The Abolition of Man: Chapters One and Two

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

Welcome to week one of the Chi Alpha summer reading project!

Some resources that may prove useful to you:

On to Lewis’s argument. He noticed a feature in an English textbook which greatly bothered him: the authors teach that value judgments about the world are statements of feeling rather than statements of fact. Lewis points out that this is a very powerful form of indoctrination and adds that this is an enormous difference from the past.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. (page 699 in our anthology)

He gives several examples and lumps them together under the common name of the Tao:

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.… what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (pages 701–702)

It is worth thinking about his illustration. I suspect some of you will strongly disagree with it without quite knowing why. Here it is in bare form: not liking children is a moral defect. It is not “just the way you are.” It is the way you have become, and you have an obligation to try to become someone better. And even if your dislike of children was a matter of your genetics of something else beyond your control it would not stop being a moral defect.

But our culture rejects these moral obligations along with many others; more than that, we refuse to seriously consider that they might actually be moral obligations instead of personal choices. We teach that values are matters of opinion. And this leads to the stunning peroration of the first lecture:

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. (page 704)

In light of Lewis’ argument, reflect on this recent essay about an article in the prestigious publication Foreign Policy: Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren’t sure (Julia Duin, GetReligion):

“In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals. I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.”

If he read that article, Lewis would not be surprised. Rejecting the Tao opens the door to madness.

In the second chapter, “The Way”, Lewis points out that many people attempt to hold on to objective ethics without admitting that they are doing so.

A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted. (page 706)

The most common attempt to find a source of values apart from the Tao is to appeal to human nature. When I talk with skeptics on campus they most commonly try to ground morality in evolutionary psychology. But it doesn’t work. Lewis explains:

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 you 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. (page 707)

In other words, the only way to derive morality is to presuppose morality. Just as the sum of two numbers will itself be a number, facts can only produce moral obligations if moral obligations are themselves facts.

Lewis says a lot more in these chapters, but this email is already too lengthy.

Those are the things that stood out to me. What stood out to you?

Leave a Reply