Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Right and Wrong: True Concept or Useful Myth? Does it Even Matter?

In response to a recent post about 'The Efficient Society', I got some feedback from Curt at Northwestern Winds suggesting I read, "The Abolition of Man" by C.S. Lewis (which he posted on here).

Since I was in the market for a challenging read, I took him up on his suggestion. The Abolition of Man is a book (really a series of three lectures transcribed into essays) about the roots of morality or 'values' so let me start by stating where I stand on the topic. Then I'll look at where Lewis stands and consider a few of his arguments for why he feels that his is the only coherent position to hold.

Personally, I think that a lot of what we see as 'beautiful' or 'right' or 'correct' is a function of evolution, arising directly or indirectly through the 'desire'1 of our genes to replicate themselves. Layered on top of this individual desire for self-preservation lie the values which we learn from society, values which work towards the benefit/expansion/preservation of society. The primary mechanism through which this works is using our capacity for empathy to extend our consideration beyond just ourselves to include others: family at the most basic level, expanding to community, country, humanity or life itself as the capacity for empathy, buttressed by the knowledge that one life is not rationally more important than any other, even when one of them is your own.

In the same way that gene combinations that allow for successful reproduction of themselves come to dominate over those that don't, societies that instill values that lead to the success of the society will come to dominate over those that don't.

I'm no philosopher so I don't know exactly what you would call this position. It's not really moral relativism in that behavior can be judged based no whether it is beneficial to society or detrimental and on the level of empathy which a form of behavior displays. Of course, some might argue that if I really believe that it doesn't matter (in some objective sense) whether mankind survives or not why should I care about conforming to the (hence) 'arbitrary' goals of valuing empathy or ensuring society's survival but the simple fact is that I do. I am as much a product of my instincts and my upbringing as everyone else. I seek to do what feels right, even as a small voice in the back of my brain acknowledges the cosmically 'unjustified' nature of that feeling.

Lewis, of course, does not share my opinion. He argues that there is a universal, objective 'right' and 'wrong' and that societies around the world have acknowledged this universal code under various names. Says Lewis, "This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'"

I was somewhat expecting Lewis to try and directly counter my worldview but after a couple of reads through 'The Abolition of Man', I realized that he had not really done that. In both 'Men Without Chests', the first of the three lectures which make up 'The Abolition of Man', and the third lecture (titled 'The Abolition of Man' same as the book as a whole), Lewis argues not that my view is wrong but rather that the consequences of too many people not believing in the Tao will be bad for society and for man (leading in the end to his abolishment at his own hands through the advancement of science).

From 'Men Without Chests':
"And all the time - such is the tragi-comedy of our situation - we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive," or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

From the third lecture, 'The Abolition of Man':
"Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have non motive but their own 'natural' impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

I suppose these concerns would come true if people took the absence of absolute morality as a license to just do whatever they felt like - in that case the consequences will understandably be bad, almost by definition. I say, 'by definition' since, in my view, the rules society generally lives by and which absolutists call the Tao are exactly those rules which have evolved for the explicit purpose of making society succeed. So, by definition, if people begin to violate those rules, society will suffer.

Presumably if people choose to live according to such morals as would support the continued existence of a healthy society, regardless of their belief in some absolute objective morality, then Lewis' fears would be unfounded.

At any rate, none of this actually gets at the question of whether the non-absolutist worldview I sketched out earlier could be an accurate assessment of how our morals came to be or not.

Only in the second essay, "The Way" does Lewis really take on people who reject the idea of an absolute morality. But even here, all his argument amounts to is saying that if you reject the Tao, then there can be no other source of objective reality, and if you subscribe to some moral principle such as 'society ought to be preserved' then that *is* the Tao,
"From propositions about fact alone, no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved ... are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself: or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. The innovator will not take the first alternative, for practical principles known to all men by Reason are simply the Tao which he has set out to supersede."

This is pretty much a self-fulfilling argument: if you believe in objective reality then you believe in the Tao and if you don't then there is no source of objective reality for you to base assessments of what 'ought to be' or 'what ought not to be' on - aside from your own feelings of what is wrong and right.

But in the end (from my point of view), what is the Tao other than the beliefs of some people about what felt right or wrong to them at some point in time? I don't really see a big difference between me saying that society ought to be preserved because the Tao says so, or me saying that 'society ought to be preserved' because that feels like the right thing to do.

At any rate, Lewis never really addresses the question of whether or not there seems to be a correspondence between what is considered moral in society and what is in the interests of that society's preservation and whether the evolution of societies through the ages might provide a more accurate explanation of how we come to have the moral feelings we have now than the existence of an omnipresent never-changing metaphysical Tao does.

It might have been interesting to have Lewis comment on the surprising coincidence that so many of the rules common to all societies also happen to be rules which help make societies prosper and grow. It might have been interesting to have him comment on theories in the vein of Jane Jacobs idea (backed by Plato) that we have separate sets of moral rules for activities based on trading vs. those based on taking and that immorality often stems from confusing these two sets of morals2. In the absence of this kind of direct consideration of my worldview, I was left a little disappointed by 'The Abolition of Man' (hey, I'm self-centred) but I can't complain too much.

Despite my disappointment, I'd say that if the topic sounds interesting (despite my stilted writing), I'd certainly recommend "The Abolition of Man" - it's quite short so it's not a big commitment (the full text is available online here), and it will make you think about what you believeand why. It is worth reading even just for Lewis' beautiful prose.

1I should note that the genes don't really have any desires. This is just a metaphor which suggests that the practical effect of evolution is as if the genes were working on some 'desire' of theirs to replicate themselves.

2Of course Jacobs book came much later than Lewis' but I'm just talking hypotheticals here, as in I wish he would have addressed something along those lines.

