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Lewis on the Pitfalls and Pathways of Moral Reasoning

In his well-known attempt to field the question of pacifism, the essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”, C.S. Lewis established some preliminary ground rules about moral reasoning applicable beyond his particular concerns. He begins by adverting toward an analysis of Reason in general. Lewis notes that this involves three elements: the facts reasoned about, the direct intuition of self-evident truth, and the art of construing these two elements in coordination so as to establish a proposition.1 Of these three elements, only the first and third, he contends, can be the subject of correction. Failure to see what is self-evident is strictly speaking an incorrigible state. However, this is not a common condition: “Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they ‘can’t see’ some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability is usually a refusal to see, resulting either from some passion which wants not to see the truth in question or else from sloth which does not want to think at all.”2 Nevertheless, when it is present, argument becomes pointless.3

From these comments on reasoning in general, Lewis then turns to a more direct analysis of practical reason. One difference between the two is the stronger inclinations we have to pervert moral reasoning for already desired ends.4 As with basic principles of reason, he thinks people in general will not deny self-evident principles of morality. What they will more likely do, though, is claim something as self-evident that is nothing of the kind. In discussing how this psychological state can come about, he mentions in passing that “…there is the process whereby early associations, arrogance, and the like turn to the remote conclusion into something which the man thinks unarguable because he does not wish to argue about it.”5

He then notes a rule for arguing about moral issues that follows from all this: “…[O]ur judgment as to what is right, is a mixture of inarguable intuitions and highly arguably processes of reasoning or of submission to authority; and nothing is to be treated as an intuition unless it is such that no good man has ever dreamed of doubting.”6

And he applies this point to the debate over pacifism, but it can just as easily be applied to deep social disagreements over moral issues we face today:

With the man who reaches the same result by reasoning or authority, I can argue. Of the man who claims not to reach it but to start there, we can only say that he can have no such intuition as he claims. He is mistaking an opinion, or, more likely, a passion, for an intuition. Of course, it would be rude to say this to him. To him we can only say that if he is not a moral idiot, then unfortunately the rest of the human race, including its best and wisest, are, and that argument across such a chasm is impossible.7

One can in fact go further than Lewis here, and give philosophical arguments for natural law ethics. That is, one can furnish moral intuitions with an objective foundation in the teleology of human nature. His reasoning actually assumes this kind of move: he is appealing to what people desire “always or for the most part” as a norm. But this implies that human nature as such is inherently normative for ethics, and this can be shown through philosophical argumentation. Nevertheless, the argument breaks down with the kind of person who claims to refuse to see that they should will the good; when someone makes their own arbitrary will detached from all natural ends the sole judge of right and wrong, and refuses to grant the basic facts of good and evil that human beings normally directly intuit, there can be no argument with such a person. They have an evil will, and apart from the grace of God that changes an evil will, you cannot argue someone out of something they were not argued into. But thankfully, too, God’s grace makes it unlikely that most people progress to this Satanic point. Grace (common and special) cooperates with moral argumentation, both by preserving wills from the ultimate wilful step, and by illuminating minds to see error in belief or judgment. Mercifully, because God governs the cities of the earth in this way, it remains possible for Christians to obey the command given by his prophet many ages ago: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 65-66.
  2. Lewis, 66-67.
  3. Lewis, 67/
  4. Lewis, 68-69.
  5. Lewis, 69-70.
  6. Lewis, 70.
  7. Lewis, 71.

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