Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is "Decent Behavior" Useful or What Pays?—Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Cheating may help but...
A traitor may be useful but...
"You may say ... what I call breaking the Law of Right and Wrong ... only means that people are not perfect. And why on earth should I expect them to be? That would be a good answer if what I was trying to do was to fix ... blame.... But ... I am trying to find out truth.... The very idea of something ... not being what it ought to be ... has ... consequences....

"A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first. I am not angry—except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses—with  a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not. Sometimes the behaviour I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very opposite. In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful.  But though they use him and pay him they regard him as human vermin.  So you cannot say that what we call decent behaviour in others is simply the behaviour that happens to be useful to us.

"And as for decent behaviour in ourselves, I suppose it is pretty obvious that it does not mean the behaviour that pays. It means things like being content with thirty shillings when you might have got three pounds, doing school work honestly when it would be easy to cheat, leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her, staying in dangerous places when you would rather go somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep, and telling the truth even when it makes you look a fool.

"Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole.... Human beings, after all, have some sense; they see that ... safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. It is one of the most important truths in the world. But as an explanation of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong it just misses the point.... If a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, 'in order to benefit society' ... (for 'society' ... only means other people).... You would have said as much if you stopped at the statement, 'Men ought to be unselfish'. And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish, ought to be fair. Not that men are unselfish, not that they like being unselfish.... Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong ... must ... be a real thinga thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves ... above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behaviour ... but which we find pressing on us."

Highlights from chapter 3: The Reality of the Law, book 1: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Click here for a clear view of how this chapter relates to the whole book.

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