XFiles Weekend: C. S. Lewis and the “Law of Human Nature”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

One of the most widespread arguments against atheism today is the claim that we know God exists because we all possess some kind of inherent knowledge of a universal and unchanging moral law, implying the existence of a universal and eternal Law-Giver. C. S. Lewis may not have been the first to make this argument, but he gives it an almost prototypical presentation in the first chapter of Mere Christianity, and it’s a safe bet that most modern proponents of the “moral law” argument took it directly or indirectly from Lewis. In a very real sense, then, we have an opportunity to study the roots of a major pillar holding up modern apologetics. And not surprisingly, we’re going to be most interested in the very large cracks at its base.

Last week, we spent some time exploring the consequences that would result from selfish creatures being able to anticipate the consequences of different actions, including the social consequences, and we saw how this would produce a natural and even inevitable functional morality. In essence, it’s just a set of guidelines: certain types of actions, in certain contexts, produce certain types of consequences, and therefore we selfishly want to pursue the actions that are most likely to produce the consequences we feel we would enjoy. No single set of rules can cover all possible combinations of circumstances and actions, of course, so any moral code will suffer from a certain number of ambiguities. Also, different individuals and subcultures have to act in different environments, which naturally introduces a certain amount of variation in the moral codes that evolve. Overall, however, we all have a lot of needs and wants in common, and thus our moral systems will naturally evolve a fairly common core set of values.

Lewis, unfortunately, isn’t starting from this kind of forward thinking. He starts from the assumption that moral law comes from a Creator God, and then looks for evidence he can use to support that conclusion. In other words, he’s indulging in backwards thinking: given the conclusion you want to reach, find some plausible-sounding chain that ends up where you want to be.

Lewis, however, is far too gifted a writer to present his argument as such an obvious rationalization. Instead, he presents it as though he were “discovering” some kind of real-world truth. It’s quite engaging, really: starting with observation and proceeding step-by-step to his conclusion, taking care that each step is carefully linked to the one before. It’s this realistic-sounding, pseudo-scientific approach that gives Lewis’ writing its appeal, and makes it sound like he’s really onto something. If we look closely, however, we can see that he achieves this superficial appearance by a careful selection of evidence and a biased interpretation of that selection.

He begins with the observation that people quarrel:

Every one has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ — ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ — ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ — ‘Why should you shove in first?’ — ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ — ‘Come on, you promised.’ People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

What Lewis finds significant about such exchanges is that neither party is expressing a merely personal objection, as in “Hulk no like, Hulk smash!” Rather, the accuser is appealing to a standard of behavior that they expect the other to know about. And likewise the defender appeals to some kind of common standard, or to some circumstance justifying an exception to the standard. This is perfectly normal and natural, of course: two selfish individuals, arguing over which particular context ought to be applied to their actions, so as to lead to the desired social consequences. But Lewis wants us to see this as something bigger, as some kind of transcendent Mystery.

Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is 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.

Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature. Nowadays, when we talk of the ‘laws of nature’ we usually mean things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong ‘the Law of Nature’, they really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that, just as all bodies are governed by the laws of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law — with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Nature or to disobey it.

You see what I mean about backwards thinking. Lewis wants to reach the conclusion that God gave mankind a moral law, and that wicked men sinfully choose to disobey that law. So far, all that he has really looked at, in terms of real world evidence, is the fact that people quarrel. From this simple observation, and in blatant disregard of simpler and more natural explanations, he leaps to the conclusion that there must be a Natural Law of morality that, unlike other natural laws, men have the power to choose to disobey (thus making them sinners in need of a Savior). And he backs this up with an appeal to authority: “the older thinkers” called it a Law of Nature, and they ought to know, of course, because they’re older thinkers. Which older thinkers, he doesn’t say.

This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that everyone knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it… But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to everyone.

He goes on to justify this conclusion on the grounds that if there were no Law of Right and Wrong, then “all the things we said about the war were nonsense.” Apparently even C. S. Lewis was not above using patriotism as a club with which to thump anyone who disagreed with his conclusions. But I digress. The more important point to consider here is whether it is really true that people do not need to be taught this so-called Law of Nature. Does Lewis really mean that morality is unlearned? That nobody gives any moral upbringing to their children? Is the Bible wrong when it admonishes parents to teach their children good morals? Is the book of Proverbs a complete waste of time?

