Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lewis's Lockean Liberalism

Dyer and Watson point out that Lewis saw Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity as one of the best expressions of the classical natural-law tradition.  John Locke appealed to Hooker in explaining how the law of nature arises in the state of nature.  Dyer and Watson see this link between Lewis, Hooker, and Locke as supporting their conclusion that Lewis's understanding of the natural law of individual rights and limited government shows a natural law Lockean liberalism.  Although Lewis never explicitly acknowledged Locke as an influence on his political thinking, we know that Lewis read Locke, and much of what Lewis said about politics looks very Lockean.

So, for example, in Mere Christianity Lewis identifies securing individual liberty in private life as the primary aim of government:
"The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.  A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging his own garden--that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time." (169)
 Notice that the State's concern here is with human happiness "in this life"--not in the next life.  A government that would be directed to eternal salvation would be a theocracy, and Lewis said that "theocracy is the worst of al governments," because any government that would pretend to have the power of salvation would be tyrannical.

Lewis thought that government did not need to promote Christianity in order to provide a common morality for society, Dyer and Watson explain, because "Lewis believed that God had imprinted His moral law on every human heart, whether or not that person had come to faith in Jesus Christ" (93).  Consequently, Lewis accepted the Lockean argument for the toleration of all religious.

One good illustration of how the Lockean moral law arises naturally in the human mind is in Lewis's essay "Delinquents in the Snow."  He tells the story of how some young hooligans had been caught stealing and vandalizing Lewis's home, and how they had not been properly punished by the legal system.  He complained that "according to the classical political theory of this country," we "surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on the condition that the State would protect us" (98-99).  But if the State does not protect our natural rights, including the right to property, the natural right to protect ourselves and our property reverts to the individual.  This is what Locke called the natural "executive power of the state of nature."  This natural right to protect oneself, one's property, and one's family from attack arises naturally in the human mind without any need for a Christian faith that such a natural law is divinely ordained.

Although Locke denied that government needed to inculcate virtue, Dyer and Watson observe, "his Thoughts on Education is all about inculcating virtue" (90).  So that even without the legal enforcement of virtue, which would threaten individual liberty, Locke assumed that the education of children in their families, their churches, and the wider society would shape the moral and intellectual virtues. Lewis agreed.  In fact, his fantasy writing for children--such as the Chronicles of Narnia--was intended to contribute to the moral education of children supervised by parents rather than the State.

So, as a Lockean liberal, Lewis denies that Christian citizens have any right to use their political power to coercively impose their Christian morality on their political community.  Dyer and Watson think this is particularly clear in the way Lewis speaks about  homosexuality, religious education in schools, and divorce law.

First, Lewis shows his Lockean liberalism in what he says about homosexuality.  Although Lewis was clear about homosexuality being a sin, he saw no justification for the State punishing that sin as a crime.  In a letter, he observed: "Of course, many acts which are sins against God are also injuries to our fellow-citizens, and must on that account, but only on that account, be made crimes.  But of all the sins in the world, I should have thought homosexuality was the one that least concerns the State.  We hear too much of the State. Government is at its best a necessary evil. Let's keep it in its place."

As Dyer and Watson suggest, Lewis's view of homosexuality was probably influenced by his life-long friendship with Arthur Greeves, who was homosexual.

In the passage just quoted, Lewis seems to assume John Stuart Mill's harm principle--that the only justification for limiting anyone's individual liberty is to prevent harm to others. While this seems to be a uniquely modern principle, it can be found in the premodern natural law tradition.  As Dyer and Watson indicate (113), it's stated by Thomas Aquinas: "Human law is framed for the mass of men, the majority of whom are not virtuous. Therefore, human law does not prohibit every vice from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more serious ones from which the majority can abstain, and especially those that harm others and which must be prohibited for human society to survive, such as homicide, theft, and the like" (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 96, a. 2).

Lewis also showed his Lockean liberalism in which he said about the place of religion in public education.  He saw England as becoming increasingly secularized, and if most of the public school teachers are not Christian, we cannot expect them to teach Christianity.  Christians should raise their children as Christians and send them to Christian schools, without expecting the public schools to inculcate Christianity in the children.

A third illustration of Lewis's Lockean liberalism is in what he said about marriage and divorce.  Since Christianity teaches that marriage is for life, Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, divorce is not normally allowed. But he saw no justification for legally enforcing this Christian condemnation of divorce.
". . . I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused.  The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question--how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself, you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the  British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. This distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not." (101-102)
If we bring together what Lewis says here about marriage and what he says about homosexuality, we might infer that Lewis could have supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, with the understanding that the rules of marriage enforced by the State will differ from the rules enforced by the Church.  In fact, I have argued that a Lockean natural law argument can be made for legalizing same-sex marriage (here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Dyer and Watson recognize that interpreting Lewis in this way as a Lockean liberal who denies the right of government to legally enforce Christian morality will "leave many of Lewis' devoted readers unsatisfied" (137), because it shows that "Lewis parts ways with many traditionalists and evangelicals" (112), who scorn Lockean classical liberalism.

Occasionally, Dyer and Watson try to appease the Christian traditionalists and evangelicals, but in doing that Dyer and Watson end up contradicting themselves.  For example, in trying to make Lewis's liberalism compatible with Robert George's "perfectionism" in his book Making Men Moral, they write: "How did Lewis conceive of a government's role in making men and women moral? If perfectionism means the willingness of a government to promote and inculcate a conception of the good, as George uses the term, then Lewis can be called a perfectionist.  If perfectionism requires a specific theory as to how a government should do this, then Lewis is not a perfectionist. He was entirely skeptical that government can enforce or even inculcate a conception of the good at all. This skepticism raises an enormous problem" (121-22). 

Isn't this contradictory?  On the one hand, Lewis supports "the willingness of a government to promote and inculcate a conception of the good." On the other hand, Lewis was "entirely skeptical that government can enforce or even inculcate a conception of the good at all." 

There is, however, a better rhetorical strategy for persuading Christian traditionalists and evangelicals to accept Lewis's Lockean liberalism: it can be argued that the New Testament supports such Lockean liberalism.  Locke's Letter on Toleration is full of quotations from the New Testament.  And long before Locke wrote this, Roger Williams argued that while the Old Testament taught theocracy, the New Testament taught religious toleration and a separation of church and state.  Williams even argued that atheists had to be legally tolerated.  With the possible exception of the book of Revelation, the New Testament presents the first Christians as viewing their churches as purely voluntary associations, and they see no need to legally enforce Christian morality.  And thus the New Testament teaches liberalism.  (I have written about this here, here, here, here, and here.)

In only one passage in their book, do Dyer and Watson implicitly point to this:
". . . Despite the profoundly different political situations of first-century Christians and Christians in the modern West, Lewis often treated the question of Christian politics in a way that nonetheless echoed St. Paul's advice to the early church in Rome. 'If it is possible,' Paul admonished, 'as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.'  The practical challenge for Christians, wrote Lewis along similar lines, lies in discoverying how to 'live as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.'" (111)
Remarkably, Dyer and Watson do not elaborate this thought in their book, which might have been used to persuade Christians that in adopting Lockean liberalism, Lewis was returning to the original teaching of the New Testament.

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