The Three Jobs of Morality – C.S. Lewis

The Three Jobs of Morality – C.S. Lewis February 17, 2023

C.S. Lewis the 3 Jobs of morality
Photo by Johannes Plenio, courtesy of Unsplash

Suppose you were to ask a random person on the street to explain what makes someone moral. Odds are, they would describe an individual who follows the behavioral standards set by a culture or society. For instance, they might say, “moral people don’t murder, run red lights, or leave the toilet seat up.”

A response like this would not be surprising since society at large tends to associate morality with the ability to follow a set of laws and norms, both spoken and unspoken. But is this a good view of morality? Well…. according to C.S. Lewis, this perspective is missing some vital elements.

C.S. Lewis and Morality

Lewis is one of the last century’s most famous and influential writers. Even people who have never cracked open a Bible or Christian book have heard of the fictional world of Narnia and its mighty King Aslan. Since his death, Lewis’ books have influenced the lives and faith of millions of believers across the globe.

The Three Jobs of Morality

In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis says that any moral system worth its salt should be capable of completing three different tasks. First, it should direct people away from harming one another. Second, it should teach us to care for and improve ourselves. Finally, all sound moral systems help people navigate the questions surrounding the meaning of life.

“Morality, Then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole.”

To better illustrate these ideas, he analogizes society to a fleet of Ships. With a good moral code, a fleet can sail around without crashing or getting into each other’s way. The ships will all be sea-worthy and capable of handling bad weather. And most importantly, they will all end up at the correct location. As he states in the book,

“However well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrive at Calcutta.”

The Problem

After breaking down these roles, Lewis expertly points out that most people of his era were primarily focused on the first job of morality and gave little thought to the other two. A sentiment that he considered problematic, to say the least.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behavior, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?….

You can not make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.

Morality in Modern Society

Although time has moved on, society is still consumed with the first job of morality. I can’t speak for other nations, but in the States, political debate is typically only concerned with what people should and should not be allowed to do.

Parties battle viciously for the power to force rules onto one another while showing little concern for the population’s overall mental, physical, and spiritual health.

For example, over the last forty or so years, America has been ripping itself apart over the kinds of laws that should govern and prevent gun violence; While giving little to no thought about how to fix the environments and mental health issues that foster gun violence.

Morality in The Modern Church  

Even the Church, to some extent, can view morality in an “adherence to rules” kinda way. This reality is best illustrated in the stereotypical notion that Christianity’s goal is to prevent “fun” actions. The stereotype comes from a long history of leaders focusing on messages about abstinence from sin and God’s Grace while neglecting lessons on the importance of cultivating virtue.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Christians should most definitely avoid sin and be taught to do so. However, as Lewis points out, knowing what not to do is only part of a moral life.

By emphasizing the “fair play” aspect of morality while not adequately addressing the “tidying up” of one’s life, we have created a church culture where a proper Christian can be deficient in virtue as long as they don’t break specific rules.

For example, when meeting an older Christian for the first time, we don’t necessarily expect them to possess an unordinary level of generosity, kindness, peace, patience, or courage. However, we will assume they are against stealing, abuse, anxiety, rage, and cowardness.

Another good way this mentality in modern churches can be seen is in what church leadership typically addresses. Generally speaking, sin problems are the only thing that motivates Church discipline, shepherding, or spiritual guidance. Rarely, if ever, will a pastor or elder come alongside someone under their care and say, “I would like to help you grow in Goodness this month; I think you’re a bit deficient in that virtue.”

A People With a Particular Quality

Later in his book, Lewis takes his concept of morality to its Biblical conclusion. He says God doesn’t want a world full of people who are simply good at following a list of rules. On the contrary, he wants people who possess a certain quality.

“We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” 

I believe we can learn much from Lewis’ definition of morality. I’m also persuaded that his point of view is profoundly Biblical and incredibly practical. For example, look at what Peter says about taking on virtue.

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. – 1 Peter 1:3-9

As Christians, our morality needs to be deeper than merely abstaining from certain kinds of actions. After all, through the help of God’s Spirit, we are undergoing a transformation that brings our souls, minds, and hearts in line with God’s. It’s not enough for us to simply not murder our enemies; we have to grow into the kind of person who can love them unconditionally.

I believe it is time for Christians to realize that we can no longer be satisfied with simply conforming to church cultural norms. We must learn to keep in step with the Spirit of God and become a people with a certain quality.



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