Humans impose standards of behavior on ourselves and on each other. Lewis uses examples like this:
- That's my seat; I was there first.
- Give me a bite; I gave you a bite of mine.
- Come on, you promised.
- How would you like it if anyone did the same to you?
Person A: "That's my seat; I was there first."
Person B: "Well, you weren't sitting here, and you didn't have anything in the seat, so how could I have known it was yours. It was fair game."
So the purpose of chapter one is to point out that Right and Wrong are real concepts that we all believe in, even if we do not consciously do so. We are all operating under the Law of Morality, just as matter is subject to Gravitational Law and just as our bodies are governed by Biological Laws. The only difference is that the Moral Law is one we can choose to obey or disobey (which also distinguishes humans from all other matter because we are the only ones with the capacity for moral thought). In fact, we often fail at obeying the moral law on a daily basis. He says:
"None of us are really keeping the Law of [Morality]. If there are any exceptions among you, I apologize to them. They had much better read some other book, for nothing I am going to say concerns them. And now, turning to the ordinary human beings who are left... I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month, or more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behavior we expect from other people."
1. Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.
2. They [often] do not in fact behave in that way.
Having made his two points in chapter one, Lewis uses chapter two to address some objections that people often have about the Moral Law.
Moral Law is just a Herd Instinct that has been developed over time like all our other instincts.
Response to Objection One:
Moral law is not an instinct but rather the thing that judges between two instincts.
- Lewis compares this distinction to the difference between piano music and piano keys. Just as the sheet music is needed to tell us which keys to play, the Moral Law is not one of our instincts but rather the thing that tells us which instincts to follow and which ones to suppress.
- If the Moral Law was not present, our stronger impulses (such as self-preservation) would always win, yet we often choose the weaker impulse over the stronger one (for example: choosing our herd instinct to help someone in danger rather than following our self-preservation instinct to flee danger).
- Also, no instinct we have is ever fully good at all times; all of them need to be encouraged or suppressed at different times, so it is a mistake to view our impulses as good and bad. A mother's love for her child (what we might say is a good instinct) can become overly indulgent and preferential toward the child. A man's fighting instinct (what we might say is a bad instinct) sometimes needs to be encouraged in order to protect others. The Moral Law is what encourages or suppresses those impulses to be used appropriately. Just like none of the keys on the piano is necessarily 'right' or 'wrong'. "Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another."
Moral Law is just a social convention, put into us by education.
Response to Objection Two:
Just because we learn something from our parents/teachers/ancestors does not make that thing merely a human invention.
- We all learned our multiplication tables at school. A person living alone on a deserted island would not have learned those multiplication tables, but that does not make the principle behind them any less real or factual, so it does not follow that the multiplication table is merely something humans made up for themselves.
- The laws of morality belong to this same class as mathematics because
A. Though there are some differences in the moral ideas of one time period or country and another, the differences are not as great as one would expect if the moral laws were merely a social construct made to fit each group's likes or dislikes. Even with the differences that do exist, we can see the same moral thread running through each culture and generation.
B. The moment you say one set of moral ideas can be better than another (such as, the current American perspective on slavery versus that of the 1860s Civil War era), you are measuring them both by a standard and describing how closely they come to that standard. So saying that one generation's morals is better than the previous generation's implies that there is an overarching standard of morality, and a standard is something above and separate from the things it measures. (If I measure the length of a string incorrectly, that does not change the standard of measurement on the ruler I was using; it only means I used the ruler incorrectly.)
- We should also be careful not to confuse advances in knowledge with advances in morality. There is a distinction between differences of morality and differences of beliefs about facts. Just as 2+2 always equals 4, even if we sometimes get the answer wrong as we are learning to add, so the Moral Law remains constant, even if we humans sometimes get it wrong. Lewis writes:
"One man said to me, 'Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?' But surely the reason we do not execute witches [today] is that we do not believe there are such things... There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house."
What objections do you have to the idea of a standard of morality?
Can we say that there is objective Right and Wrong in the world?
+This first post will be somewhat longer since I am combining chapters one and two in order to follow the 31-day framework for going through the book. The two chapters on Faith will also be combined into one post later on. Otherwise each post will cover only one chapter at a time from the book.