Are Morals Absolute or Relative?

Note: I started reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity the other day, and I was going to write a post for each chapter, but I quickly saw how involved that would be and changed my mind. Instead, I took that post down and I have decided to write a post for each major lesson I learn while reading the book. This may cover 1 chapter or several.  If you happened to have read that first post, most of this is the same as that post, so you may feel it is redundant.  Sorry about that…

I have never read a non-fiction book by C.S. Lewis. It sounds amazing, since I have been a Christian for over 10 years. C.S. Lewis must be the most quoted Christian author of all time, yet the only works of his that I have read are the Chronicles of Narnia (which I very much enjoyed, both as a child and as an adult). I have wanted to read some of his non-fiction books, but for whatever reason I just never have. Mere Christianity is the book I have most wanted to read – I have read quotes from it multiple times, including this morning during my Bible study, so I have decided to read it and to write out the basic ideas I learn from it here.

Lewis begins this book by writing a section he calls “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” He begins in chapter 1 talking about what he calls the “the Law of Human Nature.” This law he is talking about we might more accurately call the knowledge of right and wrong.  And Lewis argues 2 things about this law:

  1. Almost every human on earth knows what is right and what is wrong (leaving out the sociopaths, of course)
  2. Every human on earth breaks this law on a regular basis

His first point he backs up with the fact that almost everyone will argue over when they feel they have been wronged. Any time someone does something against you that you feel breaks this law of right and wrong, you are very likely to call them on it. And interestingly, people do not seem to need to be taught what is right and wrong – it comes somewhat naturally to us. We don’t all agree on the specifics or the degree to which something is wrong or right, but we agree on the basics. Lewis uses the following illustration:

Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to–whether it was only your own 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.

This idea is very different from most people believe today. Sure, I think deep down everyone still believes this – that there is an absolute right and wrong. Otherwise I think the world would have fallen apart by now. But as a whole we don’t speak of this belief – we talk about things like ‘moral relativism.’  This idea is that everyone has the right to choose what is right and wrong for themselves.  I think any reasonable person would be able to see that moral relativism is just a way for someone to think that they are not accountable for their own actions. Lewis would argue that a man “may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.” That very action disproves moral relativism in one fell swoop.

Lewis’s second notion – that no one is abiding by this law of right and wrong all the time – is also obvious by looking at our own behavior.  We always try to trivialize the fact that we break this law, but overstate the fact that others do. I spent 6 years in public education, and I can tell you that middle school children (and some of their parents) are the masters of this. Often times, when a child would break a rule, he would immediately come up with an excuse. Another student did something that forced him to act this way, or his situation was in some way unique that made his actions necessary. But of course, if the tables are turned – if another student’s actions were just the same, yet it affected him, he would not be so quick to allow that other student the luxury of using excuses. The fact that almost all of us behave this way proves that the law of right and wrong exists.

So are morals absolute or relative? Let’s ask our judges…  Judge rules…. Absolute!

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