Lewis’s “Law of Nature” argument

PZ Myers, over at Pharyngula, digs up CS Lewis’s old “Law of Nature” argument, which Francis Collins claimed left his atheistic beliefs “in ruins.” Let’s have a look at it, shall we?

Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man in in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

Lewis is off to a fair-ish start. We do have “some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are.” As a social species, we’ve learned by experience that each of us, as individuals, benefits from belonging to the group, even though we sometimes compete with other group members for food, wealth, mates, status, and so on. Some behaviors, like stealing and murder and violence, are so disruptive to the group that group membership ceases to be a benefit for most individuals. We call these behaviors “Wrong.” Other behaviors promote the well-being of the group, and thus the benefit to the individual members of the group. We call these behaviors “Right.” Thus, Right and Wrong are values that we have acquired through practical experience, and which we pass on to our children by teaching them to play nice and be good. Let’s see what Lewis makes of this, though.

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong… Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point, which is this. None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature…I hope you will not misunderstand what I am going to say. I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else. I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.

“I am not preaching…” Yeah, right. Already we can see the direction that Lewis intends to take us, facts or no facts. Our concept of right and wrong is based on our practical experience in social interactions, which are very complicated things. When someone comes up to you with a new, ugly haircut, and says, “How do I look?” which is the “right” response, to be strictly honest and say “Horrible!” or to be politely disingenuous and say, “A new haircut, I like it.”?

Social interactions are dynamic, transactional things. There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all, black-or-white rule that tells you this is right and that is wrong in every conceivable social circumstance. Not even the Bible claims to be able to do that (for example, it says nothing about drugs). Ordinary life brings us an abundance of tricky social situations, and thus abundant opportunities to second-guess yourself, and to end up feeling like “well, I could have handled that better.” Lewis wants to take this latent social insecurity, and turn it into exploitable guilty feelings.

There may be all sorts of excuses for us. that time you were so unfair to the children was when you were very tired. That slightly shady business about the money – the one you have almost forgotten – came when you were very hard up… I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature.

Again with the guilt trip, and the subtle insinuation that we always know what the right thing is, and we deliberately choose to do the wrong thing. Right and wrong are social concepts: to be caught doing what is wrong is to suffer a loss of social status. There’s a very immediate and practical reason why we make excuses for our behavior whenever we think someone else might find it socially unacceptable–we want and need to be socially acceptable! And let’s not forget that sometimes the reason we think of “excuses” for our behavior is because we in fact did have a perfectly valid reason for behaving the way we did.

Lewis wants us to worry. He wants us to be afraid that there’s some universal law which we all know, and which we have deliberately and culpably broken, thus offending the Universal Law-Giver Whom we all know, thus putting ourselves in a very dangerous position. Panicky people are easier to manipulate, and for the Christian apologist, you can’t go wrong starting off your presentation by fanning people’s latent social insecurities into full-blown paranoia, as CS Lewis tries to do here.

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about the universe we live in.

With respect to the great Mr. Lewis, no they are not. They are a muddied, emotional, and irrational foundation for paranoid and superstitious thinking. The reason people have a desire to do the right thing (or at least, to be seen as people who do the right thing) is because there are social advantages to being thought of as one of the Good Guys. It’s not because some Lawgiver somewhere has laid out for us some simple rule which makes it easy to tell right from wrong in every single circumstance. Some, like Mr. Lewis, would like us to believe that there’s an easy answer, just like there are some who claim to have discovered the Simple Rule for how to get rich in the stock market, or the Easy Way to lose dozens of pounds without dieting, or any of the other “easy” and “simple” answers that people offer you for sale. But real life means hard work, hard choices, and sometimes ambiguous results.

I find it fascinating that Lewis would begin a book of apologetics, not with a list of ways in which God shows up in the real world to teach us what He considers right and wrong, but with a clever and manipulative argument designed to inflame our irrational fears and our personal sense of social inadequacy. Such a sly and tendentious approach would hardly be needed if Lewis’s God simply behaved as though He believed what Lewis was saying about Him.

8 Responses to “Lewis’s “Law of Nature” argument”

  1. gaysolomon Says:

    Hi Professor,

    I just wanted to say that I think this is one of the most well thought out blogs that I have encountered. It is a pleasure to read these articles.

