Thursday, August 11, 2011

'The Law of Nature'

I'm doing this from memory rather than having the book in front of me, so it's going to be a little short of quotes. Sorry!

The first chapter of Mere Christianity is called 'THE LAW OF HUMAN NATURE' and it deals with the idea that there is a natural sense of Right and Wrong that everyone, everywhere for all time knows. Lewis' argument is based, partially, on arguments between people. For example, he uses the 'possession' of a chair. If one person is sitting there, gets up and then comes back to find it occupied by someone else, they may say 'That was *my* seat. I was sitting there first.' and the person now sitting in the chair will argue that there was no one in the chair when they got there and no indication it was taken, etc. indicating, by the nature of their argument that there is a *right* to the chair that belongs to the person who was sitting there 'first'. It's a mutually understood concept between the two parties, even if it's unstated because if they didn't both understand and agree that the right of the first person existed, then the argument would be different. It would be an argument that didn't try to justify the 'taking' of the chair by the second party because there would be no understanding of the ownership, however temporary of the chair by the first party.

There's a mutual understanding of a shared standard of behavior that people will try to make excuses for why they fail to uphold, but they will very rarely flat out deny the existence or validity of this standard.

Lewis says that there are plenty of natural laws that humans are subject to. We don't have a choice about gravity, for example. If we jump off of a diving board, we'll fall (hopefully into a pool full of water!). Even planes, which seem to defy gravity are just working within the natural laws that define it. It's a loophole, but the laws are still there and we've got to work with them. The Law of Nature that Lewis is speaking of is really the 'Law of Human Nature' - the one law, he says, that humans can choose to obey or disobey. It's the idea that there is a basic Right and a basic Wrong and everyone knows it. They may choose to ignore or go against it, but they *know* that they are doing so whether they acknowledge this fact or not.

He brings up the Nazis (not a strange thing since these radio talks were given during WWII) and how if there was no universal Right and Wrong, no Law of Human Nature, then there was no sense in telling the enemy (the Nazis) that they were wrong. "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 the, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair."

He goes on to state that there are some people who do not believe in the Law of Human Nature because different civilizations have had different sets of moralities throughout the ages. Lewis says that this is not so. That while there have been differences in moralities, these basically amounted to no difference at all. He says that if someone were to take the trouble to compare the Babylonians, the Egyptians, Hindu, Chinese, Greeks and Romans that they would find how very similar they are to one another (morality wise) and how similar they are to modern (at his time) morality.

Is that really true, do you think? He doesn't go into detail, apparently he did that in another book called The Abolition of Man. But I'm thinking about cases in ancient cultures where human sacrifice was a matter of course. They didn't view it as immoral. However, there were other ancient cultures that did. And we certainly do now. Or how about in the Old Testament where a man, if he raped a virgin, married her. This was by Jewish law. How horrible is it to modern senses of morality to think of a woman, raped by a total stranger and then told by the law, by the entity that is supposed to help protect her that she has to marry him and live with him for the rest of their lives? Or what defined 'moral' sexual behavior? Business practices?

I know that I've said that there are certain core moral absolutes, the largest of which is murder. But each society and time has their own definitions of what constitutes these moral absolutes. And the devil is in the details in that case. The view of that morality makes a very big difference in how it is applied and that's the thing we have to live with. Not some grandiose vision of perfect morality, but how it is lived out in the trenches, as it were.

I think Lewis is vastly oversimplifying the differences in morality between cultures and societies. I've only read the first chapter, so I could be wrong, but that's how I'm looking at it. Reading that section really threw me because it's just so wrong from where I'm standing.


  1. I agree with you. Morality is not an arbitrary set of rules, as it apparently comes from the fact that we are a social species built to have compassion for others and so on... but how that expresses itself definitely seems to depend on the cultural context!

    I heard a lot about this book but never read it myself. Will be interested to follow your review posts. :)

  2. The issue of rape , marriage, and divorce is discussed in this article if you want to read it.

  3. Sarah,

    That's the thing. Morality is something that developed to help the species survive. There are some things that just, universally, are helpful to the survival of the species by helping us stay together in a community. But that doesn't mean that there's some guiding cosmic Right and Wrong that we're all born with. It's learned behavior.

