Moral Instinct.

Today I shall bow to cliché. We all must do it eventually. You know; the death of originality and all that.

Anyway, there is one author who any wannabe Christian apologist must surely start with if they want to see how theological concepts are coherently conveyed to the everyday modern man simply curious about his existence. This everyday man is not yet ready to accept resurrection and redemption, and scoffs at the idea that an all-powerful God – if he really does exist – would possibly want a relationship with little us, as that sounds, to the untrained ear, like we consider ourselves rather self-important. The author I’m referring to knows this. He knew that to get people to listen to fanciful ideas of Jesus dying for our sins, you first of all have to simply convince them that there is a God there at all. Before you get into how good He is and how much He loves us, you must do this.

Now, first, understand that an argument for God’s existence is not something you should ever find in a church, because you won’t find it in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t once try to convince us of that; it assumes that it is something we’re already taking for granted, or we wouldn’t be reading it in the first place. That is why we can’t expect those who don’t believe to know what we’re talking about when we quote scripture to them. To them, it has no substance; to them, it is simply a fantasy tale. The convincing must come before we ever try to give any biblical teaching. This is also why the author in question appeals to me, because he approaches the issue from a skeptic’s perspective, as that is what he himself once was. You probably know who I’m talking about by now, so let’s get going.

C.S. Lewis once said this, in Mere Christianity (1952):

“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others… If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about.”

What Lewis is referring to is the instinct that you find on the inside of yourself; a little voice, in a sense, a force that subconsciously tells you, when you have a basic decision to make, which path you should choose regardless of the benefits for yourself. Say, for example, if you were to see a man in mortal danger and knew you could save him, but only by putting yourself in that same danger. You have a choice, and you will find within yourself a force telling you that you should help him, even though that wouldn’t make a lot of sense if your only concern was for your own safety. Whether you follow that instinctive force or not (it is likely you may not, depending on the situation) does not affect the fact that it is there.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. Say you are a third person, and you see a man choosing not to help another man in danger, in an effort to protect himself. Is not your first reaction to think how selfish that man is, to choose to save himself rather than save one of his own? You think how that man is now less of a man in your eyes, without acknowledging that if you had been in the same position you may have done the same thing (once you’ve had a chance to think about it properly you may come to that point of view, but we are talking right now about that initial feeling you have in those moments that are hard to put into words). The point is you are judging that other man not on what you yourself would have done, but on what you know you should do in that situation. You see how there is a difference? Your feeling is not based on fact, or experience, but on some unwritten moral ‘law’, one which you yourself rarely follow, and when you do follow it you feel like people should know about it, as if you deserve praise for doing something right. It is different from the actual physical laws of the state. There is nothing in them saying you must put yourself in danger to save others, or give to those in need, or be faithful to your spouse. Yet you feel you should do these things; when you don’t you would rather not tell anyone about it for fear of their reaction. C.S. Lewis puts it another way:

“The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave).”

Our emotions are primarily affected by this unwritten law; we get angry when we see others going against it. Atheists, for example, get angry about what people have done in the name of God. They say religion is the cause for more grief than it’s worth. What they don’t realise is that in even making that distinction, in saying that the world would be a better place without religion, they are judging the world based on what their ideal ‘better place’ would be. They are admitting they have a moral scale, and a God who commands his followers to murder people and burn ‘witches’ and hate homosexuals is at the wrong end of it.

Now, at this point you can make the obvious argument. You can say that one person’s right is not the same as another person’s right, and therefore there can’t be a God directing everyone’s morals, otherwise we would all agree. You can say that something you think is right is only considered right because it’s what you’ve been taught, and in a different culture, or dare I say religion, we may get a happy, contented feeling from doing the opposite if we believe that is right instead.

However, I haven’t even started trying to argue for what is actually the real right or wrong. It is true that one person’s right may be different to his neighbour’s but again, the fact that he can have that good feeling about doing something right, even if it is not right in the eyes of others, surely points to a scale on which we judge right from wrong, and that is a third, subconscious element which points to an instinctive wish to do right. The fact that you can say some people (such as Christians, for example) do things wrong, and that you know better, is enough proof in itself of the scale that I am describing.

Let me clarify that in my thinking about morals I am not specifically talking about conscience. I don’t particularly like that word. For me it implies a thing that beats you up once you’ve done something wrong. A thing that only seems to show up once the deed is done. It’s that little voice that condemns you for making the wrong moral decision; essentially, if conscience represents the law (something we can never fully satisfy), morals are the equivalent of grace (the thing that saves you from condemnation, convicting you to live the right way). Our moral instinct, as you will have realised by the way I have been talking, does not try and make any decision for us. It merely gives us a little push as to which decision we should make in the first place. Should we not heed its advice, it may resist (for your own good), yet will still be there to help the next time we need it. But reliance on conscience can only lead to one thing: guilt, for there is no human alive bearing a completely clear one. Conscience comes along late to the party, already knowing the right answer, and it enjoys telling you that you should have known it too. Your moral instinct, on the other hand, will have made its decision based only on your situation at the time. Morals take into account that most vital of things: context.

I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t actually proved anything at all. I never intended to. What I have done is pointed out something you were already aware of but maybe didn’t think about. You’ll be thinking about it now, though, which is why I’m going to leave it with you and head off to prepare something else for you to think about next month. Look forward to a couple of topics a little less ‘deep’ in the meantime!


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