C.S. Lewis on Morality

C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is a fundamental work in Christian apologetics. Many Christians point to this book as a turning point in their coming to faith. I’d like to respond to some of Lewis’s ideas.

Lewis says that there is a “real” right and wrong. If this were not so, how could we declare the Nazis wrong? Find a man who rejects this premise, Lewis says, and you will quickly detect the hypocrisy. He may break a promise to you, but as soon as you do the same, he declares that that’s not fair and falls back on a “real” rightness.

I don’t see it that way. “Right” and “wrong” come with an implied point of view. I’m happy to say that the Nazis were wrong, but when I do so, the word wrong is grounded in my point of view. (Kind of obvious, right? I mean, whose point of view would I be using but my own?)

That statement is simply a less clumsy version of, “The Nazis were wrong according to Bob.” There is neither a need to imagine nor justification for an absolute standard.

Lewis doesn’t use the term “objective morality” (he wrote about 70 years ago, which explains a few odd phrasings), but I believe this is what he means by “real right and wrong.” Let’s use William Lane Craig’s definition for objective morality: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”

Despite Lewis’s claims, we needn’t imagine that morality is objectively true. We see this simply by looking in the dictionary. The definition of “morality” (or “right” or “wrong”) doesn’t require any sense of objective grounding or absoluteness.

Like Lewis, I insist that you keep your commitments to me, that you follow the basic rules of civility, and so on. When you don’t, I’m annoyed not because you violated an absolute law; you violate my law. It ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got, and that’s enough to explain the morality we see around us.

To the person who insists that objective morality exists, I say: show me. Take a vexing moral issue—abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, capital punishment, sex before marriage, torture, and so on—and show us the objectively true moral position. If you want to say that objective morality exists but it’s not reliably accessible, then what good is it? This kind of objective morality that looks nonexistent might as well be.

When we see a widespread sense of a shared morality within society, are we seeing universal moral truth? Or are we seeing universally held moral instincts? That latter, natural explanation does the job without the need to handwave objective moral truth into existence.

Evolution explains why part of morals is built-in. What we think of as proper morals has survival value. It’s not surprising that evolution would select for a moral instinct in social animals like humans. Evolution is often caricatured as being built on the principle “might makes right.” No, natural selection doesn’t favor might but fitness to the environment. A human tribe with trust and compassion might outcompete a more savage rival tribe without those traits.

We see this moral instinct in other animals. In a study of capuchin monkeys, for example, those given cucumber for completing a task complained when others got grapes (a preferred food) for the same task. These monkeys understood fairness just like a human. (An excellent video of the monkey’s reaction is here.)

As an aside, I think it’s a mistake to look down on other primates and their “less-developed” sense of morality. The same powerful brain that gives us honor and patriotism, justice and mercy, love and altruism, and other moral instincts that we’re proud of also gives us racism, self-pity, greed, resentment, hate, contempt, bitterness, jealousy, and all the others on the other side of the coin. No other species has perfected violence, slavery, cruelty, revenge, torture, and war to the extent that humans have.

If we exceed the morality of our primate cousins on the positive side, we also do so on the negative side. Let’s show a little humility.

Human morality is nicely explained by an instinctive and shared sense of the Golden Rule plus rules that are specific to each culture. The dictionary doesn’t demand any objective grounding in its definition of morality, and neither should we.

I believe in Christianity
as I believe that the sun has risen:
not only because I see it,
but because by it I see everything else.
— C. S. Lewis

Photo credit: ho visto nina volare

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  • Jack Mudge

    I’ve always thought “objective” was a very unfortunate term, when used in the William Lane Craig sense of the word.
    My morality absolutely is objective — in the sense that I apply evidence (what does or does not harm humans), and given the same premises, two people should reach the same conclusion. And, importantly, they can be measured, both through sociological means (surveys, behavioral studies) and neurological means (MRI, FMRI).
    What it is not is either //universal// or //absolute//: That is to say, it does not necessarily apply to things other than humans (because the premises explicitly include humans), or at least sentient beings, and it is not a rigid, dogmatic set of rules.
    But that does mean it is not “objective” as WLC uses the term. So the best term for it is wasted with a bad definition.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I agree. This is yet another word that we really should stop and define when we get into a discussion. It does make for slow going sometimes.

  • http://meta64.com/wclayf Clay Ferguson

    Lion, people will join back in if you type something, because the thread notifies everyone that there’s some new dude trying to chime in. :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Ditto. Lion: feel free to make your point.

  • http://meta64.com/wclayf Clay Ferguson

    Dave, I think the largest question is: “Is there a giant bearded man in the sky named God who is looking down and deciding if what we do is right or not”. To me that is what Absolute Morality would imply. I think morality is in the minds of intelligent beings, and is a way of categorizing types of behaviour that are beneficial versus detrimental to the species. My opinion is that all intelligent life (at least as intelligent as us) that have language have a word for “good” and “evil”, and we would understand that and it would translate perfectly to our language and good would always be things that help the species. Just like “pain” has to be something that evolves in brains or else you have poor decision making in a species and it dies out.

    About your legal ideas. Our laws do not come from God. They come from man. We have learned to govern ourselves with “rules” based closely on our feelings of morality (doing good to others). There is no need for a bearded man in the sky to be involved to make any of it work or make sense. It’s all about creatures cooperating to help one another, and discouraging and punishing behaviours that are detrimental to the happiness of others.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      On the topic of laws, Christianity has its position within American society thanks to the Constitution. It’s good to remember what’s calling the shots here.