C.S. Lewis, warts and all
August 23, 2010 — 8:00

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 9

So my class on C.S. Lewis starts today, and one of the things I want to do is to think about which arguments are the most plausible and which are the least. For my part, I like the “Argument from Reason” the best (the precursor to Plantinga’s EAAN), and the one with which I have the most trouble is the Moral Argument.
I wish I had time to treat the Argument from Desire more thoroughly, but I think that’s going to get its own class.
The first half of the class focuses on the Problem of Evil, then we’ll branch out.
I think most of the objections to the Argument from Reason have probably come out in treatments of the EAAN, so perhaps it’s best to focus on the Moral Argument. I’ll just toss out the general nature of my concern and maybe some folks can help me out.
I think that moral truths are necessary truths. Perhaps some necessary truths can be “grounded in God’s being.” Maybe even the truths of logic can be so grounded. If formalism could be worked out, maybe math too.
But other necessary truths don’t suggest such a reduction. I just don’t see the route to do it with moral truths. I suppose I’m inclined to reduce morality to practical rationality and a root notion of happiness, but I honestly can’t tell whether that helps or hurts the reduction.
I’ll be expressing these concerns in class, but maybe you can give me something to say on behalf of moral arguments.

  • I find CSL’s formulation of the argument from morality in Mere Christianity chapter 4 rather plausible. He deliberately vaguely says that the “natural law” fits better with naturalism than with weak theism (the view that there is a “mind” behind everything), and hence takes the existence of objectively morality or of a objective-moral sense to be evidence for weak theism over naturalism.
    This seems a plausible Bayesian argument. It does seem intuitively right that, say:
    (*) P(objective moral knowledge | weak theism) > P(objective moral knowledge | naturalism).
    It’s kind of hard to say exactly why this inequality holds, but Lewis does give a few helpful hints. It’s been a while since I read this. Here’s two things I seem to remember: He suggests that a mind behind everything would want to reveal its plans for our lives; I think this implicitly assumes that the being’s plan for our lives would be morally binding. He also points to the oddness of thinking that a cloud of particles be bound by an ought. Both of these seem pretty plausible considerations: the first for the left-hand-side being high, and the second for the right-hand-side being low.
    There are two things that go into estimating the probabilities in (*). One: the question of how likely it is, given weak theism or naturalism, that there be objective moral truths binding on us. Two: the question of how likely it is that we’d be aware of them, given weak theism or naturalism, and given the existence of objective moral truths binding on us. I actually think the second may make for a more effective argument from morality.
    The question whether there is a theistic reduction of moral truths does not seem central to Lewis’s discussion. It affects the first question to some degree, but not at all the second.
    Suppose moral truths are necessary truths not somehow grounded in God or God’s activity. Then the moral argument, as above, is a version of the argument from knowledge of necessary truths. But this version may be superior to the general argument. For instance, the left hand side of (*) is plausibly higher than its analogue for many kinds of non-moral truths, since a God is apt to care more for his creatures knowing morals than knowing many other kinds of necessary truths. And the right hand side of (*) is plausibly lower than its analogue for at least certain kinds of non-moral truths. Here’s one reason why. It is plausible that if naturalism holds, then something like the causal theory is the right story about concepts. But then to have moral concepts, the possession of these moral concepts would have to be partly caused by moral truths or by their grounds. Now this is also a problem for mathematical truths. But in the case of mathematical truths, we can relax the causal requirement and say: the possession of mathematical concepts is partly explained by mathematical truths (mathematics is explanatorily crucial in physics). But it does not seem that the movements of a cloud of particles (and that’s what Lewis thinks we are if naturalism is true) is even explained by moral truths.
    Here’s another related argument. Some people act as they do because they ought to act as they do. Take this at face value as a genuine explanation in some cases. Literally: that x ought to do A sometimes explains that x does A. The naturalist cannot allow this, unless “x ought to do A” reduces to natural facts, since the naturalist believes natural facts like that x does A have only natural explanations (or something like that).
    As to the metaphysical question of whether moral truths can be grounded in God’s nature, surely the answer is pretty plausible affirmative if theism is true, even if the moral can be reduced to the prudential. Isn’t happiness (whether of human or squirrel or oak) always a kind of participation in God?

    August 23, 2010 — 10:01
  • John H.

    As to the metaphysical question of whether moral truths can be grounded in God’s nature, surely the answer is pretty plausible affirmative if theism is true, even if the moral can be reduced to the prudential. Isn’t happiness (whether of human or squirrel or oak) always a kind of participation in God?

    Our obligations, virtues, and so forth might then be grounded in God’s nature, but not the moral principle – practical reason – on which these supervene. To my knowledge most advocates of Moral Arguments want to ground the principles in God, although there might be a good argument that only with God can we account for the obligations, virtues and so forth we suppose there are.

    August 23, 2010 — 13:54
  • Billy Mumphrey

    It seems to me that CSL deals with the practical rationality towards happiness objection in the Notes of the Abolition of Man where he deals with I.A. Richards and notes that without a doctrine of immortality, the system leaves no room for a noble death.

    August 23, 2010 — 14:11
  • I suppose we’d want to look at what the grounding relation is. I’m worried that that our happiness lies in God is not strong enough. Even it’s necessary truth doesn’t seem strong enough.
    I believe in substantive counterpossibles, and I think that moral truths would be the same if God didn’t exist.
    And here’s where we’d need to look closer at what moral truths are. I have in mind, I suppose, conditional statements of the form: If you did this, this would be wrong, where the antecedence cover general kinds of actions. These can be stated as imperatives too. Take “It’s wrong to kill people without reason.” Suppose God doesn’t exist but we have the same natures (at least qualitatively). Still seems wrong.

