Mere Christianity | Book One, Chapter Two

For me, the second chapter is more difficult than the first. In addressing questions, Lewis is making some distinctions between things which really stretches my ability to think philosophically.

Q: C.S. Lewis opens Chapter 2 with “If they are the foundation . . .” What is the foundational “they” he is referring to?

A: Lewis is referring to the two points he wanted to make in Chapter 1: First, that there is a universal idea of Right and Wrong that makes people think “they ought to behave in a certain way;” and second, people “do not in fact behave in that way” and make all sorts of excuses (tired, busy, etc.) why they don’t.

Q. What happened as a result of Lewis’ first talk (chapter)?

A. People wrote letters saying it was “difficult to understand just what this Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behavior is.”

Q. What is the first example Lewis gives of the way some people responded and how does Lewis address it?

A. Some people said they thought the Moral Law was “herd instinct . . . developed just like all our other instincts.”

Lewis doesn’t deny “we may have a herd instinct,” but he wants to make it clear he means something different. We do have instincts—Lewis gives examples of “mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food”—and these instincts will influence our feelings of want and desire.

Lewis offers another example of a person in need where you feel the need to help, and that desire to help could be some sort of herd instinct. But Lewis says that feeling of wanting to help is different from the part of you that says “you ought to help whether you want to or not.”

To continue the analogy, Lewis says when you hear a cry for help you actually have two desires, one to help (“due to your herd instinct”) and another to avoid danger (“due to the instinct for self-preservation”). In addition to these two desires, there is “a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.” This third thing is the Moral Law, which tells us what is the right thing to do whether we want to or not. In other words, there is a difference between “want” and “ought.”

Q. What other example does Lewis give to show how the Moral Law is not one of our instincts?

A. Lewis describes moments where we have two instincts that “are in conflict.” He points out that if that’s all there was, “the stronger of the two must win.” But he says it’s in these moments we become aware of the Moral Law because it tends to make us “side with the weaker of the two impulses.”

Q. What is the third way Lewis tries to make his point that the Moral Law is not one of our instincts?

A. Lewis asks us to identify the desire in us that is always good and right. His point is that there isn’t one. Our desires are different from the Moral Law which tells us that sometimes our desires should be encouraged, sometimes our desires need to be suppressed. Lewis’ observation is that desires themselves aren’t good and bad. Using the analogy of a piano, Lewis says there aren’t “right” and “wrong” notes. It’s a question of timing. Sometimes a note is right. Sometimes it’s wrong. As Lewis puts it, “The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”

Q. What does Lewis say is “the most dangerous thing you can do”?

A. Take any natural desire and “set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.” Any of our desires will “make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.” Lewis gives the example of love for humanity. What could possibly go wrong if you followed the desire to love? You could forget justice and become inhumane in your love.

Q. What other response did Lewis get from his first talk?

A. Some people asked if the idea of Moral Law was simply a form of social education. Lewis gives the example of a multiplication table as something that is not merely human. If you grew up alone on a deserted island, you wouldn’t learn it, but that doesn’t mean it’s something humans made up.

He says there are human conventions, like which side of the road we drive on, and “real truths,” like mathematics. And the question Lewis asks is where does the Law of Human Nature fit?

Q. Why does Lewis say the Law of Nature is like mathematics?

A. Two reasons. First, Lewis describes the differences between conventions and morality among different cultures. Conventions differ greatly among different cultures, for example which side of the road you drive on or what kinds of clothes you wear. But the differences in morality are slight—“you can recognize the same law running through them all.”

Second, Lewis asks us to think about the differences in morality of different cultures and asks, “Do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another?” With the Second World War in mind, he mentions the difference between Christian morality and Nazi morality and concludes, “In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others.” It is the Moral Law that helps us make those judgments.

Q. What point does Lewis make with his story about New York?

A. There is a real New York that exists apart from whatever we might think it is. One person’s idea about New York will be more or less true than another’s based on reality and not whatever you have in your mind. His point is that if morality is whatever we say it should be, then we have no way to distinguish between better and worse cultures or cultures that are getting better or worse.

Q. What example does Lewis give of someone exaggerating differences in morality?

A. Someone asked Lewis about the practice from three hundred years earlier of “putting witches to death.” The person asked if that was right behavior. Lewis’ answer was a surprise to me. He said “surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things.” He explained that if we did believe that there were persons “who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather,” these persons would be deserving of death. Lewis says this is not a difference in morality, but a difference “of beliefs about facts.” He makes this statement: “It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.”

Q. How would you summarize this chapter?

A. The moral law is different from our instincts. Desires themselves are not right or wrong. It is the timing of our desires, or the right and wrong use of desires, we need to be concerned about.

So far, Lewis does not seem to be trying to cover much ground. He is carefully guiding his reader along a pathway and he doesn’t want anyone to stray off that path.


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