Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Reply to Hell's Handmaiden on Lewis's moral argument

I'm wondering if you have the structure of Lewis's argument right. In Lewis's writings he seems to be very concerned about defending the objectivity of moral values, in, for example, The Abolition of Man and The Poison of Subjectivism. Offering an anti-naturalist or theistic explanation for this fact is something that appears only in Mere Christianity. So, for example, C. Stephen Evans provides a formalization of Lewis's argument that goes like this.

1) Probably, unless there is a God, there cannot be objectively binding moral obligations.
2) There are objectively binding moral obligations.
3) Therefore, (Probably) God exists.

In this post I delineate three arguments for moral objectivity in Lewis: the argument from implied practice, the argument from underlying moral consensus, and the argument from reformers.


In other words, Lewis's arguments attempt to establish the existence of moral facts or truths, establishing premise 2 of the above argument. He then argues that the existence of moral facts or truths is best explained by theism and not be naturalism. As I read him, Lewis's overall idea is this: if there are objective moral truths, what sorts of facts could these truths follow from? If the physical is all there is, then it seems that moral truths will not follow from truths of this type. However if there is a God, then these moral facts can be explained. Therefore, the existence of objective moral values gives us a reason to believe that God does exist.

Your argument from social necessity is an interesting one. While some deviant codes would destroy society, I would be inclined to argue that the moral consensus Lewis is referring to is too rich and complex to be absolutely necessary for cultural survival, and that a society with a simple pecking order would survive equally well. A sense of justice for weak and underprivileged members of society, for example, would seem on the face of things to be, if anything, a Darwinian liability.

If this is the explanation for our moral consciousness, I would also have to ask whether there is an overriding reason for me to always act morally. Morality exists for the survival of a society, but perhaps in order for me to survive individually I might do something that keeps me flourishing but undermines my society as a whole. If this is why these moral rules exist, why should I as an indivual care (unless I happen to have the emotional disposition to care).


themaiden said...



I am aware that Lewis’ ultimate goal was a proof of God very much as you outline, quoting or paraphrasing C. Stephen Evans and that I am essentially addressing premise 2 of that argument.

We do see a very simple pecking order type social structure in very simple societies like that of the non-human primates and, even, in the structures of other social animal groups. But as elements of society become more complicated, so does the social structure. For example, stone tools immediately mean certain changes. Skill in making the tools becomes a factor as does the availability of workable stone. With both of these comes trade, which may involve long journeys and possibly the learning of foreign languages and traditions. Population pressures force more complicated interactions. Farming forces more complicated interactions. So, no, I don’t think a pecking order structure would work well for anything approaching human societies.

It is wrong to consider justice a Darwinian liability. Humans survive in groups, and survive very poorly outside of groups. Some sense of, or system of, justice helps to keep those groups together and hence everyone’s chances go up.

That goes a long way towards responding to you final comment. You as an individual may not feel obligated to help anyone, but your neighbors will sure feel that you need to contribute. They will consequently do all in their power to assure that you contribute whether you want to or not. This could mean, for example, not sharing a kill with you because you were stingy with your last kill. You go hungry a little bit and thus are motivated, at least a little, to share next time. The serious troublemakers just get kicked out of the group or killed. Over time people make up stories about this or that thief, or this or that brave warrior, and the ideas become engrained in the minds of those hearing the stories.

The process isn’t perfect, of course, and sometimes things go terribly wrong, but those societies self destruct or get destroyed by surrounding cultures, as happened with Nazi Germany. Subsequent generations take the lessons and move on, at least until those lessons are forgotten or watered down by the years. Then something goes wrong and the lessons have to b

Victor Reppert said...

Here's the rest of themaiden's comments: be relearned. I do think, though, that overall we make a slow and painful kind of progress.