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.

Lewis begins his response by suggesting that “a good many people find it difficult to understand just what this Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behavior is.” Notice, he doesn’t credit them with having reasonable objections, or with having raised valid points about possible weaknesses in his hypothesis. He declares that they “find it difficult to understand” the concept he calls Moral Law. In other words, we’re starting from the assumption that these objections are not problems with his theory, they’re some kind of failure on the part of his critics.

For example, some people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?’ Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct… It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way… But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

Let’s be clear about one thing from the outset: there is no Moral Rule that says that whenever you hear a cry for help, the Right Thing To Do is to suppress your instinctive desire for self-preservation, and to put yourself into danger. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, and sometimes that exactly the wrong thing to do. Ask any fire fighter who has seen co-workers endangered by family members rushing into the flames to seek a missing child. Ask the child who safely escaped, only to lose the parent that ran into the flaming home not knowing where the child was. The rightness or wrongness of the behavior is determined by the consequences of that behavior, not by some arbitrary rule that declares “Thus always shalt thou do.” There is no one rule that applies to all circumstances, and each decision must be weighed in light of its probable outcomes.

I suspect that when Lewis first developed this argument, he had never had any personal experiences that involved hearing a cry for help and putting himself in danger in order to come to someone’s aid. There’s something of the armchair hero in his dispassionate description of a person hearing a cry, experiencing Impulse 1, followed by Impulse 2, followed by a consideration of which moral principles to apply to the conflicting impulses in order to decide a final course of action. Contrast this with any number of true-life stories in which real people responded instantly and instinctively, in the heat of the moment, without taking the slightest thought for their own safety and well-being (and sometimes with disastrous results, as in the parent rushing back into the burning home). Lewis’ version doesn’t sound terribly implausible in and of itself, but real life nevertheless frequently begs to differ.

Another flaw in this argument is that it falls short of actually proving his point. Even if we allow that some 3rd-party agency is helping to arbitrate between two conflicting instincts, this would not necessarily imply that the arbiter was some kind of universal Moral Law. A far better explanation would be to say that one instinct is simply stronger than the other, so no rational evaluation of moral principles is necessary. And should the erstwhile hero happen to be sufficiently self-possessed to consider the implications before acting, it makes more sense to say that he bases his decision on the expected outcomes, rather than on knowing that Moral Code Section 79 Article 132 A stroke 17 applies to this exact circumstance.

Lewis is telling a superficially plausible tale consistent with the point he’s trying to make, but it does not bear up under scrutiny. Even if we leave the hero himself out of the picture, and just ask ourselves how hindsight decides which decision ought to have been more morally correct, the Moral Law explanation falls short of the “expected outcomes” explanation. We don’t really have any way to know what such a Law ought to prescribe, other than to consider the consequences of the actions. Thus, by assuming the existence of a Moral Law, we have learned nothing that we can’t discover by considering the outcomes apart from any such Law. All we accomplish by appealing to a Moral Law is making a concession to superstition, and manufacturing an excuse for inserting God into a picture that doesn’t really contain Him.

But let’s take a step back. Lewis’ point is that instinct is not enough to explain human moral behavior. Despite his flawed example and superstitious “explanation,” that’s a partially correct observation. Instincts contribute to how we feel about certain types of outcome, and not uncommonly contribute quite strong feelings. The tiger that ate Golg yesterday is going to be hungry again tomorrow, and when he comes back to our tribe, Golg won’t be there to help us defend ourselves. The tribe that runs towards the tiger when Golg cries out for help, is the tribe that faces less danger in the long term. The tribe that laughs and says, “Sucks to be you, Golg!” is the tribe whose gene pool is going to run dry when the tiger picks them off one by one.

That’s why we see “defend the herd” instincts in non-human species—creatures not made in the image of God and not subject to any particular “Moral Law” written on their hearts and souls. Evolution is capable of producing some quite sophisticated and even altruistic behaviors, purely from the ongoing experience of a collection of genes distributed in a pool of social individuals, human or not. Thus, while social instincts are not sufficient to explain all human moral behavior, they’re more than adequate to produce a lot of the behaviors, priorities, and decisions that Lewis would like to ascribe to some sort of invisible, magical Moral Law.

The flaws in Lewis’ rebuttal are not fatal to his argument, but they do provide us with a good illustration of the ways in which his superstitions get in the way of clear thinking. Human instincts are not passive keys, to be played or not played according to some kind of celestial sheet music. They’re spontaneous and motivational, driving our decisions, not responding to them. Lewis realizes this, I’m sure, but his superstitions constrain him, and he ends up with a flawed and inaccurate analogy. Instead of defending his arguments, he ends up highlighting the discrepancies between the way things really are and the way he thinks things ought to be. It sticks out like Pinocchio’s nose, but unlike the wooden boy, Lewis seems completely unperturbed. It’s part of what makes him so popular, in certain circles anyway.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Armchair hero?”

  1. Hunt Says:

    One tragic example of when a person should not have followed a reflexive impulse to rescue another person, and this one even more wrenching than a parent running into the fire example because in this case there actually was a person to save: I live on the Big Island of Hawaii, which has a few great beaches and hundreds of miles of very dangerous lava cliff coastline, frequented by fishermen. About a year ago two of them were doing their thing when an exceptionally large wave pulled one of them into the ocean. The other one, do doubt responding to an impulse to save his friend, jumped in after him. Both died. The cogent thing, for anyone who knows these coastlines (like he no doubt did), is that jumping into the ocean off one of them in rough seas is about as close to an act of suicide as you can get.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    I think Lewis over-simplifies a very complicated set of instinctive reactions, each person’s life experience and training.

