Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More on the Abolition of Man

A few weeks ago in the wake of the hellish events at Virginia Tech I was drawn back to another old book, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. It's tiny, only three chapters and an appendix.

The first chapter, Men Without Chests, identified a trend already present in the 1940's toward the privatization of values. Things are not "good" or "beautiful" in themselves, but only felt to be so as they stir corollary sentiments in the minds of individuals. This idea, as it finds its way through common education into the cultural mainstream, has consequences. If I get to define what is Valuable apart from any common standard, I also get to create my own set of ethics. Ethics are the standards of behavior based on some set of ultimate values. If life is universally and inherently valuable, then taking it arbitrarily is inherently unethical. If the value of life is personally determined, I might just assign it a lower importance in certain cases and then feel justified in taking it arbitrarily. Culturally speaking, personally defined values become no values at all.

The future of an essentially value-less culture, says Lewis, is ominous. That and more can be encountered in just the 1st chapter, but he goes on to develop his case, responding again to the authors of The Green Book, a literature study intended for the upper elementary grades. The last part of Lewis's argument (chapter 3, to be addressed later) will imagine in detail the contours of a future adrift from universal ethical moorings.

Chapter 2, The Way follows the trajectory of the Green Book authors' view from its apparent origins through its inconsistent and self-contradictory application. Lewis's provocative opening line:
The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.
A great part of Lewis's brilliance, as his fans know, is his ability to bring high philosophical debate down into the language of people like us. In the second chapter he explores the origin of values and the modern trend away from what theologians and philosophers might call foundationalism, the assertion that there are such things as self-evident truths: irreducible, non-debateable assumptions necessary to the process of arriving at our viewpoints.

His concern is not so much the abstract foundations of reason, but what for convenience he calls the "Tao," that set of moral assumptions providing a basis for judgments of value and right behavior; values employed, though not admitted to, even by the moral innovators. Those who deny ultimate values of one kind always end up making their appeal on the basis of assumed values of another kind. It's the usual roundabout. Use what you deny in order to deny it; establish as a fundamental value that there are no fundamental values. Those who tell us there are no ultimate ought-to's are ever insisting that we ought to be as broadminded as they are.
However subjective they may be about some traditional value, [the authors] have shown by the very real act of writing The Green Book that there must be some other values about which they are not subjective at all.
And then:
Their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough.
Next comes Lewis's analysis of what motivates the modern debunker of the Tao, that foundation of values common to civilized man:
They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that 'real' or 'basic' values may emerge.
And from what ground might such real values emerge? Modernism's first answer has always been utilitarian, "good" is what is "good for the community." This of course only begs the question, for we still have to decide what good is for a community and who is obligated to participate in what action that might lead to it.

The second basis usually offered is "instinct." Pare away layers of imposed socialized belief and get down to a "natural" ethic. Man's impulse to preserve himself and his society is all that is needed. But this too is an inadequate and even disingenuous foundation. Inevitably it includes an "ought." We ought to reject certain instinctive impulses and embrace others, once again assuming some part of that higher set of values the debunker is trying so hard to pare away. And what to do when the desire for self-preservation comes into conflict with the obligation to preserve society? Instinctive impulses frequently contradict one another and must be judged according to their comparative dignity—a process not instinctual but again pointing to the Tao, to an external measure of what is worthy of man and what is not. (Lewis develops this further in his more popular Mere Christianity.)

Therefore, lying behind every natural explanation of the development of man's ethics is a more ultimate, assumed set of standards by which ethical propositions and "ethical development" itself must be evaluated. Lewis summarizes:
I draw the following conclusion. This thing 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 source of all value judgment. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.
And then:
An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man's mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else.
What Lewis sees as universal elements of the Tao, those fundamental values common to and assumed by people everywhere, he includes in a wonderful appendix, a shorthand anthropological summary worth the price of the book.

Modern reasoning moves inexorably to a new and more precarious level. Maybe our task is this: even as modern science has swept away superstition and supernatural explanations for natural events, so too modern psychology will address outmoded assumptions about sexual morality (always the first on modern and post-modern lists to be jettisoned!) and other creaky, constrictive ideas about value and virtue. Most will demand modernization and even replacement. In fact—maybe we should just start over!
Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.

This is a very possible position: and those who hold it cannot be accused of self-contradiction like the half-hearted skeptics who still hope to find 'real' values when they have debunked the traditional ones. This is the rejection of the concept of value altogether. I shall need another lecture to consider it.
And he does. Chapter 3, The Abolition of Man imagines the darkness sure to accompany that rejection, some of which is already evident.

To be continued.

2 comments:

danny wright said...

my last post, (which is a link to a debate) was about this very thing. I've been meaning to read this book again.

terryd said...

Danny,
I read your debate...well done. It's a great case in point isn't it?...of circular moral reasoning. I like Robert Bork's reply to the assertion "We can't legislate morality." He said, "We legislate little else."