Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Moral Law

I've mentioned C.S. Lewis on many occasions, and this post will be particularly Lewis-heavy. He discusses the existence of the Moral Law in his book Mere Christianity with great clarity, and I would recommend the book to anyone curious, whether for intellectual or religious reasons. 

The Moral Law

Essentially, the argument goes that we all have this innate sense of Right and Wrong, and that this sense compels us to do what is Right- that we "ought" to do what is right.  Moreover, our Right and Wrong are appealing to some outside standard of Right and Wrong that is shared by all humanity.  Lewis makes the argument that, in the case of a conflict between instincts, this sense of what we ought to do often actively increases the strength of the (typically weaker) Right instinct at the expense of the (typically stronger) Wrong instinct.  This is therefore a value judgement, and not an instinct in and of itself.  It is the method by which we differentiate which of our instincts is appropriate at a given time and which is not (each instinct having its appropriate place and time).  In short, it is the Humanness of being Human.  

The second part of Lewis' argument is that we all know that there is some moral standard to which we ought adhere, but we curiously do not even follow our own idea of Right and Wrong.   Any other "standard" you can point to in nature talks about what DOES happen, not what OUGHT to happen- in fact they cannot distinguish between the two.  A rock doesn't know whether it should or should not fall to the ground; it merely does.  And our theory of gravity does not say that a rock should or should not fall, it merely attempts to explain the particulars of the fact that it does (and perhaps, in some more ambitious theories, the reason it does).  The appeal we make to this moral standard seems quite unique amongst all of creation.

Finally, Lewis makes an argument that at first seems tangential, but I think is an important one in considering the weight we should give to this Moral Law idea.  The argument goes that Man is the only thing we know non-scientific information about. Everything else we merely observe, but we ARE men. We have some inside knowledge, and it is here- and in the Moral Law- that we would expect to see evidence of a real kind for God.  If in fact we do see such evidence in the one place it seems reasonable to expect it, we ought give it some more weight in our overall consideration of the question of God.

An Atheist Response

An atheist defense to this question is given over at unequally yoked- essentially the argument is "I don't know why we have this idea of a moral Right and Wrong, and I don't need to know for my everyday life."  The author makes the analogy to the fact that I am justified in believing that what I see with my eyes is reality, even without a full understanding of the inner workings of the human eye.  Understanding of the mechanism is not essential for an understanding of the result.

This answer seems to me to stop a bit short of the important point. The point is that morality is not a physical process at all, and it is somewhat nonsensical that it exists in the first place. Moreover, it seems to me that morality is much less trustworthy than sight, in that sight is clearly a wholly natural process that requires no appeal to a non-natural standard. While each of us may appeal to different standards of sight (color blind people, for example, see the world much differently than I do), we have an objective standard by which to judge that sight.  We can interact with our other four senses and verify the authenticity of that sight. Morality provides no such verification.  I see no way to argue, for example, that my morality is any better than any other man's morality.  

I would even go so far as to say that, from an atheist perspective, I have no claim to having a "better" morality than *insert your favorite archetypal evil character here- Hitler, Mousolini, Kony, etc*.  My only option is to appeal to a standard that I see so clearly, but cannot with any certainty say that anyone else sees.  That is to say, even if there is an objective standard, I have no method by which to verify it.  I have no way to differentiate any two views as being "closer" or "farther" from that standard, because the only observations about the standard I can make come through my own interpretation of that same standard.  This is, in many ways, the same failing of human nature that allows people of different religions to fervently believe themselves to be in the right.  Their beliefs are not objectively verifiable, and therefore they find themselves open to rampant psychological predispositions and biases.
It seems to me that this is a big weakness of atheism (and strength of Christianity). If I am to believe that my morality is not arbitrary (and I very much would like to believe that, though I'm not sure I have justification to), then I need an explanation for the source of this morality. To have the morality without the source is tenable- that is, I can live my life in such a way- but it leaves me unsatisfied, with the general impression that I'm missing something important.

My Response

I take exception with two points Lewis makes that I would like to call out.  Firstly, I am not wholly convinced that all men share the same objective standard that we appeal to.  Even in simply reading the Old Testament, I find myself repulsed by the actions of many of the main players (and God himself) on moral grounds.  If we were really appealing to the same standard, how did we arrive at such different conclusions?  Lewis downplays the differences as generally minor in absolute terms, saying that while we don't necessarily agree on how many wives a man ought to have, we don't disagree that a man ought not have any women he liked.  I, however, find quite extreme differences between my morality and that shown in the Old Testament- from God's treatment of the Egyptian people during the 10 plagues, to God killing a man for not impregnating his brothers widow, to Sarah and Rachel giving servants to their husbands in order that the servants might bear children in their stead- and then immediately turning on the servants.  These actions do not seem to me to be appealing to the same standard of Rightness that I have.  And if they are appealing to the same standard of Rightness, how is it that I am so repulsed and they are not?  And if there is indeed an objective standard, what justification could I possibly have for thinking that my views are any closer to this actual standard than theirs?

