Summary for Discussion: This article was written by Mr.
Lewis during World War II, and while it does apply to Fascism and
Communism it also applies to ideologies (or "isms") of
our postmodern world. The basic argument Mr. Lewis makes is that
"good" cannot be a subjective or relative value that individuals
or societies create. "Good" must be an absolute (even
if not fully known) abstract that is independent and judges individuals
and societies. Using logic and reason Mr. Lewis then goes on to
prove that any other opinion on subjectivism is either ignorant
or logically flawed and will lead to untold harm. I think his insights
are as timely today as they were 60 years ago. We are being told
that the only absolute is that there are NO absolutes and that each
man should do what is right in his own eyes. And then we react in
horror and angst when injustices (justice itself being an absolute
judgement of value), atrocities and terrorism ("one man's terrorist
is another man's freedom fighter" - the ends justify the means)
abound in our society. Note: The article can become a little
deep (it used a number of words I haven't seen since taking the
SAT) and may require a couple short sittings or a reread to fully
acquire it. I think it is worth the download time. Emphasis in article
added by me. PAP
Poison of Subjectivism - from Christian Reflections by C.S. Lewis
One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the
greed and pride of men, but at certain periods in history this is
greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy.
Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely
theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive
good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort
is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies
of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and
spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies
their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.
After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up
to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen
all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it
is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his
own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenona which accompanies
chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product
of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king
whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective.
There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.
As long as this dethronement refers only to the theoretical reason,
it cannot be wholehearted. The scientist has to assume the validity
of his own logic (in the stout old fashion of Plato or Spinoza)
even in order to prove that it is merely subjective, and therefore
he can only flirt with subjectivism. It is true that this flirtation
sometimes goes pretty far. There are modern scientists, I am told,
who have dropped the words truth and reality out of their vocabulary
and who hold that the end of their work is not to know what is there
but simply to get practical results. This is, no doubt, a bad symptom.
But, in the main, subjectivism is such an uncomfortable yokefellow
for research that the danger, in this quarter, is continually counteracted.
But when we turn to practical reason the ruinous effects are found
operating in full force. By practical reason I mean our judgement
of good and evil. If you are surprised that I include this under
the heading of reason at all, let me remind you that your surprise
is itself one result of the subjectivism I am discussing. Until
modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our
judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered
was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion
was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought,
thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler and Doctor Johnson. The modern
view is very different. It does not believe that value judgements
are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes,
or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment
and its traditions, and differing from one community to another.
To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling
about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially
conditioned to have.
But if this is so, then we might have been conditioned to feel otherwise.
"Perhaps," thinks the reformer or the educational expert,
"it would be better if we were. Let us improve our morality."
Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will
certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls)
if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create
values, that a community can choose its "ideology" as
men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears
the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the
Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation
is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective
sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective
standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike
whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are
as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours.
If "good" and "better" are terms deriving their
sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies
themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the
measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no
measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral
ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are
alike meaningless words.
All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition.
But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure
of the moral reformer who, after saying that "good" means
"what we are conditioned to like" goes on cheerfully to
consider whether it might be "better" that we should be
conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven's name does he
mean by "better"?
He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws
over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else,
something more "real" or "solid" on which to
base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, "We
must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of
the community" - as if the maxim "Thou shalt promote the
good of the community' were anything more than a polysyllabic variant
of 'Do as you would be done by' which has itself no other basis
than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting.
Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that
we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently
he does not anticipate the question, 'Why should the species be
preserved?' He takes it for granted that it should, because he is
really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting,
as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle.
Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on "instinct."
"We have an instinct to preserve our species", he may
say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey
our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth
of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species?
The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than
others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the
standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims
to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish
us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you
do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to
your study of them, you can never derive it from them.
This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something
subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is
wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar.
Let us get two propositions written into our minds with indelible
1)The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than
of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the
2)Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some
one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and
erecting it into an unum necessarium.
The second proposition will bear a little illustration. Ordinary
morality tells us to honour our parents and cherish our children.
By taking the second precept alone you construct a Futurist Ethic
in which the claim of "posterity" are the sole criterion.
