XFiles Weekend: Blameless Morality

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 3, “The Reality of the Law”)

Last time, we wrapped up Lewis’ attempts to address a few objections to his theory of Moral Law, and now he’s going to go back to developing his main thesis, which is that human morality stems from some kind of supernatural list of everything that’s Right and everything that’s Wrong. It’s a thesis dictated by the conclusion he wants to reach, so not surprisingly he has to work to make it all fit, even when he’s only using a carefully selected subset of the facts. Today he brings up another fact that would like very much to inform him about what’s wrong with his theory, but sadly he’s still not listening.

We’ll get to that point momentarily, but first here’s an interesting question: who controls the price of stocks on the stock exchange? On the one hand, it’s obvious that the answer is “people”—nobody else is there making offers or asking for bids. And yet, if people control the prices of stocks in the stock market, why would the market ever crash? A market crash does tremendous harm to the very people who are setting the stock prices, so if they control the prices, why would they ever create their own disaster?

Obviously, though stock brokers technically set the stock prices, they have only limited control over which prices they set. Other factors influence the price at which any given stock will actually sell, and these factors are complex enough to make market prices “volatile” and sometimes wildly unpredictable. Though stock brokers give the market its very existence, they cannot control it, and often must follow it and react to it as though obeying the dictates of some kind of Higher Being.

And yet, ultimately, the stock market is a purely human phenomenon. It responds to outside circumstances, it responds to primal human instincts (like greed and competition), but it there’s nothing magical or supernatural about it. In particular, it is not controlled by some outside, supernatural force. It’s just the complex behavior of a large number of humans trying to anticipate which of their choices will lead to the best results—human actions generating a force that humans themselves cannot control.

Morality is the same way. It’s the emergent property of a large number of humans trying to anticipate which of their choices is most likely to lead to the most desirable outcomes. We generate morality by our own activities and decisions, but, like the stock market, we can’t really control it.

This is a basic fact that Lewis has failed (or declined) to grasp, and that’s why he’s going off on these tangents, trying to rationalize the facts about human morality with his naive and superstitious desire for a magical list of Real Rights and Real Wrongs, written down by a divine Law giver to guarantee that in any circumstance there’s always a Right thing to do (i.e. a thing that will lead to the most desirable outcome).

I now go back to what I said at the end of the first chapter, that there were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practise, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so. Now some of you may wonder why I called this odd… In particular, you may have thought I was rather hard on the human race. After all, you may say, what I call breaking the Law of Right and Wrong… only means that people are not perfect. And why on earth should I expect them to be? That would be a good answer if what I was trying to do was to fix the exact amount of blame which is due to us for not behaving as we expect others to behave. But that is not my job at all. I am not concerned at present with blame; I am trying to find out the truth.

The key word here is “blame.” Lewis claims that he is trying to find out the truth (or at least making it look like a “discovery” when we reach his desired conclusion), but if that were his actual goal, then he might learn a lot by taking a closer look at what “blame” really means.

I compared morality to the stock market, and it’s a remarkably parallel comparison. And yet, there is a flavor of good and evil attached to the concept of morality that goes beyond the purely financial values of profit and loss, as we see them in the market. (We can make moral judgments about the stock market, of course, but I’m talking about comparing moral values to values of “good for the market” versus “bad for the market,” which is not the same thing.)

The difference between morality and the stock market is that we blame people for their immoral behavior, in a way that we do not blame the stock market for its ups and downs. And blame (aka guilt) is an interesting concept. It’s a stigma that we attach to people, and that affects the way we treat them. Blameless people are entrusted with greater responsibilities and greater authority (leading to greater reward). If you’re looking for a suitable spouse, you’d rather have a blameless mate than some scumball loser. People would rather do business with a blameless merchant, rent an apartment to a blameless tenant, and recruit blameless new members into their social clubs. And the list goes on and on.

Blame, thus, is rather a large factor in how we decide to invest in the moral stock market. We want to avoid acquiring any shares of blame, and we want to unload any shares we already have. The problem is, the moral stock market isn’t quite the same as the financial stock market. We can’t buy just any individual stock we want, we have to choose from the options we find within our reach, and some of those options come an unavoidable amount of blame attached. And if that weren’t bad enough, sometimes the blameless alternatives involve compromising ourselves in some way, e.g. by surrendering our independence or self-respect.

