Mere Christianity: 2. Some Objections

Mere Christianity CS Lewis Author Free Photo” by drewplaysdrums / Public Domain

The chapters in Mere Christianity were originally radio pieces, so generally they can be read in whatever sequence you like without losing much of the necessary context. Chapter 2, however, is a direct follow-up from chapter 1, so if you’re reading this in the far future and haven’t read my commentary on chapter 1 yet, you can read it here.

In Chapter 2, Lewis discusses two major objections to the moral case that he made in Chapter 1. The first is that what we call “Moral Law” is really just an instinct that emerged through evolution. Lewis responds to this objection by agreeing that there is such a thing as a herd instinct, but that is “not what [he] mean[s] by the Moral Law” (9). He goes on to give an example:

Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires — one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will feel inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away… this thing… cannot itself be either one of them (9–10).

Lewis never uses the word in this chapter, likely in part because he was constrained by the “mere” part of his thesis and did not want to include extra-biblical teachings where it wasn’t necessary to, but he is speaking of the conscience. Every man, Christian or not, has a “voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil” in his heart, where the voice of God “echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776). Our culture has gone to great lengths to encourage people to ignore their conscience, partly through the scientistic argument that Lewis describes and partly through the second objection I will discuss later, and it is absolutely the key to defeating this particular objection. Those who claim that morality is entirely based on instinct cannot possibly reconcile the occasions where they obey their instincts and feel regret afterwards with any sort of Moral Law. My instincts often tell me to eat a bunch of junk food, spend money on worthless things from Amazon (I still have a $12 disco ball I ordered when I was 16), sleep in instead of being productive, and all sorts of other things that my conscience never fails to inform me are not good. If morality is simply an instinct, then why do my instincts tell me to do things that are wrong as often (sometimes moreso) than they tell me to do right? St. Paul thoroughly puts to bed the idea that morality is simply an instinct in his letter to the Romans:

Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit… For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:1–4, 7, NAB).

If we agree with the Catechism that the conscience is the voice of God in our hearts, then this distinction between the concerns of the flesh and what is pleasing to God becomes ever clearer. Like my examples from earlier, our instincts often find themselves in opposition to the good; even though we might know the Law of God, our instincts have not submitted to it. Therefore, we must obey this third voice that Lewis describes, that tells us we “ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away,” (10) and, as the Catechism says, take up the “life-long task” of “the education of the conscience” (CCC 1784).

Not content with one compelling argument against the idea that the Moral Law is simply an impulse, Lewis goes on to make another. He says that if it were an impulse, we “ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which always we call ‘good,’ always in agreement with the role of right behaviour” (11). We cannot, he argues, because there is “none of our impulses that the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage” (11). Additionally, he says that taking “any one impulse” and setting it up as “the thing you ought to follow at all costs” will always make us “into devils” (11).

What struck me about this passage is how succinctly it diagnoses the cause of most of modernity’s catastrophes. Almost every modern ideology has held up one or more impulses as the thing we ought to follow at all costs, always making the people who follow it into devils. Early liberals, for instance, held the utilitarian impulse as one we had to follow at all costs, leading to the Terror in France and many of Britain’s 19th century wars (which were often justified on utilitarian ideas of the mutual gains from free trade and the benefits that British governance would bring to their new subjects). Marxists hold up the impulse towards fairness as one we ought to follow, leading to untold death and misery in the 20th century. Dekulakization — which is to say, noticing that your neighbour owned a small amount of property and believing it to be unfair — killed at least half a million people in Russia and Ukraine, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Holding up instinct as something that ought to be followed at all times is a feature of postmodernity, too. The maxim of the postmodernist is essentially “if it feels good, do it!,” and it is the progenitors of this ideology that Lewis takes issue with in the second objection. Lewis challenges the idea that the Moral Law is “just a social convention, something that is put into us by education (12).” In perhaps the simplest refutation of social constructivism I have yet seen, he responds that those objecting assume that “if we have learned a thing from parents and teachers, then that thing must be merely a human invention” which is, “of course,” “not so” (12). “We all learned the multiplication table at school,” for instance, and “a child who grew up on a desert island would not know it” (12). To the postmodernist, that shows us that the multiplication is a mere construct designed for some other end, and it could be deconstructed if it stood in the way of human “freedom.” For C.S. Lewis, however, it “does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human construct” and something that “might have [been] made different if [we] liked,” and morality is much the same (12).

