Lewis: The Abolition of Man

October 17, 2019

The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis
(Fount, 1978) [1943]
63 p.

Lewis mounts a critique of the view that moral judgements are not objective, and defends what he calls the Tao: the basic, objective moral order that underwrites and secures our practical moral reasoning.

His argument is partly empirical, inasmuch as he compiles a raft of citations from texts, philosophical and religious, from Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, and Indian cultures to argue for cross-cultural agreement on basic moral norms regarding beneficence, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, justice, truth-telling, mercy, and magnanimity. These we may, for the sake of the argument at least, take as the content of “the Tao”, although not exhaustive. Synonyms in world traditions for this body of moral norms are “Natural Law”, “First Principles of Practical Reason”, or “First Platitudes”. The Tao consists of the axioms of moral reasoning, on which all moral judgments ultimately rest.

His main line of argument, however, is not just that the Tao is common, but that the Tao is inescapable, and that attempts to deny it are secretly relying on it at a deeper level. (He thus accuses moral relativists of committing a particular fallacy — denying your opponent a premise that you yourself rely on — that I’m sure must have a name, but that I cannot think of.) Those who profess to debunk objective values themselves harbour values that they think immune to debunking. To be sure, their values are not always precisely those which they deny, but Lewis contends that all the first principles of moral reasoning are equally self-evident, and that therefore every effort to pit one against another can be motivated only be desire, not by reason. The Tao is a unity that stands or falls together.

This is not to say that criticism of the Tao is not possible, but he distinguishes two types: from within and from without. Criticism from within he compares to a poet using the resources of a language to enrich it. Distinctions are made; understanding is refined. Criticism from without is mere “debunking”: a clumsy exercise in arbitrariness and a failure to understand what is being destroyed, for “only those who are practicing the Tao will understand it”.

His point is that moral judgments of any kind rely on there being a moral reality: the kingdom of “ought”, the realm of obligation. This is the Tao. Without it, there can be nothing obligatory at all, nothing properly moral. We cannot derive it from any consideration of utility or appeal to instinct, for these cannot generate an “ought” without implicitly relying on one. We can’t get here from there. Any “ought” — including the claim that we ought not to make moral judgments, or that we ought not to believe things that are not true — affirms the Tao and the objectivity of value. Those who try to escape it have nowhere to go:

“Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.”

The only course, therefore, open to those at war with the Tao — and there are, of course, many — is the total refusal of it, an abandonment of a relationship between reason and action, exile from the kingdom of ought. What remains to them is only strength and will — a will, ex hypothesi, bereft of any reference to “good” or “bad”, and therefore either arbitrary or governed by appetite. In human society, this would devolve to some class of persons exercising power over the others, conditioning the populace, using techniques savvy or crude, for its own purposes, a world of social engineering and the reduction of human persons to artefacts:

“Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

If this is so, I should be motivated to honour and uphold the Tao. I should acknowledge the objectivity of moral judgments — not always their correctness, of course, but even incorrectness only makes sense within a realm of objectivity. The horizon of the good is the background against which my moral life is lived out; I should respect and love it, for the intelligibility of my moral life depends on it. Paraphrasing Lewis: things merit, and do not merely receive, my reverence or contempt. I should abandon the pretence that my will can define what is right or wrong. In our time, we fall under a particular obligation to clear the mind of cant.

Indeed, the nature of the interior moral life is dramatically dependent on whether or not one accepts the objectivity of the Tao. St Augustine — who lived under the Tao — defined virtue as ordo amoris, ordered love. Ordered to what? To real value. The moral life is loving more worthy things more and less worthy things less, and progress in the moral life consists in conforming ourselves more and more to this objective order, so that we live in greater harmony with it, rather than trying to bend it to our will.

Augustine’s framing of the moral life in terms of love — rather than, say, duty — is important, because virtue consists not merely in thinking rightly about goodness and badness, but in feeling rightly about them. Moral education, in fact, consists largely, and maybe preeminently, in training ourselves to have the right sorts of emotions about things: love and affection for good things, and repulsion and disgust for bad things. And this is the consistent testimony of our pre-modern inheritance:

Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

I am going to pause and read that again.

