The Abolition of Man
In the first line of his noted book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote: “I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text-books.” Likewise, I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of the so-called “new science of the moral sense” that is flourishing in our midst today.
Lewis was concerned about his culture’s inattentiveness to primary school text-books because he believed they contained the seeds which, when implanted in young, impressionable minds, would eventually produce a rejection of the natural law tradition of objective right and wrong. Such a rejection, Lewis justly believed, would put the whole of ethics, theology, politics, and, indeed, the future of humanity, at stake.
For similar reasons, we should also be concerned about current attempts to explain human preoccupations with right and wrong on the basis of a scientific, evolutionary naturalism. This is what Steven Pinker has done in his recent essay titled, “The Moral Instinct,” published in the January 13, 2008, edition of The New York Times Magazine. Since it was the lead story, the magazine’ s cover features a young man about to step onto a subway, glancing furtively at a young mother struggling to carry her baby-laden stroller up a steep flight of stairs. Shouldn’t he stop to help her? At the bottom of the cover is this simple but profound question: “What makes us want to be good?” Pinker seeks to answer this question in his article, with this as its tag line: “Evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses. Do we know what to do with them?”
In an interdisciplinary manner, Pinker, who is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has written an apology for an “objective morality” rooted in nature alone, debunking any transcendent grounding for his thesis. “The human moral sense,” Pinker writes in a statement that betrays naturalistic assumptions, “turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations” (p. 1).
Recalling an analogy employed by John Rawls between language and morality based on the work of Noam Chomsky, Pinker asserts that “we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness” (p. 3). In fact, Pinker notes that the notion of “universal moral grammar” has been confirmed by anthropologists such as Donald E. Brown. Like C. S. Lewis did in the appendix of The Abolition of Man, Brown assembled a list of human universals, many of them moral in character, including “a distinction between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions for wrongs against the community; shame; and taboos” (p. 3). Anthropologists Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske have also discovered similar universal values in their research, and psychologist Jonathan Haidt has boiled them down to five basic moral intuitions: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity. Haidt calls them “the primary colors of our moral sense” (p. 4). For these and other reasons, Pinker suggests that “Though no one has identified genes for morality, there is circumstantial evidence they exist.” He also adds, “The moral sense … may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain (p. 4).
Though Pinker himself seem quite confident in this viewpoint, he is concerned that critics of the new science of the moral sense will see it as “morally corrosive.” Isn’t it just an attempt by evolutionary psychologists to debunk our best moral instincts as ultimately self-interested and nothing more than the fruit of the “Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes”? Wouldn’t it all lead to a “spineless relativism” prohibiting genuine moral criticism? Isn’t it just an “amoral nihilism” in which ethics are reduced from transcendent principles to brain functions? (p. 6). In responding to these criticisms, Pinker tries to show on scientific grounds that human moral impulses shouldn’t be demoted to mere gene maximization or self-interest. With the unconvinced, it could still leave the impression that such a scientized “morality” is purely emotive and lacks objective footing.
In response to these objections, Pinker notes, some would play the God card. In response, however, Pinker observes that Plato dealt with this argument some 2,400 years ago, invoking the Euthyphro dilemma, based on Plato’s dialog “Euthyphro” on the subject of piety. In a theistic interpretation, Euthyphro argued that God either had good reasons for his moral demands or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then morality is merely rooted in arbitrary divine decrees and could always be otherwise. If he did, then those reasons should be appealed to as the ground for morality, and not God. Pinker, however, dismisses both divine volunteerism and moral realism with a virtual wave of the hand, the former being ludicrous (what if God willed the torture of children?) and the latter “too rich for many philosophers’ blood” (p. 7).
Instead, Pinker argues that two features of reality point in a moral direction to help us determine if our judgments are in sync with morality itself. One is that two parties are both better off if they act unselfishly toward one another, an altruism that he says is neither the expression of brain wiring nor a divine command, but simply rooted “in the nature of things” (p. 7). The second “external support,” Pinker states, is a feature of rationality itself, namely, “the interchangeability of perspectives” (p. 7). This universal feature of human behavior is better known as the golden rule in its various expressions which shows that mutual benevolent treatment is obviously the best course of action for all concerned. On these two platforms, Pinker draws the conclusion that “Morality … is still something larger than our inherited moral sense, and the new science of the moral sense does not make moral reasoning and conviction obsolete” (p. 8). Exactly how “morality” as such transcends our inherited moral sense is left unexplained. After drawing out what he believes are the profound implications of this perspective for our moral universe, Pinker concludes with this quote from Chekov: “Man will become better when you show him what he is like” (p. 9).
