Saturday, January 15, 2011

God's Quality Control 5.0.2

Here I continue my discussion of the book Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Before I dive in, I'd like to address a point made by a couple of people following this series. It's possible that if he were alive today, C.S. Lewis might form some more reasonable opinions. Perhaps he was held back by nothing more than a forgivable lack of knowledge. I can't completely let him off the hook, because as far as I know, he intended to worship the monster that intends to throw almost all of us into hell. But I can at least temper my contempt somewhat. Contempt toward a human is an unworthy sentiment anyway. Going forward, I'll say for the record that my harangue is directed not toward the man himself, but toward his faulty arguments and misguided opinions, the inexplicable belief that he was a great thinker-philosopher-moralist, and the modern misuse of his ideas. Strange, I could say the same of Jesus.

Chapter III

Continuing in Chapter III, we find Lewis exploring the meaning of words like "ought" and "should". First, he demonstrates that these words apply more to one's intentions than to any unintended effects of one's behavior. He wouldn't blame someone who harms (or inconveniences) him without intent but would blame someone who attempts to harm him, even if the attempt were unsuccessful. Although he brings in the outdated concept of blame, his point is still valid: morality is not about unintended consequences.

Sadly, he comes very close to discovering, but once again missing, the seeds of a morality far superior to the one he promotes. Referring to someone who harms him accidentally, say, a man who trips him unintentionally but causes him to hurt himself, Lewis says, "I am not angry—except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses." Hidden in this humble statement are the seeds for understanding how human morality began, how it has become something profound, and how it could become something hardly dreamed of. The part about being angry for a moment shows that our morality is rooted in our hard-wired responses to the world. In the wild, it serves social animals to have—judiciously, of course—an unpleasant reaction to another animal that has caused pain. The part about coming to one's senses shows that we have brought our conscious minds and culture to bear on the issue. Our minds and culture have transformed our innate language abilities into something momentous--consider poetry, song, theater, and literacy. Similarly, our minds and culture could transform a rudimentary individual survival mechanism into a revolutionary way of thinking that vastly and progressively improves the quality of life for everyone. We have some way to go still, but we've already made many steps in the right direction.

Second, Lewis examines the other side of the coin, showing that behavior that is materially beneficial to oneself or anyone else also cannot categorically be considered moral. He gives the example of a spy, who benefits one side in a conflict, but might be considered vermin by both sides. I'm reminded of Dick Cheney talking about sometimes having to work with people that you wouldn't want to invite to dinner.

Finally, Lewis addresses the idea that "ought" and "should" apply to conduct that benefits the human race as a whole. Once again coming tantalizingly close to something profound, he points out that being coerced on the grounds of the good of all humans, one could easily respond along the lines of, "Why should I care about humanity more than what benefits me personally?" to which the only response Lewis can think of is, "Because you ought to be unselfish," which shows the benefit-to-humanity argument to be circular. The excellent point that he misses here is that coercive morality itself is the problem. Every argument Lewis has made so far is part of this framework, which uses shame, guilt, blame, punishment, violence, and myriad other unhealthy concepts in order to coerce people to behave a certain way. As long as most of us are stuck in this mode of thinking, we will never be safe.

I've spent far more time reading science than Socrates, but given the snippets I've heard and read, it seems that he had a far better idea concerning morality: suasion and long reflection, as Hitchens put it so succinctly. I've just realized yet another one of the obvious weaknesses of this dilapidated superstition: it has held us enslaved to a toxic way of thinking that we could have outgrown some 25 centuries ago. We are long overdue to begin thinking better of ourselves, to stop believing that coercion is the only path to virtue.

Lewis finishes Chapter III with yet another indefensible leap. He says that "somehow or other" the fact that morality is far larger and often in direct conflict with self-interest leads to the conclusion that his "Law of Human Nature" is "a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves." Again he finds himself approaching the precipice only to walk away from it. Coercive morality is indeed a thing that is not made up by ourselves. Rather, it is a rationalization—a terribly faulty and detrimental rationalization—of our instincts. The kind of morality we desperately need is a morality indeed made up by ourselves, the result of a primitive instinct reshaped and transformed by reason and culture into something astonishing. No god is going to do this for us; we must do it for ourselves.

That's 5.0.2. Thanks for watching.

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