to the same group. There is an external standard of “right” and “wrong,” and it’s our accumulated experience of which things result in which consequences. Samueljames mentions “immoral” things that are beneficial to the group instigating them, but the point is that these things are immoral, not because some deity arbitrarily labeled them as immoral, but because our experience, as a species, leads us to see them as potentially harmful to the individual benefit we receive from being members of the group.

If all you can offer for the existence and source of ethics is the sociological advancement argumented presented in the previous paragraph, there is absoutely no logical way to maintain that any should ever feel guilty about anything. Murder can be useful to a group; so can rudeness, theft, lying, cheating, etc. All of these things can advance an individual or society up in the world. So they are morally right? No, absolutely not.

And why are they not morally right? Why is murder, to use one of his examples, morally wrong? Have you ever walked through a neighborhood at night, knowing that a murder happened on that same street the night before? How would you feel about walking down the street under those circumstances? One of the benefits of belonging to a civilized society is the sense of personal security you get from it–a sense of security that is damaged or destroyed when other members of the group are murdering one another. Same for theft versus property rights, and so on. We, as a species, have experienced the fact that immoral behavior has negative and undesirable consequences that extend beyond the individual perpetrator and often beyond the individual victims.

In every case where something is genuinely and legitimately immoral, you can trace the source of that immorality back to some real-world harmful consequence. Real-world consequences, not some arbitrary fiat, are what determine the morality or immorality of a certain behavior.

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