Strong Poison!

Francis Gardom revisits a classic

CS Lewis’ seminal essay, ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’ originally appeared in the periodical Religion in Life, Vol XII (Summer 1943). To me it has always seemed to say the last word about the mental, moral and spiritual cesspool in which we presently find ourselves being submerged. His portrayal and diagnosis of the ‘subjectivist mind’ was so devastatingly accurate that my attempt here to re-present his arguments rather than reprint the article in extenso savours of hubris. So whatever my readers may make of the following, I would urge them to revisit the original which is published in several anthologies, amongst them Christian Reflections (Fount 1991 ISBN 0-00-625870-0).

Back to the Future

There are two reasons for preferring a ‘re-presentation’. The first is that the modern libertarian never misses an opportunity of dismissing as ‘dated’ anything written more than a few years ago, thereby discouraging people from ever reading it at all. We shall see presently how Lewis himself dealt with the particular conceit of ‘date-ism’, and discover that much allegedly ‘new’ thinking has been around for thousands of years; and what it seeks to deny – the belief in certain permanent, unchanging truths which alone can enable us to decide whether something is right or wrong in the first place – has been with us even longer.

Second, the Christian world of 1943 which Lewis inhabited has undergone a profound change. This change, whether it has come about by scientific or other discoveries, has not affected by one iota the veracity of what he calls permanent truths. ‘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’, as he trenchantly puts it. However, the way contemporary man can best be helped to understand these truths can, and indeed should, change in the light both of the discoveries themselves and the new imagery and analogies they make available. Moreover, as Lewis himself would have been among the first to admit, some words used by a 1940s Oxford don have since undergone a significant change of meaning. As we shall see, the word ‘virtue’ is one example.

So, without more ado, let me re-present for you some of the arguments Lewis set forward in ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’.

The Two Evils

Lewis begins by pointing out that there are two sources of evil. One is always with us: it springs from such sins as greed, pride, lust and anger. With these we are not presently concerned since their existence and evil nature are easy to recognize, if hard to correct.

The other source of evil is both more subtle and intermittent. It grows out of some false philosophy taking root in the popular imagination; and whilst correct thinking can never by itself make bad men good, or evil actions righteous, errors of thought may at a single stroke remove both the checks to do evil and the incentives to do good.

Subjectivism is one such cancer. Under the guise of reasonableness, it undermines, intentionally or otherwise, the very process of reason itself. This it does by dethroning Reason from its supremacy amongst the human faculties as the way we discern truth from error and right from wrong, and turns it into ‘something else we can study’. ‘Reason’ is thus transformed from being itself the process by which we can discern and evaluate the truth or error of everything else, into a by-product of our feelings. It is as if, as Lewis says ‘we were to take out our eyes and try and look at them’.

Theoretical and Practical

Thus the Subjectivist’s interest in my belief that John has stolen my watch consists as much in what it tells him about my relationship with John as it does in finding out whether John did or did not steal it – or, for that matter, in helping me recover my lost watch regardless of whether he stole it or not! For the Subjectivist my conviction might as well stem from my well-known antipathy to John as from the fact that somebody told me they saw him steal it.

Applied to theoretical reason, Subjectivism quickly reveals its hollowness. Ask a Subjectivist why he believes something to be true. His answer will be some variant of ‘because my reason tells me so’. But if his reason is as subjective as he alleges mine to be about the watch, he has undermined any rational ground for others taking our respective reasons seriously. Subjectivism in the field of theoretical reason is a non-starter.

But there is another area, let us call it Practical Reason, which concerns our everyday judgement of good and evil acts. In this practical field our Subjectivist is only too likely to entertain doubts about the validity of people’s judgements and the supposed ‘reason’ they employ in forming such judgements.

Choice and chance

According to the Subjectivist view, our judgement of a particular human action is not, as generally supposed, an objective statement about whether the action itself is right or wrong. On the contrary, it’s a statement about how those values we have assimilated, and whence they came, predispose us to feel about the action we are supposedly judging. Hence our judgements of right and wrong, yours and mine, are the product of our feelings, attitudes and preferences which in their turn are the result of our particular background, peer pressure-group, or the upbringing to which we were fortuitously subjected during our formative years. Had one or more of these influences been different, then our judgements of right and wrong would probably be different too.

Notice, however, that if this Subjectivist explanation were correct, it would be by the merest chance that any two given people’s judgement of a particular action would coincide. Since our backgrounds and preferences are all different, then the likelihood of any two judgements coinciding is as small as that of two stones, picked at random, fitting perfectly with each other when making crazy-paving.

