XFiles Weekend: Math and MoralityAugust 22, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(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.