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?

Before we get to Lewis’ second “fact,” let’s clean up a loose end from last week. Lewis is arguing that there is a universal, and universally-known, Moral Law.

Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

The problem with these two examples is that neither one is true. There have been and still are cultures and subcultures that admire those who put themselves first (and in fact some of our own celebrities are famous for it). They may not call it “selfishness,” since that’s the term used by people on the receiving end of this kind of behavior, assuming they don’t like it. But the cult of ego has always been a significant part of human society, and forms a large part of the “divine right of kings” mythology that has been popular for so much of human history.

Likewise, the people who “all agree” that you shouldn’t simply take any woman you like are the people who, despite the casual and callous sexism of Lewis’ era, were willing to admit that there is a certain merit to be had in respecting women’s rights. This has not always been a universal condition, and in fact in times of war the idea of “take any woman you like” has been rather popular, to the point that it even became part of the Law of Moses.

What Lewis is referring to is the common assumption that all “right-minded” men have agreed with the things he’s proposing, i.e. everybody whose moral perceptions must be correct because they match Lewis’ standards. He’s not reasoning based on things as they are, he’s simply exercising his own preconceived ideas about the way things ought to be. But like I said, that’s last week’s topic. Let’s move on to this week’s.

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table. 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. If there are any exceptions among you, I apologize to them. They had much better read some other book, for nothing I am going to say concerns them. And now, turning to the ordinary human beings who are left:

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 practice ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.

Notice how Lewis’ preconceived ideas about morality inject themselves into his interpretation of the facts. Not only does he believe there is a real Right and Wrong, his argument implicitly assumes that this Moral Law is right about what’s Right and Wrong for everyone, all at the same time. He is assuming, in other words, that there’s always a Right thing we could have done, and that by failing to do it, we have done Wrong.

Sadly, we live in a world where this is not always the case. There are many situations where life gives us, not a choice between Right and Wrong, but a choice between Wrong and Wrong. Two shoppers each have handicapped granddaughters whose heart is set on getting a Groompy doll for Christmas, and there’s only one left. To be generous to the stranger is to add one more heartache to a small child’s life of misery. What’s the “right” thing to do? Or on a more serious note, take certain hot social issues, like abortion. To intentionally kill a healthy human fetus seems Wrong, but to violate a woman’s body via an unwanted pregnancy is also Wrong. What’s the Right answer? There isn’t one, which is why it’s so controversial.

In fact, if we go back to our original understanding of morality, we can see why this situation is more or less inevitable: we all judge Right and Wrong in terms of how we feel about the consequences of our choices. Some choices are easy: if you threaten enough people, they’ll gang up on you and eliminate you as a threat, which you probably won’t like. That’s easy, because there’s a clear difference between the good outcome and the unpleasant one.

But what about situations where all the outcomes are undesirable, albeit in different ways? There is no clear path to the right answer, because there is no right answer. This happens often enough in real life that we can say with reasonable certainty that Lewis’ mythical Moral Law is just that: mythical. We all wish there were always a way out, a right answer that resolves every situation, but there isn’t. Some of us, like Lewis, retreat from this harsh reality by imagining an invisible, universal, and eternal Law that knows all the right answers, even if we don’t. But this kind of fantasy is just wishful thinking, and it’s mere superstition to try and attribute our own moral behavior to this kind of imaginary Law of Nature.

This gives Lewis a significant handicap when it comes to trying to develop an impartial and reasonable system of morality and ethics. Had he begun with an accurate understanding of how we make moral judgments, he would have seen right away that there is no Moral Law that provides consistently Right answers to all human individuals at the same time. It can’t, because our moral judgments are based on consequences, and it’s frequently difficult, if not downright impossible, to find a course of action that produces outcomes that everyone regards as optimal. There’s just too much conflict and competition, and not enough material and social capital to go around.

Lewis has missed this point, which is a real shame because now he’s going to lay what he calls “the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” without taking this vital element into account. Instead, he’s going to assume that there is always a Right answer, a course of action that we know we ought to do, and yet some mysterious force within each of us magically drives us to choose Wrong instead. Superstition piles up on superstition, and “clear thinking” gets buried at the bottom, unmissed and unlamented.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Assumptions and consequences”

  1. Hunt Says:

    And the unfortunate thing is that if you make an error this early, by the end of your argument you’ve diverged so far from reality that “evil” becomes personified by supernatural agencies and we are all in need of existential salvation. It’s the butterfly effect on a cosmic scale. I wonder if whether Lewis had thought about things more carefully in the buildup to his conversion, if he would never have converted. What I mean is, are these really the kinds of thoughts that make most, or many, people convert to Christianity? I say this because I’ve noted several Christians who openly state they converted because “there is evil in the world.” I just wonder how the fact that bad things happen to good people can suffice to form the basis for a radical commitment to belief.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    You have to love these guys though.

    They’ll tell you to look at how wonderful the universe is, look how wonderful life is, look how wonderful humans are. Therefore GOD!

    Not impressed?

    Okay, look how rotten humans are. But we can’t not KNOW that we’re rotten, can we? And there HAS TO BE a way out, a way to escape our basic rottenness. Therefore GOD!

    “BINGO! We ‘got you’ coming and going!”

  3. atimetorend Says:

    @hunt: “I wonder if whether Lewis had thought about things more carefully in the buildup to his conversion, if he would never have converted. What I mean is, are these really the kinds of thoughts that make most, or many, people convert to Christianity?

    I would say, on the basis of personal experience, there are definitely people who convert based on thoughts like those, I was one. At the time I converted, around age 20, I found a lot of things in my life really unsatisfying, and Christianity offered a complete package to deal with them, answers for everything. I suspect I had other things more pressing to be unsatisfied about than the evil in the world, as do a lot of people at that age (girls, loneliness, college!!!). Don’t mean to compare my experience to CS Lewis’, but I do think thoughts like those can be a significant influence in conversion. Face it, most people don’t think through things that well, and the younger we are the less well we tend to do it.

  4. Tacroy Says:

    I say this because I’ve noted several Christians who openly state they converted because “there is evil in the world.”

    It’s an interesting form of rhetorical ju-jitsu, for sure. You take religion’s greatest unresolvable problem (the famed Problem of Evil), and turn it into a strength.

    It works as long as you don’t examine your own biases.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    When I converted as a teenager, the argument that grabbed my attention was not “There is evil in the world,” but “There is evil in you!” Evil in the world I could accept as more or less a given, but (at the time) I found myself strongly swayed by an evangelist who asked me personally, one on one, whether I was a sinner. It’s a simultaneous appeal to both pride and guilt: guilt because you have to admit doing wrong, and pride because you don’t want to. I couldn’t explain why I did what I knew was wrong, and that was the first nudge down the “Romans Road” (i.e. “All have sinned”->”I have sinned”->”I need a savior” etc). That’s the main thing Lewis is shooting for here. People are more easily influenced when they’re afraid that they’re in the wrong.