Can sincerely held moral convictions be wrong?
Two weeks ago I spent an entire school day with the Year 12 students at Toowoomba Christian College. From 9:00 am – 3:00 pm we discussed this question, which is the central focus of C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.
To set the stage, we watched a popular YouTube clip of students at an American university being asked a series of questions by a middle age, medium height, white male.
“If I told you I was a woman, what would your response be?,” he asked. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” responded one student. “If I told you I was Chinese, what would your response be?,” the interviewer continued. “Good for you—be who you are,” answered another student. “7 years old…?,” he inquired. “If you feel 7 at heart, then so be it,” came the reply. Then he posed this question: “What if I told you I was 6 feet, 5 inches tall?” “You’re not,” said a respondent.
Summing things up, the interviewer asked, “So I can be a Chinese woman ... but I can’t be a 6’5’’ Chinese woman?” “Yes,” came the answer.
Questions about identity are notoriously complex, and they deserve a more careful, nuanced consideration than this edited clip provides. But the video succeeds in reminding us that today’s students are growing up in very confusing times! What stands out is how hesitant millennials seem to be in telling another person that their sincerely held beliefs might be wrong.
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis raises a question about someone looking at a waterfall and calling it sublime. What, he asks, is this judgment referring to—the waterfall or the observer’s feelings? If the latter, then we would not argue that the claim was either accurate or false, for in that case the word “sublime” would simply indicate an individual’s preference.
But Lewis thinks that such a claim can, indeed, be evaluated as a truth claim about the waterfall—the kind of claim that can be reasonably debated by different parties.
To assert that something is sublime or good—and to mean more than just “I happen to prefer it”—we must be able to evaluate it in terms of some recognised independent standard. To evaluate the claim that a man is 6’5” tall, he would need to stand next to a yard stick. Similarly, to evaluate the claim that a human behaviour or relationship is wrong, we would need to compare it to some objective moral standard.
The central question of The Abolition of Man is whether such an objective moral order exists. Arguing from within the Christian tradition, Lewis asserts that it does. There is, he says, something inherent in the waterfall’s nature that deserves to be appreciated. Similarly, there is something inherent in human nature that makes certain ways of treating people good and other ways bad.
Where does objective value come from and in what does it consist? The key, I believe, is PURPOSE—i.e., the notion of what something would become if it developed unhindered into what it was intended to be. The purpose for which something was created—what the ancient Greeks called its telos—is the standard by which we can judge it good or bad. A good watch is a watch that does what it was created to do well, and a good relationship is a one that fulfills God’s purposes when creating us as relational beings.
As Lesslie Newbigin said,
Value judgments are either right or wrong in that they are or are not directed to the end for which all things in fact exist … If one has no idea of the purpose for which a thing exists ... then one cannot say whether it is good or bad. It may be good for some purposes but not for others.
On this view, to call something “good” is not just to say that you happen to like it (and if somebody else disagrees and calls it “bad,” you are both right). Rather, to call something “good” is to say that it is close to what it was intended to be—it is realising or achieving the purpose for which it was created.
Christian schools and universities need to teach students how to think clearly about the nature of the world that we inhabit and of the people that we interact with. If these are realities created by God with purpose and meaning, then there’s something more than our mere personal opinions to attend to. If certain kinds of behaviour and relationship have a telos that’s embedded in the very nature of what it means to be human, then it can actually be loving to acknowledge that reality. Indeed, Lewis thought we had a moral duty to help our neighbours—and to allow our neighbours to help us—to better align with that objective moral order. We should do so with charity and humility, but we should do so nonetheless.
If, instead, our educational institutions fail to teach the reality of a true human nature or telos—if they fail to teach teleologically—then they will help contribute to the abolition of man.
[Kudos to schools like Toowoomba Christian College for devoting time and attention to such an important topic for students at such a crucial stage of life!]
Final Formal Hall of Semester 1
Last week the Millis Institute celebrated the end of Semester 1 with a formal hall dinner. During dessert, two Millis students--Johnny van Gend and Kate Worley--treated us to a pair of violin duets by Reinhold Gliere. We were also honoured to have as our guest speaker Ps Ron Woolley, Headmaster of Citipointe Chrisian College, who is retiring at the end of 2017. Thank you, Ron, for your many years of faithful service!