My second objection is to Lewis' assertion that such things are not a consequence of evolutionary psychology.  He gives an argument against it being part of the "Herd Instinct", in that our idea of Rightness is what helps us judge between following the Herd Instinct and some other instinct (self preservation, for example), and therefore cannot itself be the Herd Instinct.  I would contend the following, however: if a group of individuals develops an algorithm (genetic or otherwise) to determine which instinct is optimal for the success and growth of that group, then that group is more likely to succeed and grow.  The algorithm need not be perfect, just better than the next best thing, in this case no algorithm at all.  Therefore from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that human beings would develop on such a path as to give them the ability to differentiate appropriate times to use their instincts.  To put it into context, if a man is being attacked by a single wild animal, and his entire tribe is nearby, it is advantageous to the group if they come and save him.  However, if that man is being attacked by a pack of wild animals, and only a single tribe-mate is nearby, it is evolutionarily advantageous for that second tribe-mate to run, and survive.  Right and Wrong could, therefore, be nothing more than a genetic algorithm to predict the highest expected value of all possible actions for the survival of the species.

This answer leaves me unsatisfied, however.  In the previous example, my sense of Right and Wrong tells me it is Right to try and save my compatriot, even if it will more than likely result in my death.  This fact I cannot explain in evolutionary terms, other than to say that if Right and wrong truly is a judgement amongst competeing instincts, it is not unreasonable that we are left with a sour taste in our mouths when we must deny one of our very strong desires in favor of a slightly stronger one.

Lewis talks a lot about how we're transgressing against the moral law. I can't seem to get there. I don't FEEL sinful. I'm trying to think of instances where I've gone against the moral law, and I'm having trouble. I suppose I lust, if we're calling that a sin and not simple biology. I get peeved at people who behave in a way I disapprove of. I make excuses for failures and blame others. But none of these strike me as all that heinous. 

Perhaps this is the missing link between me and God? That's certainly what Lewis thinks: "When you have realised that our position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what Christians are talking about.  They offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it"

My Conclusion

I love the Moral Law argument.  It speaks to the empiricist in me.  It doesn't start in a void and try to derive God- rather, it starts with the fundamental human experience, and concludes "look, this is utterly absurd without God".  I think the moral law argument is an excellent one, and combined with the problem of purpose I've already spoken about, is the rational basis on which Christians are justified in believing as they do.

But let us take this to its logical conclusion.  If we are to talk about experience, and from that draw our conclusions on God, then we must admit that experience is our ultimate barometer of truth.  Or perhaps I have said that too strongly.  If experience is what leads us to accept God, then experience can also lead us to reject God.  And that's what happened to me.  My experience in this world of good and evil, of moral right and wrong, is very convincing.  But so was my experience of not being able to find God when I looked for him, of seeking and not finding, of failing to find the self-authenticating reality of the Holy Spirit in my life. 

So which of these experiences am I to believe?  Am I justified in holding one on faith and rejecting the other?  For the purposes of that question, I'm not even sure it matters which I accept and which I reject.  It seems to me just as irrational to accept my Moral Law experience and ignore my Lack of God experience as it is to accept my Lack of God experience and ignore my Moral Law experience.  I'm not entirely sure I can even characterize which experience was "stronger".  Both were/are fundamentally different, but both were/are also very intense.  But this leaves me in a bit of a pickle, doesn't it?  I have seemingly contradictory experiences, and I don't know that I'm justified ignoring either.

I see two possible outs of this predicament.  First, I could ignore both.  That, however, strikes me as wrong if my intention is to look for truth.  Ignoring evidence that doesn't fit seems to me to never be a good idea (and indeed, has been one of my criticism of Christianity). 

Second, I could accept both.  Here again I see two major forms this can take: one is the atheistic humanism approach given by the author of unequally yoked- essentially, yes, I have this moral law experience, no, I can't explain it, but no, it doesn't really matter that I can't.  Moreover, the fact that I can't explain it doesn't prove a God- it just proves there are things about this world that I don't understand.  I already knew that.  The second approach is to say yes, I did experience a Lack of God, but that is not a proof against the existence of God.  There are a great many reasons I could have experienced this.  I could have been praying to the wrong God; I could have had incorrect ideas about God; God could have intentionally drawn away from me for some unknown plan or purpose; I could have drawn away from God (presumably through sin) to such an extent that I would have been unable to find him when I looked; I could have failed to look hard enough for God; I could have failed to look for God in the right way.

I don't as of yet have an answer for the question of how to escape this predicament.  I suspect that when I do, I shall have my answer about whether I am a Christian or an Atheist.

"Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. "dark" would be a word without meaning."
--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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