Book one of Mere Christianity is titled “Right and Wrong As a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” This time around, I will be discussing the first chapter in that book.
The first chapter deals with the so-called laws of human nature. Lewis argues that disagreements show that all people have the same view of what is right and what is wrong. I’d disagree with this. He claims that people in the wrong simply justify why an exception should be made for them. Clearly Lewis never heard an argument that went more like this: “You can’t hit your child: that’s child abuse.” “No it’s not. I was spanked by my parents, and I turned out fine. Children need to be disciplined when they do something wrong.” “Spanking isn’t an effective form of punishment. It just teaches the kid not to get caught.” Here we have to people arguing about right and wrong. These people clearly have two different standards of morality.
Lewis continues his defense of “everybody knows what is right and what is wrong, and it’s the same for everyone” by stating that WWII wouldn’t have happened if the Nazis didn’t know that they were wrong. Really? Because I’m pretty sure WWII happened precisely because both sides thought that they were in the right. Not just in the Second World War, but in the first one as well. Going back to WWI, France thought themselves entitled to German territory, and decided that they were in the right to take it. During WWII, the Germans thought that it was their right to take the land back. Antisemitism was socially acceptable at the time, so the British thought that they were in the right to give the Germans whatever they demanded and ignore the suffering of the Jewish people. And later, the United States thought that they were in the right to drop nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities. Here in Canada, we thought it was okay to round up Japanese citizens and place them in ghettos similar to those that the Jewish people were placed in. Of course, we won the war, so all of these terrible acts are ignored by history. Yes, the Nazis did try to eradicate all the Jewish people. Yes, this is commonly considered wrong. But it seems odd to argue that the Nazis knew it was wrong. If they did, why did they do it? All sides did things that we judge to be wrong today, and all sides defended their actions as right at the time.
Lewis goes on to say “If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teachings of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.” This isn’t strictly true. When we study other cultures, we don’t study their similarities (usually), we study their differences. Yes, we are very similar to one another: we’re all the same species after all. But, as far as moral codes are concerned, there are striking differences. For example, throughout history, when one emperor lost his throne in China, the subsequent emperor would attempt to eradicate their predecessor from the history books. Many other cultures would have considered this horrendous behavior: the dead should be honored and remembered, not be removed from history. Especially those who had power. The ancient Egyptians mummified bodies. The Europeans of the Middle Ages would have seen the removal of the organs as immoral. The Romans entertained themselves by watching slaves kill each other. That is considered very much immoral today. So, if we are all subject to the same moral laws, and we all know right from wrong, who is right in all of these cases? Or are these simply cases of differing moral codes?
Lewis argues 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.” This is very true. We aren’t perfect, and we do tend to break our own moral coeds from time to time. This can’t be helped: we have emotions, and, sometimes, they take away our ability to react rationally. But this fact does not prove that the law of nature exists. It merely proves that we aren’t infallible.
As you can see, I have a lot of problems with C.S. Lewis’s belief in the laws of nature. I do believe that some level of our moral code comes from our biology, but I also believe that it comes from our society. We don’t all believe that the same things are right and wrong.