Lewis then gives two major arguments against the idea that morality is a mere construct. The first, which he addressed also in chapter 1, is that “though there are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of another, the differences are not really very great” (13). You can “recognize the same law running through them all,” while “mere conventions” may differ to an extent (13). This idea is well founded in English (and therefore American, Canadian, etc.) thinking. Consider Edmund Burke’s speech at the impeachment trial of William Hastings:

But he has told your Lordships in his defence, that actions in Asia do not bear the same moral qualities as the same actions would bear in Europe. My Lords. we positively deny that principle. I am authorized and called upon to deny it. And having stated at large what he means by saying that the same actions have not the same qualities in Asia and in Europe, we are to let your Lordships know that these Gentlemen have formed a plan of Geographical morality, by which the duties of men in public and in private situations are not to be governed by their relations to the Great Governor of the Universe, or by their relations to men, but by climates, degrees of longitude and latitude, parallels not of life but of latitudes… Think of an English governor tried before you as a British subject, and yet declaring that he governed upon the principles of arbitrary power. This plea is, that he did govern there upon arbitrary and despotic, and, as he supposes, Oriental principles. And as his plea is boldly avowed and maintained and as, no doubt, all his conduct was perfectly correspondent to these principles, these principles and that conduct must be tried together. (From “The British Empire,” ed. Jane Samson)

For Burke as for Lewis, there was absolutely such a thing as an Oriental [sic.] custom: indeed today as in the 18th century their rules of the road and clothing preferences (two customs identified by Lewis) are different and remain so. The standards for moral behaviour, however, do not change from place to place, and an Englishman is not justified in behaving immorally just because he’s Southeast of England. The English maintained this attitude later in their government too, with Indian governor James Napier responding to the idea that Suttee (burning a man’s widow alive) was moral because it was the custom in that place with “Be it so.. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property.” Morality has always been universal, and nations whose idea of morality is not in-keeping with what is actually moral are often found out in the end — this is an idea I will return to later.

The second argument that Lewis makes concerns the evaluation of different moral systems. He asks:

When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another. Have any of the changes been improvements? If not, then of course there could never be any moral progress. Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of moral ideas were ever truer or better than any other, there would be no sense preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others. We do believe that some of the people who tried to change the moral ideas of their own age were what we would call Reformers or Pioneers — people who understood morality better than their neighbours did… The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than another.

Lewis preemptively defeats an argument used by the moral relativists of our own age: that our civilization at one point believed things to be moral that were not, and so therefore the entirety of our morality is in fact socially constructed. And yet, they still prefer our current situation to the morality of the 18th century, where slavery was still permissible. Indeed, the very fact that slavery was eventually done away with at all shows that morality is indeed a fixed thing. When Wilberforce and Equiano were making the case for abolition at the end of the 18th century, it was precisely moral arguments they made against it. Think of their slogan: “am I not a man and a brother?”; it was not simply that the old moral order was no longer beneficial to the English that eventually convinced them to abandon slavery, but rather that they were not aligned with the unchanging standard of morality that existed independently of the opinion of the English. The reason we recognize the abolitionists as “reformers and pioneers” is not that they literally altered the idea of what was moral and what was not, but that they convinced people to abandon their sinful ways and return, at least partially, to what is truly Good.

Of course the greatest moral reformer and pioneer in human history came 1700 years before Wilberforce and Equiano, and He was faced with a similar situation in Israel. Some Pharisees asked Jesus: “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” (Matthew 19:3). The Lord replies:

Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. (Matthew 19:4–6).

The Pharisees were not satisfied with this response, so they asked him: “then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” (Matthew 19:7). Jesus’s response is the archetypal example of true moral progress:

Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8–9)

If morality were plastic like the relativists claim, it would have been simple for Jesus to say something like “well Moses was living in a less enlightened time, but we’ve advanced past the Mosaic law, so I say that whoever divorces his wife commits adultery.” Christ did not come to create a new morality, however: morality has existed since the Beginning. His response shows instead that Israel, like the English 1700 years later, had separated themselves from the fullness of morality, and as such could be judged to be morally worse off than a society that does not permit divorce and remarriage, in much the same way as our own societies were morally worse when they permitted slavery.

In conclusion then, chapter 2 dismantles what little credibility the relativist hypothesis had left from chapter 1. Chapter 3 will discuss one of the most interesting questions in Christianity, which is why humans are bound to follow the Moral Law but not forced to. Stay tuned for that one shortly.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.