XFiles Weekend: On the morality of burning witches

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

This week we wrap up Chapter 2 of Mere Christianity with Lewis’ somewhat feeble attempt to address the morality of witch-burning. Until a few centuries ago, it was a rather popular practice among Christians, and—well, let’s let Lewis speak for himself.

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [between different moralities], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, ‘Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?

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XFiles Weekend: Math and Morality

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

According to C. S. Lewis, “the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” lies in assuming the existence of a natural Law of Morality. This isn’t just some arbitrary, human legislated regulation either. It’s a real Law of Nature that defines a real standard of Right and Wrong—a standard, moreover, that we all fall short of.

This week, Lewis looks at one last objection to that premise.

Other people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law just a social convention, something that is put into us by education?’ I think there is a misunderstanding here… We all learned the multiplication table at school. A child who grew up alone on a desert island would not know it. But surely it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention, something human beings have made up for themselves and might have made different if they had liked?

He also compares it to which side of the road we drive on, which (unlike math) is a convention. In America, we drive on the right-hand side of the road; in England, on the left. There’s no natural law that says things have to be that way, and we might just as easily have decided on different conventions. So the question is, when we learn morality, are we learning about a pre-existing law, as in mathematics, or about a mere convention, as in driving?

Lewis, not surprisingly, favors the former, and he gives us two reasons.

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XFiles Weekend: Morality is not a law

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

Last week, Lewis tried to convince us that morality is not merely some kind of herd instinct, which is partly true. Unfortunately, he was not able to discern the true role of instinct in human morality because he’s limited by the preconceived conclusion that he’d like to drive us to. He’s not trying to understand how psychological and sociological factors influence our moral thinking, he’s merely trying to make morality sound mysterious and unexplainable so that he can superstitiously give God credit for it.

These same constraints limit his arguments this week, as he proposes two more answers to the “morality as a herd instinct” objection.

Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses… And surely it often tells us to try and make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is.

This, sad to say, is not C. S. Lewis at his finest. While he was undoubtedly a fine scholar, and probably not consciously attempting to mislead anyone, it must be said that this particular argument presents us with observations so subjective and distorted as to be deceptive. Like all half-truths, there are elements of it that do reflect a certain real-world experience, but without giving us a complete or accurate picture.

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XFiles Weekend: Armchair hero?

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

In Chapter 1, C. S. Lewis introduced two ideas that (he claims) “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” These two ideas are (a) that there is a universal Moral Law defining right and wrong, which we somehow inherently know, and (b) that we do not obey this law. Unfortunately, these two ideas are not themselves the product of clear thinking, and indeed are a rather biased and superstitious failure to understand human morals realistically. There is no singular universal Moral Law by which we all make moral judgments; rather, we judge right and wrong based on how we feel about the outcome. This fundamental disconnect between theory and reality has already bubbled to the surface in a number of inconsistencies between what Lewis claims and what we find through even a trivial examination of the real-world facts.

In Chapter 2, Lewis acknowledges some of these difficulties and attempts to either refute or discredit them. As we shall see, though, his attempts to reduce his troubles only adds to them. As the good fairy told Pinocchio, once you tell a lie, it grows and grows until it’s as plain as the nose on your face—even when you sincerely believe the lie because you first deceived yourself.

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XFiles Weekend: Assumptions and consequences

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

Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity sets out to establish what C. S. Lewis calls “two facts” that “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” We looked at the first of these “facts” last week: the notion that there is some kind of universal Moral Law, aka the Law of (Human) Nature, that dictates the definition of Right and Wrong. According to Lewis, we all know that this Moral Law exists, and we’ve even got some kind of inherent knowledge of what its commandments are. And yet (“fact” number two), we do not do what this Law tells us we should.

We’ll get to the rest of Chapter 1 in a moment, but first let’s note in passing just how far Lewis has already gone astray, due to the preconceived ideas he’s trying to impose on his interpretation of the evidence. Because he’s thinking in terms of divine commandments, he’s already introducing the notion that his so-called Moral Law is not just a description of common patterns of behavior, but is in fact some kind of obligation that each and every individual is somehow responsible to live up to. It’s a subtle little twist, but as he gets into the second part of Chapter 1, we’ll see that this extra little assumption is really a key factor intended to drive us to Lewis’ desired conclusion.

It’s kind of slick, in a way. He directs our attention to certain real-world facts (i.e. the way people judge actions in light of consequences), and then, while our attention is focused on the observations, he slips in a subtle, biased twist that colors our interpretation of these facts. Notice, the extra twist is not part of the observed facts: we don’t observe any Universal Moral Law with any objectively declared principle binding its precepts upon all mankind. This is purely Lewis’ ideology, injecting itself into the argument when it thinks no one is looking. Pretty sneaky, eh?

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