Friday, August 12, 2011

'Some Objections'

The chapters are short so far. The second chapter is about objections that Lewis received to his theory of the Law of Human Nature.

He ended the first chapter by saying that the foundation of 'all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in' are two facts. One, 'that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.' Two, 'that they do not in fact behave that way.' People all know the Law of Human Nature, but they ignore it and go against it when they choose to. He views this second chapter at firming up his claim.

Lewis says that he received letters asking him, 'Isn't what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn't it been developed just like all our other instincts?' He doesn't argue that humans have this herd, or community instinct to take care of the collective group to ensure the survival of the species, but he says that this is different from the Law of Human Nature.

Lewis says that, in any given situation, a person will have two instincts. For example, you hear someone calling out for help. One instinct will tell you to go to their aid. The other will tell you to avoid the danger to preserve yourself. What he calls the Law of Human Nature, this absolute Right, is the thing that tells you, even when the desire for self preservation is stronger, that you *should* go and try to help. *That* is the instinct for Right that everyone has within them and it cannot be the same thing as the 'preserve the community' instinct because how could it encourage you to strengthen itself?

I don't know that I agree. This argument doesn't seem to take into account the cultural conditioning that goes into the creation of morality. We have the two instincts, both of which serve in some way to preserve the community. One by trying to save another member of it, the other by preserving yourself, as a member of the community as well. Those are natural. It's the third thing, what he calls the Law of Human Nature that is morality. We are *taught* that the 'right' thing to do is to try and save the other person. And *that* is where the strengthening of one instinct over the other comes from. Not an absolute, cosmic Right, but the morals of the culture that we are raised in.

For instance, in our culture, if we saw someone beating his wife, we know that the right thing to do is to stop them. Whether that involves doing something ourselves or calling the police, we know that it is *wrong*. Why? Because that's the culture we've been raised in. Go back fifty years or so and a man 'disciplining' his family was not a 'problem'. It was a private matter. The morals have changed. They've changed for the better, don't get me wrong, but they have changed.

Lewis' argument in this chapter seems to boil down to the idea that if there is no absolute Right, then there's no point in arguing that one group is more moral or less moral than any other. And...that's actually kind of right. It is impossible to judge a group's morality in a vacuum. But we compare that other morality not to some absolute Right, but to *our* morality and judge them from that. Even if you say, oh, but we judge ourselves based on Biblical standards of morality.

Fine. But those were created in a specific time, place and culture as well. Some of them remain useful. Some not so much.

And just to really win my affection, he ends with this:

"I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, 'Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?' But surely the reason we do not execute witches now is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did - if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather - surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do no think they are there."

So, for all those people out there, *coughyouknowwhoyouarecough* who believe that there really are women out there making deals with devils for powers, it's okay for you to kill them. Because that's the moral thing to do. But only if you *really believe*. *blink*

But don't our advances in understanding the world around us also create advances in morality? I think they do.


  1. OH have fun with this book. I read it not too long ago. Started out ok, ended with me wanting to throw it against the wall. He has some pretty odd ideas about how things work. His concept of trinity is pretty fascinating though.

    Enjoy! lol

  2. LK,

    Oh dear. It should be interesting, then. I'm finding that I don't agree with his basic premise, which doesn't promise much for the first chapter for me, but I haven't reached 'chuck it at a wall' yet.

  3. Wow,interesting about the witches! Hmmm

    Glad you are sharing about this book. I'm enjoying your posts so far!

  4. Just remember you have to REALLY, REALLY BELIEVE that they're witches Susanne. :D

  5. Gosh... that witch metaphor is bringing me close to wanting to chuck the book against the wall :P

    I do believe that we have advanced in morality, but maybe that's just because these are *my* beliefs. If you ask someone from 100 years ago, they'd probably tell you we've grown immoral.

    A bit off topic, but still concerning beating women. Not sure about English, but I just read that in Danish the 'rule of thumb' (in Danish called 'tommelfingerregel' which literally means the thumb rule) comes from the Midddle Ages, when a man could beat his wife, as long as the stick he used wasn't thicker than his thumb...

  6. Becky,

    Yeah, it made me do a O.o too. Speaking as someone who *was* a witch for several years, I am against that form of moral reasoning!

    I think the question of whether or not we've grown more moral or less moral is greatly impacted by the perspective of the person being asked and what aspects of 'morality' they're most concerned with.

    I've heard that too, that that's where the phrase rule of thumb comes from!


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