Read the essay: The Poison of Subjectivism
If The Weight of Glory was my favorite of Lewis’s essays so far, this one is definitely my least favorite, mostly because it’s content is almost identical to that of the first few chapters of Mere Christianity, which I read just a few days ago. During our class discussion, one of my group members wondered aloud why Lewis would write two pieces that were so similar. To be honest, I’m not sure. But, if I had to take a guess, I would say that, though Lewis’s arguments and examples are the same, the purpose of the two works is different. Mere Christianity is meant to persuade people to accept the Christian faith, or, at the very least, admit the rationality of such beliefs. The goal of this essay, on the other hand, is to point out the existence of a particular problem in society—the growing popularity of subjectivism.
Lewis defines subjectivism as a lack of faith in the power of human reasoning. Once, people assumed that they could use their own thought processes to observe the world around them and discover truth. Now, however, they have begun to question whether their minds are capable of grasping truth at all because, when subjected to scientific scrutiny, thoughts appear to be merely “the epipheomena which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process.” This ties right back to Meditation in a Toolshed—there is danger here in looking only at one’s own thoughts and in looking only along them. When seen from the outside, it is impossible to appreciate the real value and complexity of human thought; one puts too little faith in the human mind. When seen from the inside, however, one is tempted to put too much faith in one’s own reason, not realizing how easily deceived or unbalanced the brain is, and how limited its power to conceive, process, and understand.
In the realm of science, subjectivism presents little danger because the scientist must trust that his powers of reason and observation are capable of uncovering truth—else his work would be pointless. It is “practical reason”—our sense of right and wrong—that Lewis is worried about. When subjectivism creeps into the moral realm, it convinces people that “right” and “wrong” are no more than social conventions. Each society has its own standards of behavior; and since such standards are a human invention, they can be flawed, misguided, or downright cruel. Reformers hope to create new, intentional moral systems that better benefit the human race. The very idea of progress, or improvement upon “traditional” systems of morality is impossible, however, without an underlying belief in an absolute standard of right and wrong. How are we to judge whether an idea is “better” or “fairer” than another unless we know of something perfectly good and just to compare it to? If there is no fixed standard of perfect morality, then all moral systems are equal—and, in that case, traditional morality is just as “good” a system as any other.
Lewis then addresses the idea of moral “progress,” attacking the use of the word “stagnant” to describe a fixed, unchanging standard of morality (he does the same in The Screwtape Letters, if memory serves). Just because water stinks when it does not move, he says, doesn’t mean that anything that stays still must spoil. In fact, many things do not change, and are the better for it, like mathematical truths. Furthermore, not all change is positive change. When things become dirty, we don’t call that progress—we clean them, returning them to their original, unsoiled state. Similarly, morality is something which is permanent, and the better for it. In fact, if we are to make moral progress at all we must have a “changeless standard” of right and wrong. As Lewis says, “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?” During our class discussion, however, one of my classmates brought up a good point. While it is important to acknowledge that a fixed standard of morality is necessary for progress, it is also important to strive to make progress. Our standard of behavior may not be able to stagnate, but our behavior itself can. Just because right and wrong do not change doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continually change in our quest to conform more and more closely to what is Good.Just a quick final note—the influence of Plato and Augustine is evident in a lot of Lewis’s work; this essay is no exception. In fact, in the fourth paragraph Lewis even mentions Plato by name. However, I was surprised when, near the end of the essay, I stumbled across the Euthyphro dilemma! That is, the million dollar question from the end of Plato’s Dialogue with Euthyphro, originally “Is what is pious pious because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” and rephrased here as “Are these things [the actions prescribed by the moral law] right because God commands them or does God command them because they are right?” Lewis comes up with essentially the same answer to the dilemma that my philosophy teacher did last semester, though with much greater eloquence—that “God neither obeys nor creates the moral law” but is Himself a Goodness which is “uncreated,” which “lies…on the other side of existence” and, mysteriously, is itself “the ground of all existence.”