I’d like to follow up on something in the last post, which was a summary of Lewis’ presentation in chapter two of book one in Mere Christianity.
In one of his answers to potential objections, he offers the following illustration to prove their is something in our minds in addition to our instincts toward certain kinds of actions.
He writes: “If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses.”
A paragraph earlier, Lewis gave the example of hearing a cry for help. When we quickly survey the scene, it turns out that the man is drowning. Lewis says that we feel two instincts–one to help him and another for self-preservation. Those instincts are both good instincts. Whether they are right or wrong to follow depends on the situation. Something must judge which should win out in the particulars of that situation. Which ought to be elevated, strengthened, and acted upon? Which should be suppressed and denied?
Lewis continues: “But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.”
Perhaps in that moment the stronger impulse is the one to help. Perhaps it is the one to run away. If we’re truthful, I think we would find that we have had both experiences ourselves.
We know the experience of having known the good we ought to have done. But we found that the impulse we ought to follow in that moment of decision was the weaker one. And it needed an extra voice advocating for it when we were tempted to ignore it and go with the other.
Lewis contends that the Moral Law is not an impulse because it is the judge between our impulses at times of situational application. It is the advocate for the impulse in that moment that represents the right, but finds itself weaker than the other impulse.
In Lewis’ example, when we act with sacrificial courage and give help, we feel good in the end that we “rose to the occasion” and acted with courage and conviction (does this common phrase not indicate the struggle of the weaker impulse to exercise itself?). But if we succumb to allowing the stronger of the two impulses, self-preservation in our example, we are filled with regret and feelings of guilt that we didn’t do what we should/could have. We’re even tempted to hide our inaction and keep it a secret because we feel shame.
There’s more that the Christian gospel has to say about this latter situation, but Lewis delays speaking to that and so will I. The point here is to underscore the reality and toughness of the Moral Law. It only mediates and tells you which impulse you should follow, and reminds you of it if you fail to do so. If we are to understand the Christian gospel fully, we must reckon with this aspect of the Moral Law.