Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Stuff you should know: CS Lewis spent the first three decades of his life as an atheist. Volunteered and fought in trenches in WWI Resumed academic career after the war Friends with JRR Tolkien (The Inklings, The Bird and Baby) Converted on a motorcycle (1931) Spent a great deal of time after that engaged in scholarship, lecturing, and publishing in the field of Christian apologetics (as well as university duties.)
Lewis and Love 1950—met Joy Davidman Gresham, an American ex-communist poet who would eventually be divorced by her abusive, alcoholic husband. She had converted to Christianity, influenced by the works of Lewis, and conversed with him by letter through her trying marriage. After she and her husband were divorced (he deserted her), she moved her sons to England. Lewis saw her as a friend and intellectual companion—not many could keep up with his wit They married for citizenship in 1953…for love in 1956.
The Book Itself Well…it’s not, technically, a book. 1941: Lewis, an unknown academic, was invited to record a series of 15-minute radio addresses sponsored by the BBC The purpose: presenting the hope of Christianity to a nation besieged by bombs. Eventually, Lewis had one million listeners (Britain 1950: only 50 million people) The process, in effect, created CS Lewis, along with his reputation for pristine, logical communication by metaphor
Prefatory Stuff Lewis actually wrote the book after the radio addresses had made him the most famous Christian apologist in the world. He sent the book to leaders of four major denominations for editing. The result: “Mere” Christianity— meaning Christianity in its simplest, most agreeable form Lewis described it as the “hallway,” and churches as the “rooms.”
The meaning of argument People argue all the time; young, old, black, white, smart, dumb True argument has nothing to do with preference; we argue because we think we’re right, and the other party is wrong. When we argue, we are saying that we believe a standard of behavior has been violated. We assume the other person knows the standard, or it would make no sense to argue. In effect, we are arguing in favor of a universal standard of behavior.
Think about the response of the accused: The defender never says “I don’t believe in rules.” One of three responses: They see their error, and apologize for their behavior They see their error, and point out that you do things wrong, too. They explain why their behavior wasn’t really wrong. Notice—in any case, they appear to accept the existence of a universal standard.
So what are we really arguing about? Both the accused and the accuser agree on the existence of a higher moral law. Both believe that they are right, by that same standard. Basically, then, all arguments are about the interpretation of that standard.
What is this standard? Thinkers of the past referred to this universal standard as “Natural Law” or “The Law of Nature” “We hold these truths to be self- evident…the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God…” This is not the same as the laws of nature (uncapitalized) that govern the physical operation of the universe.
What separates laws of nature from “The (Moral) Law of Nature?” We cannot disobey the laws of nature; the Moral Law is the only universal truth we are free to ignore. I can choose whether or not to push someone out of a tree, but once I push them, they’re going to fall to the ground.
The Law of Nature It’s called the Law of Nature because we recognize it to be universal, applying to all people at all times. Without this assumption, right and wrong cannot exist. If right and wrong don’t exist, then rational moral argument is impossible— Therefore, since we constantly appeal to reason in our arguments, we must all believe in the Natural Law
Does everyone really know it? What about sociopaths, violent criminals, and the insane? Well…according to the Bible, we live in a flawed world, right? This sounds like a copout… And yet, no one considers the vast numbers of colorblind people in the world, and uses that as evidence that color isn’t real. Therefore, moral blindness cannot be used to invalidate the Moral Law.
War as evidence Lewis refers specifically to WWII—but any war works just as well. Two reasons people fight: To protect myself or others Because I want what you have Yet no one puts it so simply. We always believe that, in addition to one of the reasons above, that the other party is wrong. We blame them. It is absolute stupidity to assign blame to someone unless you believe they know they’re wrong. You might still fight, but you wouldn’t blame them.
