Thursday, November 3, 2011

Abolition of Man: The Way, part 2

Continuing the book discussion of Abolition of Man with part 2 of chapter 2:  The Way
Does this mean, then, that no progress in our perceptions of value can ever take place? That we are bound down for ever to an unchanging code given once for all? And is it, in any event, possible to talk of obeying what I call the Tao? If we lump together, as I have done, the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew, shall we not find many contradictions and some absurdities? I admit all this. Some criticism, some removal of contradictions, even some real development, is required. But there are two very different kinds of criticism. 
I'm glad that CS Lewis brought this up because I had started to puzzle a little about whether you could talk about a "Tao" or "Way" in any meaningful sense.   Was it just a cover label for "whatever moral system a given culture happened to have?"   In that case, wouldn't it be a variable, that could mean vastly different things in different contexts, even opposing things?  

Just by chance I have been reading Christian Reflections (a collection of essays by Lewis compiled by Walter Hooper after Lewis' death) and his essay On Ethics covers a lot of the same territory as this chapter in Abolition of Man.  The essay isn't available online but I did find a paper that discusses On Ethics alongside of Abolition of Man from a Reformed perspective Transcendent Natural Law in CS Lewis (pdf)

In On Ethics, Lewis makes the point that most civilizations or rather, most moral systems, overlap to quite a degree on their understanding of ethics.   Where they differ, it is usually in extension or limitation of the basic principle.  For example, some moral frameworks limit "do not kill" or "treat others as you would be treated" to the person's own clan or people, while others extend it outwards.   And so on.   

When Christianity came into being, for example, it wasn't revolutionary in its ethics.  There were a few extensions and changes in emphasis.   But the radical nature of the Christian message wasn't so much in its understanding of moral norms, as in the new covenant and the new hope that this involved. 

Lewis doesn't base his case on the overlaps.  So in that way his "Tao" is a variable.   It stands for something that all cultures have had -- that he would argue no one can do without if they are ever going to recommend anything as a "should".    But it also happens to be the case that most venerable cultures have a lot of overlap in the details of their ethical code (there is more about that in the Appendix of the book, which we haven't gotten to yet).  

Lewis  makes the point in On Ethics that he does in this chapter, that we can't critique the Tao, the code of ethics, from outside it.  This is because there is no way to get to a moral imperative, a "should", unless you have already started with a "should" of some sort.   I like the way he puts this:
A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy. That is one thing. A great poet, who has 'loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue', may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired the changes. That is a different thing—as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical. 
 In On Ethics he hits harder on the logical impossibility of choosing a system of ethics from outside a system.  If you have not started with some type of ethical framework, you can't develop one.  

The way I understand it, this is mainly because you can't get an imperative from the indicative mood; you can't get a prescriptive from a descriptive;  you can't make "is" add up to "ought".  Apparently, it's a fallacy:     Is-Ought Problem I also remember reading about this fallacy on Drew Campbell's old blog (I quoted it here but you have to scroll down to near the end of the post).     There has to be some value scale linking the "is" to the "ought" -- one thing has to actually be considered "better" than the other, so that it is to be desired and sought.   For example, something like "Look out for Number One" adds up to "self-preservation and happiness are good things" even if in a narrow, impoverished way compared to the richness and reason of the traditional Tao.   But "self-preservation and personal happiness are good things" is an assumption.    

Lewis puts it this way:
From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.

 Lewis says that all civilizations, all workable moral systems, start with a pre-existing Ought, a code of ethics generally held if not generally followed to perfection.   Within that Ought, you can develop further by contraction or expansion. Thus Jesus could say, "Moses told you this... but I tell you now...."   and develop and fulfill the understanding of the Law.   But not by destroying the Law; by fulfilling it.    Lewis says the revolutionary has to work from within. 

I thought that was interesting aside from the point he is making about morality.  It seems to apply to a lot of things, from literature (the example he gives above) to philosophy to faith ("I believe in order to understand") and even to the way a mother can be a good teacher without special credentials, because she knows and loves her children.    You can coherently work from inside, and in fact you must.   A scientist can do fine work within his own discipline.  The problem comes when he thinks his discipline can sustain itself by itself; that it is a closed system.  

