by C. S. Lewis
originally published in 1943
reprinted by Lits (December 2010), 60 pages
In my previous review of That Hideous Strength, I noted that scientism - the worship of science - was the target not only of that novel, but of C. S. Lewis's book of essays The Abolition of Man. Lewis, a native of Britain, starts by focusing on an elementary English textbook from his own nation's education system that refers to the (as Lewis puts it) "well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall." The textbook's authors correct Coleridge for believing that he has made an objective judgement about the waterfall in calling it "sublime." The authors assert that any judgement about beauty or morality is really only a statement about our own feelings. In other words, the authors strongly endorse relativism.
Lewis, of course, does not agree. In three essays, he explores three aspects of the issue of objective values. First, in the essay "Men without Chests" he notes the irony that the civilization of his own time, and the societies of our own time, need men (and women, of course) with hearts that beat in the rhythm of definite values - values that our culture deny exist.
If that was the end of the argument, of course, Lewis wouldn't be saying much. We shouldn't recommend moral or religious views simply because they are useful (although, ironically, that kind of pragmatism or utilitarianism is itself a moral stance, but an oppressive one, as Lewis later shows). In the second essay, "The Way," Lewis demonstrates the truth of Romans 2, that God's law is imprinted on the consciences of all people of all cultures. (He never refers directly to Christian teaching or Scriptural evidence, but let the reader understand.)
Lewis makes a useful distinction here. Sometimes objective values are disputed by a "values clarification" approach that was popular in the 1970s and '80s. That approach says that values must be subjective or relative, because, for instance, some cultures value courage more, while others value its rough converse of self-restraint or discretion. (We even have a saying that "discretion is the better part of valour.") However, Lewis notes, though different cultures rank different virtues differently, few or no cultures uphold their polar opposites: for example, no culture exalts cowardliness or ungoverned rage. Lewis calls the shared moral knowledge - across borders and through the ages - the Tao. (In another book, he notes that whenever anyone butts into a line, even the most fervent relativist believes that that is just plain unfair. Of course, it is unfair, but how can a relativist argue that it is?)
Having demonstrated that human beings instinctively recognize the moral order, Lewis traces one consequence of rejecting that moral order. A world in which science "sees through" our natural moral beliefs is a world in which scientists will impose their own more 'enlightened' relativism on other people. (Remember that the rejection of moral absolutes as wrong is itself a moral stance.) The intellectuals of that world will deny that there is any rational way to oppose such social engineering. The third essay, then, is called "The Abolition of Man," since the rejection of moral absolutes leaves scientific and intellectuals free to 'remake human nature,' as they might put it, or rather to 'remake' other human beings in their own image.
The book closes with an appendix demonstrating the universality of eight great Natural Laws. To see just how convincing Lewis's citations are, from across the globe and throughout history, you'll need to read the book.