Cultural difference and the Moral Law Often, differences in culture are used as evidence against a Moral Law. The remarkable thing, though, is not how differently moralized cultures are; it’s staggering how similar they all are. We may all disagree about the proper # of wives, but we all recognize some limit. No culture has ever rewarded cowards or traitors in battle. No culture has ever admired selfishness
Hypocrisy and the Moral Law Even those who say they refuse to believe in the Moral Law are happy to use its existence to their advantage…which only underscores their unconscious belief. Do atheists get angry if there’s a mistake in their bank account? Or if their spouse cheats on them? How do they rationalize that?
Where Lewis’s arguments have forced us to go: We admit to the idea of a Moral Law We admit that we constantly fail to keep the Moral Law (and don’t really want to keep it) We constantly fail to practice the kind of behavior we expect from other people. The fact that we so desperately want to prove we’re not wrong is only more evidence of how deeply and unconsciously ingrained the Law of Nature actually is.
The uncomfortable truth We believe in this Law so much, and we recognize it to be so important, that we cannot stand the idea that we might be breaking it. Ironically, we only give excuses for our bad behavior. When we succeed, we freely take all the credit for ourselves—ignoring the influence of our parents, our schools, our church.
Two points: We all believe people should behave a certain way, regardless of circumstance or situation. We recognize that we ourselves don’t do it very often, and always have an excuse for why we shouldn’t be held accountable.
Last Time (slides 1-19) Biographical information on Lewis Argument as evidence of a universal moral standard Moral blindness vs. color blindness War and the Moral Law Cultural differences and the Moral Law Atheism, the Moral Law, and hypocrisy The uncomfortable truth: the law exists, we know it exists, we want others to abide by it (for our benefit), and yet we consistently break it ourselves.
Instinct and the Moral Law Some have attempted to redefine the Moral Law as biological instinct—we are monogamous, or truthful, or patient, because evolution has trained us to be. There are obvious flaws with this logic: Bravery tends to get you killed…which reduces your chance to pass on your genes. Honesty, frugality, humility, monogamy— none of these traits tend to lead to scores and scores of offspring.
Conflicting instincts Instinct, simply defined, is biological desire to do something, like run away from fire, or have sex. Simple biological instinct doesn’t take into account whether or not you should follow through on the urge. Instincts are often in conflict…for example, the instinct to have sex with your girlfriend versus your instinct to NOT be beaten to death by her father.
Choosing among instincts Because instincts are often in conflict, then the stronger one would always win, if they were all that existed. For example, consider the scores of people who manage, somehow, to NOT have sex before marriage, regardless of how much they might want to. How is this possible, if they’re operating solely by instinct?
The Moral Law vs. Instinct It is the Moral Law that tells us which instinct to follow, when we find them in conflict. Consider a piano: If the keys are instincts, how do you know which to play? The Moral Law is the “sheet music” that tells us, as people, how to play the notes--when our instincts should be followed, and when they should be denied.
A further note regarding piano keys Do pianos have “right” or “wrong” notes? What makes a note right or wrong? Like piano keys, there are no “wrong” instincts—only wrong times to express them. In effect, instincts are good or bad relative to the context. I understand this is a challenging statement…spend some time thinking about this, because it’s sort of important.
The Moral Law and social convention A further argument made against the existence of a supreme Moral Law goes like this: We have invented the “Moral Law” as a way to protect our social institutions (family, church, nation) and preserve order. We teach this “Law” to future generations in order to preserve our comfortable situation. Have you ever noticed that the people encouraging you to respect authority are often, well, the ones that will be hurt the most if you don’t? Have you ever questioned their motivation?
Things we learn… Just because something is learned doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “made up.” There are two classes of things we teach: Arbitrary things we invented: drive on the right, don’t wear denim to a wedding, tip 15%. True things we discovered: multiplication, chemistry, eating rat poison hurts, Top 40 Radio isn’t really music.
