C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – an ironic postscript

In my last two posts, I wrote about my reaction to C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for the existence of God, which I encountered as an agnostic in my early twenties, and how and why I ultimately found it to be flawed. Short version:

Lewis: People all share particular moral beliefs about the importance of fairness/honesty/courage etc. This indicates that some kind of Being outside the universe instilled these beliefs into us.

Me: Great point, but in fact a better explanation is that people are capable of figuring out that the feelings of other people matter.

Longer version, part 1

Longer version, part 2

Fast-forward something in the region of twenty-five years.

Just over a year ago, I discovered Ana Mardoll’s superb ongoing deconstruction of the Narnia stories and read through all the archived posts so far, as well as all the posts she’s made since then. (Which, by the way, I strongly recommend. Also, the comments from her readers on each post, which are brilliant and contain much snarking and fanfic. Also, her Twilight deconstruction. Also, almost everything else she’s written. But I digress.)

You know what? The morality Lewis reveals throughout the story is terrible.

The Jesus-character mauls one child in a terrifying lion attack. This is justified as being wound-for-wound punishment for an incident in which, while trying to escape a forced marriage, she drugged a slave thus causing the slave to be whipped. (Actual Jesus: Hey, guys, you know that law you have about equivalent punishment on a wound-for-wound basis? That’s ending. Be extra nice to each other instead. Lewis’s Jesus: You totally get punished on a wound-for-wound basis. Deal with it.) However, a few books earlier, a (white, male) character did exactly the same thing with no indication at all that punishment would be deserved or meted out. Which isn’t the only time Lewis goes for blatant double standards in what’s considered acceptable for different characters.

The heroic Good-Guy king is quite happy to leave a ship of pirate slavers to go on their slave-taking way rather than actually try to stop them. He does try to do something later on, when slavery briefly impacts directly on himself and his friends, but only after he’s enjoyed a fun dinner with a slave-owner (priorities, right?), and not in any way that involves rescuing slaves other than his friends who have already been sold. (It does involve striking and insulting an elderly man for doing his job.) Later on, we find that slavery – and not only slavery, but changing the slaves’ own bodies against their will just because they annoy you – is actually fine (ordained by Jesus, no less) when it’s done to a race of people who can be diminished and ridiculed in our eyes.

There’s a stack of problematic stuff in the way that the dark-skinned race in the books are portrayed, and in how women are portrayed.

Now none of this, of course, makes one whit of difference to the validity of Lewis’s arguments, which must stand or fall on their own merits. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which all this slices across Lewis’s premise. Lewis claimed not just that humans all share some basic principles of morality, but that all humans share the majority of their moral code; that, in the area of morals, we agree on all the important things, to the point where it’s a remarkable phenomenon that needs explaining (by a hypothesized deity). And yet, here’s Lewis himself being absolutely fine with all sorts of things that, when you look at them, aren’t morally justifiable at all.

It’s not news, of course – whatever Lewis may have thought – that different people and cultures have in fact had rather drastically different moral codes. It just seemed ironic to me that Lewis himself, proponent of the Moral Argument, inadvertently provided such strong disproof of its basic premise.

The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 2

This is the second part of my two-part account of what I made of C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for the existence of God when I encountered it in my early twenties, and why it didn’t convince me to become a believer.

Quick summary of material covered in Part 1 (statements below are summaries of positions, not direct quotes):

C.S. Lewis: We all share certain moral values which are universally agreed upon (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat, etc.). The universality of these moral values is beyond what can be explained by instinct or social teaching, and hence must indicate the existence of some kind of divine being who instilled these into humans.

Me: Hang on. Surely all these shared moral values are just as well explained by our ability to understand the feelings of others and accept them as objectively important in the same way as our own feelings are? Therefore meaning that these shared moral values don’t, in fact, necessarily indicate the existence of a divine being? All very interesting; need to think about this further.


So, I thought about it further. There were questions about my hypothesis that still needed asking:

1. Did it work? Rather an obvious point to consider. Did this basic principle – our understanding that the feelings of other people are also important – actually work to explain all of the moral codes that humans shared?

I did manage to think of one exception; the universal prohibition on incest. Of course, part of this is because in nearly all cases incest is abusive, and it hardly takes much thought (snark about Duggars deleted here because I don’t want to get too far sidetracked) to see how a principle like ‘Avoid hurting other people’ prohibits both sexual abuse and the hideous betrayal of family bonds. However, it’s also true that sexual relationships with close relatives are generally viewed as wrong even in those few cases where they quite genuinely are consensual. So there it was; one example of a universal moral code that didn’t seem to derive from consideration of the feelings of others.

