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 somet 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.


  1. leerudolph says

    Today I had occasion elseblog to quote the following (familiar) passage from Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. It’s not precisely on-point here, since it goes further than “people are capable of figuring out that the feelings of other people matter” insofar as it allows as how people perhaps ought to be “capable of figuring out that the feelings of other” not-necessarily-human beings might matter (and so, by implication, that parables purporting to teach God-given morality perhaps ought not to show God doing unfair things even to non-human beings, when those beings’ rhetorical role in the parable is to stand in for human beings). Still, I think it’s relevant to Lewis’s argument (and remains so even though Russell was by no means a moral exemplar himself).

    There are other things of less importance. There is the instance of the Gadarene swine where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill to the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chooses to send them into the pigs. Then there is the curious story of the fig-tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig-tree. ‘He was hungry; and seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever,” . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: “Master, behold the fig-tree which thou cursedst is withered away”.’ This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

  2. DonDueed says

    I’ve also been reading Ana Mardoll’s Narnia deconstructions, and I second your recommendation with a caveat. If you, like me, read and loved those books as a youngster, be prepared for a cold shot. Ana is pretty ruthless and does not hesitate to twist the knife in Lewis’s literary gut. Not that he doesn’t deserve it.

    She’s also doing a series on A Wrinkle In Time, which is getting the Disney treatment this year. I’m looking forward to reading her commentary on the movie after it comes out.

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