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  • Lewis is interesting. Curt and I have sparred on a number of occasions. "Miracles" is the title we explored the most.

    My biggest problem with the thinking that Lewis (and by extension, Curt) use is that they base some of their arguements on their gut feeling of how something ought to be, and any version of reality that undermines that is therefore wrong. Again - sel-fulfilling arguements.

    Still, it's always fun to dive into philosophy, and in the Canadian blogosphere Curt is the absolute best Christian philosophy blogger out there.

    By Blogger Andrew, at 4:07 AM  

  • Yeah, it's kind of fun, but also kind of tiresome. Writing this post reminded me why I generally avoid philosophical discussions...

    I hear what you're saying about gut feelings...

    By Blogger Declan, at 8:48 AM  

  • "This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'"

    this is why i dont like lewis. ok, so hes a christian, so naturally he might be a tad biased - fine. but his reading of the greeks is hella annoying. the 'plato' and 'aristotle' he name-drops did speak extensively of 'the good life', but their moral compass is not analogous to the christian moral compass.

    lewis, with his westernized 'tao', basically seeks to frame all the great moral traditions in the judeo-christian 'good vs evil' context.

    the greek moral compass was not based on an absolute good or evil - its more of a healthy vs unhealthy thing. plato acknowledges his polis will never come about, so although he speaks in absolutes at times, he doesnt seem to want his readers to obsess over these absolutes. aristotle's word for virtue (aka arete) can be applied to all kinds of inanimate objects as well as people. it is basically translated as role-specific excellence, and has more in common with the ruthlessly pragmatic machiavellian worldview than any christian morality.

    By Blogger angela, at 8:53 AM  

  • also, his hijacking of the word tao is pretty annoying since it is a term that belongs to oriental philosophy. i mean, if hes going to squish the entire canon into his own worldview, surely he could scrounge up one of his own words.

    By Blogger angela, at 8:58 AM  

  • Andrew - you're far too kind, but hey! Thanks. Ok, a couple of things I hope I can add here, without putting anyone to sleep.

    As for the 'gut feeling'- I freely admit I use it, and I always try to show how this is unavoidable for all of us. By being open about it, I think the debate is clearer, and it allows 'agree to disagree' to occur more easily than 'you must be stupid'. I'm always after the axiomatic points, trying to draw them up into the open. These kinds of points we simply take or reject; they're not provable things. Ex. We belive in reason, we belive in other people, but these are not provable things.

    As for the Tao and other religions, such as the greeks. Lewis is trying to say that this thing, the Tao exits, and we struggle to see it clearly. No doubt, he thinks Christians see it best, but not perfectly, and there may be fruitful exchanges with others who accept it as well. Christians see Plato, Aristotle and their precursors. This begins to take shape with neo Platonists like Plotinus. People have been debating if that's a fair reading of the Greeks for a looong time.

    Delcan, in saying that Lewis didn't cover this or you wish he'd done that, you're invoking the Tao. You have an idea of how this subject 'ought' to have been handled. You see? The fact that your idea of it is not the same as Lewis' is beside the point.

    The use of the Tao - rather than the Christian term 'Natural law' - is to underline that we all have different ideas about it. We are debating *what* it is, not *if* it is.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the book, sort of. I know you like to think in terms of efficiency - as I did back in my "selfish gene" days. Here's some more questions for you... At what level is something said to be efficient? Personal? Small group? City? World? The answer you give will alter what is called efficient. How does one choose?

    Then there is the question about universals. What is a group, a city or a world? How do we define it? Is it a real thing or only an abstraction?

    Finally, what does it mean to prosper? Is it only to live long and have toys? It is a growing population? Growing knowledge?

    I started to think along those lines and realized that efficiency was not the bottom rung. I had to keep digging, and then I was into values.

    I hope you'll keep doing such interesing posts. They are a joy to read.

    By Blogger Curt, at 3:29 PM  

  • I knnow little about the Greeks so I'll spare you bot my ignorance there.

    I appreciate what Lewis was trying to say about all belief systems having belief in an objective good in common, but it would have been nice if he could have picked a word which wasn't already linked to one particular belief system. It also seems a bit like he's just picking the values which he has inherited from society and calling them the Tao.

    As for me invoking the Tao in my post by expressing my disappointment with parts of the book, I'm not saying that Lewis *ought* to have done anything, only that my preference would have been for him to take on my worldview more directly and that i might have found it more convincing had he done so.

    Efficiency is just one consideration among many. It is not always necessary for society to be efficient in order for it to prosper.

    I guess 'prosper' in my sense of morals would mean for a society to continue to exist. I have a certain set of values because I was raised in a certain society/value system which has become widespread and numerous and impressive enough that it hasn't died out, been overrun or had its members defect to other systems.

    For example, adopting Christian values arguably allowed the Roman empire to exist for longer, and in more places than it otherwise might have. In that sense these values helped Roman society prosper (or at least delayed its decline).

    Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the post Curt, but I might be philosophied-out for a while, I guess we'll see.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:52 PM  

  • Hello Declan

    Perhaps one difference between the idea of the Tao as self-valid and values produced by evolution comes with the question do you want society to be preserved or your values to spread. "Should" you? And if you can you not want it to be prserved by everyone else following the society-preserving values while you ride free?


    By Anonymous Alan E. Dunne, at 2:29 PM  

  • Hi Alan, not sure I understand your question.

    I want to do what feels right to me, which happens to be what will enable society to be preserved, and to a lesser extent, to spread. There's no objective 'should' in my philosophy.

    So free-riding isn't really an issue since I am following rules just like everyone else.

    By Blogger Declan, at 5:36 PM  

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