Of course mutual self-interest might predispose people to agree with each other, on the principle that ‘what’s good for General Motors is good for the USA.’ But, curiously, our Subjectivist teachers are none too keen on promoting self-interest as the driving-force in their pupils’ minds; indeed they direct much effort towards persuading them that self-interest, individual or collective should not be their sole guiding principle in deciding whether a thing is right or wrong.

There is a further difficulty. Why should we prefer the good of the community to that of the individual? Any attempt to instil ‘values’ into others depends upon successfully pointing them to some external standard they already accept. To make ‘the good of the community’ the supreme value is to insist that the good-of-the-many is always preferable to the good-of-the-individual. But ought it to be? What about the rights and freedoms of individuals or minorities then? No doubt the community would in one sense be a ‘better’ place if it were rid of all those who are a net drain on its resources, including the disabled, the anti-social, the senile, the indolent, the feckless and the unwanted, to take a few random examples. But why stop there? With Koko in The Mikado we shall find ourselves saying:

I’ve got a little list

Of society offenders who might well be underground

And who never would be miss’d.

Virtues and values

Whilst Lewis, in ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’ doesn’t distinguish between ‘virtues’ and ‘values’ in the useful way that Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, does in her book The De-moralisation of Society (ISBN 0-255 36359-1 IEA Health and Welfare Unit, London), it is clear nonetheless that this distinction is assumed in his argument. In 1943 even the most avant-garde Oxford philosopher would have regarded today’s use of the word ‘value’ (= ‘the value I place on something’) as a wholly inadequate foundation for a moral code.

If the term ‘values’ means no more than ‘how I feel about the way people choose to act, myself included’, then there is no sense we can say that any action is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other. In the absence of some independent standard with which a particular action can be measured or compared, terms like ‘better’ or ‘worse’ can be no more than expressions of personal preference. Any attempt to impose a ‘better’ attitude on others will founder on the question ‘Why should I?’ If ‘A is better than B’ is a statement of the same order as ‘I prefer tea to coffee’, then the person whom we are trying to persuade will be justified in saying ‘but I prefer cocoa anyway.’

Only practical reason, based on a number of agreed, permanent values or standards that enables us to make any moral progress, for the word progress implies ‘moving forward’ and without an agreed destination the words forward and backward become meaningless.

One objection to the notion of Permanent or Absolute Standards needs to be confronted at this point. It is the suggestion that the whole concept of Permanent Standards condemns us to ‘stagnation’, to being permanently shackled to the beliefs and values (sic) of the past, thus making moral progress impossible.

Stagnation?

Lewis, with consummate neatness, refutes the suggestion that an immutable moral code means forgoing progress and succumbing to stagnation as follows:

‘Let us strip it [the relativist contention] of the illegitimate emotional power it derives from the word ‘stagnation’ with its suggestion of puddles and mantled pools. If water stands too long it stinks. To infer thence that whatever stands long must be unwholesome is to be the victim of metaphor. Space does not stink because it has preserved its three dimensions from the beginning. The square on the hypotenuse has not gone mouldy by continuing to equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Love is not dishonoured by constancy… For the emotive term ‘stagnant’ let us substitute the descriptive term ‘permanent’. Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on the assumption of a changeless standard, progress is impossible.’

Virtue’s decline

If we examine carefully those instances where absolute standards have allegedly prevented progress we shall always find that what is being criticized are not the standards themselves, but the very human fault of attaching an exaggerated importance to one particular virtue or vice at the expense of all the others. No virtue can safely be applied in isolation from its fellow-virtues. So in any civilization which regards courage as the one virtue that matters, mercy and loving-kindness become despised; patriotism, the love of one’s country, degenerates into jingoism; thrift becomes tight-fistedness, and so forth. The fact is that a single-minded cult of anything other than God himself is invariably leads to idolatry.

Lewis’ predictions have been fulfilled in ways and to an extent he couldn’t have dreamt in his worst nightmares. Much of the mischief pervading today’s world began with well-meant but fatally misguided attempts to replace ‘old’ virtues with ‘new’ ones. The ease with which supposedly new virtues come to be accepted just because they are new, and our failure to see through them for what they really are – parodies or perversions or exaggerations of old virtues – is a measure of how easily tunnel-vision can overtake well-meant attempts to make sense of present-day moral confusion.

Subjectivism, with its appeal to the senses, and its consequent ability to mislead the human mind has effectively poisoned the wells of good old-fashioned rational objective thought.

 

Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience,

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