    August 23, 2010 — 14:32
  • I’m glad you mention this passage, I’ll be sure to give it careful attention. I think, though, that Richards could avail himself of a bit of Aristotle.
    So suppose I live a life of perfect virtue and die in a state of eudaimonia. Now afterlife would be *better*, but it seems that person has lived rightly and virtuously whether there’s a God or no.
    And even if there is, it seems that it’s the virtue that does the explaining, not God.

    August 23, 2010 — 14:40
  • Trent:
    “I’m worried that that our happiness lies in God is not strong enough.”
    Well, I think a stronger claim is true: The happiness of any kind of creature is identical with a certain kind of participation in God.
    But then again, I think that every positive property is some sort of participation in God. I don’t know if happiness is fundamentally different in some way. But it could be that it is easier to see that happiness is a participation in God than it is to see that intelligence is a participation in God.
    I also don’t know if the “is” in my stronger claim is just the “is” of identity or is a “grounding or constitutive is”. I am friendly to the idea that it is the “is” of identity, which could be compatible with your counterpossible, depending on how you answer: “If the evening star did not exist, would the morning star exist?”
    But while all the fine distinctions matter vis-a-vis metaethics, I am not sure they matter vis-a-vis the moral argument. Consider the following claims:
    1. Necessarily, every happy human participates in God.
    2. Necessarily, every token of a happiness of a human is identical with a token of participation in God.
    3. What it is for a human to be happy is for the human to participate in God in manner H.
    3 entails 2, and 2 entails 1. 3 is a grounding claim, 2 is an identity claim, and 1 is an inclusion claim. But note that each of 1, 2 and 3 entails the existence of God. So, prima facie, a good strategy for arguing for the existence of God might well be to argue for the weakest of the three claims, namely 1. (On the other hand, it may turn out that the only good arguments for 1 are also arguments for 2 and maybe even 3. But I don’t know if this is true.)

    August 23, 2010 — 21:01
  • Trent Dougherty

    Alex, do you accept substantively true counterpossibles? I should know this, I know.

    August 24, 2010 — 16:11
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Trent, you can see my posts on the moral argument in this series if you want something sympathetic.

    August 25, 2010 — 23:31
  • Edward T. Babinski

    I don’t have beliefs but I have suspicions on the topic of ethics.
    I suspect there’s a scale of ethical sensitivity. And it matters (as it does in all other cases) what a young person learns and/or is taught. I suspect that if you teach a young person that others experience similar pains and have similar feelings, and train them starting at a very young age that if they do something that another person does not like, and a teacher in the room has the other person do that same thing back to the first child, that a learning process will take place. Of course this presumes there are teachers. But it can be done in nursery school and kindergarten, as I know via anecdotes from someone I know. As a child ages, I suggest teaching them great lesson in practical moral wisdom from all the world’s cultures (and I suspect that Jesus’ words ought to be included as well, and he ought to be treated as a great moral teacher–sorry Lewis, but I suspect that’s a more essential and universally impressive lesson for kids to learn in public schools than say, praying to Jesus as God.)
    Furthermore, I do not believe that ethics “without the Bible” are “completely relative.” People with no Bible to guide them still feel similar pains when stolen from, slapped, or called a stinging name. People with no Bible to guide them also feel similar pleasures when hugged, given a gift, or verbally petted. In other words, “ethical authority” resides in our bodies and brains, and in the multitude of lessons learned during lives of interaction with our fellow human beings. Neither is it easy for a person to turn to anti-social behavior if they have been taught from childhood to view other people’s feelings and needs through the inner lens of their own. People also recognize (regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof) that “joys shared are doubled, while sorrows shared are halved.” Such recognitions even form the basis for wanting to “double” society’s joys, and “halve” society’s sorrows.
    Of course not everyone learns morality in the manner described above. Some are raised to “fear hell” and memorize lists of “holy commandments.” Such people are liable to “fear what they (and others) might become” once such “external” holy threats and commands are called into question. Ironically, in nearly all cases, such a “hell” does not exist to promote universal ethical behavior, but to promote belief in the truth of that person’s particular theology/denomination as opposed to rival theologies/denominations. So if you do not share their particular theology nor belong to their particular denomination, then they are convinced you are going to hell regardless of whatever kindnesses you share with them or society at large. Naturally such people understand the idea of a “moral” nation as one that consists solely of “fellow believers.” Of course any morality that tries to base itself upon purely “external” religious threats and commands will break down once the religion supporting it is called into question.
    To avoid such “breakdowns” it makes more sense for a nation, culture, or family to emphasize “internal” rather than “external” morality/ethics, just as it makes more sense to raise children to think and act in terms of how “they would feel if what they did was done back to them,” rather than depending on rote memorization of lists to promote ethical understanding in all circumstances and among all people. All the world’s religions enshrine the principle, “Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself,” and, “Do to others what you would want done to yourself,” which assume in both cases that “you” already possess an “internal” recognition of what you should and shouldn’t do. So, there need not be any overt conflict between “internal” and “external” morality and ethics. However, stressing the “internal” variety seems to have a far greater chance of drawing society together, rather than tearing it apart.
    “Internal” ethical recognitions preceded the composition of humanity’s earliest law codes such as those of King Hammurabi, or the moral injunctions found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the later but more famous, “Ten Commandments.” Such “internal” recognitions inspired the creation of laws, and still do, and remind us that laws are but dust when people neglect to seek out what is best within themselves and each other.

    September 9, 2010 — 20:18