Mere Christianity Part 12

I have now gotten to book 3, “Christian Behaviour,” in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The first chapter, “The Three Parts of Morality,” discusses human morality.

Lewis begins by discussing the idea of morality as an ideal, or subjective morality to use the more widely understood phrase. He argues “When a man says that a certain woman, or house, or ship, or garden is ‘his ideal’ he does not mean (unless he is rather a fool) that everyone else ought to have the same ideal. In such matters we are entitled to have different tastes and, therefore, different ideals. But it is dangerous to describe a man who tries very hard to keep the moral law as a ‘man of high ideals,’ because this might lead you to think that moral perfection was a private taste of his own and that the rest of us were not called on to share it.” My first problem with this analogy is that morality isn’t a physical thing, it’s a social construct. We can’t point to something and say “this is a morality,” but we can point at a ship and say “that is a ship.” So to talk about the ideal ship is very different than talking about the ideal morality. However, we can in fact talk about aspects of morality in terms of personal preference. For example, while drugs are illegal and gay marriage is legal (in my country), we can have different moral opinions on both. Many people want to legalize marijuana, where as a shrinking number of people want to keep it illegal. It’s perfectly acceptable to hold either opinion, though this can and has led to many debates. Likewise, it’s perfectly acceptable to disagree about the morality of gay marriage. It’s becoming less acceptable (in my country) to disagree with gay marriage, but it is still acceptable to believe that it is either morally right or morally wrong. Historically speaking, in the 1930’s many of the bank robbers who were common at the time were seen as heroes. They were seen to be fighting a corrupt system that favored the rich to the detriment of the poor. As a result, bank robbery was morally ambiguous: some people thought it was wrong, others right. Bootleggers during the prohibition were seen in much the same light. Many people say drinking as morally wrong, and they thought it their right to enforce their beliefs on society, others did not and they saw it as their right to illegally bring alcohol to those who wanted it. We can easily get into a debate in the comment section on the morality of all of those things. Is this not us putting our personal ideals as our guidelines for our morality? Does this not show the subjectivity of morality?

Lewis goes on to say “And it would be even more dangerous to think of oneself as a person ‘of high ideals’ because one is trying to tell no lies at all (instead of only a few lies) or never to commit adultery (instead of committing it only seldom) or not to be a bully (instead of being only a moderate bully). It might lead you to become a prig and to think you were rather a special person who deserved to be congratulated on his ‘idealism.'” To a certain degree, I agree with this. Nobody is special for doing what is right. We shouldn’t require a reward for doing good. But we do reward those that we determine to be doing good. Just look at the words we use: we call people “good” if they volunteer their time, donate money, help others, or do anything else that we view as right, and we call people “bad” for doing things like stealing or anything else that we view as wrong. These labels are themselves rewards. We like being called “good.” We like how people treat us when they consider us good. We don’t like to be called “bad.” We don’t like how people treat us when they consider us to be bad. We also reward ourselves for being good. When we do something that we think is good, we feel good. We feel like we deserve to be treated a certain way. Heck, we’ll buy ourselves “a special treat” when we think we’ve done good. How many people would say “you don’t deserve a treat just because you did something good”? How would you react if someone said that to you? Society sets us up to be rewarded, and feel deserving of a reward, for doing what we see as good.

He goes on to explain how he views morality: “Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for.” Only the first part makes sense given what morality is: a societal construct. The point of morality is to improve the state of society and the well-being of the people in it. Morality does affect the individual: we don’t want people running around who believe that murder is acceptable. But there is a lot of room within morality for different opinions on things. As such, morality may be ingrained within our person, but there is no one right answer that makes Lewis’s “tidying up” comment make sense. Since I don’t think that we were created, or that we have a particular purpose of living, I can’t agree with the third part.

