Abolition of Man

14 09 2009

Morality signThis week the book discussion group in which I participate gathered for our final discussion on Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis and again had a great discussion. It is amazing how in three chapters and less than 100 pages Lewis could weave together such a compelling argument, yet that is just what he has done in this book.

To review his argument, Lewis began the first chapter discussing two actual authors whom he pseudonymously referred to as Gaius and Titius (G&T) and their book to which he referred to as The Green Book. In this book, in which G&T set out to write about writing styles and the proper use of grammar, the two actually instead write about philosophy, describing how a writer doesn’t describe a thing in itself, but only how they feel about that thing. They used Coleridge’s story of a couple at a waterfall, one who described it as sublimeand the other describing it aspretty. Lewis tells us that “Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgment and rejected the second in disgust.” However, he goes on to tell us that G&T explain that they were not giving an actual judgment or description of the waterfall, but only theirfeelings about the waterfall.

Lewis tells us that in The Green Book the schoolboy will learn two things: first, that “all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker”; and second, “that all such statements are unimportant.” In contrast to these postmodern ideas of truth and reality, Lewis introduces the concept of the Tao, a shorthand word to refer to objective reality and truth. Lewis also explains that when filtering reality the head rules the belly through the chest. In other words, reason or intellect rules emotion or instinct through sentiment, magnanimity or nobility. This ruling is governed by the Tao. He explains that G&T and their kind are producing Men without Chests, those who are either all head or all belly but without the chest to govern the two.

Lewis explains that even though G&T attempt to tear down objective truth, they seem to believe in an inherent objective standard toward which they are driving the readers of their book. They imply that certain states of mind are intrinsically good. They are promoting their own dogmatism while tearing away at traditional values. Yet the standards that they are trying to establish are built upon reason and pragmatism alone and Lewis shows how this attempt at values breaks down in the end as it does not have the force ofoughtness to it; there is no reason one should be compelled to follow them. Lewis also argues that following instinct won’t lead us to workable morality either. We have competing instincts and yet, who or what is to govern between them.

SignIn the final chapter, entitledAbolition of Man, Lewis argues that man in his attempt to conquer nature, will in the end only be conquered by nature. He shows how man has advanced in developing technology to, in a sense, conquer nature. One of those technologies is contraceptives. Contraceptives allow people to engage in certain behavior without all of the “consequences” entailed in these practices. Lewis makes an interesting point in regard to the usage of contraceptives in that “there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive.” In other words, the user of contraceptives is impacting and exercising control over future generations; they are denying them existence.

Lewis tells us that eventually all species will end up in extinction and the closer we come to extinction, the easier it will be to take control of Nature, especially our Human Nature. He writes:

I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

He argues that Conditioners will be developed, people who will train the coming generations to follow the artificial Taothat they have developed. However, as one of the conditions that they will instill will be to break from past traditions and develop new ones, those taught by the Conditioners will also eventually be abandoned in place of new ones. We will have people conditioned to act in a purely natural manner, according to natural impulses, yet in man’s attempt to conquer nature, acting naturally, he will eventually conquer himself, thus in the pursuit of the abolition of man, man will be destroyed.

Without objective truth and morality, what Lewis in this book refers to as the Tao, there is no way to make sense of moral behavior at all. At best, all we can say is that we have certain behavior, but we cannot call it moral, or even good as that would imply an objective standard. If a person were to love another person or hurt another person we could only say that they were acting differently from one another, not better or worse.

The conclusion of this argument has implications for a naturalist who believes that morality can be determined by evolution. Lewis debunks such an idea and tells us that we need an objective standard to truly have morality at all. Apart from God, that objective standard cannot exist. Does this mean that a naturalist cannot live a moral life? No, they certainly can. However, it does mean that they don’t have a basis for that behavior according to their worldview. It is only by what Lewis calls the Tao, an objective standard that requires a transcendent source, that man has a basis for this objective morality.



One response

10 10 2009
Stephen Notman

Excellent work Paul. Really good stuff…yes, yes, all superlatives. Nothing to contribute at the moment other than to stuff a feather in your cap.

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