Wednesday, September 28, 2011


You will remember that, in his wartime radio broadcasts, C.S. Lewis argued that Right and Wrong were a clue to the meaning of the universe. He said that nearly all human beings have at nearly all times agreed that there was a difference between Right and Wrong. They even mostly agree about what kinds of things were Right and what kinds of things were Wrong. That, said Lewis, suggested what kind of a Universe we were living in – one in which Right and Wrong really existed, and would have existed even if humans hadn't come along and discovered them.

No greater person that Terry Eagleton scoffs at this idea. "Unchanging human nature?" he says. "Unchanging human bollocks, more like." (I paraphrase.) People in olden times used to burn witches at the stake. We don't do that any more, except possibly in Texas. Morality has changed beyond recognition.

Not at all, sighs Dr Lewis, anachronistically. If we really believed in witches – if we thought that there were really people who, as part of a real pact with a real dark power, were really causing plagues and famines and crop failiures then we would probably think that they should really be executed. We've stopped hanging witches because we disbelieve in their existence. That represents an advance in knowledge; not a change in morality. [*]

I think that that one's morals include what one does, as well as what one thinks one ought to do. I would not be inclined to say "John is a moral person because although he cheats outrageously on his wife, he believes adultery is wrong; Fred is an immoral person because he cheats outrageously on his wife while espousing a philosophy of free love." If fidelity and promise-keeping are Good Things, then infiedelity and promise breaking are Bad Things, whatever may be going on in the head of the love-rat. I am uneasy with a definition of morality which says "People in the past thought it was moral to execute children for petty theft; not because they differed from us about morality, but because they differed from us about certain material facts (say, the degree to which children could make moral decisions, the degree to which they believed in predestination, the degree to which they thought God would make it up to them in heaven after they died.) The fact remains that they killed kids and we don't. Except maybe in Texas.

By the time you've excluded "witches exist" and "witches are bad" from your definition of morality (along, perhaps, with "throwing old ladies rivers is a good way of determining guilt" and "burning alive is an appropriate punishment for bad people") morality ends up meaning not much more than "you should do whatever you should do."

It might be that "we should do whatever we should do" does represent an essential core which all humans have in common and nothing else does. I personally am inclined to doubt that giraffes, pebbles and sea monkeys have even this minimal moral sense: I assume that all human beings have it. Lewis flirts with this idea in one of his interplanetary essays. It is possible to imagine an alien being which is very adept at building cities and atomic bombs, but is not (in a theological sense) a person because it has no sense of what it "ought" to do, no sense that "good" can mean anything other than "good for me". It is also possible to imagine a hamster or a maggot that does have that crucial "person hood", because it does have a sense that there are things which it "should" and "should not" do. In his fiction, Lewis uses the terms "hnau" for such ensouled beings. (Tolkien found it a useful term, and used it occassionally.) It is in this sense that I have sometimes wondered if certain newspaper columnists, liberal democrats, and (in particular) former prime ministers are really "people". Some of them behave as if they do not have a concept of morality which goes beyond "whatever I have an impulse to do at the present moment." Some of those same politicians may have the same thing in mind when they say that poor people are sub-human and bestial.

But (as is relatively often the case) Mr Lewis's argument remains compelling and thought provoking even if it doesn't quite stack up logically. If there really had been witches, would Matthew Hopkins still be a monster? Or would he suddenly become a hero? If there really had been a widespread communist conspiracy in the 1950s, would we conclude that history has slandered Senator Joe McCarthy? What if there were no witches and no commies but Joe and Matt had honestly thought that there were? 

Or: a question which has been worrying me more and more during a summer which has seen the closing of the News of the World, a massacre in Norway and three seperate riots at the bottom of my street. 

What if the Daily Mail were right? 

[*] It is interesting, if entirely irrelevant, that the great game of Chinese whispers which is the internet has widely disseminated Lewis's observation that if we believed in witches then we would probably believe in executing witches in the form "C.S. Lewis approved of the Salem witch craze" or "C.S. Lewis thinks that wiccans should be hung." Certain segments of the internet has also transformed "I shall use the Chinese term, Tao to refer to the core of morality which all religions have in common" to "C.S Lewis renounced Christianity and died a taoist". See also under lisptick, nylons and invitations.