Moral Law—invented or discovered? Well…can social conventions (the stuff we invented) really be “better” or “worse” in a meaningful sense? Would America be any better or worse than, say, Luxembourg, if we all agreed that green meant stop? What about if America as a whole decided that, effective now, murdering toddlers was really not that big of a deal, and you should just pay a fine.
The implications of cultural morality The previous example was extreme…but what about Nazi Germany? Or radically Islamic Afghanistan? Or apathetically Christian America? If it seems logical to consider one culture’s morality better (or worse) than another’s, then we must be measuring both cultures by a standard that exists OUTSIDE OF EITHER ONE
2 odd things about people, and the implications: We are burdened by the idea of a Universal Moral Law We recognize that we don’t practice the laws we fully expect others to follow Think: to recognize that we are morally imperfect seems to logically imply the existence of moral perfection.
A further point on the moral law Science textbooks are descriptive: They tell us what actually happens (describe). Moral law is prescriptive. It tells us what ought to happen (prescribes).
Morality and convenience We have already critiqued the idea of morality as a social construct What if, along the same lines, it’s an individual construct? What if we call things “wrong” just because they inconvenience us?
A simple question: With whom are you more angry: someone who steals your seat while you’re in the bathroom, or someone who was already in the chair when you entered the room? Both are equally inconvenient; if morality is based on convenience, both should be equally culpable in our eyes.
To reiterate: Given the arguments so far, it appears that some very real law impinges on us—either from inside or outside ourselves. This ties into the two primary views of the universe: The Materialist View: matter is all that exists, and everything that happens can be explained materially. The Spiritual View: something other than matter exists, which is responsible for the creation of matter.
Which view is correct? No one, from the Big Bang theorists to some pastors, want you to think about the simple truth: Science cannot tell you which of the two views is correct, for two reasons: 1) Science is dependent on observation 2) It is impossible to scientifically “prove” a negative.
A further complication If something other than matter existed, how could we know it? We couldn’t—unless it wanted us to. Even if it did, we couldn’t experience it “scientifically,” any more than you can experience your architect by walking around in your house. Is there anything else in the universe that we experience without scientific “proof”?
Science and observation The only other thing in the universe that we experience without “scientific observation” is ourselves—as men (and women), we know what’s inside our minds, even if we can’t prove it in a lab.
What do we know of ourselves? We know that we feel the burden of the law We know that we wish others would keep the law (esp. in their dealings with us) We know that we don’t keep the law In conversation, we learn that all our friends feel this way
Mailmen and mailboxes How do you know the mailman doesn’t deliver live octopi to the mailboxes of other people on your street? You know this because of three things: A) you have never received a live octopus B) none of your friends have ever received a live octopus C) from this, you reason that no mailmen, anywhere, are in the habit of delivering live octopi on a daily basis
Progress vs. regress Because of human history and the erosion of faith, many people will inevitably view a turnabout to a religious view as regress. This is chronological snobbery (define, please) When is turning around actually progress? When you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Higher being First of all, you have to understand that Lewis hasn’t yet approached the concept of God presented in the Bible; he’s using the “baby steps” approach. So far, we have two pieces of evidence about God: The universe he has made The moral law we know
What the evidence says: The universe: God is vast, scary, beautiful, and beyond our grasp—but an excellent craftsman and an talented designer The moral law: God cares about things like honesty, justice, fairness, love, and righteousness. Neither of these seem to indicate that God is soft and fuzzy, no matter what Oprah says about Him.
The Line of Book One: “G OD IS THE ONLY COMFORT ; H E IS ALSO THE SUPREME TERROR.”
Lewis’s roundabout approach Why approach the subject this way? Christianity makes no sense until you have accepted these facts; you can’t believe in Jesus if you don’t believe in God, Creation, or Right and Wrong. No one goes to the doctor unless they’re sick.
Why Christianity? It offers an explanation of where the moral law came from It offers an explanation of why we break it It offers a chance for reconciliation Regardless of what your preacher says, Christianity does not begin in comfort—it begins in total dismay.