Lewis here is combining an observed truth (people understand the social consequences of their actions) with utter foolishness (“people do not learn morality”). Morality is very definitely a learned/acquired concept, as shown by the influence of culture and other environmental factors on the type of morality you develop. Take polygamy, for example: was it immoral in King Solomon’s time to have 300 wives and 600 concubines? Tip of the iceberg, that. People learn morality both from explicit teaching and from experience. I doubt that many of us got lessons in Sunday School about proper etiquette while on a raiding party in World of Warcraft, but be greedy and grab the best loot a few times and see how long it takes you to learn moral lessons about the social consequences of online behavior.

Lewis’ argument is beginning to show the discrepancy between the conditions proposed by his argument and the conditions that actually exist in real life. In his argument, there is one moral law, given by one Law Giver, that everyone knows inherently and without being taught. There are a few individual exceptions, according to Lewis, but the rule is One Law to Rule Them All. The real world, however, is different: people do learn morality from experience, and there are different moral codes for different groups of people, according to the different conditions that exist for each group. Already the cracks are showing in Lewis’ argument, and he’s just getting started.

Lewis does recognize this problem, and he attempts to deal with it:

I know that some people say that the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. there have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teachings of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are are to each other and to our own… I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.

Be careful what you wish for. I remember a chapel service in the Christian college I attended where we watched a movie based on a book called Peace Child. It was a missionary story about evangelizing a tribe of occasional cannibals who regarded treachery as a virtue; when they first heard the gospel, they thought Judas was the hero because he betrayed Jesus! Would that be a “totally different” morality, by Lewis’ definition?

The trick here is that Lewis is making a false dichotomy: either all moralities are the same morality, or else each morality must be totally different. That’s like saying that either all languages are the same language, or else each different language must be totally different. But look, there are nouns and verbs and adjectives in Greek and Norwegian and Spanish; grammatically, it’s striking how much they have in common. Does that mean they’re all the same language, which everyone knows because it was written in their hearts by their Creator? Isn’t it really more likely that common needs give rise to similar solutions?

Lewis’ big failure here (and elsewhere) is that he fails to consider simpler and more plausible alternatives. This is one way we can tell that he’s driving towards a pre-determined goal, guided by backwards thinking, instead of using forward thinking to expose the ordinary consequences of sentient behavior. He wants to reach the conclusion that there is one Moral Law, given by one Law Giver, and so he glosses over the fact that we have a number of very different moralities, even if we look just at the Old Testament vs. the New vs. modern Christian culture. Not totally different, of course, but different enough that they’re more consistent with a natural, consequences-based morality than they are with a supernatural, One Law morality.

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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: C. S. Lewis and the “Law of Human Nature””

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    Seems odd to me how easily Christians can switch between LAW as fairness and LAW as authority.

    Lewis tries to tell us that, ‘we know the fair thing to do’, is the exact same thing as, ‘you do what you’re TOLD! THAT’S what you do!’

    Not only that, this God’s moral LAW somehow bleeds over into other communal animals and birds.(can be seen in dog’s behaviour, from “I want my share!”, to, “I do what the boss tells me!”)

    This difference between the two (supposedly same) LAWS, ‘be fair’ and ‘do what you’re told’, fascinates me, because it sets up the hierarchy where those with the power, the wealth and the ownership are caste as ‘righteous’ for doing to ‘underlings’ what would be regarded as ‘stealing'(or at least gross unfairness) in a peer to peer situation.

    Morality is not what it is cracked up to be.

  2. Steve Says:

    I clicked the link to “Peace Child” and when I read the description at Amazon, and the overall lauding tone of most of the citizen reviewers (the book has a very high rating) I was a little taken aback. I thought that there would be more dissenting reviews. There is one who makes a great point:

    “Even though inter-tribal peace will mean the demise of these indigenous people, the author blindly pushes three tribes to join (by taking children away from their own mothers as gifts to the other tribes). I am SURE Don Richardson wouldn’t have given away his OWN children for that end… or would he? And now what do you have? One giant tribe of warring people with modern axes and antibiotics that is fully capable of killing all the OTHER tribes in the area more effectively than ever before. And the author thinks he has done a ‘good’ thing.”

    Granted, the Sawi culture was based on treachery and deceit, but it was their culture, not ours. Is ours better? Maybe. Was it Don Richardson’s job to tamper in that culture? I would say no. He even used Sawi tactics to get the 3 main tribes in the region to unite, hence the title of the book.

