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.

His first reason will probably sound familiar:

The first is, as I said in the first chapter, that though there are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of another, the differences are not really very great—not nearly so great as most people imaging—and you can recognize the same law running through them all, whereas mere conventions, like the rule of the road or the kind of clothes people wear, may differ to any extent.

That’s a rather un-mathematical assessment. “Not very great”? In whose opinion? It seems to me that that the kind of morality that condones selling your daughters for sexual purposes, mutilating the genitals of babies, and committing acts of genocide, is very different from the kind of morality that finds these things abhorrent. But have I disproved Lewis’ point? We can’t really say, because he hasn’t really given us any objective guidelines for measuring the amount of difference between two moralities, let alone setting a specific point at which the difference would be great enough to falsify his claim. All Lewis is really saying is, “I know moral conventions are different in different times and cultures, and I hereby declare those differences irrelevant.” This is one avenue of investigation that he simply filters out.

What he ought to have noticed, had he been willing to look, is that our moral standards are not merely different today than they were in ancient times, they’re better. We’ve improved, to some extent, on the morality of our forefathers. We’ve even improved on God’s morality (which may explain some of Lewis’ reluctance to probe too deeply into this part of the evidence).

As I’ve said before, morality is rooted in our perception of the likely outcomes of different behaviors. As we live and learn, and as our society gradually acquires the collective experience of its members, we get better at understanding how some behaviors that originally seemed like a good idea (e.g. slavery) are actually more detrimental than beneficial. As a species, we’re a bit thick. It can take centuries of painful experience to convince us that we really don’t like the consequences of certain previously-sanctioned behaviors. But we do learn from those consequences, eventually. And that accumulated experience becomes our new and improved morality.

Thus, it’s not because we’re being guided by the timeless wisdom of the Ten Commandments or some other mystical list of simple rules. Experience itself is teaching us. And sometimes, what it teaches us is that certain situations don’t have a simple, clear-cut distinction between right and wrong. Sometimes you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Other times, the right solution requires making an exception to the so-called “Moral Law.” Not everyone is going to feel right about making such exceptions, especially if they buy what Lewis is selling here. Belief in a Moral Law can prevent you from doing the right thing, and can drive you to do the wrong thing. Thus, secular morality is better than the kind of superstitious morality Lewis wants us to believe in.

Oops, he overheard us, and now he’s going to use this argument against us.

The other reason is this. When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another? Have any of the changes been improvements? If not, then of course there could never be any moral progress. Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality… The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.

Rather fascinating, isn’t it? Lewis has very nearly declared that Christian morality is not Real Morality, and can thus be improved upon. A fairly obvious observation for anyone versed in real-world secular morality, but a fairly astonishing conclusion for Lewis to come to, given that Mere Christianity attempts to use this idea of Moral Law to prove the existence of a divine Law Giver. I can’t help but think that Lewis would object here, and would try to deny that Christian morality is different from Real Morality, but that’s the thrust of his argument. Otherwise, how could you ever compare Christian morality to any other morality (even Nazi morality!) and say that it was better? His whole point is that for one thing to be better, it must be different from the standard it’s being measured by.

The other possibility would be that he is merely playing devil’s advocate: “If you think that one morality is better than another, then you must think there is some Real standard of morality.” In 0ther words, he’s not agreeing that he thinks we’ve made moral progress, or that one morality can be better than another, he’s just saying if all y’all liberal types want to say that, then you have to agree that Moral Law really exists. Pretty clever, except that this argument implies that Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality. Oops.

The problem here (besides the above) is that Lewis completely overlooks the fact that anyone who compares one morality to another is inevitably going to favor whichever morality is most like his own. Let’s take, for example, the question of gay marriage. Is it moral to allow it? Is it moral to forbid it? There are, within the Christian faith, within even the conservative, evangelical Christian faith, those whose morality would give an answer that was the exact opposite of what the rest of their fellow believers would say. Never mind secular versus pious; within Christian morality itself, there are questions for which you get opposite answers at the same time, depending on which Christian you ask.

