The Arguable Ethics of C.S. Lewis

The ethical landscape of this green and pleasant land has been resculpted. In case you’ve been on Mars, preparing for the arrival of Curiosity by hiding all the Chinese and Soviet space programmes which secretly arrived first under the supervision of Kim Jong Un (who can in fact walk on the surface of the red planet), the legal language of marriage will be used to describe same-sex couples as well as straight couples. This will happen and there is entirely no way to stop it.

Yet still there are individuals who want to defend what they call “traditional marriage”. It is argued that in all societies the monogamous union of one man and one woman has constituted a marriage in all cultures throughout civilisation. To dispense with this wisdom is foolishness. The flood-gates will open to a plethora of competing lifestyles unless this universal tradition is preserved.

Please spare me your wincing protests or enthused support of this position. Tempers have a habit of becoming very heated when these matters are discussed so once you have done yelling at my web page, possibly even writing a snide comment in the box below, please collect yourself and rejoin me at the top of the next paragraph.

It is admirable that groups like the Coalition for Marriage do not appeal to a religious conviction for their sexual ethics. It would then become a debate between competing ideologies, the kind which C.S. Lewis masterfully engaged with in his essay on ethics. In his day, as in ours, much ethical debate was a dispute between those who believed society ought to re-adopt or re-commit to the Christian ethical imperatives, and those who believed these ethical imperatives ought to be shaken off like shackles from the prisoner.

In his essay, Lewis arrives at the conclusion that any ethical discussion presupposed traditional norms and is, in essence, a dispute between these competing norms. For instance communism emerges from the notion that a worker ought to be able to live on his or her wage. When this ethic begins to dominate all the others the shape of the ethics of a people shifts. It is not an entirely new ethic, it is a revision. He does not even allow Christianity the right to be novel. For him, Christianity must presume a norm of right and wrong for Christ’s atonement for sin to be in any way meaningful.

Like ir or loathe it, Lewis says, we constantly presuppose an ethical system which is essentially inherited, though not beyond critique.

If “the ultimate ethical injunctions have always been premises, never conclusions” the notion of heterosexual marriage would be key to maintaining an ethical reality whatsoever. Ethics are, for Lewis and for others, an entity in their own right. They transcend cultures and class.

With this in mind it is understandable why an assault on this supposed tradition in the realm of law is so threatening. It would be a mortal wound in the eternal behemoth.

Yet I wonder if ethics really are the transcendent reality Lewis supposes.

It is the teacher’s truism that history is written by the victor, yet Lewis relies on the prevalence of a general moral code in the ancient and modern civilisations of the world. It does not take a historian to realise that is is typically the wealthy who win wars. It is also typically the wealthy who are educated and who write the legal and religious texts (of course, these are the same thing in many cultures). By no means am I a Marxist (for one thing, I haven’t a hope of growing that kind of amazing face-fuzz), yet what is often called the Marxist critique does yield useful fruit for this ethical discussion.

The identification of a ‘universal moral injunction’ which is generally shared amongst all cultures, is a careful self-deception by those who actually codify and enforce this ethic.

Simply stated, the traditional, transcendent moral code is a vapour. It is dispersed as more people have access to the masses, arguing their moral case. It strikes me as poor defence to stand up for traditional marriage based on the general morality of all people everywhere.

It concerns me more that it is typically Christians making this poor moral argument. Lauding the nude emperor, many thoughtful and respectable individuals have bought this notion of a transcendent moral norm which is actually only held by them and perpetuated by people like them. It just so happens that their power is diminishing.

As a new moral code-writing caste rise up, Christians must realise a firmer foundation for their ethical suppositions.

The discussion of homosexuality has exposed the gaps, but the gaping holes are a far greater threat to the real life of the church:


Adherence to this transcendent moral code totally undoes the costly, missionary impulse of the Christian Church. What unique reason will cause Christians, above anyone else, to count their lives as disposable for the cause of Christ? Why should they give their all if their all is not demanded, or even wanted, by this moral code from which they derive their ethics?

Lewis explains why ethics are a transcendent reality for which it is needless to invoke Christianity to maintain. However I would submit that it was a coincidence of Lewis’ context and class which permitted him to suggest this. The times, they are a-changin’ in ways Lewis could not anticipate and I wonder if his argument would have been different today.

Or, it might be more interesting to entertain the idea that Lewis would have been pro-gay. If he seriously expects Christian ethics to suppose a general ethic in order to be sensible, to object to homosexuality as ethically wrong might well have C.S. Lewis firing both barrels at you noting the numerous instances of homosexual practice in the ancient cultures of our world.

After all, we can only presuppose a universal code which is so clearly seen in our human experience.


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