Monday, December 10, 2012

The Three Parts of Morality

A redated post.

The Three Parts of Morality
Book 3, Chapter 1

“There is a story of 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.”

By contrast, “Moral rules are rules for running the human machine.” They are, to use my example, the instructions in the owner’s manual of a car, that tells you to keep the oil level up in the car and to change the oil every 3000 miles. These rules may seem at first to go against our natural inclinations.

Should we speak of moral ideals instead of moral rules? If we think of them is ideals rather than rules, then different people might have higher or lower ideals. Everyone is expected to try to follow the rules, even though no one comes close to following them perfectly.

Lewis mentions two ways in which “the human machine” goes wrong. One way is by bad relationships amongst people. The other is when things go wrong within the individual. Much discussion about morality on the part of modern people has to do with how people should relate to one another; that it is wrong to cause harm to others. He compares the moral life to a fleet of ships. The fleet may fail because of internal failures within the ships, or may fail because they drift apart or collide with one another.

But there is a third component to our moral lives. Are the ships going where they ought to be going? They may work well internally and sail in formation, and yet not get to the right place. Of course this means that there is a proper goal for human life.

So that means morality means:

1) Fair play among human beings.
2) Harmonizing the person internally.
3) Fulfilling the purpose of human life.

Modern people think of 1) and do not think of 2) and 3). They say “There can’t be anything wrong with it if it doesn’t harm anybody.”

2) is a moral tradition that goes back to Plato. According to Plato, reason (the desire for the Form of the Good) should command, and spirit (the interpersonal self), and appetite obey.

3. Is a tradition that goes back to Aristotle. The good life is the life that fulfils human nature. It assumes that human life has an inherent purpose. For Aristotle that purpose is inherent in our nature as humans, for the Christian tradition it is given to us by God.

Lewis thinks that we should pay more attention to 2 and 3. “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.

Christianity is a set of claims that, if true, will profoundly affect how we ought to behave.

Christianity teaches that I am a creature created by God for God’s purpose. Do I simply belong to myself? Many people think we do. If there is no God, then we own essentially belong to ourselves. “Whose life is it anyway?” So if we want, for example, to commit suicide, all we need to consider is what it would do to others. “If someone else made me, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.

Suppose I am addicted to video games. “It doesn’t hurt anybody,” I say. But am I fulfilling my nature as a human being?

Immanuel Kant thought that it was wrong to lie, first and foremost, because our capacity to speak was given to us in order to speak the truth, in lying we damage ourselves by using a facility for something for which it was not intended. In fact, he maintained that all lies were wrong, something thought by most people to be too strong a position. But the emphasis on this motivation for truthfulness is something Lewis would approve of.

Christianity also teaches that human beings last forever. This has two implications:

1) States of character are more important than particular actions. If my bad temper is getting worse, this may not be a big deal if we feed the worms after 70 years. If I go on forever, then my bad temper will be just hell until it is corrected. “Hell is the precisely correct term what it would be.”
2) If individuals are gone after 70 years then a state, a nation, or a civilization may last for a thousand years. (Hitler, for example, promised that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years.) But if Christianity is true, then an individual is more important than a civilization.

Lewis says that from here on he will give an account of morality with the assumption that Christianity is true. Although this is an apologetic work, Lewis is content simply to give an analysis of what ethics looks like on Christian assumptions, without feeling the need to prove the truth of Christianity first. It attempts to answer the question “Can we get sensible answers to moral questions if we adopt a Christian viewpoint.”


Don Jr. said...

Your summaries/evaluations of parts of Mere Christianity are of great use. Much thanks.

ozero91 said...

This stuff reminds me of Andrews' new Moral argument. It's better than Craig's IMO.

unkleE said...

Yeah, good stuff. But I think Lewis and you make one small mistake - "Christianity also teaches that human beings last forever."

I wonder where the Bible teaches this? I read that we are dust and to dust we will return, and that the wicked will be "destroyed". Our only hope is resurrection of our very mortal bodies, and only then can we take on immortality.

This makes an enormous difference.

Unknown said...

Unkle, does John 5:28-29 make a difference.

unkleE said...

"Unkle, does John 5:28-29 make a difference."

Hi TJA, no I don't think it does. I think we have to be a little wary of claiming to know too much about these things. The teaching I suggested is too pervasive to ignore, and one can easily fit in this passage by remembering that John in Revelation talks about "the second death".

Steve Lovell said...

I'm remain impressed by this part of Lewis. The much forgotten third part of morality is less forgotten now, as Alasdair MacIntyre reminded us about it in his seminal work _After Virtue_.

His thesis was that morality originally had the following three parts:

(1) The human condition. Man as he is.
(2) The telos. The purpose of man's existence. Man as he should be. Lewis's third part of morality.
(3) Morality, which gets you from the first to the second.

With moderns having jetisoned the telos, MacIntyre maintained that the remaining two parts couldn't be made to fit together.

Still seems right to me.

B. Prokop said...


If you don't care for John 5:28-29, how about Mark 12:24-27? Or all of First Corinthians Chapter 15?

Or if you are a Catholic and have all 73 books in your Bible, turn to Wisdom 3:1-8.

Maths Tutor Wirral said...

'Christianity teaches that I am a creature created by God for God’s purpose'

Well, you are not.

If you like, I can tell you how you got created.

Just do a google search on 'human reproduction'.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Actually, this statement: Christianity also teaches that human beings last forever. is wrong!

It was Plato that taught that the soul is immortal! It is Platonic. Christianity is a Greek religion. Christianity enculturated Hellenism and Plato's writings formed Hellenism.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Again this is faulty: morality means:

1) Fair play among human beings.

We are NOT "human beings". Ontop of the genera "human beings" is race. The idea of "fairness" does not operate between races so that statement is very very decieving. It is actually quite harmful if that does occur because humans act in herds. I point to Christ's interaction with the Syro-Phonecian woman who wanted Christ to heal her child. Christ first refused. Christ was not fair.

Again what is missing from this chapter is also the mention of Virtue. "Fairness" is a doctrine of Cultural Marxism.

ozero91 said...

"Well, you are not.

If you like, I can tell you how you got created.

Just do a google search on 'human reproduction'."

We're talking about metaphysical, existential purposes and final causes, not merely biological, efficient causes.

B. Prokop said...


Since we've been quoting scripture on this thread, I might recommend the following to you:

"Do not throw your pearls before [trolls], lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you." (Matthew 7:6, slightly altered)

These guys don't want a discussion - they just want to spout.

ozero91 said...

Just can't help it sometimes, but you are right. I guess I need to trust that the silent readers of the blog can sort things out for themselves.

unkleE said...

G'day Bob,


If you don't care for John 5:28-29, how about Mark 12:24-27? Or all of First Corinthians Chapter 15?

I'm not sure what you are getting at Bob? Both these passages teach resurrection. not immortality, which is the point I was making.

Do you think otherwise?

B. Prokop said...

I guess to me resurrection goes hand-in-hand with immortality. Otherwise, what's the point?

Even people who believe in reincarnation do not refer to what happens as "resurrection".

Plus (arguing from Scripture here) there are an awful lot of references to "eternal" life and a liberal use of the word "eternal".

I guess, to answer your question, I do think otherwise. Are you saying that the resurrected saints get to die again? Where does that idea come from?

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