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Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity

This follows The natural laws of football in a series on Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. The series started with Sheer Narnia.

Lewis appears to be claiming that humans agree on what is actually right and what is actually wrong, rather than just agreeing that the concepts of right and wrong exist and are meaningful.

This is one of his arguments:

What was the sense in saying the enemy [in World War II] 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.

Consider how much hangs on that little phrase ‘at bottom’. Lewis assumes the Nazis really knew that what they were doing was wrong. His argument is that we know the assumption is true because we did in fact blame them. But he is arguing in a circle: we blamed them because we assumed that ‘at bottom’ they knew they were in the wrong.

This ‘at bottom’ reminds me of something he says several chapters later in a different context:

…I have found that when [Freud] is talking off his own subject and on a subject I do know something about (namely, language) he is very ignorant…

Defendants at the Nuremberg Trials

Defendants at Nuremberg

Lewis certainly knows a thing or two about language, and what you can do with it. But I digress: back to the main thread, which is loose logic.

Lewis knows

that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But for Lewis this is ‘not true’:

There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. …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. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to – whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired…

For his point to carry any weight he must be implying that the differences we do see are peripheral, not central. He is saying there is a core of moral principles which all societies agree on. But some of his core examples are a bit suspect. It would not be hard to imagine a context where people might be admired for running away in a battle, if the alternative was annihilation for both themselves and their community. In Plato’s Republic Thrasymachus famously advances the thesis that ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger’ – so we cannot assume that double-crossing and selfishness are universally condemned.

As for unselfishness to ‘your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one’, one could point to contexts where ‘unselfishness to your own family’ constitutes a kind of selfishness.

If we now consider some of the historic differences between the moralities of different societies the list would have to include slavery, human sacrifice, cruelty to animals, infanticide, torture and the repression of women. Practices which are hardly peripheral.

Having said all this, I happen to agree with Lewis that human beings seem to share a concept of right and wrong, though they may not always agree 100% on what is right and what is wrong. And although we may not come up exactly the same lists, I also agree that there seem to be at least some moral principles which human beings tend to agree on. But I think the issue is much less simple and self-evident than he appears to. And his analogy of ‘a country where two and two made five’ is deeply misleading.

2 + 2 = 5’ is virtually if not literally a contradiction, in the sense that part of what ‘2’ and ‘5’ mean is that ‘2’ plus ‘2’ cannot equal ‘5’. There is no possible world in which 2 + 2 can really equal 5. The only way to imagine a possible world in which 2 + 2 = 5 is to imagine something like a world where ‘5’ meant what ‘4’ actually means, or where ‘2’ meant what ‘2.5’ actually means.

But it is absolutely possible to imagine a world – and therefore a country – where people were admired for running away in battle, or felt proud of themselves for double-crossing everyone who had been kindest to them. It may be a counterfactual world, like a world in which ravens are white. But it is not an impossible world, like a world in which 2 + 2 = 5. There is all the difference in the world between a counterfactual world and an impossible world.

So Lewis’s interim conclusion is completely unsound, despite how important it is for his overall argument:

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 taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table. Now if we are agreed about that…

Even if was true that all humans share the assumption that the concepts of right and wrong exist and are meaningful, and even if it was also true that all humans share some moral principles – eg that cheating is wrong – this does not prove there is a real, objective, right and wrong, such that every actual or possible human action or attitude is either right or wrong or morally neutral.

The most that his general observations have established are these two:

(i) By and large, humans do seem to share the assumption that the concepts of right and wrong exist and are meaningful.

(ii) There seem to be some moral principles which, by and large, humans share.

Lewis does not identify (i) as a separate claim from (ii). This could be because if it turned out that (i) was more sound than (ii), it would weaken his argument from good and evil.

More importantly Lewis has not proven that real, objective, right and wrong exist. He just assumes it. But however weak his reasoning, we cannot assume objective right and wrong do not exist either. In theory real, objective, right and wrong could exist which all humans are in fact wrong about. There could be a real, objective, standard of right and wrong, which the moral principles humans actually share could be in conflict with.

There is no justification in claiming that if there is an objective standard of right and wrong, this must necessarily align with the subset of moral principles which humans actually hold in common.

This is not nit-picking. The claim that there is a God is a huge claim. So is the claim that belief in the existence of God can be justified by facts about human moral behaviour. The logic has to be watertight. It is not a false analogy to describe the logic of Mere Christianity as leaky like a sieve.

To be continued, if I can take any more of this.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

16 October 2010 at 3:13 pm

One Response

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  1. Well, I did find myself laughing when I got to your line “if I can take any more of this,” because I’d been wondering where you got the energy to pursue it as far as you did. I do appreciate – in fact, I share – your continuing questions about the nature and source of ethical values. But I know I don’t have the patience required to get through all of Mere Christianity.

    I am reading From the Center of the Universe by Premack and Adams with total fascination, however. I am not in total agreement with all their assumptions and conclusions, but am finding the way they are going about trying to find human meaning arising out of the world presented to us by modern science quite fascinating.

    If you ever pick it up, I’d be most interested in hearing your assessment.

    Thank you. Once again I find your thoughts both refreshing and stimulating.


    Terry Sissons

    19 October 2010 at 3:08 pm

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