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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Evolution and the Moral Sense

CS Lewis describes a *Natural Law* of an intrinsic sense of right and wrong that penetrates all people, all cultures, in all times. Another name for this is *Conscience.* I wanted to quote a little from Lewis' book, Mere Christianity:

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own...for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to -- whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired...

I go on to my next point...None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature...this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people. There may be all sorts of excuses for us. That time you were so unfair to the children was when you were very tired. That slightly shady business about the money -- the one you have almost forgotten -- came when you were very hard-up. And what you promised to do for old So-and-so and have never done -- well, you never would have promised if you had known how frightfully busy you were going to be... I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it , there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm... The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?...

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.


I remember discussing Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene in tenth grade. Dawkins' thesis stated that altruistic behavior wasn't really altruistic: it allowed for the survival of the individual's genes even if not the individual himself. For example, a bird raising an alarm for a predator might result in his being eaten, but if nine cousins escaped (each containing 1/8th of the bird's genes), then it was a bargain because 9/8 of the warning individual's genes were preserved: the Gene was seen as the ruling principle.

This makes a certain kind of sense, but I can't help feeling that it falls a little short. For example, imagine I'm conversing with someone who tells me she believes that everyone should be free to decide his own standard of right and wrong -- situational ethics is another name for this. OK, thinks I, and then I grab her purse and start emptying it on the couch.

*What are you doing?" she asks in horror.

*Oh, I've just decided that it's all right for me to search through your things. I'd like a mint or stick of gum."

I think CS Lewis has hit on something true with his description of *Natural Law*. He goes on to suggest that this moral sense comes from a transcendent God who has placed this sense of right and wrong within each person. Well, whether God exists must be decided by each person, but it's certainly an intriguing argument. I believe a prayer that is always answered, if asked sincerely, is to ask God to reveal Himself to you.


Travis said...

Amy, thanks for taking time to discuss this issue. We are in the process of moral decay in our culture, and it's important that we take time to examine our motives and our actions.

Well done.

Anonymous said...

I really need to read Mere Christianity. It's on my list of must-reads, but it's time to move it to the top.

I believe a prayer that is always answered, if asked sincerely, is to ask God to reveal Himself to you.

Very true! I've seen it happen, and not only in my own life.

I love your example with the purse. I'll have to remember that.