Is There A Law of Human Nature?

Note: This is part of a series evaluating C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Please join in the conversation, addressing what I have pulled out of my reading or something else within the text.

Chapter one of book one in Mere Christianity is title, “The Law of Human Nature.” From the outset Lewis shows his hand. He believes (assumes?) that “human nature” is a “law,” meaning that it will behave certain ways at all times and that it is predictable.

Lewis’ opening example is, in my opinion, a rather weak one:

Everyone has heard people quarrelling [sic]. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ – ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ – ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ – ‘Why should you shove in first?’ – ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ – ‘Come on, you promised.’ People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about.

Lewis is attempting to argue that everyone believes in some “standard of behaviour.” His examples, though, cannot be said to be exhaustive nor do they represent other cultures. They represent his experience of British culture in the early 1940s. Furthermore, Lewis discredits his argument with his next line:

And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’

Though it does happen on occasion, and probably even more so today than it did in Lewis’ day.

Morality as a Cultural Construct
May basic argument against Lewis’ “law of human nature” is that morality is understood differently by different people and differently by different cultures. Lewis addresses that critique.

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference.

Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to – whether it was only your family or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

Besides the fact that I do, in fact, think there are cultures where moralities differ drastically from our own – take, for instance, cultures which practiced human (and child) sacrifice. How would Lewis harmonize this up with our understanding or morality? – I see a flaw of logic in Lewis’ argument here.

Lewis is trying to argue that minor differences in morality do not amount to “total differences,” whatever that is. Yet, what Lewis has actually done is misunderstand social norms for “morality.” Lewis’ examples merely speak to how most people interact in a society to keep it running at an optimum level, that is, Lewis has highlighted social practices that have evolved to favor one set of morality over another, but he has not proven that multiple moralities do not exist.

Further, Lewis has favored the group over the individual and while it is certainly much easier to speak on the group level because of the generalizations that can be made, it belies the fact that one has either not really done his homework or is actually hoping to only have to speak in generalizations. For what Lewis seems to have missed is that while two individuals having markedly different senses of morality may not affect how societies work, they do still represent two different moralities.

Lewis has, in my opinion, presented a flawed argument that relies on generalizations that happen to mesh with his worldview and made poor attempts at harmonizing the few bits of information he shares that are at odds with his conclusion.

What do you think, is there a law of human nature?

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7 thoughts on “Is There A Law of Human Nature?

  1. I enjoyed your review, though I disagree about the actual intent of Lewis’s argument. Granted, it’s been a while since my most recent reading of Mere Christianity (and my copy is out on loan at the moment), but I don’t believe his point is that differences in cultural moral norms are minor. Certainly they are not. His point (if I may be so presumptuous) is that all cultures have moral norms, and that these norms, however diverse, share common themes such as an appreciation of justice and a disgust with cowardice. Furthermore, though his argument is far from absolute logical rigor and thus easy to disassemble from a post-enlightenment, rationalistic perspective, this is necessarily so if one is to have something meaningful to say of a philosophical nature.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      My point is that Lewis glosses over the diversity of moral norms within a society and between different societies. Patriotism, for instance, is part of Lewis’ moral law having lived through war-time England. Patriotism is important to many in the United States today, but not nearly to the level that Lewis asserts that it should be. Further, Lewis appears to only be concerned with morality on the societal level. That is, Lewis is uninterested in two people with drastically different moralities he is only concerned with the “morality” or a society, what makes the society work the way it does. In disregarding the individual, Lewis has already lost his own argument. For we can say say that all cultures “share common themes such as an appreciation of justice and a disgust with cowardice,” but that is far too vague a statement. For broad themes do not make up morality but the specifics of which actions are moral and which ones are immoral. “Justice” means vastly different things from one society to the next and what one society sees as moral “justice” another will likely see as immoral “injustice.” Let us take killing for instance (not murder). In our society killing is generally considered bad or immoral, but when it is done in self-defense we accept it as completely moral. If we look at the same action in a Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain society that holds the principle of ahimsa in great regard, then that same action of killing in self-defense would be looked at as immoral. When it comes to arguments around “morality” it is the specifics that matter.

      Further, I would even question Lewis on his attempt to say that all cultures everywhere for all time have even shared the common themes that he asserts they have. In essence, I take Lewis’ argument for the existence of god from morality to be special pleading.

      I’m not sure I understand your last sentence: “Furthermore, though his argument is far from absolute logical rigor and thus easy to disassemble from a post-enlightenment, rationalistic perspective, this is necessarily so if one is to have something meaningful to say of a philosophical nature.”

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