F Rosa Rubicondior: C.S.Lewis Gets It Wrong Again

Monday 7 May 2012

C.S.Lewis Gets It Wrong Again

More smugly self-satisfied moralising from C.S.Lewis' 1952 book, "Mere Christianity". This time it's quite easy to see why he got it wrong. It was a combination of ignorance and arrogance, of which, as so often with Lewis, arrogance was the main failure.
Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole; and that consequently there is no mystery about it. Human beings, after all, have some sense; they see that you cannot have real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they see this that they try to behave decently. Now, of course, it is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. It is one of the most important truths in the world. But as an explanation of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong it just misses the point If we ask: "Why ought I to be unselfish?" and you reply "Because it is good for society," we may then ask, "Why should I care what's good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?" and then you will have to say, "Because you ought to be unselfish"-which simply brings us back to where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any further. If a man asked what was the point of playing football, it would not be much good saying "in order to score goals," for trying to score goals is the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be saying that football was football-which is true, but not worth saying. In the same way, if a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, "in order to benefit society," for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for "society" after all only means "other people"), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, "Men ought to be unselfish."

And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish, ought to be fair. Not that men are unselfish, nor that they like being unselfish, but that they ought to be. The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing- a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves. And yet it is not a fact in the ordinary sense, in the same way as our actual behaviour is a fact. It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behaviour, and yet quite definitely real-a real law, which none of as(sic) made, but which we find pressing on us.

Writing in 1952 it is not surprising that Lewis was ignorant of memes and memetic evolution, so we can perhaps forgive him for that, but never-the-less we should expect him to have been aware of Occam's Razor and how it should be used to produce the most vicarious explanation. Instead, he waves aside any possible natural explanation in favour of one which requires magic and an unexplained mystery, but which serves his purpose if his reader can be relied on not to probe too deeply.

Australopithicus africanus (artists impression)
This puny ape was only ever going to succeed by cooperating.
Evolution of cultures, together with the rules which facilitate co-operative behaviour are fully understandable in terms of memetic evolution by an evolutionary process. Human groups which were more co-operative would have been more successful in the conditions in which we were evolving and co-operation depends on team skills, which themselves rely on mutual trust. In conditions where an increasingly intelligent brain was also evolving these memes would have developed and so in turn facilitated an even more rapidly evolving brain.

Hence meme-gene co-evolution would have facilitated both the development of a brain able to hold and use these memes and the memes themselves, producing more successful groups and cultures, leading eventually to the evolution of an intelligent ape which today we call Homo sapiens complete with a set of evolved cultural norms and ethics which we inherit from our parents, peers and authority figures in our society.

Whilst the basic principles of treating others with respect, doing least harm and the empathetic skill of judging what you would want done to or for you, if you were the other person, are more or less common to all human societies and groups, the details often differ considerably.

Queueing is one example. I remember being shocked when in former Yugoslavia in the 1970 I had waited with some friends for a bus. We had arrived early and took up our position at the bus-stop sign, as we would have done in England. Over the next 15 minutes or so we noticed people gathering around but thought nothing of it until the bus arrived. It was then a scramble of pushing and shoving to get on the bus - the sort of behaviour which might have led to an argument or worse in England - and we were the last to get on the bus.

However, once on the packed bus, it was noticeable how not one woman was standing.

Memetic evolution of cultures, just like the genetic evolution of species, sub-species and regional varieties, accounts for both the similarities and difference. This cannot be explained by a system of objective moral laws handed down by a magic man. And that also begs the question where did this magic man get them from? Is there an infinite regress of higher authorities handing down morals to the Christian god, or are they merely it's capricious and arbitrary whim? (See Xeno's Religious Paradox). Lewis conveniently neglects to explain how this assumed god fed these 'laws' to us. Did it feed them in slowly a little at a time as we evolved into modern humans? Did it provide them fully worked out to our pre-human ancestors, or did it decide one day that humans were now human enough so we could all be given a dose of moral laws? Obviously, this is all part of the 'mystery' element that we mere mortals shouldn't be concerning our selves with.

For more on memetic evolution of morality, see Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility.

Memetic evolution is the most vicarious explanation and does not need to invoke an unexplained, and unexplainable, magic or magician, or an infinite regress of higher authorities. All elements of the memetic theory of moral origins are there to be examined, tested and validated by scientific methodology. There is nothing which needs to be pared away with Occam's Razor because nothing is included merely to arrive at the desired conclusion or to pander to an audience.

Of course, memetic evolution doesn't provide comfort to those who need to feel a magic man is thinking about them and looking after their interests, nor those who like to imagine they alone have the one true culture given to them by the one true invisible friend, but then pandering to such desires should not be part of a scientific explanation even if it is a normal component of a theological one.

So, although we can forgive C.S.Lewis his ignorance of memes, writing as he was before they were discovered, we shouldn't overlook his arrogance. The basic mistake he made was in assuming that, because he couldn't think of a natural explanation for the origin of human morality, there couldn't be one, so the only explanation had to be supernatural.

Of course, as always with Lewis, there is the arrogant assumption of his class that the only possible supernatural explanation must be the god locally popular in England in 1952 - how could the English possibly have the wrong god? - hence his patronising tone and underlying assumption that us plebeians would simply accept what our social superior was telling us and not ask how he got from not knowing why we have societies based on morals to the conclusion that it must have been his favourite god. We could safely be relied on to take that for granted, just as people in culturally arrogant and parochially ignorant societies still can be today.

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  1. Again, a good post, although I disagree with your reliance on memes. Memes are an extremely useful concept, but no reference to memes need be made to understand the evolution of morality.

  2. Theories of biological and memetic evolution may well explain why human beings do possess a moral sense, but they cannot tell us why we OUGHT to be altruistic. They can only tell us why most people think we ought to be altruistic. If someone queries why she OUGHT to be concerned about the welfare of others, then such theories are not helpful. In other words, I think that Lewis was attempting to address the is/ought problem that David Hume referenced over 250 years ago.

    Thus, in book III, part I, section I of his work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume wrote:

    "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason."

    The problem with Lewis is that saying that we ought to be altruistic because of a divinely ordained Moral Law is no answer either.


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