C.S. Lewis on Mere Liberty and the Evils of Statism Pt II


This is Part II of a III Part series on C.S. Lewis and Statism. The series originally appeared at theIndependent Institute. See Part I here and Part III here.

Moral Relativism and Utilitarianism

Of central importance in Lewis’s discussion of natural law is his critique of the moral relativism of utilitarianism (“the end justifies the means”) as a theory of ethics and guide to behavior. Lewis claimed that the precepts of moral ethics cannot just be innovated or improvised as we go along. Picking and choosing among the code of the Tao is inherently foolish and harmful. He noted, for example, that attempts to define moral ethics as the product of a physicalism of survival and instinct create a profound dilemma. On the one hand, the utilitarian (or “Innovator,” as Lewis called him) tries to make judgments of the value of human choices by claiming that one decision is good or not. But on what basis is this valuation made if the only standard that exists is instinct? Lewis shows that all such valuations necessarily must use an objective standard of the Tao to do so, even if only partially. As he stated,

The Innovator . . . rates high the claims of posterity. He cannot get any valid claim for posterity out of instinct or (in the modern sense) reason. He is really deriving our duty to posterity from the Tao; our duty to do good to all men is an axiom of Practical Reason, and our duty to do good to our descendants is a clear deduction from it. But then, in every form of the Tao which has come down to us, side by side with the duty to children and descendants lies the duty to parents and ancestors. By what right do we reject one and accept the other? . . . [T]he Innovator may place economic value first. To get people fed and clothed is the great end, and in pursuit of it, scruples about justice and good faith may be set aside. The Tao of course agrees with him about the importance of getting the people fed and clothed. Unless the Innovator were himself using the Tao he could never have learned of such a duty of justice and good faith which he is ready to debunk. What is his warrant? He may be a jingoist, a racialist, an extreme nationalist, who maintains that the advancement of his own people is the object to which all else ought to yield. But no kind of factual observation and no appeal to instinct will give him a ground for this opinion. Once more, he is in fact deriving it from the Tao: a duty to our own kin, because they are our own kin, is a part of traditional morality. But side by side with it in the Tao, and limiting it, lie the inflexible demands of justice, and the rule that, in the long run, all men are our brothers.[24]

Lewis hence described the natural law as a cohesive and interconnected objective standard of right behavior:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all values are rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) “ideologies,” all consist of fragments from the Tao itself. Arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity.[25]

Lewis then asked, if no new system of value judgment aside from natural law can be developed, does that mean “no progress in our perceptions of value can ever take place? That we are bound down for ever to an unchanging code given once and for all? . . . If we lump together, as I have done, the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew, shall we not find many contradictions and some absurdities?” His simple response: “I admit all this. Some criticism, some removal of contradictions, even some real developments, is required. . . . But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. . . . From within the Taoitself comes the only authority to modify the Tao.[26]

Liberty and Equality

As a proponent of natural law, Lewis was a supporter of the “law of equal liberty” but a firm critic of imposed egalitarianism for any reason. He further understood that egalitarianism is too often a cloak for envy (the sin of coveting) and that such appeals for regimentation are tyrannical:

The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. . . . Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death. A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly “high-brow.”[27]

He also recognized innate individual human differentiation and how each individual soul’s uniqueness is divinely ordained: “It is idle to say that men are of equal value. If value is taken in a worldly sense—if we mean that all men are equally useful or beautiful or good or entertaining—then this is nonsense. . . . If there is equality, it is in His love, not in us. . . . In this way then, the Christian life defends the single personality from the collective, not by isolating him but by giving him the status of an organ in the mystical Body.”[28]

In an earlier paper,[29] I discussed Lewis’s rejection of the determinism of both genetic and environmental causality for mankind. In the so-called modernist perspective, man is not viewed as a moral agent but as an entity that is conditioned solely by nonrational causes, and all that counts is not “What is just?” but the utilitarian “What works?” If man has free will and is considered accountable for his actions, there are limits on the state’s power. But if individuals act out of necessity, they are not moral agents. In the place of punishment for “wrong”doing, preemption becomes the means of social control. As championed by authoritarians of both left and right, the state simply eliminates the individual’s choice or, more exactly, makes the choice for him or her. And this elimination is the basis for the “progressive” precautionary principle and government measures of “prior restraint” based on it. Lewis discussed this problem at length in The Abolition of Man as well as in various essays, including “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.”

This is Part II of a III Part series on C.S. Lewis and Statism. The series originally appeared at theIndependent Institute. See Part I here and Part III here.

Footnotes for Pt. II

[24] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[25] Ibid., 44.

[26] Ibid., 50.

[27] C. S. Lewis, Present Concerns (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), 34.

[28] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), 170–71.

[29] David J. Theroux, Mere Economic Science: C. S. Lewis and the Poverty of Naturalism, Working Paper no. 67 (Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute, 2007), excerpted as the article “Economic Science and the Poverty of Naturalism: C. S. Lewis’s ‘Argument from Reason,’” Journal of Private Enterprise 23, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 95–112.

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