This is how we know Lewis’ so-called Moral Law is not a natural law like the laws of mathematics. The question “What is 2 x 12?” does not give different real-world answers depending on who you ask: two dozen eggs is 24 eggs, just like two dozen homeopaths are 24 quacks. Count ‘em: the laws of multiplication are laws because they give the same answers to the same questions, no matter who does the asking or the answering. And, more importantly, you can check the answers, and determine whether or not the first person came up with the right number. There’s a consistent real-world referent for your answer, and that’s how we know Real Multiplication exists.

Lewis’ alleged Law of Human Nature doesn’t work that way. For instance, the obvious retort to gay Christian morality is to deny that gay Christian morality is Real True Christian Morality™—which is an easy claim to make, but how are we going to check your answers? Lewis believes in a “real Right,” meaning an invisible, mystical standard defining Right and Wrong for all circumstances, but we don’t have a written copy of that standard, nor can we determine it experimentally UNLESS we abandon Lewis’ superstitious and imaginary Law in favor of a secular morality based on a practical consideration of behaviors and consequences. The “Moral Law” approach, by itself, cannot tell you when your moral standards are wrong; it merely encourages you to look down on the morality of others.

Thus, there are (at least) two different moralities: a real-world, secular morality that needs no God, and a superstitious and subjective morality that tries to give God credit for moral answers that are secretly being borrowed from the secular kind. Because the superstitious morality often resorts to secular morality, the two moralities have a certain amount of overlap. Where they don’t overlap, as in the case of circumcision or gay marriage for instance, the superstitious morality is wrong, meaning it promotes as “good” things that have bad consequences, and forbids as “bad” things that have good consequences (or at least neutral ones).

The big difference between secular morality and superstitious morality is that the superstitious moralist has no consistent real-world referent for his moral answers (unless he resorts to secular morality). Thus, as I mentioned above, if you ask a superstitious moralist to compare two moralities, he has no choice but to favor whichever one is most like his own. We don’t have a copy of The Divine List of Do’s and Don’ts (if it were even possible for such a thing to exist), and without resorting to secular morality, he can only judge by whatever seems right in his own eyes. That’s why Lewis’ mathematical corollary fails, and why even Christian morality can give opposite answers to the same question depending on which Christian you ask.

Secular morality, by contrast, does not have this problem, because it’s based on a secular consideration of real-world consequences. Granted, the answers won’t always be easy, and some problems may not have any Right answers at all. The answers you do get, however, have the benefit of being based on real-world truth, rather than on subjective assumptions about what God’s preferences ought to be. That’s important, because when your morality is not based on real-world truth, moral issues boil down to “might makes right,” and you end up with the majority ganging up on minorities and oppressing them, as is being done right now to gays.

In summary then, and contrary to Lewis’ eloquent and misguided rhetoric, we can compare morality with mathematics and clearly see that morality (as Lewis envisions it) is not some kind of natural law that always gives the same answers to the same questions. There is more than one Morality, with the secular one being far better than the other. The alternative, advocated by Lewis, is to take the results of secular morality (e.g. “murder is wrong”), superstitiously ascribe them to an invisible magical Law Giver, and then sweep in a bunch of arbitrary, prejudiced, and self-serving “moral Rights” that end up harming people (especially minorities). This is detrimental to society as a whole, not just to the victims, and therefore it is, in secular terms, immoral.

Next week: Witches (see Servants of Satan, Burning). Stay tuned.

 
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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 18 Comments »

18 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Math and Morality”

  1. Tacroy Says:

    C.S Lewis proves that all sticks are the same size:

    The other reason is this. When you think about these differences between the sticks of one people and another, do you think that the sticks of one people is ever longer or shorter than that of another? Have any of the changes been improvements? If not, then of course there could never be any stick progress. Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of sticks were longer or thicker than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized sticks to savage sticks, or Christian sticks to Nazi sticks… The moment you say that one set of sticks can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Stick, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Length, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Length than others.

  2. Swimmy Says:

    What’s always so disappointing in these morality arguments is that apologists never quite spell out why the Moral Law, even if it exists, is actually superior morally rather than just on pure intuition.

    Lewis claims that the Moral Law is superior because it is universal and supercedes our instincts. It feels like the Right Thing To Do, no matter what our instincts say. But by what standard does he judge universal traits or instinct-superceding actions to be more moral than other kinds? Why are things that feel like the Right Thing To Do actually the right thing to do, and by what moral standard did he make that judgement?

