Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Confucian Way (3): C. S. Lewis and the Tao

A Darwinian science of virtue explains moral order as a joint product of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. It is a mistake to try to reduce morality to one of these three without the others, because each is necessary but not sufficient. Human moral order requires certain natural propensities of the human species as shaped by the history of genetic evolution. But then these natural propensities must be developed through individual habituation and social customs as shaped by the history of cultural evolution. And, finally, we should see that mature adults can deliberately reflect on their individual habits and social customs and exercise their judgment about possibly reforming some of those habits and customs, but without expecting a radical reconstruction that would sweep away all that has gone before. If it is not to be an exercise in utopian fantasy, deliberate choice will always be constrained by human nature and human culture.

One instructive way to think about this tripartite scheme for explaining morality--nature, custom, and judgment--is to see how it runs through the moral reasoning of C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Confucius' Analects. Lewis shows how morality requires moral sentiments that combine emotion and reason as expressed in the universal moral standards of what Lewis calls the Tao, which arises from the complex interaction of human nature, human tradition, and human judgment. Lewis imagines that "a new Natural Philosophy" or "regenerate science" could explain this natural morality scientifically. Darwin's science of the moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature provides the natural science of morality that Lewis seeks. Lewis takes his idea of the Tao from Confucius's Analects. And, in fact, the Confucian tradition of morality illustrates the moral order of nature, custom, and judgment as understood by Lewis and Darwin.

Lewis begins The Abolition of Man as a response to an elementary textbook on English that expresses what Lewis regards as a common but mistaken view of moral language. The authors of the textbook take up the story of Coleridge at a waterfall. When one tourist says the waterfall is "sublime," and another says it is "pretty," Coleridge endorses the first and scorns the second. According to the authors, this illustrates a common confusion in the use of language. These people thought they were making remarks about the waterfall, but in fact they were only making remarks about their feelings. "This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings."

Lewis infers that "the schoolboy who reads this passage . . . will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant" (15). Lewis objects to the implicit separation between the objective world of facts as knowable by reason and the subjective world of values as an expression of emotion. This is a false dichotomy because it ignores the possibility that emotions can be either reasonable or unreasonable, depending on whether the emotions are appropriate responses to reality.

"Until quite modern times," Lewis observes, "all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it--believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt" (25). Lewis believes that this conception was shared by all the great traditions of moral thought--"Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike"--and it is this that he identifies, following Confucius, as "the Tao."

At the root of the Tao--the universal standards of traditional morality--Lewis sees one fundamental thought:

"It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself--just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it" (29-30).

Lewis insists that the practical principles of the Tao must be accepted if we are to have any practical principles at all. These principles are both sentimental and rational. They are sentimental, because pure reason by itself cannot move us to action without emotional motivation (33-35, 53). They are rational, not in the sense of theoretical rationality, but in the sense of practical rationality, because they constitute the axioms of "Practical Reason"--the self-evident premises of practical judgment that are "so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof" (52-53).

As an indication of their self-evident character, these principles of practical rationality provide the only source for all value judgments. This is not just one system of value, it is the only system of value. Any attempt to totally reject it and create some new system of value becomes self-contradictory, because any supposedly new values turn out to be fragments of the old values. "There never has been and never will be a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. . . . The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in" (56-57).

Lewis sees the Tao as manifested in three levels of social order--human nature, human traditions, and human judgments. At the first level, the Tao is "Natural Law" (56, 95). "Nature" has many senses, and if we define it in opposition to "the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural" (81), then the Tao is not natural. But it is natural in the sense that it belongs to "the very nature of man," because it provides "a common human law of action" (31, 84). The Tao is "the Tao of Man," it is the "only known reality of conscience" that distinguishes human nature from the rest of nature (62, 90).

The nature of Lewis's natural law is not cosmic nature as a whole, but human nature in particular. Cosmic nature cannot provide values for human life, Lewis suggests, because "nature as a whole, I understand, is working steadily and irreversibly towards the final extinction of all life in every part of the universe" (50).

Although natural law is often assumed to come from a supernatural lawgiver, Lewis insists that understanding the Tao as natural law does not require any belief in the supernatural. He writes:

"Though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reasoning as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more 'realistic' basis, is doomed. Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with" (61).

At the second level of social order, the Tao corresponds to human cultural traditions--"the human tradition of value," "traditional values," "traditional morality," or "traditional humanity" (54-55, 76, 78, 85). In the Appendix to his book, Lewis provides "Illustrations of the Tao" that consist of short quotations from some ancient texts of moral teaching from Egypt, Babylonia, Israel, Greece, Rome, India, China, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England, and a few texts from early modern England. Lewis's Appendix shows great cultural variability in the moral traditions of human history. But it also shows recurrent themes that reflect how universal human nature constrains these moral traditions--as manifested in Lewis's eight categories of classification: the law of general beneficence, the law of special beneficence, duties to parents, elders, and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, the law of justice, the law of good faith and veracity, the law of mercy, and the law of magnanimity.

At the third level of social order, the Tao allows for individual judgments of value, but only within the broad constraints of human nature and human tradition. Lewis admits that traditional moralities show many contradictions and some absurdities, which invite criticism and improvement. Although the Tao does not permit criticisms and changes coming from outside the Tao--because there are no standards of value outside it--the Tao does permit development from within. So, for example, we can recognize that the Christian version of the Golden Rule--"Do as you would be done by"--is a real improvement over the Confucian version--"Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you"--because we can see that the new positive statement of the rule is an extension of the old negative statement (57-58). Individuals have authority to modify the Tao only insofar as their modifications are within the "spirit of the Tao" (59).

Lewis rejects utopian schemes for radically altering the human condition through biological technology and sociological conditioning, because such utopianism tries to step outside the constraints of human nature and human tradition in a way that can only foster absolute tyranny. In the past, such utopian projects have been frustrated by human resistance. So, for example, proposals for abolishing the natural bonds between parents and children (as in Plato's Republic) have failed to overcome "the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children" (73). But Lewis worries that modern statism with the technology of modern science (such as eugenics) might actually succeed in creating "the world of post-humanity," which would really be the utter dehumanization of humanity, the "abolition of man" carried out by the tyrannical power of some men over others (73, 77, 86).

Although he does not explicitly mention Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Lewis probably has in mind this modern vision of a dehumanized utopia shaped by eugenic engineering and propaganda under the rule of an omnicompetent state. Those like Leon Kass who worry about biotechnology leading to a "posthumanity" of dehumanized degradation have been influenced by Lewis's book as combined with Huxley's novel.

Lewis worries that modern science, with its reductionistic view of human beings and its devotion to the mastery of nature, supports the "abolition of man" that he fears, because while such a science has great power, it lacks the understanding of, or respect for, the traditional morality that alone can provide guidance for the proper use of such power.

And yet, Lewis foresees that "from Science herself the cure might come," if there could be "a new Natural Philosophy" that would not be reductionistic:

"When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying It, it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life" (89-90).

My argument is that a Darwinian account of morality as grounded in the evolved human nature of the moral sense provides the "new Natural Philosophy" sought by Lewis. (Early in his intellectual career, Leon Kass was trying to develop this new Darwinian natural philosophy, until he turned later in his life to his studies of the Hebrew Bible as a religious basis for morality.) Moreover, we can look to the Confucian tradition of morality as an illustration of how our evolved moral sense expresses itself in our natural propensities, our cultural traditions, and our individual judgments.

I will take up those points in subsequent posts.

For some previous posts on Lewis, go here, here, here, here, and here.

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