    We might expect a professional life-saver to react differently than someone who has absolutely no training in any particular hypothetical situation.

    Forrest Gump saving half his squad in an effort to save Bubba, comes to mind.

    Wonder how many get saved by people who are too stupid or ignorant to know that they’re attempting the almost impossible, compared to people being saved by those who can properly assess the risk?

    And what of the risk of losing face?(a mother would, in hind-sight, gladly risk the lives of a battalion of men to the attempt to save her child.)

    I think Lewis is counting on people agreeing with him, coming down hard on the Godly Moral side, because otherwise it’s just ‘chance’.(If only men with the proper equipment had been there etc.)

    This gives Lewis lots of ‘goalpost moving’ room once he has re-established the Christian view to his own satisfaction.

    Of course he is right that all Christians would agree that there IS the Moral Authority that he is claiming, I think that he is being a bit sneaky implying that it’s coming from some basic natural observations and NOT just some basic Christian doctrine.

  3. Len Says:

    I’ve been following this blog for a couple of weeks now (from a link in a comment on Unreasonable Faith). Very interesting. Good points, well presented, in response to some woolly (and superstitious) thinking.

    In today’s segment, you mention: “The rightness or wrongness of the behavior is determined by the consequences of that behavior, not by some arbitrary rule that declares “Thus always shalt thou do.””

    I don’t think that the rightness or wrongness is necessarily related to the outcome. For example, trying to save someone may or may not succeed. Even if everything looked easy and safe, you may both still be killed. How would you know beforehand? Was it (with hindsight) wrong to try to save someone?

    Or say you cheat on your tax return, and you get away with it. Does that make it right?

    People who think for themselves can work out on their own what’s correct. Even if they say they’re just playing the system, deep down, I believe we all know. That moral code has grown as we have grown – shaped by the forces of society, not by some ceiling cat laying down the law (and punishing people – later – if they screw up).

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Good point, Len, and I think now you’re getting into some of the finer points and nuances of genuine ethical studies. For example, do we judge based on the expected/desired outcome, or the actual outcome? Immediate outcome or long-term outcome? Once again, there’s no one rule that fits every situation. True morality calls for wise and intelligent people to make judgments in the context of the actual circumstances. To try and reduce this complexity down to a simple list of Ten Commandments is to oversimplify the issues. It becomes an obstacle to true moral understanding, rather than a help.

  5. Swimmy Says:

    I think the problem for Lewis is even worse, though you touch on why.

    Humans think in both near and far mode. But near and far mode often contradict each other, or are internally contradictory. We still have no good way of discerning which impulse is “right”; we just use them in different situations. It doesn’t help that far mode, from which we often pronounce high moral judgements on lowly others, is often more hypocritical.

    To make matters worse, what we often think of as moral and good social behavior–cooperation with others, self-sacrifice, empathy–are often combined with our other evolved instincts to do very, very evil things. Because we tend to have an insider-outsider bias, and a generalized love for our fellow man only in far mode, empathy can be very dangerous. This is what happens when we all band together as a society to vote policies that protect rich American workers at the expense of poor Chinese workers, or to protect America’s “security” by torturing Arabs. Our insider instinct is so strong that people can genuinely write, without a hint of irony, that, “An icy indifference as to whether one’s countrymen are winning—be it in a competition for jobs or Olympic medals—is moral treason and the mark of a dead soul.” But indifference to foreigners is hunky dory and the mark of the spiritually righteous! Gotcha!

    To be fair, I haven’t read Mere Christianity, so I don’t know if Lewis addresses this problem later, but it seems like a big problem for the Law of Nature: we are programmed en masses to be completely indifferent if not downright agonizing to the welfare of outsiders, and we use so-called “moral” tools such as empathy and cooperation to enforce this atrocity of thought on innocent people. Moreover most people think this is the moral thing to do and that not participating in Two Minutes Hate is a moral outrage.

  6. Hunt Says:

    Yes, that our morals so obviously bear the mark of tribal group dynamics should have been obvious even in Lewis’s day. We all seem to be hardwired for insider/outsider group bias, racism, and bigotry and it’s only through transcendence of that, thinking hard and sometimes firmly talking to ourselves, that we overcome it. It is precisely the opposite of listening to some inner voice of innate “morality” that we can even approximate doing good.

    Of course, Lewis has a trick up his sleeve here. The inner voice is split between God and Satan, whispering in either ear.

  7. Frances Says:

    More than a little bit late to this, although I am enjoying your spirited attack on MC (which I read many years ago). In this post, though, I think you’re wrong. The examples you give – rushing into a burning building etc – are all examples of what I think Lewis would call the herd instinct. I think you miss his point, which isn’t that following the instinct to save someone is invariably the right thing to do. It is that where you can help another but only by putting your own safety at risk, and let’s say you’ve weighed up all the risks, what is it that causes you to make a conscious choice to risk yourself to help another?

    Lewis would say that it is the Natural Law operating on your consciousness. I would say it is years of evolution which have created in us a desire to help our fellow creatures. We are not just conscious, but self-conscious creatures and so we not only make choices, but are very often aware of the mental processes which lead to those choices being made.

    If evolution had not created in us the desire to help others, so that when we can see rationally that it is not in our personal best interests to do so, we would not have survived as a species.

    Incidentally, I think you are wrong about Lewis having no personal experience of these situations. I’m sure he fought in the First World War in the trenches.