Friday, August 27, 2010

The real New York and the real morality

When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another? Have any of the changes been improvements? If not, then of course there could never be any moral progress. Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better.Adolf-Hitler-Nazi If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others. We do believe that some of the people who tried to change the moral ideas of their own age were what we would call Reformers or Pioneers—people who understood morality better than their neighbours did. Very well then. The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something—some Real Morality—for them to be true about.Liberty-statue-with-manhattan The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head’, how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all. In the same way, if the Rule of Decent Behaviour meant simply ‘whatever each nation happens to approve’, there would be no sense in saying that any one nation had ever been more correct in its approval than any other; no sense in saying that the world could ever grow morally better or morally worse.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952, this edition: 2001) 13-14.

1 comment:

  1. Two things about this reading from Lewis. First, I love this reasoning: we can all picture "New York," but the truer picture is the one that most resembles the real New York. I've always liked this kind of reasoning. It lies behind the Ontological Argument: the fact that I can think of a God who is all powerful and all knowing means that he must exist because he wouldn't really be all powerful or all knowing if he existed only in my mind!

    Second, once again, Lewis brings up Nazi morality as a way to illustrate his point. Cultural relativism (which argues that all cultures have moral codes and none are right or wrong just different) is totally wrongheaded. Obviously, one morality can be superior to another. Perhaps we need to be reminded of what Nazi Germany was really like. Thanks Jack!