However, this taboo didn’t seem to require me to hypothesise a morals-dispensing god to explain it; it seemed easily explicable in evolutionary terms. Having sex with a close relative would increase a person’s chances of having a child with health problems or a severe disability, and hence (because the small subsistence-level groups that humans had lived in for most of our history weren’t really in a position to support the disabled or those in poor health into adulthood) reduced their ability to pass on their genes successfully. People who didn’t want sex with their close relatives would therefore have an evolutionary advantage over those who did. Over time, we’d evolved a powerful and near-universal revulsion at the thought of sex with close relatives that had no more to do with morality than our opposable thumbs did; it was a genetic-level survival strategy.

That was the only exception I could think of; all the other universally shared moral codes I could think of were traceable back to a basic ‘do as you would be done by’ principle. Of those moral codes that seemed widespread enough to describe as universal, I couldn’t think of any that were so inexplicable as to require me to hypothesise a divine being to explain them.

2. Was I just not going back far enough? Our shared moral codes could be easily explained by our ability to appreciate that the feelings of others mattered – but what explained that ability? Was that something that could only be explained by the existence of a god who had endowed us with this skill?

No, I didn’t think so. Evolution had, over the millennia, shaped the human brain into a tool capable of amazing feats of intelligence and discernment. I didn’t see any reason why this complexity couldn’t also have produced the ability to understand the feelings of others. In fact – although I can’t remember whether or not I recognised this at the time – such an ability would in itself be an evolutionary advantage, since humans that lived together in co-operative groups where the members looked out for one another would have a better overall chance of survival than humans that tried to live and hunt on their own.

Two quick points here, in hopes of pre-empting objections:

Firstly, I do recognise that some people reading this may find this a sticking point; many theists believe that the complexities of the human brain and its abilities exceed anything that evolution can account for, and a small minority reject beliefs in evolution altogether. If so, then that’s outside the scope of this post to discuss, but it is worth noting that at that point you’re out of Moral Argument territory and back into Design Argument territory, which is something I previously commented on here.

Secondly, someone might well misunderstand this argument and think that I’m trying to claim that evolution can explain morality by itself and start explaining to me why it can’t. If so, you’re going to be attacking a strawman, since that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I believe is that the abilities from which we obtain this moral code – our ability to empathise with others and understand their feelings as important, our ability to think about what effect our actions may have on the feelings of others – can all be explained by evolutionary processes. We’ve then used those abilities to go far above and beyond the original evolutionary benefits they gave us, just as we’ve created great works of art with the manual dexterity that originally evolved to make us better at making the flint tools that would help keep our tribes alive; just as the Mona Lisa makes no difference to anyone’s survival, thus the moral code we now have involves far more than ‘what will best propagate our genes’. But I do believe that the original abilities that have enabled us to develop this moral code are explicable in terms of evolution and the ways in which it has shaped the brain. In other words, there is no need to look at them and see them as a mystery that only a god could have produced.


It seemed I had a solid, non-god-related explanation of why humans share a moral code. Which left me with one further important question to ask:

3. Which theory – mine or Lewis’s – was more likely to be right?

There was a simple way to assess this; I pictured the results we’d expect if Lewis’s theory were the correct one, and the results we’d expect if mine were.

If Lewis was right – if our shared moral code were a message from an interested deity wishing to let us know what behaviour was expected of us – then the first conclusion that seemed reasonable was that we’d expect to get a complete moral code. After all, it’s hard to see why a deity who’s interested enough to give us such a code in the first place would give us such a bare outline of it. Sure, we might not get every single detail spelled out; but we wouldn’t expect to have massive disputes over issues as fundamental as what did or didn’t constitute murder. If Lewis’s theory was the correct one, then we wouldn’t disagree over whether abortion or euthanasia or gay sex were OK. Our innate shared knowledge would cover all the significant issues, and that would be that.

(That, at least, was my reasoning at the time, which is what this post is meant to be about. However, an interesting logical alternative has occurred to me in writing this; we can, with just as much logic as Lewis used, hypothesise that our moral code was instilled in us by a being who didn’t include guidance on those issues because it genuinely doesn’t care about them. Which would mean that any moral beliefs not universally shared among human beings must be issues that God wasn’t bothere about either way. In other words, if Lewis’s Moral Argument theory was actually correct, then one logical conclusion would be that God isn’t actually bothered by such issues as gay marriage or abortion. I’m gonna bet today’s salary that you didn’t think of that one, Lewis.)

The other thing I’d expect if Lewis were correct would be that this shared moral code would include an innate understanding of the need to apply it equally to everyone everywhere. After all, why should this god care more about our behaviour towards people we knew or who we considered part of our in-group than it cared about our behaviour towards foreigners or other groups with which we couldn’t easily identify? Especially given that a key point of Lewis’s argument is that this code is universal among humans and that this is meant to indicate that this god cares about the behaviour of humans collectively and not just a subgroup thereof? So, if our moral code did indeed come from a god who cares deeply for all of humanity, we’d expect this code to include the same automatic care for all of humanity.