Is this, indeed, what we are like? Is this what “morality” is? Perhaps the ideas we have just surveyed in Pinker’s essay are evidence that we are, in fact, slip-sliding away to the abolition of man, as Lewis himself foresaw in early 1943. It was then (specifically on the evenings of February 24-26) that he delivered the University of Durham’s Riddell Memorial Lectures which were combined and published later that same year by Oxford University Press as his book The Abolition of Man. These three crucial lectures are on (1) the educational impact of the loss of the natural law, (2) an apology for natural law under the name of the Tao and the self-defeating nature of its denial, and (3) the scientific conquest of nature and of human nature outside of natural law offer. Together, these three lectures comprise one of the best defenses of the natural moral law tradition in the 20th century.
To be sure, there is a neurobiological aspect to our moral nature that is not to be denied, mysterious though it may be. Of all people, Lewis included, mere Christians proclaim with exuberance that God the Father Almighty is the maker of a very good heaven and earth! Not only the story of creation, but also Christ’s incarnation and the Easter celebration, just observed, of His triumphant bodily resurrection ground this conviction of the value of physicality wholeheartedly. John Updike’s memorable poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” validates Christ’s resurrection as a nature-affirming event and its importance to the Church.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Christian believers of every tradition affirm the goodness and glories of the creation and human nature, and see both as means of divine revelation. But what is to be denied is that nature alone can explain everything that needs to be explained, morality included. This, as Lewis argued in his book Miracles, is “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism.” “If Naturalism is true,” he wrote, “every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.”
This is what Pinker, it seems, tries to do in the article discussed above. Yet this is exactly what Lewis says the boa constrictor of Naturalism as a Total System will not permit us to do. It leaves no room for an authentic (transcendent) morality and squeezes it out of human existence. Given, then, the rise of the new science of the moral sense a la Pinker, now is the time, if there ever was one, to revisit Lewis’s arguments in The Abolition of Man on behalf of the natural moral law of God written on the hearts of human beings (cf. Romans 2: 14-16).
The artists in our midst unsurprisingly recognize the relevance of Lewis’s words for our morally bankrupt culture, advising us to take heed before it’s too late. The alternative musical group Thrice offers such a sober warning in a throbbing song titled “The Abolition of Man” from their CD The Artist in the Ambulance.
Wake up, everyone,
It’s not too late,
To save the remnants of our hearts,
So stop giving up,
Our last shot at love;
Our only chance to find the meaning of,
The beat beneath the blood.
We laugh at honor and are shocked when,
We find knives in our backs;
We follow those who cheat and steal.
Look, in my eyes,
You won’t find your way back;
Our only compass smashed under,
Our own heels.
Reason abandoned to appetites,
And addicts’ arms.
Shotguns and silence,
Have always been the best of charms.
The Abolition Of Man is within,
The reach of science,
But are we so far gone that we’ll try it?
May those among us who have ears to hear, let us hear. May those among us who have eyes to see, let us see. After all, theology, ethics, politics, and the future of humanity are all at stake.
Dr. David K. Naugle is chair and professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University where he has worked for seventeen years in both administrative and academic capacities. He earned a Th.D. in systematic theology, and a Ph.D. in humanities with concentrations in philosophy and English literature.
Dr. Naugle is the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), which was selected by Christianity Today magazine as the 2003 book of the year in the theology and ethics.
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco/New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002), p. 469.
Steven Pinker, The Moral Sense, New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2008. Available at: HYPERLINK “http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/ 13Psychology-t.html” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/ 13Psychology-t.html. Accessed March 26, 2008. Page numbers in the body of this text are to the online version of this essay.
For the twenty-first century, Daryl Charles’s Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2008) due out March 2008, may be a good successor to Lewis.
John Updike, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Inc. 1963).
C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco/New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002), p. 217.
Thrice, “The Abolition of Man,” in Artist in the Ambulance, Island, 2003. See also Point of Recognition’s similar song, “The Abolition of Man,” in their CD Day of Defeat, Facedown, 2002, with these lyrics:
Pressing the limits
What will we allow
Falling deep in moral decline
Forsaking the truth
When will we learn, what will it come down to
Blinded to the pain we cause, there must be change
The abolition of man
Destitute and immoral
There is still time
We can change the future
Surrender our lives to God for a second chance.