    The moral argument presents a dilemma to non-believers: explain where morality comes from and why it is truly moral. What believers miss is that the dilemma presents itself right back: explain why God’s morality is truly moral; show your work. They never do.

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Or if they do try to explain why their morality is better, they end up appealing to either secular morality, or to bully morality: i.e. “God’s way is better because He’s all-powerful and He’ll hurt you unless you do what He says.” It never fails to amaze me that people will use the threat of eternal torture to prove the superiority of their morality, but there it is.

  4. Hunt Says:

    …explain why God’s morality is truly moral; show your work. They never do.

    Most of them are “divine commanders,” believers in divine command theory, which is really the only way out of the Euthyphro dilemma. If morals come from God, then they are either arbitrary in the edict of God, or God derived them from a yet higher principle. The latter is a contradiction to omnipotence; the former is a concession to the idea that whatever God says is “good” and whatever else is “bad.” You aren’t even really left with the option to say that God will act benevolently because that is his nature. That is itself a stipulation on the nature of God, and he doesn’t have any. You’re left with the rather unattractive picture of a cosmic totalitarian and his abject subjects.

  5. Fortuna Says:

    You aren’t even really left with the option to say that God will act benevolently because that is his nature.

    Christians can’t even assert that in the first place, since their God supposedly acts in a nakedly malevolent fashion to begin with, in the sense of creating many people whom he has every intention of torturing for all eternity for reasons beyond their control.

  6. pboyfloyd Says:

    “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?”

    I think that this is a bit of word-magic here. We DO learn our local conventions at home and at school but that, in itself does not make them equivalent to arithmetic, simply because we learn arithmetic at home and at school also.

    It IS a very sly comparison that seems very reasonable on the surface. It’s the kind of word-magic that will be quickly deemed a matter of opinion to avoid being examined in any detail and the argument will be ‘moved on’ by an astute religionist. It’s what they do.

    Seems Mr. Lewis’ style of winning arguements against opponents largely by virtue of their inability to re-rebut is similar to the last guys you took apart.

    If Lewis is talking to Christians, and wanted to be honest, he might as well say, “Non-theists have a different opinion, but we theists know that they are wrong!”, rather than pretend to fully examine any specific thing a non-theist may retort and doing such a bad job of counter-argument.

  7. Arthur Says:

    To hear Piaget tell it, a child’s arithmetic develops in the normal course of growing up, as she interacts with the world around her—in fact, it must be permitted to develop in this way, without being undermined by a lot of adult interference (check out Constance Kamii’s “The Harmful Effects of Carrying and Borrowing”, the most interesting education article that no educator has read).

    But, like Lewis evidently, he also believed that morality was closely analogous to arithmetic: its development happens in the normal course of growing up and interacting with others, and a lot of heavy-handed adult coercion can only stunt and distort that development, and ultimately make the subject much more difficult and intimidating than it ought to be.

  8. cl Says:

    Hi DD.

    That’s a rather un-mathematical assessment. “Not very great”? In whose opinion?

    I agree. I also agree that we need more than opinion to justify our claims.

    It seems to me that that the kind of morality that condones selling your daughters for sexual purposes, mutilating the genitals of babies, and committing acts of genocide, is very different from the kind of morality that finds these things abhorrent.

    Do you think Lewis would call those “kinds of morality,” or the absence thereof? I suspect the latter. I think that would be a suitable rebuttal to the “morality as convention” argument you appear to be implying [correct me if I've misread you].

    What he ought to have noticed, had he been willing to look, is that our moral standards are not merely different today than they were in ancient times, they’re better.

    Better? In whose opinion? Aren’t you committing the very same error you criticized Lewis for? It sounds like all you are really saying is, “I know moral conventions are better now, and I hereby declare it so.” You rightfully criticize Lewis for lack of thoroughness, but, where is the objective standard that would allow us to measure your claim?

    …sometimes, what [experience] teaches us is that certain situations don’t have a simple, clear-cut distinction between right and wrong.

    I agree.

    I can’t help but think that Lewis would object here, and would try to deny that Christian morality is different from Real Morality, but that’s the thrust of his argument.

    It seems to me that Lewis is arguing that Christian morality is the best approximation of “Real Morality.”