Lewis then states “What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?” The first thing I have to say is this: morality doesn’t come from laws, laws are derived from acceptable moral standards of the time they are written. This means that we follow the social behavious before we write it up. Yes, some people do break these rules, but most people follow them just fine. If most people didn’t follow these rules, then it is unlikely that they would be considered acceptable social standards. However, assuming that this were the case, the point of writing them up would be because we view these rules as worthy of being written down and believe them to be capable of improving society. He goes on to say “I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realize that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly.” How much courage and unselfishness does it take to follow societies moral code? I don’t find this a very difficult feat. Maybe it takes courage on the part of those enforcing the moral code, but few of the enforcers are in any way unselfish. In fact, many of the people who join the police force and politics do so for the power. He finishes the paragraph by stating that “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.” He’s right on the first part, but this is because the law isn’t meant to make people good. Good people are created through good parenting, a good education, and a healthy environment. Every society will always have “good” people. Why? Because societies are, in and of themselves, the people in them. It’s these people who determine what is good. Therefore, it wouldn’t be possible for there to be a society with no good people in it. Another society may view the society as a whole as a bad society, but that isn’t what Lewis is saying.

He then goes back to the idea of morality as subjective by saying “For example, let us go back to the man who says that a thing cannot be wrong unless it hurts some other human being. He quite understands that he must not damage the other ships in the convoy, but he honestly thinks that what he does to his own ship is simply his own business.” This is not really true. If the ship captain decides to damage the ship while the convoy is moving, then they risk harming the other ships. They risk the ship turning and hitting the ship beside it, or slowing down and being hit by the ship behind it. This harms other people, so it would not be seen as right. Likewise, even if the captain damages the ship when it is away from others, they can still harm others. For example, most ships require a crew to run. The captain can harm the crew, then damaging the ship is not right. If the ship sinks in an area where it can damage other ships, then it would not be right. Damaging the ship would only be amoral, not right, if only the captain is harmed by it. Let’s use a different example: if I were to invest in a company that is predicted to fail, would anybody say that what I did was morally wrong? I’m hurting myself if the company fails, but, assuming I don’t have a family, I’m not harming anyone else. Wouldn’t most people say that it’s my own money to do with as I will?

Finally, Lewis argues “If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilization, compared with his, is only a moment.” Again, societies are the people. Yes, societies are all the people as a whole, but they are still the people. As such, it would make sense to say that, were heaven real, there would be societies in heaven (and hell). As such, the society would still be more important. The only importance for any given individual would be to ensure that they themselves are good enough to get into heaven. But this matters not at all until we actually have a reason to believe that there is life after death.


5 responses to “Mere Christianity Part 12

  • marygoode2014

    I like your ways of thinking


  • Uniquely Mustered

    Reblogged this on Uniqely Mustered and commented:
    Working On Faith that Upholds you. From C.S Lewis, My good friend Hessian described a a healthy principle to develop one. I leave the rest for your views.


  • 1nfiniteman

    Thank you for the follow! Looking forward to reading your blog!


  • charles

    I’ve read a lot of Lewis in the past, and I get the feeling that if he were alive and you were sitting talking in person, you would get actually get along quite well.

    While xians today quote him gleefully to support whatever they want to support, very few conservative xians would agree with even a small proportion of his views. He believed in evolution. He believed in purgatory. He believed people of other religions could potentially be saved, even without hearing about Jesus (see

    He did not conform. He tried very hard to think and make sense of things. I think its fascinating that xians agree with him in so many individual points, when in fact if they knew all he thought they would call him a heretic. To me it is more evidence that the Bible really does not make sense. Even those on the inside, who really think about it, come to conclusions that are not “biblical”. It is so ironic that so many quote him.

    He comes across as certain in his writings, but I think he was much less certain in reality. I enjoyed the movie “Shadowlands” (with Anthony Hopkins as Lewis). He knew that real life was much more complicated than the pat answers he gave in his books.

    I’ve been following your review of Mere Christianity. I feel your frustration. Lewis seems to set up a lot of false dichotomies (or trichotomies), and then the conclusion he wants can win by arguing against the others. He had a profound experience that he interpreted as God (read Surprised by Joy), and then he spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of the senseless.


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