C.S. Lewis begins his most well known nonfiction work, Mere Christianity, with a very specific strategy: his aim is to help the listeners of BBC’s radio program understand their sense of guilt comes from an objective right and wrong. Where does this moral absolute come from? God, of course, although he won’t establish its divine nature until later in the book. All he wants his hearers to understand is that having a moral compass is part of what makes us human. Whether we are offering excuses for our behavior or determining how unjust a friend of ours was treated, we are making value judgements about what is right and wrong and ultimately good and evil.
His motivation is to help his listeners in modern England create and recover a sense of guilt. What he will do with that guilt has yet to be stated, but readers can be confident it will have everything to do with spurring his audience on to repentance and faith.
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”
When C.S. Lewis addresses his audience, many people believed morals were relative to specific cultures and contexts, which is only amplified here and now in our contemporary moment. Lewis would argue the differences between these cultures are so slight that you barely notice them.
Surprisingly, Albert Camus actually strengthens C.S. Lewis’s argument in his haunting portrayal of an absolute amoral character in his 1942 novel, The Stranger. After a string of events, the protagonist, Mersault, finds himself on a beach with a revolver after his mother passes away. What follows is the crux of the novel and is never explained or justified. It exists in a vacuum.
Can you imagine someone with no sense of right and wrong and no moral compass? Every decision potentially made by the flip of a coin because the consequences of that decision make absolutely no difference for the individual or society?
Not only is this no way to live, but C.S. Lewis would argue it is entirely impossible. I would suggest this is the uncanny appeal of The Stranger. Living without empathy means pulling the trigger five times instead of one. In our culture of mass shootings, it seems as though it is entirely possible for an individual to live devoid of responsibility to oneself or society.
The brilliance of C.S. Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity is how no one ever functions like Mersault. When you tell someone their behavior is immoral or indecent, they excuse that behavior.
If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so— that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations.”
We are reminded again of the profound reality of truth: the truth needs no defense. Every statement is an argument, and a statement excusing behavior simultaneously reenforces what is morally right and what is morally wrong.