Of course, it’s also true that we sometimes just give in and grab what we want, heedless of the blame, because we’re weak-willed and greedy. It’s not as though morality is always wrong or unfair—far from it! But neither is it true that there’s always a Real Right thing to do. Sometimes, the choice is between two or more evils, because there is no one alternative that achieves a profitable goal with no blame.

Hence our persistent feeling of having failed to always find the Right thing to do. We haven’t always found it because it isn’t always there. If Lewis is indeed trying to find out the truth, then he needs to stop right here for a moment and realize that failing to do the morally right thing is as inevitable as failing to always make a profit in the stock market, and for much the same reasons. This is a perfectly normal and natural (i.e. non-supernatural) circumstance.

Lewis, sadly, does not seem to have any interest in making this sort of observation, so the rest of this chapter is going to be a somewhat embarrassing attempt to rationalize his way from the actual facts to the superstitious conclusion he’d like them to point to. Stay tuned.

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

7 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Blameless Morality”

  1. Pepe Says:

    Your analogy of morality and the stock market is brilliant. It clears up a lot for me and when applied to the free will v. Determinism debate, it really puts things into perspective.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    ” First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practise, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so.”

    These are not the people I meet. From all walks of life, the people I’ve met over the years seem to practice more of a one-upmanship kind of code where they hunt for and find a reason why they are better than you and can then rationalize any unfair treatment from that point of view.

    It doesn’t seem to me to be, ‘thoughts of unfair treatment’, ‘thoughts of guilt’, fair treatment.

    It’s more like, ‘thoughts of unfair treatment’, rationalization, ‘unfair treatment’, perhaps some more rationalization.

  3. Hunt Says:

    The fun begins when humans run localized parallel markets, which then interact. At least Lewis is struggling to create a global market, he’s just creating a oversimplified fixed model. Local moralities correspond to in-group social structures, although the extreme instance of this is the moral narcissist, who ranks good and bad totally in terms of how it effect him.

    Everybody’s favorite example, the Nazi’s, ran a localized moral market. They had in place jurisprudence to try criminal, punished crime, etc. — I’m sure they thought murder was immoral — all the while gassing the out-group. Our tribal ancestry has given us the capacity to partition ourselves into morally consistent groupings, which are in no way globally compatible.

    Lewis was trying to be globally moral. I don’t think one will ever get that lingering feeling of not attaining morality unless you’re taking the global perspective.

  4. Scotlyn Says:

    I love the stock market analogy. It bears thinking about. Re the blame=stigma thing, perhaps it could be said that some people start out with a higher stigma burden, by virtue of being female, or gay, or “different” in some other way, so that such people can be more easily blamed, and find it harder to “unload” blame shares.

    Per your last post, for example, if medieval women started out with the “blame/stigma” burden of having (as everyone “knew”) a dangerous, promiscuous sexuality, unless under the control of a man, it would have been so much easier to accuse them of witchcraft.

    Also, though, the idea that such group stigmas emerge somehow through the collective interactions of a “marketplace” would explain a lot about why it is so hard to pin down an individual’s responsibility for sexist, racist or homophobic stigmatisation.

    Just thinking out loud. Thanks.

  5. Ken Browning Says:

    As a young evangelical I read Lewis avidly. Now his writing seems so old fashioned and stale. Really, I don’t think Natural Law has a chance to stand up to modern neuroscience, evolution, anthropology, game theory, etc.

  6. Tony Hoffman Says:

    I’m going to join the chorus and say that the stock market analogy is brilliant. Did you think of that yourself, or has it been out there for awhile and I just came across it here?

  7. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Actually, I used the stock market analogy a while ago to illustrate the problem with Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter.” According to ID creationists, “intelligent design” can be ruled out by determining that some phenomenon was caused either by natural law, by random chance, or by some combination of law and chance. The stock market is just one illustration of how multiple independent agents can interact to produce apparently “intelligent” phenomena that are not actually the product of intelligent design. You can talk about the market as though it were an intelligent being that deliberately raised or lowered prices depending on its mood, but it’s actually just complex interactions between brokers. And even though brokers are themselves intelligent, the apparent “choices” and “mood” of the market are not under the deliberate and intelligent control of the brokers. It’s an (apparently) independent “intelligence” in its own right, which is why it can turn around and do so much damage to the brokers.

    The moral for ID is that ruling out “law+chance” is a very tricky business, because once you have more than a small handful of variables and interacting independent processes, the results can be exceedingly complicated and “intelligent” looking, regardless of whether or not any intelligence really controls it.