Mere Christianity 7

We began book 1, chapter 3 in the previous post.

Assigning a moral value of good or bad to someone’s actions is what the word “ought” means. Lewis points out that the physical Law of Nature is about what the natural world does. Gravity is his prime example. If you let go of a rock in mid-air, the rock falls. The Law of Nature describes what happens.

But the Law of Human Nature (what Lewis has called The Moral Law), is about the word “ought” in a moral value sense.

But what if, Lewis asks, someone questions his use of an “ought” moral value and claims that what he is saying someone ought to do describes not a moral principle but a preference that relates to his own convenience: “we might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to act as he does, you only mean the same as when you say that a stone is the wrong shape; namely, that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to you.”

So, is all this “ought to” really about behavior that isn’t morally bad, but is simply inconveniencing me? Lewis says no and gives four lines of argument to support his claim.

  1. Intentionality: “A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first.” In other words, there is an “ought to” attached to the second man’s actions that is not attached to the first man’s actions.
  2. Motive: “I am not angry…with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not.”
  3. Universal Standard: “In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and pay him they regard him” poorly. Their actions may be more convenient to us, but that alone does not determine how we assess their character.
  4. True Inconvenience: Obeying the Moral Law is itself the inconvenient thing much of the time–honesty instead of cheating/lying, honor and respect instead of gratification, bravery instead of safety, truthfulness “even when it makes you look a fool.”

So, the Moral Law, or the Law of Human Nature/Behavior, is not a matter of preferences that convenience us. Rather, it is a hard edge. Something that holds us to a standard even when it would seem more convenient to be free of its demands. And since it is not a statement of how we’d like others to behave for the sake of our own convenience, the Moral Law “must somehow or other be a real thing–a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”

It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior, and yet quite definitely real–a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.

 

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