Ordinary morality tells us to keep promises and also to feed the
hungry. By taking the second precept alone you get a Communist Ethic
in which "production," and distribution of the products
to the people, are the sole criteria. Ordinary morality tells us,
ceteris paribus, to love our kindred and fellow citizens more than
strangers. By isolating this precept you can get either an Aristocratic
Ethic with the claims of our class as sole criterion, or a Racialist
Ethic where no claims but those of blood are acknowledged. These
monomaniac systems are then used as a ground from which to attack
traditional morality; but absurdly, since it is from traditional
morality alone that they derive such semblance of validity as they
possess. Starting from scratch, with no assumptions about value,
we could reach none of them. If reverence for parents or promises
is a mere subjective by-product of physical nature, so is reverence
for race or posterity. The trunk to whose root the reformer would
lay the axe is the only support of the particular branch he wishes
All idea of "new" or "scientific" or "modern"
moralities must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought.
We have only two alternatives. Either the maxims of traditional
morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither
admit nor require argument to support them and not to "see"
which is to have lost human status; or else there are no values
at all, what we mistook for values being "projections"
of irrational emotions. It is perfectly futile, after having dismissed
traditional morality with the question, 'Why should we obey it?'
then to attempt the reintroduction of value at some later stage
in our philosophy. Any value we reintroduce can be countered in
just the same way. Every argument used to support it will be an
attempt to derive from premises in the indicative mood a conclusion
in the imperative. And this is impossible.
Against this view the modern mind has two lines of defence. The
first claims that traditional morality is different in different
times and places - in fact, that there is not one morality but a
thousand. The second exclaims that to tie ourselves to an immutable
moral code is to cut off all progress and acquiesce in stagnation.
Both are unsound.
Let us take the second one first. And let us strip it of the illegitimate
emotional power it derives from the word 'stagnation' with its suggestion
of puddles and mantled pools. If water stands too long it stinks.
To infer thence that whatever stands long must be unwholesome is
to be the victim of metaphor. Space does not stink because it
has preserved its three dimensions from the beginning. The square
on the hypotenuse has not gone moldy by continuing to equal the
sum of the squares on the other two sides. Love is not dishonored
by constancy, and when we wash our hands we are seeking stagnation
and "putting the clock back," artificially restoring our
hands to the status quo in which they began the day and resisting
the natural trend of events which would increase their dirtiness
steadily from our birth to our death. For the emotive term 'stagnant'
let us substitute the descriptive term 'permanent.' Does a permanent
moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on
the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible.
If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should
get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as
the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the
good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or
the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they
can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly
right only if the one perfectly right is "stagnant".
And yet it will be said, I have just admitted that our ideas of
good may improve. How is this to be reconciled with the view that
"traditional morality" is a depositum fidei which cannot
be deserted? The answer can be understood if we compare a real moral
advance with a mere innovation. From the Stoic and Confucian, "Do
not do to others what you would not like them to do to you";
to the Christian, "Do as you would be done by" is a real
advance. The morality of Nietzsche is a mere innovation. The first
is an advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the
old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone
who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension
of the same principle. If he rejected it, he would have to reject
it as a superfluity, something that went too far, not as something
simply heterogeneous from his own ideas of value. But the Nietzschean
ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional
morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where
we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the
difference between a man who says to us: "You like your vegetables
moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly
fresh?" and a man who says, "Throw away that loaf and
try eating bricks and centipedes instead." Real moral advances,
in fine, are made from within the existing moral tradition and in
the spirit of that tradition and can be understood only in the light
of that tradition. The outsider who has rejected the tradition cannot
judge them. He has, as Aristotle said, no arche, no premises.
And what of the second modern objection - that the ethical standards
of different cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition
at all? The answer is that is a lie - a good, solid, resounding
lie. If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with
the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the
massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian
Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the
Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines
and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations
of oppression, murder, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions
of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving
and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly
was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts
of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing
as the Law of Nature. There are, of course, differences. There are
even blindnesses in particular cultures - just as there are savages
who cannot count up to twenty. But the pretence that we are presented
with a mere chaos - though no outline of universally accepted value
shows through - is wherever it is simply false and should be contradicted
in season and out of season wherever it is met. Far from finding
a chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed
something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended
- that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences
of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything.
