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.

According to Lewis, if you see a man drowning, your instinct for self preservation is stronger than the herd instinct calling you to rescue him. Then, some magical Moral Law “speaks” to you and tells you that you ought to make your weaker instinct stronger, until you are willing to help. Indeed, in this portrayal, Lewis gives “Moral Law” many of the same behaviors and personal traits as are traditionally ascribed to the Holy Spirit—a polytheism as ironic as it is inadvertent.

This is nothing more than plain old ordinary superstition: seeing something you don’t understand and giving credit to some magical, supernatural cause (he even personified it for us!). But it’s really not that hard to understand. We see imminent tragedy unfolding in front of us, and we’re distressed by our inability to do more to help. We desperately want to believe that there is something more we could do to help, but that’s just a kind of psychological denial of our own weakness and limitations. Sometimes we experience a misplaced and irrational sense of guilt, the feeling Lewis describes as the “Moral Law…telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses.” It’s not really that some anthropomorphic principle was telling us we should have helped, we’re just suffering from feelings of inadequacy, sublimated as guilt.

Notice, too, that Lewis arbitrarily designates the helpful impulse as being always weaker than the instinct for self preservation. Read the stories of any number of dramatic rescues, though, and you’ll see that this simply isn’t so. Often, the instinct of self-preservation does not manifest itself at all, or does so very weakly. Then again, remember that when we read the stories of how people reacted to incipient disaster, we only get to read the stories of the survivors—those whose survival instinct kicked in soon enough to let them live to tell their tales. Our sample is necessarily biased against those whose helpful instinct overruled the dictates of self-preservation.

Now granted, I too am oversimplifying a complex psychological phenomenon. There are other factors involved as well, like social status, family ties, personality traits, and so on. The main point I want to make here is that Lewis’ appeal to superstition is fundamentally hostile to finding a practical and accurate understanding of what is really going on in the mind of a person making a split-second life-or-death decision about whether to risk himself for the sake of another. Understanding how it really works means we have one less excuse for appealing to the magical/supernatural alternative. Lewis’ argument works best in the absence of any useful understanding of the truth. But let’s move on.

Here is a third way of seeing it. If the Moral Law was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call ‘good,’ always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage.

Lewis puts his finger squarely on the central flaw in his whole thesis, and doesn’t realize he’s done it. He cites sex, maternal love, patriotism, and “fighting instinct” as things that are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and he says this goes to show that instinct doesn’t always get the right answer. He’s still laboring under the misapprehension that there will necessarily always be a right answer, known to the Moral Law, against which we can measure our natural impulses.

The reason why instinct cannot be trusted to always give the morally “correct” answer is because there is no moral rule, or law, that is always right under all circumstances. You cannot say, for example, that one should always be patriotic and defend one’s country. That would be a moral law that you could apply to a variety of circumstances, and sometimes the outcome would be desirable, and sometimes not. Sometimes it might even lead to an outcome that one group would find desirable while another would not. And each would declare that Moral Law confirmed their opinion about whether the patriotism was “right” or “wrong,” morally speaking.

Instinct is merely a pattern of behavior. If the world were such an uncomplicated and reliable place that it were possible to write down a Moral Law that would infallibly dictate the best possible behavior under all possible circumstances, then there’s no particular reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t develop moral instincts to fit the same pattern. As Lewis himself observes, that’s not possible, because the morality of an action depends on the circumstances in which it takes place. The same action, taking place in different circumstances, can lead to different consequences. What was good in one situation might be the worst possible thing in another.

Lewis actually makes a statement that is quite profound, once you strip it from his superstitious presuppositions and consider it in the light of real-world morality:

Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another.

That’s a brilliant insight, and only Lewis’ Christian faith prevents him from realizing what he has stumbled across. An impulse—an intention to behave in a certain way—is not right or wrong in and of itself. That is, there is no universal rule that says “these kinds of impulses are always moral and those are always immoral.” Morality is a question of what kind of consequences will result from a particular course of action in a particular set of circumstances. That’s not the kind of problem that can be reduced to a manageable number of applicable Laws: either there will be some circumstances that the Law does not cover (meaning the “Law” will not always be right), or else it will have to enumerate every possible combination of circumstances, resulting in a virtually limitless list of special cases so picky that none of them would be suitable as a general guideline for human behavior.

