NOTES on C. S. Lewis (1898-1963): The Argument From Morality

C. S. Lewis wrote about the Moral Argument in his book Mere Christianity (1952). Of course, Lewis is famous for many things, not just for being a defender of the faith in many of his books. For example, he wrote the wonderful children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, which I have read several times. In addition, Shadowlandsis a nonfiction movie about Lewis’ marriage to the American poet Joy Davidman.

The Moral Argument argues that God is the best explanation for Humankind’s experience of a Moral Law within themselves. As such, it uses the Principle of Sufficient Reason. We find an objective moral law within ourselves; what is a reason sufficient to explain the existence of this moral law?

It is an important presupposition of the Moral Argument that the Moral Law is objective and not subjective. If the Moral Law is subjective, then ethics is a matter of opinion. What I believe is right, is right for me, and what you believe is right, is right for you. The same applies to what each of us believes to be wrong.

One consequence of subjectivism is that the same thing can be both right and wrong at the same time. Thus, I may think that rape is morally right and you may think that rape is morally wrong, and if subjectivism is the correct ethical theory, then both of us are correct in what we believe. Thus, rape is morally right for me but morally wrong for you.

Objectivism, however, denies this. According to objectivism, moral rules exist that apply to everyone, no matter what we may believe about them. Thus, according to objectivism, the truth of the statement “Rape is wrong” is not a matter of opinion. The statement is either true or false. If the statement is true, then this moral rule applies to everyone, at every time, in every place, no matter what they may believe about the statement.

Note that although objectivism requires that ethical statements (e.g. “Rape is wrong” and “Murder is wrong”) be either true or false — they are not a matter of opinion —  objectivism does not require the belief that every human being have an innate moral sense that tells them what to do. (We may have to be educated about what is morally right and what is morally wrong; after all, we have to be taught calculus, which is definitely objective.) In addition, objectivism does not require that all persons naturally and easily know what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Objectivism merely requires that ethical statements be true or false. We may not know whether a certain ethical statement is true or false — objectivism merely requires that it be true or false.

As you know, Lewis will argue that God is the best explanation of the Moral Law. However, many people would like to argue that human beings are the source of the Moral Law. Of course, if this were true, then the Moral Law would be subjective and not objective. An argument for human beings as the source of the Moral Law could state that certain moral laws came into effect because they were useful in helping communities to exist. However, a subjectivist who argues this could not argue that it is objectively better for communities to exist than not to exist. Lewis believes in an objective moral law that he calls the Law of [Human] Nature or the Law of Decent Behavior.

Lewis starts his argument from human experience: There are two odd things we notice about members of the human species:

1) They have an idea about the kind of behavior they ought to practice.

2) They do not, in fact, always practice this kind of behavior.

Because of these two things, the human species is much different from a stone or a tree. After all, a stone or a tree does not think about what it ought to do; in addition, a stone or a tree always does what it is supposed to do. If you drop a stone, the stone does not suddenly take thought and remember that now it is supposed to fall to the ground. Instead, it is a nonthinking thing and obeys unquestioningly the law of gravity.

We know that there is a Moral Law that human beings are aware of, but which stones and trees are not aware of. The next question is, What is a reason sufficient to explain the existence of the Moral Law?

Lewis writes that there are two main views of the existence of the universe:

1) The Materialist view: According to this view, the universe just happened to exist.

2) The Religious view: According to this view, “what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe, partly for purposes we do not know, but partly, at any rate, in order to produce creatures like itself — I mean, like itself to the extent of having minds.”

In trying to decide which view is correct, we cannot have recourse to science, because science cannot answer such questions as these: Why is there a universe? and Why does it go on as it does? and Has it any meaning?

The only way that we can answer this question is from our observation of ourselves. Within ourselves, we find a Moral Law — a Moral Law that the physical universe is unable to account for. The best explanation of the Moral Law is that a mind is behind the universe, making the universe what it is.

The Materialist view of the universe cannot explain the existence of the Moral Law because, as Lewis states, you can hardly imagine a bit of matter telling you what is right and what is wrong. (According to Materialism, all reality consists of matter and the manifestations of matter. Materialism has no room for a nonmaterial mind or spirit.)

The only other view of the universe is the Religious view, which states that there is a Mind behind the universe Who directs the universe. Lewis writes, “The only way in which we could expect [the Mind] to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.” Of course, this is an exact description of the Moral Law we find within ourselves. Lewis’ conclusion at this point is this:

I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got at this point is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know — because after all the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions.

Lewis uses logical reasoning in his essay. He writes that there are two candidates for explaining the existence of the Moral Law: Materialism and Religion. Since Materialism cannot explain why the Moral Law exists, then the religious answer must be the correct one.

In a short note, Lewis mentions an alternative to the Materialist view and the Religious view: the Life-Force Philosophy (aka Creative Evolution and Emergent Evolution). According to this view, “the small variations by which life on this planet ‘evolved’ from the lowest forms to Man were not due to chance but to the ‘striving’ or ‘purposiveness’ of a Life-Force.” Lewis asks people who hold this view “whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not.” If they do, then they really hold the Religious view. If they don’t, then they are talking nonsense, for what sense does it make to say that “something without a mind ‘strives’ or has ‘purposes’?”

Lewis completely rejects the Life-Force Philosophy. He writes, “The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?”

Note: The quotations by C. S. Lewis that appear in this essay are from his Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952).

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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