    Pretty clever, except that this argument implies that Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality.

    I don’t see that it does. How did you get to that conclusion?

  9. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi cl,

    Regarding your first question, I can’t say for sure, but I’d be rather surprised if Lewis agreed that the Bible verses I linked to were instances of God telling His people to do something immoral.

    Regarding your second question, I believe today’s morals are better than the primitive morals of the Old Testament (and even the New Testament) on the basis of my own personal opinion (which I expect many of my readers to share), and on the basis of an objective evaluation of the outcomes, e.g. by no longer forbidding women to exercise authority over men, we are no longer depriving ourselves of a number of capable leaders.

    Lewis’ mistake is that he assumes that morality is drawn from some kind of propositional declaration of what Right and Wrong must be. I do not make that same mistake because I openly acknowledge the fact that one’s perception of Right and Wrong may vary based on circumstances, to the point that the same thing may be Right to one party at the same time as it is Wrong to another. If Lewis’ assumption were true, this would not be possible; either one or the other would have to be mistaken about whether the thing were right or wrong.

    You, of course, are free to define your own moral standards differently, but of course if you do so you are also demonstrating the fallacy of Lewis’ assumptions, just as I am.

    As for the idea that Christianity is merely an approximation of Real Morality, I think that poses some problems, since it suggests that Jesus’ moral teachings could have been improved upon. Then again, the bigger problem is that there is no Real Morality for Christianity to be an approximation of, so perhaps that’s a moot point.

    And finally, if Lewis is not agreeing that moral progress can be made, or that one morality can be compared to another, and is only proposing the argument as a Devil’s Advocate stumper for liberals, then obviously he can’t say that Christian morality is better than Nazi morality, because that would be comparing one morality to another. But the alternative is for him to admit that Christian morality is not Real Morality, which means we can improve on Jesus’ teachings. About time too. ;)

  10. Hunt Says:

    I’m not an expert on all the details, but Lewis was a “process theologist,” meaning, from what I gather, that our moral relationship with God changes over time. This is a VERY neat trick, since it gives Lewis and his acolytes, like Francis Collins, an escape route when confronted with the moral turpitude of the Old Testament. I think many believers, when questioned, would claim something similar, that the depravity of the OT is due to our primitive human nature, and God simply fit the circumstance to it. Note that there’s really nothing left to rebut. If our moral history is predicated on our own development, a God-based morality and a human based morality will follow the same path. In other words, if you’re THAT convinced that there’s a wizard behind the curtain, you’re going to adjust your world view to include him, no matter what.

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    And of course, another name for that would be “moral relativism,” since the definition of morality varies according to the circumstances of the moment. The fun part comes when you ask, “When God/Jesus teaches us moral relativism, is he doing what Real Morality would call ‘Right’ or is he doing Wrong?” And if moral relativism is blessed as Right by Real Morality, then whence all the anguished hand-wringing by conservative Christians over changing moral standards? Times have changed, and all we’re really doing is to follow God’s example by updating our morality to a more advanced level.

  12. pboyfloyd Says:

    “Do you think Lewis would call those “kinds of morality,” or the absence thereof? I suspect the latter.”

    This is SOOO beside the point. Lewis is saying that he thinks that we all have some kind of mysterious knowledge of some absolute morality and is suggesting that our feeble attempts to follow it are reflected in the differing moralities of various groups in different locales and/or at different times.

    This ‘rebuttal’ of yours, cl, seems to be making Deacon Duncan’s point while missing Lewis’ point entirely.

  13. mikespeir Says:

    This ‘rebuttal’ of yours, cl, seems to be making Deacon Duncan’s point while missing Lewis’ point entirely.

    That was pretty much the thought that hit me as I read cl’s comment.

  14. cl Says:

    Trying to understand somebody is not the same thing as a rebuttal.

    DD,

    Well, now I’m even more confused. These are the main parts that are still not making sense:

    Lewis has very nearly declared that Christian morality is not Real Morality, and can thus be improved upon.

    Presuming that he wasn’t playing devil’s advocate, how so?

    The other possibility would be that he is merely playing devil’s advocate: “If you think that one morality is better than another, then you must think there is some Real standard of morality.” In 0ther words, he’s not agreeing that he thinks we’ve made moral progress, or that one morality can be better than another, he’s just saying if all y’all liberal types want to say that, then you have to agree that Moral Law really exists. Pretty clever, except that this argument implies that Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality. Oops.