Laws are, by nature, simplified rules that make certain assumptions about the circumstances under which they will be applied. These assumptions won’t always be correct, because no simple description can cover all possible circumstances. That’s why we have courts, and judges, and pardons and so on. Laws are inherently imperfect, and thus there can be no Perfect Law. As Lewis observes (without quite realizing the implications), “the point is of great practical consequence.”

The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.

As history has shown time and time again, that includes the common superstitious impulse that tells us we ought to obey God and His so-called Moral Law. An impulse is just an intention to act, and there is no law, no rule of how to act, that always prescribes the right thing under every possible circumstance. This is a brilliant insight from one of the most brilliant and famous authors in modern Western Christianity. It is really a shame that his faith won’t let him see the truth he has discovered.

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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Morality is not a law”

  1. Hunt Says:

    As far as I can see Lewis is saying that no matter what the initial impulse or instinctual response, if we are receptive to the inner voice of the moral law, the correct answer will come through.

    This hasn’t been my experience of how morality operates, except for basic notions about survival. Usually you can shame a person into admitting that killing is wrong, unless conditions are such that both of you agree it might be warranted. Further out on the leafy branches of the tree of morality things are less clear. There are a significant number of people in the US (and unfortunately other countries too) who think that women’s suffrage is an evil thing. I’ve contested them on their own blogs, and I can tell you that they really believe this. It’s not that their instinct to disenfranchise women has somehow overridden an inner voice telling them to treat human being equally.

    This might not be a problem if everyone innately and fundamentally believed that it is the righteous male role to dominate submissive women, but it isn’t. Quite a few women disagree fervently (sadly, not all), as do quite a few men.

    So the situation is this. For fundamental moral truths, a developmental paradigm appears to fit the human consensus. Everyone seems to agree about things like murder, rape and torture (well, almost). Where morality requires higher cognition there exists wild disparity, yet surely if there is one moral law, there should be consensus there as well.

  2. Entropist Says:

    First of all, Lewis calling it “HERD instinct” is a bit disingenuous. Better to call it merely “instinct,” no?

    Another thing is that saving the life of another is not necessarily something OTHER than instinct overriding the instinct for self-preservation. There are other instincts that involve preservation of fellow human beings as well (collective self-preservation). This doesn’t necessarily have to do with a conscience or guilt at all.

    AND not only that, but there are MANY instances of animals saving the lives and caring for other animals, human beings included.

  3. pevo Says:

    Seems to me that whatever impulse you eventually acted on was the strongest one. It doesn’t really matter how long it took you to get there, or what ‘boost’ it got along the way. The weaker impulse (or really set of impulses and perspectives) never wins.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    I still think that religionists are trying to couch ‘law’ in terms of ‘you do what you are told’, even at this instinct vs. Moral Law stage.

    Lewis here, is setting the stage for this by telling us to believe that there IS a Moral Law that tells us what the right thing to do is.

    I think that Lewis is deliberately over-simplifying this, not very common, ‘self-preservation’ vs. ‘urge to help scenario.’

    How much more common is ‘the urge to have more stuff’ vs. ‘the urge to not rip others off’ scenario played out every day?

    And this, all too often, turns into a ‘rip the other guy off and rationalize the hell out of it later’ scenario.

  5. Hunt Says:

    It often just seems as if the way people evaluate what is or isn’t the right thing to do is ex post facto consequentialism, even when those people wouldn’t describe themselves as consequentialists or utilitarians. The cop shoots the kidnapper holding the baby and by total chance nails him without hitting the baby he’s carrying. He’s heralded as a hero, but if he’d killed the baby instead, he would be shunned. The rakish fancier plays fast and loose with his clients’ money but wins huge and is celebrated, but Bernie Madoff is spurned and imprisoned. The arbitrariness with which we label good and bad action seem governed by fortuity, and I’m sure it’s been this way through history. To lose is to be evil; to win is to be good. How exactly does that fit with a moral law?