1. Discussion: Central doctrine of Socrates. “Neither Meletus nor Anytus can harm me in
any way.” (30c)
doctrine: The evildoer harms herself more than she harms her victim
(30d) [Paradox: If the evildoer does not harm S., how is he an
evildoer? Possible answer: He intends to harm S.]
doctrine: Even if death be the cost, must do the right thing. (28b
doctrine: Should prefer “the best possible state of your soul” to
2. C. S. Lewis. Argument for there being what he calls “The
Law of Nature”. Lewis explains he is
talking of the law of human nature.
He is not, however, talking about “human nature” in the sense of what
people actually do, but of what people should do. We often say “Well, he did something bad, but
that’s human nature.” Lewis isn’t
talking about that kind of nature.
He is talking about the human nature that tells us what is right and
what is wrong, if we listen to it. These
days, more common names are “Moral Law” or “Moral Obligations”.
chooses the name to emphasize that the moral law does not come from
ourselves or our societies, but from outside us, from what at this point
he calls “nature”. Lewis is arguing
for an absolute morality and against relativism. Relativism claims that there were no
moral obligations other than whatever we—individually or as a society—felt
were moral obligations.
- “Law” does
not mean here what the legislatures pass.
- Lewis says
that one difference between the moral law and laws of nature like the law
of gravitation is that people have a choice whether to obey the
moral law, but nobody has a choice whether to obey the law of gravitation.
17. Quarrels presuppose agreement
on principles. When people have a
quarrel, they say things like: “Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a
bit of mine” or “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?” These things presuppose some sort of a
standard, such as that if you give someone something, they should give it
back, or that you shouldn’t do things to people that you wouldn’t want
them to do to you.
- Now, what
is curious, Lewis notes, is that “the other man very seldom replies: ‘To
hell with your standard.’” Rather,
he thinks, people try to show that there is some special reason why the
standard does not apply in this case or why it applies
differently. So people may say:
“Well, you gave me a bit of your orange, but that was long ago, before you
stole my bicycle, which cancels that out.”
Or: “I wouldn’t like it if you did it to me, but you deserve
it.” These ways of answering show
that in fact the other person accepts the standard, but thinks there are
Lewis says, is trying to show the other person is wrong. If the two people did not have a shared
standard they could not quarrel—they could only fight like animals. Imagine two lions. One of them has killed the antelope. And now the two lions both want to eat
it. The one that killed the
antelope is not going to say: “Well, I killed it, so I deserve to get it
first.” And the other is not going
to reply: “That’s true, but you only killed it because I was running
behind it and to guide it in your path.”
The lions do not have a moral standard like people do. This is one of the things that shows a
difference between animals and people.
- If people
argue about whether some particular thing is Right or Wrong, they had
better have an agreement on what Right is and what Wrong is. Otherwise, they would be like two people
arguing whether “a footballer had committed a foul” (p. 18), while
disagreeing about what the game of football is. Obviously, to argue whether a foul has
been committed, you have to agree on what the rules of the game are first,
and then you can argue whether these rules were violated.
- We can say
more generally, that unless we agree that there is a right and a wrong, we
cannot have discussions about what is right and wrong. After all, if right and wrong are just
matters of how people feel, we cannot have a moral discussion. You say that you feel that abortion is
sometimes right and I say I feel it’s always wrong. In that case we are not even talking
about the same thing. You are
talking about your feelings and I am talking about my feelings. We do not even have a real
disagreement. There is no
disagreement between you feeling one way and I feeling another way, much
as there is no disagreement between you and me if you dislike broccoli
while I enjoy it. A discussion of
abortion supposes that we can agree on something, namely on what
right and wrong are. Otherwise,
there is no room for discussion.
Thus, relativism closes the door to moral discussion. We each just have our own tastes, our
own preferences. Closing the door
to discussion doesn’t seem very nice.
It seems closedminded.