The two grand methods of obscuring this agreement are these: First,
you can concentrate on those divergences about sexual morality which
most serious moralists regard as belonging to positive rather than
to Natural Law, but which rouse strong emotions. Differences about
the definition of incest or between polygamy and monogamy come under
this head. (It is untrue to say that the Greeks thought sexual perversion
innocent. The continual tittering of Plato is really more evidential
than the stern prohibition of Aristotle. Men titter thus only about
what they regard as, at least, a peccadillo: the jokes about drunkenness
in Pickwick, far from proving that the nineteenth-century English
thought it innocent, prove the reverse. There is an enormous difference
of degree between the Greek view of perversion and the Christian,
but there is not opposition.) The second method is to treat as differences
in the judgement of value what are really differences in belief
about fact. Thus human sacrifice, or persecution of witches, are
cited as evidence of a radically different morality. But the real
difference lies elsewhere. We do not hunt witches because we disbelieve
in their existence. We do not kill men to avert pestilence because
we do not think pestilence can thus be averted. We do "sacrifice"
men in war, and we do hunt spies and traitors.
So far I have been considering the objections which unbelievers
bring against the doctrine of objective value, or the Law of Nature.
But in our days we must be prepared to meet objections from Christians
too. "Humanism" and "liberalism" are coming
to be used simply as terms of disapprobation, and both are likely
to be so used of the position I am taking up. Behind them lurks
a real theological problem. If we accept the primary platitudes
of practical reason as the unquestioned premises of all action,
are we thereby trusting our own reason so far that we ignore the
Fall, and are retrogressively turning our absolute allegiance away
from a person to an abstraction?
As regards the Fall, I submit that the general tenor of scripture
does not encourage us to believe that our knowledge of the Law has
been depraved in the same degree as our power to fulfil it. He would
be a brave man who claimed to realize the fallen condition of man
more clearly than St. Paul. In that very chapter (Roman 7) where
he asserts most strongly our inability to keep the moral law he
also asserts most confidently that we perceive the Law's goodness
and rejoice in it according to the inward man. Our righteousness
may be filthy and ragged, but Christianity gives us no ground for
holding that our perceptions of right are in the same condition.
They may, no doubt, be impaired; but there is a difference between
imperfect sight and blindness. A theology which goes about to represent
our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster.
If we once admit that what God means by "goodness" is
sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference
left between pure religion and devil worship.
The other objection is much more formidable. If we once grant that
our practical reason is really reason and that its fundamental imperatives
are as absolute and categorical as they claim to be, then unconditional
allegiance to them is the duty of man. So is absolute allegiance
to God. And these two allegiances must, somehow, be the same. But
how is the relation between God and the moral law to be represented?
To say that the moral law is God's law is no final solution. Are
these things right because God commands them or does God command
them because they are right? If the first, if good is to be
defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is
emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would
have the same claim on us as those of the "righteous Lord."
If the second, then we seem to be admitting a cosmic dyarchy, or
even making God himself the mere executor of a law somehow external
and antecedent to His own being. Both views are intolerable.
At this point we must remind ourselves that Christian theology does
not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that
in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity.
In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from
a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with
unity of the body, is different from a square. (Flatlanders, attempting
to imagine a cube, would either imagine the six squares coinciding,
and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out
side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about
the Trinity are of much the same kind.) It is therefore possible
that the duality which seems to force itself upon us when we think,
first, of our Father in Heaven, and, secondly, of the self-evident
imperatives of the moral law, is not a mere error but a real (though
inadequate and creaturely) perception of things that would necessarily
be two in any mode of being which enters our experience, but which
are not so divided in the absolute being of the superpersonal God.
When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled
to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it.
And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think
of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate
pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would
be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily by a sic volo, sic
jubeo (in which case He would be neither good nor wise). But it
is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be
idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction
of our categories - ambulavi in mirabilibus supra me. But it might
be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys
nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could
have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies,
as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of
the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the
Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond
the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits
no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground
of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love,
a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent
in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused
life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely
divine, but God.
These may seem fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing
short of this can save us. A Christianity which does not see
moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity,
not at a negative infinity, but in the positive infinity of the
living yet superpersonal God, has nothing, in the long run, to
divide it from devil worship; and a philosophy which does not accept
value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin. Nor
is the matter of merely speculative importance. Many a popular "planner"
on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic
laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means.
He believes that "good" means whatever men are conditioned
to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind
to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological
manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda. Because
he is confused, he does not yet fully realize that those who create
conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves. But he must
awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he
does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of
the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality
and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose
is produced at the experts' pleasure? If "good" means
only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology
be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom
presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and
ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible
with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long
as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature,
the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators
and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his
Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective
values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return
might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality
of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit
our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion.
While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand
of our rulers such qualities as "vision," "dynamism,"
"creativity," and the like. If we returned to the objective
view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial
- virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. 'Vision' is for sale,
or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will
do a day's work for a day's pay, who will refuse bribes, who will
not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.