    C.S. Lewis’ false, but convenient, dichotomies have long been a personal irritant. For example:

    “This man (Jesus) was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”

    I would love to see some of these old chestnuts deconstructed.

    In any case, well done and keep up the great work!

  2. The Professor Says:

    Thanks. Check out the Unapologetic Encyclopedia (in the links at the top)–I’ve already done the “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” argument.

  3. Judgemental Anomaly Says:

    Dear Professor,

    Your first move is to attempt to dismantle Lewis’ argument by asserting a utilitarian view of the world. I’m not sure I understand why. Obviously if one looks at Lewis’ arguments from the utilitarian perspective, they’re going to appear ridiculous. But it seems to me you’d have to go much deeper into the conflict of world-views here to make any headway. In other words, you seem to be aiming for his sword rather than a vital organ.

    I understand why you disagree with Lewis – you’ve expressed that quite well. What I don’t understand is why I should accept your theory of right and wrong over his. It seems obvious to you that right and wrong refers to “the ‘good’ of the group,” if I may paraphrase, but you haven’t told me why I should believe it.

    Sincerely,

    Some Student

  4. Ergo Says:

    If morality or ethics is nothing more than social conventions (the relativistic approach), then you would have to say that no one can enforce one group’s moral conventions upon the morality of another group.
    For example, what is ethically permissible according to the ethical standards of the groups of people living in the United States should have no bearing on the ethically permissible activities of the tribal groups of Nigeria (for example, stoning female adulteresses to death, female circumcision, etc.)
    In which case, the world was (and is) wrong in condemning the practices of the huge social group that developed in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, whom we call Nazis, because they were practicing ethically permissible activities according to their own social conventions, wherein to be a Jew or a homosexual was considered to be a disadvantage in the eyes of fellow germans who would consider them “bad guys.” To be considered “good guys” at that time in Germany meant you had to be an Aryan, German, Nazi.

    Well then, in that case, why bother making moral arguments at all. Since every cultural or social group will organically develop their own system of morality–and morals have no mind-independent basis in reality–then the whole endeavor of moral persuasion, ethical teachings, moral lessons, and moral civilization is meaningless.

    I think you’ve written a very poorly reasoned essay. Moral relativism, i.e., moral arising out of social conventions and “best practices”, is an indefensible position.

  5. In Defense of the “Law of Nature.” « Uncommon Sense Says:

    [...] with the “real world.” One of his more provocative (and well-written) pieces takes on C.S. Lewis’s argument from the first chapters of Mere Christianity about morality and “the law of Nature.” He [...]

  6. popefelix Says:

    @Ergo:

    If you assume that The Professor’s argument is correct, then you can ethically justify opposing the Nazis’ actions by considering all the people living on this planet as a single group, and the Nazis as a subgroup thereof. The Nazis were acting in opposition to what was considered by the Allies as a worldwide moral convention. Thus the Allies, by their lights, were justified in opposing the Nazis, even though the Nazis, by their own lights, were justified in attempting to exterminate the Jews.

    Regardless of the validity of the Professor’s argument, however, I think you and I can agree that people do not always act in an ethically justifiable manner.

  7. Brianna Says:

    Lewis actually covers all the points that you’re disproving.

    I no longer have the book but I remember specifically wondering the exact thing you continue to discuss. Lewis addresses the socially diverse “rights and wrongs.”

    The point he was trying to make just before this (as I remember) is not the fact that we all have programmed in us specifically every “wrong or bad” thing and every “right or good” thing, but just the fact that there is something in our minds that hold us accountable for what we believe to be “right or wrong” “good or bad.”

    Someone might start to say “Killing people is wrong.” But where did this concept of wrong come from? Why was there ever a difference between right or wrong. If you fill a bowl of eggs, at which point where things start to go right or wrong within the bowl.

    And with out this idea of right or wrong, life is hardly anything. Imagine if nothing was bad? There would be no good either. Just like you cannot have light without first having darkness. Or up without first having down.

    Am I making any sense. All of this fits together in my mind, but do you understand what I’m trying to get across?


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