Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Self-evident, not obvious"

"Self-Evident, Not Obvious" is the title of Gilbert Meilaender's essay about a recent book, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law. ("Too bad for potential readers...that Cambridge University Press could not have priced this book more reasonably!") The subject of the book is very similar to that of my long-ago proposed, but abortive, master's thesis. Meilaender:
.... Our knowledge of right and wrong, and our ability to reason about such matters, must surely be distorted by sin. While not denying that, Lewis did not think it made sense to suppose that fallen reason is completely unreliable. After all, unless we assume at least some capacity to reason reliably, how could we make any judgment about the extent to which our rational powers have been darkened by sin? Nevertheless, what reason is able to perceive depends to a large extent upon the will, not just the mind. Anyone who remembers the dwarfs (who are obstinately unable to see the feast Aslan spreads before them) in The Last Battle will realize how a will disordered by sin can undermine our ability to understand the truth.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis may not have taken this distorting effect of a sinful will as seriously as he should have. For example, he says the law of nature was called that “because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” This tends to obscure the distinction between thinking that the basic moral truths are self-evident and thinking that they are obvious. To say that they are self-evident is to say that their truth is not grounded in or proven by any other, more fundamental truths. They shine by their own light, as Lewis says. But this does not necessarily mean that they are obvious or that no one needs to be taught them. For they may not be at all obvious to those who, like the dwarfs, will not see. ....

Although, as Lewis acknowledged, some human beings may by nature be ordered to govern others, the natural order has been so disturbed by sin that none of us is any longer fit to be the master of others. Thus, Lewis’s commitment to democratic rule was grounded less in a belief in a general capacity of people for wisdom and justice than it was in a sense that none of us could be trusted with too much power over others. ....

.... One thinks of Reinhold Niebuhr’s oft-cited aphorism: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Convinced as Lewis was about the inclination to injustice, his entire moral theory makes clear that he could not entirely deny that we also possess at least some capacity for justice. Had he written more than occasional essays on politics, this secondary emphasis might have made its presence felt. What is clear, however, even from those occasional essays, is that Lewis was reluctant to endorse legal coercion aimed at enforcing certain moral views held by Christians but not shared by their fellow citizens. Hence, he did not want to prohibit divorce or criminalize homosexual activity (which is not the same as endorsing same-sex “marriage”). .... [more]