Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Law of Nature

C.S. Lewis, the great 2oth century author, philanthropist, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature (at Cambridge), and Christian apologist, believed--as have most Western thinkers up to our day--that morality is absolute, objective, and universal. The following quote from Mere Christianity, in which he refers to that universal morality as the "Law of Nature," is just a part of his common sense argument against moral relativism--the rather modern view that morality is subjective (whether personal or cultural)...
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. 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. And what you promised to do for old So-and-so and have never done--well, you never would have promised if you had known how frightfully busy you were going to be. And as for your behaviour to your wife (or husband) or sister (or brother), if I knew how irritating they could be, I would not wonder at it--and who the dickens am I, anyway? 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 there 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. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much--we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so--that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Rick.

The Law of Nature (Lewis gives it a zen-ish name that I've forgotten, maybe "tao") comes back to us just when we least expect it, and this is as true for agnostics as it is for committed Christians. James Sire suggests a scenario: we all know the atheist at the cocktail party, the one who wears a tweed jacket and Reeboks, who leans languorously on the fireplace mantel with a glass of merlot while holding forth on the certainty of uncertainty (to change a line of T. S. Eliot). Well, suggests Sire, next time you have a chance to get a word in, quietly tell this character that his fly is open. See then how quickly he becomes certain of something with a moral component.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack-

Yes, Lewis called it the tao, and has lists in his brilliant work, The Abolition of Man, that show the commonality of ethics across cultural boundaries.

-Mike Caba