The other day I had an argument with a friend about what he meant by the word ‘better.’ You see, we currently hold differing metaphysical views, me being a Christian, he being a, well, something of an inquisitive philosophical floater with former Christian inheritance. Now, I love chatting with him because he’s brilliant, keeps me on my toes, and is, well, a funny guy. Still, I was pressing him on the notion of what he meant when he talked about the idea of ‘better’, or ‘health’, or ‘good’, and so forth, if he didn’t hold to some supernatural standard, or that the world was created with a certain rhythm and order, a God-given way things ‘ought’ to be that it failed to live up to.
I was reminded of this when I ran across Lewis’s argument in “On the Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections. Here he’s dealing with the sort of moral relativism that results from rejecting the idea of natural Law written into the order of things by the Creator, and recognized, however imperfectly, by human nature made in the Image of God. Instead, our moral opinions are socially-constructed value judgments that we have been socially-conditioned to accept, and which we can create, change at will, and even “improve.” But this, says Lewis, is a rather confused approach to things (oh, and, just to note, he’s writing in the middle of WW2):
‘Perhaps’, thinks the reformer or the educational expert, ‘it would be better if we were [socially-conditioned otherwise]. Let us improve our morality.’ Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that our indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words. (pg. 73)
Lewis then bemoans how obvious, and yet how little this is understood by his contemporaries:
All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”?
He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” – as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. (pg. 74)
And here’s where we start to get to the point where my disagreement with my friend comes up. For him, the notion of making life better, or progress was tied up with what science could tell us about what leads to the objective flourishing of humans. But where, pray tell, does science find this standard of human flourishing?
Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them. (pg. 74)
In a sense, science can’t tell you what to value as good. It can only measure and tell you how to arrive at what you already value as good. If you value survival, then science can tell you how to survive best. We have to assume certain values and then use science to measure reality in light of those we already possess.
In which case, we’re still left with the question: “What in Heaven’s name does he mean by ‘better’?”
Soli Deo Gloria
“We have to assume certain values and then use science to measure reality in light of those we already possess.”
Correct. Science can’t tell us what to value.
I value survival and well-being. This is due in part to evolutionary instinct and in part due to my experiences with pain, illness and the death of others.
“Better” can be looked at on those terms.
If we do not value the same things then we may not be able to have a sensible conversation. Luckily, the vast majority of humanity values survival and well-being, so the conversation can be had.
Ah, but things are not so simple. Do all accept them as ultimate values? It’s unlikely when you do a survey across cultures, and even our own, that you’ll see survival at the top of the list over and above “freedom”, “family”, and other possible ultimate goods. What’s more, when it comes to “well-being”, according to your different presuppositions, there’s a lot of dispute as to what constitutes well-being and we have to be able to have conversations about that. According to whether or not you’re more of a utilitarian or an Aristotelian, or what-have-you, there’ll be a range of options, and those options play out in a lot of the practical conversations we have today.
And that’s fine. I’m just saying we can’t act as if there’s an obvious answer to the “better”, or “goodness” question with an appeal to science, or survival or something. You still have plenty of conversation to be had.
“Do all accept them as ultimate values?”
Probably not. Which explains a great deal of the war and strife in world history.
That’s one of the great things about Christianity.
There is NO getting better. NO progression (from our side of the equation).
We are declared holy and righteous for Jesus’ sake…in our Baptism.
Wow. No ladders to climb? That’s right. Unless you want to be a Catholic or Baptist.