C.S. Lewis and the Moral Law

My last post tracked C.S. Lewis’ journey through man’s conscience to the existence of God. In this post I’ll present C.S. Lewis’ answers to two major objections to his presentation of the universal moral law.

One introductory point: this admittedly focuses on man’s morality, and not God. As Lewis himself said about portions of his book: if this doesn’t help you, then drop it. Also, I’ve tried to be brief, but this post is rather lengthy, so be warned.

Question 1: Don’t all cultures differ in their morality? How can you say there is a universal morality?

The question of relative vs. universal morality is a major divide in ethics. This is an extreme simplification, but someone would argue that since there have been cultures who vary so widely from ours, how can we maintain that there is any real standard of morality to pay attention to?

Here Lewis argues that what appear to be case-closing differences really are not that major, but are more like difference in ordinance, not in principle. In other words, the differences between cultures aren’t that great, and as evidence he cites ancient civilizations’ moral codes that when examined strike us as being remarkably similar rather than different. For our purposes I’ve selected some quotes of these codes from his book The Abolition of Man.

…Negative Aspect

“I have not slain men” (Ancient Egyptian. From the Confession of the Righteous Soul, Book of the Dead. v. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 5, p. 478)

“Do not Murder.” (Ancient Jewish, Exodus 20:13)

“In Nastrond (=Hell) I saw…murderers.” (Old Norse. Volospa, 38, 39).

“Who meditates oppression, his dwelling is overturned” (Babylonian. Hymn to Samas. ERE v. 445)

“He who is cruel and calumnious has the character of a cat” (Hindu. Laws of Manu. Janet, Histoire de la Science Politique, vol. i, p. 6)

“Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” (Ancient Chinese. Analects of Confucius, tran. A. Waley, xv. 23; cf. xii. 2)

…Positive Aspect

“He who is asked for alms should always give.” (Hindu. Janet. i. 7)

“What good man regards any misfortune as no concern of his?” (Roman. Juvenal xv. 140)

“I am a man: nothing human is alien to me.” (Roman. Terrence, Heaut. Tim.)

“Love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Ancient Jewish. Leviticus 19:18)

I don’t believe it’s crucial to promote universal morality to the point of argument, but I think mankind does have many obvious traces of God’s creation of him. Man’s conscience, though twisted and warped by culture, still has shaped the bulk of civilization. That’s why when we look at society on the whole we see a fairly uniform morality.

The presentation of Paul on this is worth reading:

“For when Gentiles, who have no law, do by nature the things of the law, these, though they have no law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness with it, and their reasonings, one with the other, accusing or even excusing them.” Romans 3:14-15

Furthermore, in Acts 14 and 17 Paul presents God’s allowance of the nations to go their own ways until the time of Christ, now charging them to turn to God.

“We also are men of like feeling as you, and announce the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and the sea and all things in them; Who in the generations gone by allowed all the nations to go their ways. And yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness.” Acts 14:15-16

“And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth, having determined their allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” Acts 17:26-27

Question 2: Isn’t what you call universal morality just some human instinct? Either for the good of the species or for individual survival?

To answer, Lewis agrees that there are various instincts acting upon man, but gives three reasons why this moral law is none of them.

1. You know by experience it’s not instinct, but rather that thing which judges between instincts and tells you which one you ought to obey. Your instinctual craving for a cookie meets another instinct: to refrain and eat healthily. Health is to be desired over taste and so your moral law tells you to resist the instinct for the cookie and choose the instinct to be healthy.

2. Further, the moral law is all the more striking in that it often sides with the weaker of the two instincts in conflict. To quote Lewis’ example of saving a drowning man,

“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?” (Mere Christianity, p. 10)

3. Finally, if it was just an impulse we ought to be able to always point to it as being always good, just as we always call hunger hunger. But we can’t. There are times when it is right to eat and times when it is right to fast. As Solomon put it, for everything there is a time. The moral law tells you which impulse is right at any given time, judging between them.


5 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and the Moral Law

  1. This is very interesting because I couldn’t, off the top of my head, come up with any real, good argument for our conscience not being an indicator that there is a God. However, as with any mental reasoning or logical argument, the truth is that knowledge alone won’t touch man’s heart. I think that is what is so amazing about the Bible—there is life there! Because it is actually God’s breath, God’s breathed out word, there is a spirit in the Bible, which is able to reach into man’s deepest parts—his spirit—where reasoning alone cannot reach. The Word of God is amazing! And I agree, I’d love to hear you trace Paul’s thought on the law of the human conscience, and the various other laws acting upon man, in Romans. What a great exercise this i!

  2. Very interesting. You mentioned many ancient civilizations have the same common moral ground. I wonder if there are any exceptions. The first thing that comes to mind are the cannibals. Can the principle of universal moral law apply to them? I wonder if they have any sense within them at all, or maybe their conscience is branded so much that they simply have no feelings left.

    1. Ken, I’m not sure. At this point I would need to go back and look for places where Lewis mentions cannibalism to find out his stance, for he doesn’t mention it in MC.

      I personally don’t believe it’s crucial to believe in universal morality per se to the point of argument, but I think mankind does have some trace of God’s creation. In other words, when we look at society on the whole we don’t see, for example, cannibalism, or homicide, or other gross things.

  3. I know a little about cannibals. I have read a few books on the history of Christianity in New Zealand. The native people there, the Maori, where cannibals historically. However, they did not cannibalize as part of their normal diet. Rather, this was an aspect of hate or revenge that was carried out mainly in warfare. Just as one army might kill their enemies and then burn them out of hate. The Maori would kill their enemies and some times, not always, eat them in a show of hate; not because they liked eating people. To them that was the most dishonoring thing they could do to their enemy. Perhaps this was their version of taking scalps, or parading someones head around on a stick. Therefore I guess the point to consider would be, are certain morals universally suspended in warfare? It seems that they are. Killing people, etc. is not part of any societies normal accepted code of ethics or morays. Moreover does the soldier feel guilty for killing the enemy? Should he? Acceptable or moral behavior and the consciousness of such in this case seems to differ by situation.

    Books referenced are:
    Fourty Years in new Zealand by James Buller

    Among the Maoris; or, Daybreak in New Zealand. A record of the labours of Samuel Marsden, Bishop Selwyn and others by Jesse Page

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