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Mere Christianity - Book One - Some Objections

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Spirit/e—Mere Christianity

2009. 6. 25.









Book One






    2. Some Objections

     If they are  the foundation, I had better  stop to make that foundation
firm before I go  on. Some  of the letters I have had show-that a  good many
people  find it difficult to understand just what this Law of Human  Nature,
or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour is.

     For example, some people wrote to me saying,  "Isn't  what you call the
Moral Law simply  our herd instinct and  hasn't it been developed  just like
all  our other  instincts?" Now  I  do  not  deny that  we  may have a  herd
instinct: but that is not what I  mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it
feels like to be prompted by instinct-by mother love, or sexual instinct, or
the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act
in a certain way.  And,  of  course, we  sometimes do feel just that sort of
desire to  help another person:  and no doubt that desire is due to the herd
instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different  from feeling that
you ought to help  whether you want  to or not. 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  a desire to keep out of
danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find 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. Now this thing  that judges between  two instincts, that decides which
should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say
that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note
on  the piano and not another, is  itself  one of the notes on the keyboard.
The Moral Law tells us  the tune we have to  play: our instincts are  merely
the keys.

     Another  way of  seeing  that the  Moral Law is not simply  one of  our
instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in
a creature's mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger  of the
two must win. But at  those moments  when we are most conscious of the Moral
Law, it usually seems to be telling us  to  side with the weaker  of the two
impulses. You probably want  to be safe much more  than you want to help the
man who is drowning: but  the Moral Law tells you to help  him all the same.
And surely it often tells us to try to  make the right impulse stronger than
it naturally is? I mean, we often  feel  it  our duty to  stimulate the herd
instinct, by waking up our imaginations  and arousing our pity and so on, so
as to get up enough steam for doing the  right thing. But clearly we are not
acting from instinct  when we set about making an instinct stronger  than it
is. The thing that says to you,  "Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,"
cannot  itself be the herd instinct. The thing  that tells you which note on
the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

     Here  is  a  third way  of seeing  it If the  Moral Law was one  of our
instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us  which
was always what we call "good,"  always  in agreement with the rule of right
behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law
may not sometimes tell  us to suppress, and none which it may  not sometimes
tell  us to encourage. It is  a mistake  to think that some of our impulses-
say mother love or patriotism-are good, and others, like sex or the fighting
instinct, are bad. All we mean is that  the occasions  on which the fighting
instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent
than  those  for  restraining  mother  love  or patriotism.  But  there  are
situations in which it is the duty  of a married man to encourage his sexual
impulse and of a soldier to encourage  the fighting instinct. There are also
occasions on which a mother's love for her own children or  a man's love for
his  own country  have to  be  suppressed or  they  will  lead to unfairness
towards other people's children or  countries. Strictly speaking,  there are
no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has
not got two kinds of  notes on it,  the "right" notes and the  "wrong" ones.
Every single note is right at one time  and wrong  at another. The Moral Law
is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes
a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the

     By the  way,  this point  is of great  practical consequence. The  most
dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and
set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of
them  which will not  make  us  into devils if we  set it  up as an absolute
guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe,  but it is not.
If you leave out  justice  you  will  find yourself breaking agreements  and
faking evidence in trials "for the  sake of humanity," and become in the end
a cruel and treacherous man.

     Other  people wrote to me  saying, "Isn't  what you call the Moral  Law
just  a  social convention, something that is  put into us  by education?" I
think there is a misunderstanding here. The people who ask that question are
usually taking it for granted  that if we have learned  a thing from parents
and teachers,  then  that thing must be merely  a  human invention. But,  of
course, that is not so. We all learned the multiplication table at school. A
child who grew  up alone on a desert island would not know it. But surely it
does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a  human convention,
something human  beings have  made up for  themselves and  might  have  made
different if they had  liked? I fully agree that we learn the Rule of Decent
Behaviour  from parents  and teachers,  and  friends and books,  as we learn
everything else. But some of the things we learn are  mere conventions which
might have been  different-we  learn to keep to the left of the road, but it
might just  as  well  have been the rule to keep to the right-and  others of
them, like mathematics,  are real truths. The question is to which class the
Law of Human Nature belongs.

     There  are  two  reasons for  saying it belongs to the  same  class  as
mathematics. The first is, as I said in the first chapter, 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-not nearly so  great as
most people imagine-and you can recognise  the same law running through them
all: whereas  mere conventions,  like  the  rule of the road or the kind  of
clothes  people  wear, may differ to  any extent. The other reason  is this.
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 truer or better  than any other, there would be no sense in  preferring
civilised  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.
Very well then. 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 the other. But
the standard that measures two things  is  something  different from either.
You  are, in fact, comparing them  both with  some  Real Morality, admitting
that there is such a  thing  as a real  Right,  independent  of what  people
think, and that some  people's  ideas  get nearer  to  that real Right  than
others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer,  and those  of
the Nazis less true, there must  be something-some Real Morality-for them to
be true  about. The  reason why your idea  of New York can be truer or  less
true than  mine is that New York is a real  place, existing quite apart from
what either of us thinks. If  when  each of  us said "New  York" each  meant
merely "The town I am  imagining in my own head,"  how could one of  us have
truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood
at all.  In the  same way, if  the Rule of  Decent  Behaviour  meant  simply
"whatever each nation happens to approve," there would be no sense in saying
that any  one nation had  ever been  more  correct in its  approval than any
other; no sense  in saying  that the world could ever grow morally better or
morally worse.

     I conclude then, that  though the differences between people's ideas of
Decent Behaviour often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of
Behaviour at  all,  yet the  things  we  are  bound  to  think  about  these
differences really prove just the opposite. But  one  word before I  end.  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 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 from him in return
and were using  these powers to kill their neighbours 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  not think they are there. You
would not call a  man humane  for ceasing  to  set  mousetraps if  he did so
because he believed there were no mice in the house.







Lewis sites two objections to his theory of natural law which have come to him through letters from readers.

  1. The law is from instinct. Why does Lewis think that the moral law is not just a result of human instinct?
  2. Social convention. Lewis dismisses the idea that moral law is a matter of how we are brought up or educated because...?




  • Objection: “The moral law is just herd instinct”
    • Morality will compel people to what is not for their best interest.
    • Morality will compel people to choose a weaker instinct over a stronger one, or suppress an instinctive response all together
      • example: Mother love vs. Patriotism
      • example: suppression of fighting instinct or sexual desire for the good of community.
  • Objection: “Morality is just social convention”
    • We find that we can compare cultures as “better” and “worse,” which implies some kind of standard morality, some standard 'yardstick.'
    • We find that we can compare the morality of one people as “better” or “worse” than another people, which also indicates a 'standard morality.'
    • We find that we can compare laws over time (example: slavery, race laws) as “better” or “worse.”
    • “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 not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.”