I don’t have a whole lot to say on Chapter 3, “The Reality of the Law,” of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It is written in such a way where it’s a meaningless chapter if you haven’t already accepted his arguments up to now. Nonetheless, I do have a couple points to discuss.
The first point I’d like to make is about his assumption that intentions matter more than consequences. He discusses a case where he wants a particular seat on a train. In one case it is already taken. In the other someone tries to take it from him. He argues “I blame the second man and do not blame the first. I am not angry-except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses-with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he doesn’t succeed. Yet the second has hurt me and the first has not.” On the one hand, yes, someone did try and take something from him. I can understand being peeved by that. However, Lewis talks about the first man having hurt him and the second one not doing so. Basically, he’s saying that the consequences don’t matter as much as the intentions do. This does fit into certain ethical theories, but they are largely regarded as nonsense. Yes, intentions do matter. If I intend to hurt someone, then I am guilty of that intent. But if I don’t actually do anything to them, then am I as guilty as I would be otherwise? Basically, should I be arrested for wanting to assault someone just as I would be if I had assaulted them? That would be a thought crime.
We do differentiate between intentional and non-intentional murder. If you intend to commit murder, then you are charged with first degree murder. But if you merely act in the heat of the moment, then you are charged with second degree murder. However, you cannot be charged with intended murder if you never actually make any attempt to kill the person. This shows that we as a society view consequences as more important than intentions. But lets look back at the train case. Lewis says that he is hurt by somebody having taken the spot that he wanted. How is he hurt? There are other seats, and I assume that there was no medical reason for his needing that seat. As such, how was he hurt by having to pick a different seat? At worst he was slightly inconvenienced. As for the man who tried to take his seat, in that case he may have been hurt. Not physically, but mentally. He’s angry not because he cared deeply about the seat, but because someone has put themselves so high above everybody else that they view themselves as entitled to take anything they want away from other people. They believe themselves entitled to the seat that is occupied by another. We view this as unfair. We are hurt by it.
Second, he accuses those who argue that morals come from societal need as using circular reasoning. I don’t think he really understands the argument. It is not “one should be kind because it benefits society, because society is made up of other people and they want to be treated with kindness.” It is this: we should be kind because we live in societies with other people. As such, we rely on other people for survival, and they in turn rely on us. If we are kind to others, they will be kind to us, and if we are all kind then we will survive better. This is built on self-interest, but it is also built on group interest. We rely on each other. I want to survive and live comfortably, and so do you. We can either work together and both live comfortably, or we can try to live better than the other, try to take their stuff, and risk leading terrible lives as a result of constant theft and fighting. In one case, we both win, in the other, we likely both lose. This is not circular reasoning, it’s reasoning based on naturalistic observations in both biology and psychology. And it takes away the need for there to be some mystical form known as moral law.
This chapter came across as someone who hadn’t done any reading in the philosophy of ethics. It comes across as someone making assumptions without dong any proper research. The answers that I gave are not new. They were thought up long before Lewis’s time. Yet he makes no attempt to address these answers and simply makes assertions that are easily refutable.