  4. Kimberly,

    An interesting little article. I'm assuming that the provisions that the Rabbi mentioned (the victim having to agree to the marriage and being handed the male power in the relationship) are contained in commentary on the passage in Deuteronomy because it's not in the text itself.

    The verses I'm thinking of are Deut. 22:28-29: "If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman's father fifty silver two-drachma coins, and she shall be his wife, because he humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days."

    Unless I'm missing a reference, which is possible. Anyway, the only 'right' she seems to gain in that verse is the surety that she won't be divorced.

    Even under the rules that the Rabbi lists, that she is given the choice, in the time and situation, is it really a choice? He says, 'If you look at it in context, in ancient times a raped woman was looked upon as “damaged goods” and very likely would never find a husband. In ancient society this would be devastating as the men were the main source of sustenance and protection for a woman. This is connected to the fact that women didn’t have much standing in the society in the world at that time. This judgement was proscribed in order to “protect” the rights of the woman and insure she was cared for and respected in society not casted out.'

    Okay. This doesn't, really, leave the victim with much choice. She has been raped. Her only options are to accept marriage with the man who raped her, brutalized her and live with him until one of them dies, or be looked at as damaged goods, *dirtied* and shunned by her friends, family and society at large. Her only respectable choice at the time, the only thing that gave her something resembling a life was to marry her rapist, which is just adding trauma on top of trauma, forever. It's a concept known as dubious consent. The woman may consent to the marriage, but you have to look at how free she really was to make that choice. Along the lines of looking at relationships between slave owners and their slaves. In theory, you can say that the slave had a choice. In reality, not so much. Their free will was inhibited by the considerations for their survival and the power that was held over them.

    The same applies here, I believe.

    But this is obviously me making morality value judgments based on the morals of the time and culture I've grown up in. Which is different from the morals of the society in which those rules were created.

    The Bible says that rape is a sin, a crime, but it doesn't view the word and the meaning behind it in quite the same way that we do in modern times.

  5. The Woman's Commentary Bible by Carol Ann Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe has an interesting take on it. I got to buy that book sometime. Here's the shortened url to the Google Books version:

    Also, this wordpress blogger speaks about this verse and links it to Exodus 22: 16-17 (as did the previous book I mentioned) and the rape of Dinah by Shechmem.

  6. Somehow I forgot to post the url for the blog I mentioned. Oops. Well here it is:

    Now I am not saying that I agree or disagree with her; I simply find it relevant.

  7. Kimberly,

    Those were both interesting reads. And I think the first one actually supports my idea that morality has changed and *improved* since the OT laws were recorded. This sentence in the commentary stood out for me: 'It is irrelevant to Deuteronomy whether the young woman was actually raped: the issue is not crime and punishment, but wrong and compensation. Deuteronomy does not consider this a act a crime against the public. Even if it involves forcing the woman, the polity is neither endangered or aggrieved. Instead, this act is treated as a civil matter between the man and the young woman's parents.' Deuteronomy treats the rape of a woman as damage to property. Property owned by the father. Something along the lines of a 'you break it you bought it' policy. I'm not faulting humanity for these laws, by the way. The times were what the times were and from where I'm standing, having, through the efforts of generations before me the right of self determination and my own personhood which is something that was denied to women for thousands of years, I can look at it and see the utter lack of choice these women had. They were property. Happily, our morality has evolved along with our culture and most people no longer view women as property of men.

    As for the second link, you're right in that his opinion is relevant. And before I get going, let me say that I understand you're not saying you agree or disagree with everything he says. My comments aren't directed at you, but rather the text provided.

