“The Poison of Subjectivism” by C.S. Lewis


“The Poison of Subjectivism” is lecture from C.S. Lewis that can be found in a collection of his essays titled Christian Reflections.  In it, he warns of the “apparently innocent idea”  that was popular in his day and that still remains, “that will certainly end our species (and, in [his] view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; that fatal supposition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes.”

Lewis argues that:

“(1) The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.”


“(2) Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium.”

Readers of Chesterton will note the similarity this has with the following passage from Orthodoxy (and one of my favorites):

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Lewis answers the modern objection “that the ethical standards of different cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition at all”:

“If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature. There are, of course, differences. There are even blindnesses in particular cultures – just as there are savages who cannot count up to twenty. But the pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos – though no outline of universally accepted value shows through – is wherever it is simply false and should be contradicted in season and out of season wherever it is met. Far from finding a chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended – that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything.”

Lewis considers several objections to objective morality in this short, but potent lecture.

In particular, he writes the best refutation of the Euthyphro Dilemma I have read.  It is no different than most modern apologists, it is just stated more clearly, in my opinion.  This is a testament to Lewis’s own belief in the importance of not only reason, but imagination!

For Lewis, it is in specifically Christian theology that this dilemma is resolved because of the Trinity. He begins by reminding us that God is not merely personal like us – but he is super-personal / tri-personal. And, He is by definition not contingent.  Here is a taste:

“At this point we must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square. … It is therefore possible that the duality which seems to force itself upon us when we think, first, of our Father in Heaven, and, secondly, of the self-evident imperatives of the moral law, is not a mere error but a real (though inadequate and creaturely) perception of things that would necessarily be two in any mode of being which enters our experience, but which are not so divided in the absolute being of the superpersonal God. When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it. And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily by a sic volo, sic jubeo (in which case He would be neither good nor wise). But it is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction of our categories – ambulavi in mirabilibus supra me. But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

In his book, C.S. Lewis and the New Atheists, Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams calls the Euthyphro a non sequitur because the moral argument grounds the objectivity of morality not in God’s commands, but in His nature.  Williams writes, “the only coherent explanation of the worthy prescriptions and moral obligations presented to our consciences in the ‘moral law’ is that they are grounded in the essential character of a transcendent, necessary and personal being ‘intensely interested in right conduct … an absolute goodness.‘”

He includes this quote from Lewis:

“…saying that God ‘made’ the [moral law] … might suggest that it was an arbitrary creation … whereas I believe it to be the necessary expression … of what God of his own righteous nature necessarily is … I think (with Hooker) not that certain things are right because God commands them, but that God commanded them because they are right.” (Quoted from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis,  vol. 111, p.1227.)

Lewis’s ideas on this are a must read.  Below is an excellent depiction of an excerpt from “The Poison of Subjectivism” by the talented C.S. Lewis Doodle folks.  Also, check out my short post on Lewis’s De Futilitate.


2 thoughts on ““The Poison of Subjectivism” by C.S. Lewis

  1. Pingback: The Euthyphro Dilemma | Along the Beam

  2. Pingback: Reflections on “I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love” by Tim Muehlhoff | Along the Beam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s