Lewis’s “Poison of Subjectivism” in Our Day

Subjectivism: the belief that moral judgments are statements concerning the emotional or mental reactions of the individual or the community.

In other words, we make up our own morality without any reference to an outside, objective authority, i.e., God.

Subjectivism has become rampant in most of what used to be called Christian civilization. Moreover, those who, as a recent president infamously remarked, “cling to their religion,” are pressured, by law, to violate their consciences and accept the new ideas of morality. At this time, we await a Supreme Court decision on whether a Christian bakery must be forced to make and decorate a same-sex-marriage-affirming cake.

This type of subjectivism is a poison that will lead to the destruction of traditional Christian morality in a society, thus destroying that society eventually.

“The Poison of Subjectivism” is an essay by C. S. Lewis that addresses this danger. Strong statements such as this one against the subjective mindset would be roundly condemned in our day:

This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar.

Then he gives two propositions that should, he advises, be “written into our minds with indelible ink.” They are the following:

(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 unam necessarium.

In the case of same-sex marriage, there remains the vague concept of marriage and an even more vague definition of love. Both come from traditional morality, but they are lifted from their Biblical basis and given a new twist. The arbitrary selection of “love” as the highest good, isolated from all the boundaries in which we are to understand that word, provides a new morality that rests solely on subjective belief.

“All idea of ‘new’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘modern’ moralities,” Lewis counters, “must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought.” It comes down to only two alternatives:

Either the maxims of traditional morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither admit nor require argument to support them . . . or else there are no values at all, what we mistook for values being ‘projections’ of irrational emotions.

Irrational emotions abound in the actions of those pushing the latest new morality. Objections to their newfound right and wrong must be shouted down, and if that doesn’t work, the strong arm of the government must be brought to bear against any who oppose this new understanding.

What makes this even worse is that many, under the banner of Christian love, try to give the new morality a Christian affirmation. Lewis will have none of that:

A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by “goodness” is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.

Government and pseudo-science come together in an unholy alliance to advance the “new” morality and ensure that everyone accepts it:

Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means.

He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda.

Politicians team with the social scientists to “create” a new “conscience.” Propaganda wins the day as the unthinking masses (you pick the percentage of the population that fits that description) are led along this destructive path.

The planners, Lewis believes, may not yet fully realize what they have done, but once they grasp the power they have in their hands, they will use it fully.

He must awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose is produced at the experts’ pleasure?

If “good” means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves?

Lewis then summarizes where the society ends up:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law.

But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators, and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

We have a choice between creators: the one holy God who gives us His objective standard of morality or the people who seek to overturn that objective morality and substitute their own whims (that allow them to do as they please) as the new morality.

The first unites us with Eternal Love; the second leads to eternal misery and remorse.

God, Reason, & C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis has popped up on this blog a number of times recently. I gave a thumbs-up to the movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I commented on Sarah Palin’s reliance on Lewis for spiritual inspiration. Actually, that was more of a comment on the cluelessness of those who critiqued her for relying on an author of children’s books, thereby displaying for all to see the ignorance of the critics.

I would like those critics to read more of Lewis, so I’m going to use a few of his quotes today so they will understand the depth of his meditations. For instance, I wonder how many of those critics have pondered the issue of objective moral law vs. subjectivism. Here’s Lewis on that topic:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

We are seeing the fruit of that subjectivism in our society today.

For those who believe they have an argument with God for some reason, Lewis offers this caution:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and he wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

And finally, a very succinct observation and a word of instruction:

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

That one seems tailor-made for the Palin critics.