Apart from the Tao, our emotions cannot be fitting or just, and we cannot have reasons (real rational reasons, not just desires) to prefer them in ourselves or encourage them in our children. But without just and fitting healthy emotions, human beings have a tendency to fall apart: some into their heads, where they suffer that particular lunacy which, as Chesterton said, “consists in losing everything but their reason”, and others into their bellies, the realm of appetite. It’s all there in the Republic:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

This image is the origin of Lewis’ famous coinage, from this book’s magnificent first chapter, of “men without chests”, meaning those without appropriate emotional responses rooted ultimately in respect for what is real.

**

Two apparent weaknesses in the argument deserve some scrutiny. One is the claim that the moral realm is entirely distinct from the realm of “fact”, and that no bridge between them is possible. No “is” implies an “ought”. But Aristotelian moral philosophy, based on the virtues, seems to be an effort to establish such a bridge, and an impressive one. For Aristotle, morals are derived from observation of what is good for human beings, what allows us to flourish as the kind of thing we are, together with the premise that we “ought” to do those things — a very modest premise which all other creatures endeavour to follow naturally. It does rely on some conception of what is good for us, but Aristotle, I believe, thinks this can be discerned by a careful study of our nature. It is not clear that this moral theory can survive a thoroughly materialist Darwinism, but, averting that course of hari-kari, seems to me a challenger to Lewis’ general account of things. Perhaps he is right, though, that Aristotelianism moral counsels never do quite rise to the level of obligation, but are always counsels of prudence, and, if so, this does seem to be a weakness.

The second weakness is his claim that the Tao, consisting of a set of basic moral premises, is indivisible and one, such that one cannot use one part of it to deny some other part. In logic, of course, it is always possible to reduce the number of independent premises one reasons from, so his claim cannot be strictly logical. His principal justification for the claim is that the basic premises are equally self-evident, and so there can be no rational grounds for pitting one against another, or for accepting one and denying another. But are they equally self-evident? How many basic premises are there? (St Thomas thought that the basic moral premise was “Seek good and avoid evil.” Lewis seems to think the Tao is more elaborate and specific than that.) How do we know that a particular moral principle is truly basic and therefore immune to further analysis? At what deductive distance from the basic premises do moral counsels become susceptible of doubt and scrutiny? None of these questions are really addressed by Lewis, but I suspect he would answer that such is the subject matter of moral philosophy. Indeed, if we peer into St Thomas we might well discover the answers we seek.

**

Lewis argues that if the Tao be rejected then the consequence, at a societal level, must devolve to the exercise of power of a few over the many: a tyranny of social engineering. But this is to see it from the point of view of the few, who see and understand what they are doing. But what would it look like, and feel like, to the many? This is a question that Lewis doesn’t really address, but it seems to me an interesting one. The many would be governed by behavioural norms imposed by their elites, which, though not properly moral norms, might seem so to the unreflective or uninformed. An appeal to the “good”, cynically made for the sake of social order or to achieve a certain end, might seem genuine to those to whom it was addressed. But appeals to something that might be mistaken for a transcendental good would be dangerous for the powers that be, so undesirable behaviour or thoughts would be best enforced by social means, perhaps through appeals to the importance of getting along, cultivation of a taboo against moral judgment in those realms where the regime is at odds with the Tao, or through shaming or intimidation. Evidence that one was living under such a regime would be that moral norms would be protean, always evolving, or, to use a suggestive term, progressive.

**

It’s a small book, but one on which the commentary has been voluminous. As a critique of what Alastair MacIntyre would later call “emotivism” in morals, as a defence of the natural law tradition, broadly speaking, and as an eloquent presentation of the metaphysical preamble to moral education it is justly honoured. And it’s beautifully written too.

**

[Education and the Tao]
The educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’. The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully dissipated.

[Magic and science]
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins.

4 Responses to “Lewis: The Abolition of Man”

  1. Rob G Says:

    Fr. Thomas Hopko, the Orthodox theologian, recommended that every Christian read The Abolition… once a year, just to “keep us in mind of what we’re up against.”


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