British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors, Brits at their Best.com, English country scene

Blog Home | All Posts

The curious case of morality and eternal life

This thing, which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call natural law, or traditional morality, or the first principle of practical reason, or the first platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and to raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.” -CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Pope Benedict quoted this paragraph while visiting the United Kingdom. Though believing, perhaps erroneously that people shared a common morality, Lewis was aware that many people disliked the idea of morality and loathed moralists. Lewis wrote -
There is a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could make out, God was 'The sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it'. And I am afraid that is the sort of idea that the word Morality raises in a good many people's minds: something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time. In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine. That is why these rules at first seem to be constantly interfering with our natural inclinations. When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, 'No, don't do it like that', because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work.

Now again, many people might disagree with this idea. They don't think you can compare learning to be moral to learning how to use a machine and even if they did, why learn to use that particular machine?

Lewis goes on to suggest that morality seems to be concerned with three things.

Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for. . .

You may have noticed that modern people are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two. When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, 'It can't be wrong because it doesn't do anyone else any harm', he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. [Really? -Ed.] But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all.

. . .What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual. . . - Mere Christianity

His certainty that we must do this if we are going to be happy stems from his belief that we have eternal life. Thinkers like Dawkins believe that eternal life is one of those false comforts which Christianity offers believers. Lewis sees it quite differently.

Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse - so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years. . .

Not exactly a comforting thought. Lewis has plenty more, quirky and inspiring.

Post a comment

(Please do give us your name or the name you write under in the form below and your URL if you have one. Your comment may take a little time to appear. Thanks for waiting.)

COPYRIGHT