- But if
we cannot have a discussion, then how are we supposed to decide
things as a society? Is it all
just a matter of which groups have more political influence? It’s true that we can always just go by
what the majority like more. But
is that a good idea? In Nazi
Germany, the majority of ethnic Germans thought Jews were inferior and
not worthy of as much respect as ethnic Germans. Should their society have acted on
the possibility of discussion, it seems that the only way to
settle issues is by force—the way the lions would, namely by
giving his argument, C. S. Lewis replies to some objections. What you’re reading were originally
radio addresses, so in Chapter 2 I suppose he quotes people who wrote
to him after hearing Chapter 1 on the radio.
1. The herd instinct.
The first objection was that it’s not that there is a right and a
wrong, but there is just a herd instinct, which works like other
instincts—sexual attraction, desire for food, mother love. This instinct makes people act in
certain ways that are beneficial to the rest of the herd.
- C. S.
Lewis thinks there is such a thing as a herd instinct. But he gives three arguments for why
morality can’t be the herd instinct.
Perhaps the most important is that no instinct is always right, so
when our instincts pull us in various ways, we still need a standard by
which to decide what to do.
- Even an
impulse like motherly love sometimes goes wrong. If the mother’s son is continuing to
be a serial killer, then it’s wrong for the mother to continue to
shelter him from the police, even if she has an instinctive motherly
desire to shield her son from all danger. Morality needs to judge between
instincts and impulses. It goes
beyond them, and judges which ones are good on which occasion.
who thinks the moral law just is an instinct could come back and
say that the moral instinct is just a different kind of instinct, a
higher level instinct. But now
it sounds less and less like a herd instinct!
2. Social convention. Maybe, though, morality is just a matter of social
convention, something our parents and teachers teach us, and something
which would be different if we lived in another culture? There certainly are things which
are just a matter of social convention.
Which side of the road should one drive on? Do we write from left-to-right or
- C. S.
Lewis agrees that our parents and teachers teach us morality. But that doesn’t by itself make it a
social convention. Parents and
teachers also teach us mathematics, which is objectively true. But he sees two reasons why morality is
a little more like mathematics than like social conventions:
differences between different societies are not actually as great as we
might think. We can’t imagine a
country where people are admired for running away in battle out
of cowardice, or one where people are generally proud of “doublecrossing all the people who have been kindest
to him.” We can’t imagine a
country where being a traitor to your loved ones is valued. And if we look at moral rules from
various cultures, we see a lot of commonalities. True there are differences. But if we step back we see that the
differences still involve a commonality.
Thus, in some cultures a man can have only one wife. In other cultures, a man can have up
to four. But, Lewis says, people
“have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked”
(p. 19). People disagree on whom
you should be unselfish to: your family, your fellow citizens,
everybody? But they agree that
you shouldn’t be selfish. See
some apparent moral disagreements are not real disagreements. Take witches. People used to kill witches. We don’t do that. Why?
Because witches, by their definition, were people who made a
pact with the devil and magically did bad things like killing
people. Do we have a moral
disagreement with those who burned witches? Lewis thinks we do not. We just do not think there are
any witches (by their definition).
If we thought there were people who magically killed other
people through a pact with the devil, we would want to execute them,
too. So we don’t have a moral
disagreement, but a factual one.
It’s just as between two people, one of whom says O.J. Simpson
should go to jail and the other says he should go free. If the first thinks Simpson is a
murderer and the second thinks he is innocent, there is no moral
disagreement, merely a disagreement about the facts.
moral systems are better than others. The moral system of Nazi Germany is
worse than the moral system of, say, Britain. But if morality is just a matter of
social convention, then all we could say is that the Nazi system was
right for the Nazis and the British system was right for the
British. If this was so, then the
Americans had no business helping the British fight the Nazis! It would have been just as good to
help the Nazis fight the British!
This is absurd. Note:
Even some Germans could see that the Nazi system was inferior.
there is such a thing as moral progress. Maybe it’s only piecemeal, but there
surely is progress about some things. People used to think it was quite
alright to hang an ordinary thief death. We now realize that if we’re going to
have capital punishment at all, it needs to be reserved for the
greatest of crimes.
one can only compare moral systems if there is some standard that goes
beyond them, some standard that we are trying to approximate.