C.S. Lewis’ Ignored Aspects of Morality

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis sets out to develop a basic apologetic for Christianity, why it best explains the world in which we find ourselves. As part of this defense, he spends a great deal of time discussing morality and how a proper understanding aligns itself with the biblical explanation of it.

In the chapter titled “The Three Parts of Morality,” Lewis cuts to the heart of many modern disagreements in this area. First, he describes the three aspects of morality

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

Lewis rightly observed that most of the time, people only want to focus on the first and ignore the other two.

When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another.

But for Lewis, if all you consider about morality is how your actions affect others you “might just as well not have thought at all.” What good does it do, he argues to set up all these rules for interpersonal relationships if we know they will all be ruined by our own personal faults. Something must be done to make changes to the individual.

It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

Beyond those two things though is a third aspect that receives even less attention than the previous two. Most consider how their actions affect others. Some think through what needs to be changed about themselves. Few contemplate whether the direction we are headed is the right one or not.

Using a ship as a analogy, Lewis spoke about the first type of morality being like keeping ships from banging into one anther. The second aspect was akin to cleaning out the inside and making sure your ship is running properly. But what about the third aspect?

But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to, or what piece of music the band is trying to play. The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment, but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.

It matters where it is we are going and it matters to whom ultimate authority of the ship belongs. Whose ship are we and whose directions do we follow?

For example, let us go back to the man who says that a thing cannot be wrong unless it hurts some other human being. He quite understands that he must not damage the other ships in the convoy, but he honestly thinks that what he does to his own ship is simply his own business. But does it not make a great difference whether his ship is his own property or not? Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.

If you want to know why there are so many conflicts about what is and is not moral, here is part of the reason. Very few people recognize all three aspects of morality.

You can work to avoid hurting others. You can even work on cleaning up yourself. But unless you know the One who created you and to what end He did so, your morality will never be complete.

All three aspects of morality are important. Otherwise, you may spend your life expertly piloting a clean ship that safely arrives in the wrong port.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.