Try to imagine a totally different morality

Try to imagine a totally different morality April 19, 2020

 

High Street and Magdalen Tower
Magdalen Tower, from High Street
Magdalen College, Oxford, where C. S. Lewis spent much of his academic career, was founded in 1458.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

In his classic 1952 book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis discusses God and the moral law.  He notes that, when people are quarreling, they often say things like these:

 

  • How would you like it if somebody did that to you?
  • That’s my seat.  I was there first!
  • Leave him alone.  He’s not doing you any harm.
  • Give me some of your brownie.  I gave you some of my fries.
  • Come on!  You promised!

 

In all of these, Lewis notes, the person speaking isn’t simply saying that the other person is doing something that displeases her.  Rather, she is appealing to an implicit behavioral standard that she expects the other person to know and to honor.  As Lewis himself says, the other person rarely responds “To hell with your standard!”  Essentially nobody ever says that there’s nothing wrong in doing to others what we wouldn’t like done to us, that fairness doesn’t matter, that it’s okay to harm innocent people, that promises needn’t be kept.  In nearly every case the other person will try to show that what he has done or is doing doesn’t really contravene the standard, or that there is some special circumstance.  For example, something has happened that prevents him from keeping his promise, or, in fact, the person had done him harm.  We make excuses.  Whether valid excuses or not makes no difference.  We even make them to ourselves.

 

The very fact that the two people in Lewis’s example are quarreling suggests that they do more or less agree on the common standard.  Otherwise, they would just fight about the matter, as animals often do.  When they quarrel, each is trying to show the other that he or she is wrong.  But if there is a Wrong, and if there is a Right, there must be some standard behind those identifications.  There would be no point in calling a foul on a basketball player if there were actually no rules defining what a foul is.

 

But where does this standard come from?  Is it a natural law, perhaps?  It certainly isn’t a natural law in the same sense that gravity is a natural law.  If I choose to violate the law of gravity, I’m likely to wind up dead or, at least, with broken bones.  If I find myself suspended in mid-air, I will fall.  I have no alternative.  I can’t violate the law of gravity.  But I can break promises, be unfair, and unjustly wrong and harm innocent people.  (Just wait:  That last line is very liable to end up elsewhere online as my actual boasting about my actual unethical behavior.  I’ve seen precisely that done with earlier things that I’ve posted.)

 

If, Lewis says, there is no real distinction between right and wrong,

 

then all the things we said about the war were nonsense.  What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised?  If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair. . . .

I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean.  Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.  You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. . . .

Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.  He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson. . . .

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong.  People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.

 

And if Right and Wrong are actually in some sense real, that may point to something really, really significant about the universe in which we live.

 

 

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