    How does the argument that a Moral Law really exists imply that Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality?

  15. pboyfloyd Says:

    What are you saying cl?

    You said this:-

    “Do you think Lewis would call those “kinds of morality,” or the absence thereof? I suspect the latter. I think that would be a suitable rebuttal..”

    I responded to the first two sentences, your second agreeing with your appraisal of Lewis’ proposed interpretation.

    Now you say that, no, ” Trying to understand somebody is not the same thing as a rebuttal.”

    What kind of ‘shell game’ are you playing here? What a joke you are cl, with your notion that you can talk your way around anything.

    You’re not ‘rebutting’, no. YOU are just saying that that might be a suitable rebuttal for Lewis to have made.

    But it wouldn’t have now, would it?
    There is no way that Lewis could say that morality as described in the Bible(some of which some modern day Christians still subscribe to), is any less an attempt at that Absolute Morality which he is trying to impress upon us now, right?

  16. Deacon Duncan Says:

    pboyfloyd –

    I believe what cl meant is that he did not intend his original comment as a rebuttal, but merely as an “attempt to understand.” This would be consistent with the tactics he has employed in the past, where he has studiously avoided committing himself to anything as openly declarative as a rebuttal, preferring instead to insinuate that the unbeliever’s point is somehow incoherent. Hence the (possibly feigned) inability to understand.

    cl –

    My point is one of elementary logic. Lewis is making the claim that “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.” He uses this to argue that Real Morality must exist independently of the two moralities you are comparing, i.e. that neither of the two moralities being compared is Real Morality.

    This creates two classes of morality: the “comparable moralities,” which can be compared to one another, and Real Morality, which none of the comparable moralities are (because if you could compare anything to Real Morality, that would falsify Lewis’ claim that “the standard that measures two things is something different from either”).

    At this point, then, Christian morality must either be one of the comparable moralities (i.e. one of the moralities that can be compared to other moralities), or it must be Real Morality. If it is Real Morality, then you cannot compare it to any other morality, because of Lewis’ arbitrary requirement that the standard has to be different than the things being compared. If you claim that Christian morality is better than Nazi morality, you are making a comparison, thus (by Lewis’ argument) putting it into the comparable moralities category, rather than the Real Morality category.

    The real flaw, of course, is Lewis’ arbitrary and erroneous assumption that the standard must be something different than the two things you are comparing. That’s clearly wrong, since it leaves you with no means of measuring anything: you can’t compare anything to the standard itself!

    Trouble is, without that assumption, Lewis’ argument falls apart, because he’s trying to prove that moral progress (i.e. modern vs ancient morality) implies the independent existence of some Real Morality, distinctly different from each of the moralities you’re comparing. He’s trying to force the facts to fit his pet theory, and they don’t want to fit, and he ends up making arguments based on false and arbitrary assumptions.

  17. cl Says:

    Please, DD, bear with me here. Now that you’ve clarified, yes, I believe I understand what you’re trying to say, so, this is a rebuttal. I’m rebutting the same statement I asked for clarity on:

    The other possibility would be that he is merely playing devil’s advocate: “If you think that one morality is better than another, then you must think there is some Real standard of morality.” In 0ther words, he’s not agreeing that he thinks we’ve made moral progress, or that one morality can be better than another, he’s just saying if all y’all liberal types want to say that, then you have to agree that Moral Law really exists. Pretty clever, except that this argument implies that Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality. Oops.

    From that, it does not follow that “Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality,” as you claim. It would only follow that neither “Christian morality” nor “Nazi morality” are equivalent to “Real morality,” but that is not logically equivalent to “Christian morality cannot be any better than Nazi morality.”

    Do you see what I’m saying?

  18. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I see what you’re saying, but you’ve still misunderstood my point. If Lewis is only playing Devil’s Advocate, and is not agreeing that one morality can be better than another, then he cannot say that Christian morality is better than Nazi morality, because that would be comparing one morality with another.

    You are quibbling over a trivial side issue (again), cl. I see no reason to waste any more space on this (unless anyone else has any observations they would care to make).