XFiles Weekend: Armchair hero?August 8, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(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.