    Lewis is saying that there is a universal morality. How is it universal then that when certain cultures, locked away from “civilization” and left to their own regional contexts, don’t evolve in the same way as others? If God showed up in real life couldn’t he take care of this discrepancy?

    I wish you could address this subject in the future. I am a Star Trek fan also and Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive of non-interference has always fascinated me. I think the Richardson’s incursion in to New Guinea and forcing the Sawi to accept the Christian belief system might have done more harm than good to that area of the world.

  3. Ebonmuse Says:

    There are a huge number of genuine and obviously significant moral differences that Lewis glosses over here. Take slavery, for example. Slavery has been a very, very common element in lots of cultures, and most of the people who practiced it saw nothing wrong with it at all. The same is true of polygamy. (Truth, the Old Testament endorses both of those things!)

    It’s too bad Lewis never tried to explain how his notion of moral law applies to these situations. Of course, it would be a problem for him to admit that, rather than being bound by one shared understanding common to all cultures, humanity’s moral understanding has been improving and growing over time.

  4. David Evans Says:

    Will you be referencing John Beversluis’ “C S Lewis And The Search For Rational Religion” in this series? I liked the Beversluis book very much but thought his arguments could have been tighter in a few places. I would be interested to see what you think.

  5. Hunt Says:

    Just mentioning the well-known objection here. If morality is God-instilled then how do you explain psychopaths? Many verifiable psychopaths are perfectly law-abiding and what you might call morally pure, but they accomplish this as an intellectual exercise. If you ask them why they don’t commit moral offense they’ll give you a civil law explanation without ever referencing a moral compass or guilt or conscience. So, in CS Lewis world, either these people are irredeemably evil, or guilt-conscience is an organic capacity that varies along a scale. Some people are more innately “good” than others. I’m not sure how Lewis would be able to handle that. Fundamentally, I think what Lewis means by innate morality is the capacity for guilt, and this has been shown to exist for animals other than humans with certain fore-brain development. Dogs, for instance, seem to be capable of guilt, or guilt-like responses. Does this mean that God instilled guilt-conscience in dogs as well? A rudimentary form of guilt probably developed from the simple anticipation of retaliation against aggression.

  6. Tacroy Says:

    I doubt that many of us got lessons in Sunday School about proper etiquette while on a raiding party in World of Warcraft, but be greedy and grab the best loot a few times and see how long it takes you to learn moral lessons about the social consequences of online behavior.

    I find it kinda funny you mention that, because this study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (kinda summarized informally here), and it basically provides empirical evidence for your point: the authors found that relational networks of people tend to avoid stress-causing relationships (“if you make my life harder, I’m going to go somewhere else” – obvious, but heretofore lacking in evidence), which leads to a more stable overall society.

    Basically, a very simple, animal-like response (stress avoidance) leads to stable societies. It’s super cool.

  7. ssjessiechan Says:

    “Take slavery, for example. Slavery has been a very, very common element in lots of cultures, and most of the people who practiced it saw nothing wrong with it at all. The same is true of polygamy. (Truth, the Old Testament endorses both of those things!)”

    Phh. Lewis has got you covered, there. “I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean.” The difference between a society that values slavery and that abhors it is really very slight, when you think about it, especially when you consider how alike those societies are in their hatred of loose women. It’s quite obvious that God puts our priorities in the right place, and that we all share a “mere morality” that just happens not to have anything to do with being nice to each other.

    Really, this strikes me as special pleading. The same as “all Christianity is the same if I define Christianity as the things the largest sects agree on”, he’s now defined this moral law as “the things everybody I can think of right now agrees are immoral, if I don’t ask any women or black folk. Therefore, it must be from God!” Unfalsifiable hypothesis, anyone?

  8. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    Thing that stuck me as odd about the “Law of Human Nature” when I read Mere Christianity was that I felt he would have been just as well served calling it the “Law of Good Taste”. We eat sugar instead of sand, and therefore…God. I had to go back and read it again to make sure I wasn’t missing something, but no, that really about sums it up.

  9. Hunt Says:

    The slightly amusing thing is that I’d be willing to bet that food taste has been used as argument for God, as has perception of beauty, affection, love or even that we can logically apprehend reality. The bottom line is that an apologist can essentially grab anything out of our experience (banana?) or perception and use it as justification for a planned order.

  10. g Says:

    I’d be willing to bet that food taste has been used as an argument for God

    Not quite that — rather, something nearer to a reductio ad absurdum, but see http://www.uvm.edu/~dloeb/GR.pdf .