If, however, I was right about our shared moral code coming from our ability to understand and consider the feelings of others, then we’d expect to see quite a different picture. We’d expect there to be large disagreements between both individuals and societies on what constitutes moral behaviour – after all, just because we’re starting from the same basic principle of considering the feelings of others doesn’t mean we’re all going to have the same beliefs as to how this principle is best put into practice. We’d also expect that consideration for distant strangers would come with much more difficulty than consideration for people whom we perceive as being in our in-group, partly because we identify with the latter more easily and partly because, as I mentioned above, this ability probably evolved precisely because of the advantages of concentrating our energies on helping those in our in-group.

In other words… not only did my hypothesis explain perfectly well how and why humans share a near-universal moral code, it did so better than Lewis’s hypothesis. The facts of the world that I could observe all around me fitted better with my explanation than with his.

It was a shame; I’d really felt that Lewis was onto something new and interesting here. But his explanation didn’t hold up, so that was that.

And that’s why Lewis’s moral argument didn’t make me a believer.

The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 1

When I was in my early twenties, a few years after becoming agnostic, I read C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ for the first time. More accurately, I read part of it; I got bogged down somewhere in Book 2 and never finished it. However, the part I read contained Lewis’s famous moral argument for God, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never previously come across. I have no idea why that was the case – it’s a very famous argument and I’d spent the past several years reading everything I could find in several major libraries on the ‘Why you should/shouldn’t believe in God’ question, so it seems unlikely that I’d managed to miss it completely. Maybe I’d read a poorly-written summary and forgotten it. In any case, there I was, several years into my search for answers on the God question, finally looking at a completely new approach to the subject.

What’s more, it seemed to be the best argument I’d seen so far. With hindsight I think this was not so much a tribute to the power of the argument as an indictment of every other argument I’d ever read on the subject; for the first time that I could remember, my reaction to a pro-theism argument wasn’t “Hold on, surely [obvious objection]?” but “Wow. There’s something to this. I need to think about it.” So I did. I really wanted to know whether Lewis did indeed have something there; whether this actually was the elusive proof of God’s existence for which I’d been searching for so long.

Since I’m here on an atheist blogging platform today, it will probably not be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that it wasn’t. As it’s an important apologetic argument, it seems worth writing about why it wasn’t; as it’s going to be raised in the next chapter of CCCFK, I thought it would be worth doing that now. This (in two parts, because it ended up being longer than I’d anticipated) is my response to Lewis’s moral argument.

First, a quick summary of the argument itself, for anyone who hasn’t heard it. While Lewis put it better than I will, it boils down to this:

  1. We all share and agree on, to at least some extent, a moral code (i.e., a sense of certain actions being right or wrong) and a tacit understanding that other people with whom we interact in normal life are going to share that code with us. (Hence, statements like “You can’t do that, it’s not fair” are appeals to that code; we anticipate that the person we talk to will understand what we mean by ‘fairness’ even if they disagree with our assessment of their action according to that ‘fairness’ standard).
  2. This innate shared understanding is over and above what societal customs could account for (while some of it does vary with society, it’s normally accepted that rules like not killing people or taking their stuff are an actual moral code and not just some kind of weird societal convention).
  3. The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.

I was impressed. Not only was this an intriguing new line of argument that was challenging me and making me think, but it also made a really nice change for an apologist to be arguing from the premise that unbelievers such as myself did know right from wrong, rather than the erroneous belief that we didn’t. Hah! Take that, all you apologists who’ve tried to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea about morality.

So, food for thought there. Was Lewis right in his belief that only a deity of some kind could have given us this universally shared moral code?

There was, I realised, a big problem with that hypothesis; our shared moral code isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t a list of weird incomprehensible rules with no explanation. Our moral code (at least, the parts of it that we could fairly describe as universal) is, in fact, based on something very obvious; the understanding that other people feel pain and pleasure just as we ourselves do, and that these feelings are important to other people just as they are to us.

We know what it’s like to want to avoid pain, to want to be treated fairly, to want to have the option of pursuing those things that give us happiness and satisfaction in life. We extrapolate from these desires plus our ability to understand that others share these feelings. From this, we grasp that it’s good to avoid inflicting pain on others, to treat all people fairly, to make sure that other people have the option of pursuing happiness and satisfaction in their lives. We understand that it’s wrong to kill or steal or harm people or judge people unjustly, because we get that these things hurt other people just as they would hurt us.

(Having realised this, I also realised that one of the huge flaws in this underlying ability was our tendency to apply this understanding only to those we considered to be part of our in-group. Tribe, country, race, religion, gender, sexuality… throughout history, the natural human tendency has been to divide others mentally into Us and Them, and to apply this do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle only to the Us group. The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere. I’d never thought of it in quite this way before; I was quite intrigued by the concept.)

This all seemed like an excellent working hypothesis to explain the universal moral code that Lewis believed could only be explained by the existence of some kind of deity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘working hypothesis’ at the time, but I did understand that my idea was something I needed to examine carefully for flaws before reaching any final conclusion as to whether Lewis or I was right about this one.

To be continued…