Lewis says that a crank or ideologue is distinguished from a wise man in taking one bit of the Tao and making it supersede everything else.    Whereas a wise man can put the better above the worse, the higher above the lower, and find unity in multiplicity, the crank distorts the ethical framework.

In On Ethics, Lewis writes:
I deny that we have any choice to make between clearly differentiated ethical systems. I deny that we have any power to make a new ethical system. I assert that wherever and whenever ethical discussion begins we find already before us an ethical code whose validity has to be assumed before we can even criticize it. For no ethical attack on any of the traditional precepts can be made except on the ground of some other traditional precept.
 So the bottom line is that when someone is debunking moral values, it is inevitably from a moral framework, even if the debunker does not realize it or does not acknowledge his framework.    If you trace it backwards you often find that the debunker has chosen some particular favorite value and hyperfocused at the expense of the others.  I already mentioned the Look out for Number One, where the perpetrator is hyperfocusing on personal good.  He ends up defeating his own narrow purpose, of course; Aristotle deals with that quite thoroughly in the Nichomachean Ethics.    In Lewis science fiction book Out of the Silent Planet, as quoted in the article I linked to above, the Oyarsa of Malacandra says to Weston, who wants men to colonize and plunder the planets and the stars:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent until it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you can give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey.
You can see this with a lot of the moral debates that go on nowadays in the public square.  One moral imperative is pushed at the expense of all others, and with no agreed-on grounds for the framework.

It seems to me that one of the hardest things to teach our children is to be wise -- to be able to balance out and prioritize different values without letting one of them get a stranglehold on all the others.   Literature, it seems to me, helps develop this moral sense because it lets the child (or adult) participate in moral decisions and their consequences.  It helps the child work from within the body of ethical thought.  It adds another, thoughtful dimension to the instructions and training in his home and school and church.   It's hard to make an ideologue or a crank out of someone who has read widely and imaginatively, because cranks and ideologues have a narrow focus and a reader has a wider and broader outlook. 

As Charlotte Mason said, quoting the Psalm, the task is to set the child's feet " in a wide room" (or a spacious place).    Literature allows the child this room to think and imaginatively experience within the terms of the moral framework.   To me literature seems particularly important nowadays when we are less dependent on nature -- the seasons, the weather, the ground we live on -- to survive and thrive. 

It's possible nowadays for people to go through life without any of the tempering you get from living on the land and from folk stories and literature; it's unfortunate that our schools, with their artificial lighting and heating and their emphasis on second-hand information, not to mention the unfair power wielded by the lowest common denominator of the peer group, only perpetrate this problem, so that if a child learns wisdom in the school environment it is accidentally or negatively, not because the setting is geared to support it. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Willa. I now understand much better.

    About overlap in morality. I'm simply assuming that more than overlap the fact that morality codes in different cultures are very much alike, it's because they come from Christianity, Christianity understood as existing before it was even written. As with the flood and other cultures having a similar account, studies that take several factors into account to find say the mother board of all the other legends, point to the Biblical flood. And the time when it was penned has no relevance if it can be proven that it existed before orally. I mean to say that because Jesus comes after Confucius, Jesus did not borrow from him, but Confucius inspired himself on Christianity and thus in Jesus.

    As for your last writings when you again give a picture of what helps children to grow as wise persons, and how you notice that our schools and city life separates us from the nurturing focus, I agree, although this risk exists in homeschools as well.

    I'll add that Internet has made very obvious and present all these people who criticize the Tao from outside, such as that atheist man I talk about in my post, a person who disregarded the laws of debate, who simply stated, I'm here to CONFUSE you, ans who keep repeating, GOOGLE THIS, as if by typing a moral problem in goggle will give you the answer. Many others regard these men as 'experts', creating a climate of fear to say the Emperor is naked, and also instigating all of us to debunk and be happy without remorse or consideration, without assessing the repercussions or value of that criticism.

    That's why I learn so much from all of you when you talk about any topic, because you always plant your feet in that broad room.

    Thanks for your post, it's simply great to read any book in the company of all of you, ladies.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!