    I'm not certain that you can connect the two laws, the one from Exodus that allows the father to refuse to give his daughter to the man who has seduced her, while still getting *paid* for her and the law regarding the marriage of the victim to her rapist. Even assuming that the father can refuse, or that the woman could refuse, to give her as an actual wife to the man, she is 'married' to him. Not only can he not marry someone else (which I'm not sold on either, since polygamy was permitted in OT and practiced as well - again, if I'm missing the verse that says he's not allowed to take a second wife, that would change things) neither can she. She is doomed to live in her father's house, a burden because her bride price isn't a constant income, forever. And what happens when the father dies? Does she go into the custody of brothers? Or is she left with no choice but to go to her 'husband'? Personally, I doubt very much that many fathers 'absolutely refused' to give their daughters to these men. They didn't view women the same way we do today.

    And then the author of that blog lost me. Right about here... 'It should also be considered that rape in ancient Israelite culture was without the violent influence of modern pornographic media that is a constant pollution (with its instant access on the internet and pay-per-view cable) in the minds of men (and even women!) today. It is plausible to understand that rape in the biblical context of ancient Israel during the time of Moses was based on sexual lust instead of power, hate, and violence.'

    I don't even know where to begin. No, that's not true. I *do* know where to begin. Rape is not about *sex*. Even in ancient times, there were prostitutes. Men, if it was about sexual urges, had options that did not involve taking by force. Rape is about power. With or without 'modern pollution', that's what it has always been about. Whether the man is fixated on a specific woman, obsessed with having her, or just with women in general. It is the expression of this power of the woman that gets the rapist off. The ability to *take*, without having to ask, to do as they will without consideration for anyone but themselves. Rapists are selfish, evil children in mens bodies.

  8. cont...

    His example of Dinah's rape fails to make his point as well. Even if we assume that Shechem 'fell in love' with Dinah, this was *after* he raped her according to the text. There is no evidence that he, what? 'Gently' pinned her to the ground, 'carefully' and with 'sweet nothings' ripped off her clothes while she was crying and saying no and then proceeded to rape her. There are *plenty* of rapists who imagine a relationship with their victims. Who will lay there after the act and pet their hair, tell them how sweet they are, how good it was. They're sick. That doesn't make it less of a rape, less of a violation. But this blogger seems to think that rape was 'kinder and gentler' back in the day.

    But in Dinah's case, there's no evidence of even that twisted thinking. He raped her, and then he became infatuated with her. So imagine a woman, raped, who then encounters her rapist again. And the rapist starts to sweet talk her. That's just psychological torture!

    And then he says: 'Obviously, if a man brutalized a woman, or was out to commit sadistic torture he would be executed for it.'

    There's no 'obviously' about it. The law is simple, as stated. A woman, a virgin who is not yet betrothed, is raped. It makes no mention or concessions for the method, the duration, or any injuries she sustained and their levels of brutality. She was raped. Her rapist must marry her. If she'd been married, he'd be killed. But because she's now unusable, 'damaged' goods for the purposes of her father, the man has to be allowed to live so it's not a total loss.

    Yeah. So, this probably would be better on his blog, but I don't actually want to talk to him, after skimming through some of his posts.

  9. Wow, interesting comments! I read about David's daughter being raped by her half brother in "After the Apple" recently. Do you remember after he raped her, she wanted him to marry her because as you noted, raped women were damaged goods, damaged property back then. The author discussed this a bit that I recall.

    But, yeah, I think society's standards of right and wrong have changed over the years. Slavery used to be the norm; now, not so much.

  10. I do remember that. And thinking, the first time I read it, how weird that was. To want to marry your rapist, let alone your brother. Of course, that was before I had any understanding of the time period.

    The standards have changed. But what do you think of the idea that there is an absolute Right and Wrong? What do you think of Lewis' arguments?

  11. It totally lost me in the same place too. Rape is always about power and lack of respect and empathy for the victim. It doesn't matter how "violent" it actually is - that is, whether the woman was beat up - rape is always violent in truth. Overpowered or intimidated women were just as raped as women who have visible injuries. I also have a problem with the screaming. A rape victim is not always able to scream; often the rapist is able to prevent it.

