Mere Anthropology

Today I’m beginning a new series of blog posts, in pursuit of the aim of writing “Typical Humans 101“. Various friends have pointed me towards C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity(a book adapted from scripts for broadcast on BBC Radio) and the more recent series of books by the Jesuit Robert Spitzer beginning with Finding True HappinessLewis’s purpose was to document those things common to Christians from different denominations; Spitzer’s is to treat of humanity’s quest for transcendent happiness. But both authors say enough about the human condition that, with an eye to knowing something of the quirks of the autistic mind, I can pick out those facts which would seem unremarkable to typical humans but deeply insightful to many Aspies.

Lewis’s opening chapters take me to a subject I’ve already considered on this blog – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis is not a psychologist, but as a respected author will have been chosen for broadcast and publication because he captures an understanding which will resonate with many members of his audience; a writer like Lewis rises to prominence because of his good grasp of what’s generally true about human nature.

Lewis’s way in to this subject (MC15-19) is that humans often quarrel about whether a course of action is fair. Even persons or nations who don’t keep their promises are likely to appeal to “fair play” on a regular basis. Such a dispute implies that there is a common standard of morality accessible to all parties. “This Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature… they really meant the Law of Human Nature… because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” At least, most humans know it, but some may not, in the same way in which some are tone-deaf or colour-blind. Surface details may differ across cultures, but it would be difficult to imagine a culture which praised cowardice in battle or treachery to one’s friends. When we are accused of bad behaviour, we come up with all sorts of excuses – which is itself a sign that we intuitively know we have fallen short of some standard of fairness.  (Lewis also suggests reading the Appendix of Abolition of Man to continue this exploration.)

Following his original radio broadcast, Lewis received letters from  correspondents who found it hard to identify with this “Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour”. (MC 20-25) I suspect some such letters, from articulate critics, would have been from writers on the autistic spectrum.

Lewis also deals with the criticism that humans have a “herd instinct”. He acknowledges this may well be true but posits that there is a mental faculty distinct from instinct. We have instincts to eat food, drink water and pursue sex. When we hear a cry from someone in danger, it may stir in us contrary instincts to help and to flee – but there is a qualitatively different something within us which chooses which instinct to follow. This something often directs us to follow the weaker of the two impulses we sense. There is no broad category of human instinct which we must always follow in all circumstances, nor one which we must always suppress.

Inanimate objects are what they are, without choice. Human beings have the capacity of choosing their course of action. It is because we have a sense of what a person “ought” to do we can compare their actual deeds to what they “ought” to have done. We can distinguish this sense of “ought” from what we find convenient for ourselves. We might make use of a traitor, in our national interest, while despising him. (MC25-29)

Lewis notes that an external observer could discern a person’s actions but not their motives. From our own personal experience of being human,  we don’t always do what we know we ought; therefore, by studying human behaviour externally, we can’t establish the “oughts” which are being sometimes heeded and sometimes spurned in the mind of the person acting. (MC31) (Things have advanced since Lewis’s day. Current scientific knowledge of the neural mechanisms of morality are in their infancy; it is not unthinkable, however, that brain-scanning technology might one day be able to identify the presence of particular “oughts”.)

Overall, therefore, Lewis is arguing that there is a universal sense of fair play because all human beings have access to the same objective sense of The Good. If we generally agree that certain human societies are “more moral” than others (taking Nazi Germany as an example of low morals), does that not bear witness to our shared intuitive sense of what a moral society should look like?

Lewis allows that we may learn the Law of Human Nature by education, but argues that is not proof of its lack of objectivity, any more than learning a multiplication table invalidates the fundamental truth that 9 x 6 = 54 and always will be. He will go on to use the existence of The Good as a starting point for exploring the nature of God.

It seems to me that Lewis provides a well-written description of the Law of Human Nature which demystifies it for those of us who don’t experience it in our inner lives – as it is clear that some of the correspondents who contacted Lewis after the broadcast did not. This leaves us with a big question: does Moral Goodness have the same kind of objective reality as Mathematical Truth? That will be the subject of my next post.

* For Mere Christianity, I am using the 1971 19th impression of the Collins Fontana edition first produced in 1955; page numbers will be cited with MC using this edition.

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