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The natural laws of football

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This follows Sheer Narnia in a series on Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.

CS Lewis

CS Lewis

I’ll focus mainly on the first few chapters, where Lewis sets himself the humble task of deducing the existence of God from a set of ‘facts’ about the human condition.

I’d like to say though before I get in too deep that my ultimate beef with Mere Christianity is not really its logic or its metaphysics or even its philosophy of mind, but its ethics. I have no reason to think CS Lewis was a bad man – despite his pleading to the contrary (In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one…). But by the time I’d finished it Mere Christianity reminded me of one of those large stones you pick up in the garden so as to see all the wriggling things underneath it.

We start with Chapter 1: THE LAW OF HUMAN NATURE. Lewis observes that

People … educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups

always, when quarrelling, appeal to a ‘standard of behaviour’ which they expect other people to know about:

Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

Referee shows a yellow card

Referee shows a yellow card

The analogy makes me uneasy, even though it may not be strictly false. It depends on what exactly Lewis intends here. The phrase ‘agreement as to what Right and Wrong are’ is ambiguous. He could have said ‘agreement as to what sorts of things are Right and Wrong’ but he didn’t. If he had said that it would have been clearer. He does however describe one of the parties to the quarrel as trying

to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.

This does seem to imply that the parties to the quarrel not only agree that the concepts of right and wrong exist, but also agree on at least some of the things which might come under the two headings ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For the football analogy to be sound (remember he says just as) the protagonists would have to agree on all the things which would come under the two headings – a much bigger claim. Every single thing done in a football match is either within the rules or against the rules. One of the referee’s jobs is to decide whether any disputed action is either within the rules or against the rules.

Two other key differences between an ‘ethical’ quarrel and a football dispute are (i) the rules of football are explicit; and (ii) people explicitly decide whether or not to play football, and that decision includes making a commitment to play by the rules.

It is the just as that grossly overstates the analogy. In view of what he builds on his observations of moral behaviour one would have welcomed a bit more precision. It would have been good to see a clear distinction between agreeing that the concepts of right and wrong exist and agreeing on what is actually right and what is actually wrong.

What we get instead is all the waffle on descriptive and prescriptive laws as if he’d just stumbled on the difference between them. He then slips in quite a telling assumption:

As an organism, [man] is subjected to various biological laws which he cannot disobey any more than an animal can. That is, he cannot disobey those laws which he shares with other things; but the law which is peculiar to his human nature, the law he does not share with animals or vegetables or inorganic things, is the one he can disobey if he chooses.

He assumes there is a fixed and explicit boundary, with humans on one side and animals, vegetables and inorganic things on the other. And that the moral sense which humans have, their awareness that there is right behaviour and wrong behaviour, is completely unique to humans, and is utterly unlike anything seen in, for example, chimpanzees or dolphins.

CS Lewis was writing this in the 1940s, before research findings emerged suggesting that primates other than humans might exhibit kinds of moral behaviour (see for example ‘Monkeys have a sense of morality, say scientists’ and ‘Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior’). But if Lewis’s assumption is unwarranted in 2010 it was also unwarranted in the 1940s – even if perhaps more understandable. And although he was writing in the 1940s his subject matter was things eternal:

[I]f Christianity is true, then the individual… is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilization, compared with his, is only a moment.

[We are] creatures who are going to live for ever…

Coming back down to earth for a minute, we must alway remember how important the assumption of human uniqueness is to the religious apologist’s case. And how anthropocentricism both blinds and conceals itself.

To be continued.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

16 October 2010 at 1:53 pm

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