    Even today, some people want to argue about what kind of rape is "real" rape. For instance, politicians who only support women who were a victim of "forcible rape" ( and Whoopie Goldberg defended Roman Polanski saying it wasn't "rape-rape" (

    I do think that modern TV and movies tend to have extremely violent images of rape and murder of women that is as sexualized as as possible and that some men get off on it. I don't think this accurately represents the reality of how most rapes are committed. These crime drama shows are especially guilty of this. I think that heavily influences society's opinion of what really counts as rape and "rape as entertainment" decreases the amount empathy people have for rape victims, who can be male or female, adult or children, "sluts who deserve it for dressing too sexy or previously having a sexual relationship with a different man" and women who "can't be raped because she is too old/fat/ugly for anyone to lust after".

    It is so awful knowing how many of just the women I know or have known in the past have been raped, molested, victims of sexual assault, or even murdered, though I know only one who was actually killed.

  12. I guess Absolute Right and Wrong could be whatever God decides is the ideal, perfection. So there is that definition of it that I can agree with.

    I don't know that I believe God deems "X" as OK for one generation and not for the next.

    Maybe Lewis' argument has to do with our consciences...there being that little niggling of "oh this is wrong" for those who have not allowed their consciences to become hardened. *shrug*

    Interesting to consider.I might have to get that other book you mentioned to read more about his thoughts on this topic.

  13. Kimberly,

    Yeah. I hate to pull the gender card, because God knows there are men out there who understand what rape is about, and there are men out there who have been raped. But I can't help but think that there's a connection between his utter misunderstanding of what rape is about with his gender. That's probably wrong of me!

    The screaming thing bothers me too. One of the first thing a rapist does or at least tries to do is make it so that the victim can't cry out. Whether that means taking them somewhere where they can't be heard or knocking them out or gagging them.

    Oh, yes. I remember those...people. I used to like Whoopi Goldberg before that one. Look, rape is rape. There is no 'rape' rape vs. 'not so much' rape. It's just rape.

    I don't deny that some representations of rape in modern media have been sexualized and glamourized in a way that makes it seem...kind of okay. That's a problem that needs to be dealt with, obviously. But I don't believe that the images are at fault for the existence of rape. There was rape long before them, obviously. There are plenty of crime shows that do a good job, imo, of showing that rape can happen to anyone. It has nothing to do with how the women dress or how they act.

  14. Susanne,

    Do you think that knowledge of this absolute Right and Wrong is something that humans are born with?

    As far as something being 'okay' for one generation and not the next, we've got examples of that. Slavery and polygamy, for example. Though, of course, one could argue that it was always Wrong.

  15. As mentioned previously (in the very interested comments) I don't believe there is anything absolutely right or absolutely wrong, but it is all a construct of our socialization.

  16. Becky,

    I find the divide in who goes for the Absolute and who doesn't here interesting. It's a really small pool, admittedly, but we have Susanne (who is slightly older than myself or you, or Sarah, I believe) who does believe in the possibility at least of the Absolute Law, and then us, who do not. And then look at the theological view divide between those two groups as well. I wonder if it's something as wide spread as a generation gap?

  17. maybe I should ask on Facebook to see if anyone else wants to chime in on Absolutes. :) What is the opposite of it? Situational ethics? What might be right for one is wrong for another? I think that's the case for some things perhaps, but I do think there are absolute standards (I call them God's standards. God is Truth...blah,blah.)

  18. That'd be interesting, to see if there's an age divide. I keep wondering if my generation just has a harder time with Absolutes in theology. I don't think the opposite would be situational ethics, but perhaps acceptance that morality is not a black and white fixed object. That is grows and evolves with society.

    There's a Ghandi quote I heard recently, while watching that movie 'Water' as it so happens: It is more correct to say that Truth is God than to say God is truth. …we must speak the Truth.

  19. OK, I asked just now on Facebook. Y'all chime in with your thoughts and hopefully it will generate interest in the topic.

    Facebook has not been showing me everyone's news for the last week or so - sadly - so I don't know if others are having the same experience. If so, they may not even see the question.

    But I think if people comment, it will show up in their Top News and maybe we'll hear from some folks on the topic.

    I'll let you know later what general age group they are in and any other info that might be relevant. IF there is any response, that is. :)


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