Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Positive Way of Looking at Morality—Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

 What a Convoy of Ships Can Teach Us About Moral Rules

Sourpuss? Spoilsport?
Ultimate Censor?
"A schoolboy ... replied that, as far as he could make out, God was 'the sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.' And I am afraid that is the sort of idea that the word Morality raises in ... many people's minds: something that interferes...that stops you having a good time.
Take Good Care of It!

"In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine. That is why these rules at first seem to be constantly interfering with our natural inclinations. When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, 'No, don't do it like that,' because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work." (C.S. Lewis knew that all too well: because of a thumb defect, he was very clumsy with mechanical things and became a lifelong pedestrian and train traveler.) 

Lewis probes deeper into the subject of morality: "Perfect arithmetic is 'an ideal'; you will certainly make some mistakes in some calculations. But there is nothing very fine about trying to be quite accurate at each step in each sum. It would be idiotic not to try; for every mistake is going to cause you trouble later on. In the same way every moral failure is going to cause trouble, probably to others and certainly to yourself. By talking about rules and obedience instead of 'ideals' and 'idealism' we help remind ourselves of these facts.

What If They Were Hired to Provide Dance Music?

"Now let us go a step further. There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage. The other is when things go wrong inside the individualwhen the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on).... You can get the idea plain if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only ... if the ships do not collide and ... if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order.... Or, if you like, think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result ... each player's individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others. But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to, or what piece of music the band is trying to play. The instruments might be all in tune and ... come in at the right moment, but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta. Morality ... seems to be concerned with three things:
  1. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals.
  2. Secondly, with ... tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual.
  3. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.... Modern people are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two.
What If We're Rusty Inside?
"When a man says about something he wants to do, 'It can't be wrong because it doesn't do anyone else any harm,' he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work....  But ... if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go onto the second thingthe tidying up inside each human beingwe are only deceiving ourselves. What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all?"

Are You the Rightful Owner?
"Religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the right sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set. For example, let us go back to the man who says that a thing cannot be wrong unless it hurts some other human being. He quite understands that he must not damage the other ships in the convoy, but he honestly thinks that what he does to his own ship is simply his own business. But does it not make a great difference whether his ship is his own property or not? Does it not make a great difference whether I am ... the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself."

"Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things that would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever.... If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilization, compared with his, is only a moment."
Which Lasts Longer: The Individual or the State? 

Highlights from chapter 1: The Three Parts of Morality, book 3: Christian Behaviour in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Click here for a clear view of how this chapter relates to the whole book.


  1. Hi Allacin,
    Thanks for your kind words about last night's experience at our home. We really enjoyed our time with your family as well! And I am now a follower of your blog; thanks for your creative writing and the graphic manner in which you make C.S. Lewis accessible to your readers -- I being your new follower. Lee

  2. Thank you, Lee. God promised in Ephesians 4 to equip and strengthen His church with gifted men and women, including those like C.S. Lewis who memorably communicate timeless truths from God's Word. I'm thankful for the privilege of editing and illustrating their classic works to build up God's people today.