Lewiss Abolition Best Introduction to Philosophy, Defense Against Relativism
September 1, 2004
"Pretty is as pretty does." "If you cannot say something nice, say nothing at all." "Birds of a feather flock together." "Do unto others as you would be done by." "Early to bed, early to rise…" For generations parents used such phrases and quotations to correct young people and to inspire them to act virtuously. The virtues were reinforced in church. In schools, teachers insisted on upright behavior. Those who were fortunate enough to go further in their schooling than most students would eventually study the foundations of virtue in a class called moral philosophy. In this class, students would begin with an introductory text such as Cicero’s De Officiis and go on to read Aristotle, Plato, and, in the age of the American Founding, the great Scottish moral philosophers: David Fordyce, George Turnbull, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith (Hume was usually thought too risky and was known more as an essayist and historian in the eighteenth century). The purpose of moral philosophy was to "confirm" young people in their virtue by giving them the philosophical reasons for acting morally.
These phrases and a sure foundation for morality have been all but eroded by modernity’s great anti-ethical phrase: "That’s your opinion." In college bull-sessions around the country, young sophists imagine they trip up their less sophisticated counterparts (who insist that there are standards of right and wrong) with that ominous showstopper to all moral inquiry. "Illegal drugs are bad." That’s your opinion. "Representative government is superior to tyranny." That’s your opinion. "Wedlock should precede childbirth." That’s your opinion. And so on ad nauseam. Of course, relativists, especially in college, are usually a little more versed nowadays in the language and philosophy of modernity. They have read their Foucault and their Derrida. They can refer to some obscure tribe in the South Seas that practices witchcraft and headhunting and polygamy, thus somehow invalidating the normative standards of civilization that have existed for millennia. Not that relativists actually live by their own doctrine. Just steal a relativist’s car sometime and watch how quickly he goes to the police. "Theft is wrong." That’s your opinion (until it happens to me).
Notwithstanding the empirical and practical necessity of living the moral life, relativism has undermined the confidence and certainty of moral people, especially young people. In my frequent encounters with teenagers, I very often find that the most moral ones find themselves on the defensive in our "anything goes" culture. Moral philosophy is therefore perhaps more needed today than it ever has been. Yet the standard way of studying philosophy does not necessarily meliorate today’s moral predicament. The method of reading one philosopher after another and identifying their various schools of thought (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Utilitarianism, etc.) only seems to support the relativists’ claim that even philosophers cannot agree on standards of virtue and vice.
The book that perhaps most successfully shows the necessity for objective moral truth written at a level young people can understand is C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Though Lewis is best known as a Christian apologist, in this work he sets out to discover the foundation of morality for both Christians and non-believers. That foundation he calls the Tao, "the doctrine of objective value." According to the Tao some things are true and others false; some things are right and others wrong. These standards transcend time and place. Indeed, Lewis contends that we have inherited rather than invented these standards and that "there has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world." Unlike many philosophers, Lewis contemplates the possibilities of living outside the Tao, in other words, in a world of moral relativism. In such a world, all value judgments are arbitrary: they usually give way to the raw assertion of whim or power. If everything rests on opinion, then why should I not impose my opinions by force?
For young people to act virtuously, they must not only understand the difference between right and wrong; they must love the one and hate the other. Such responses emanate only from a rightly disposed "chest." According to Lewis, the modern problem is not so much a lack of reason as a loss of heart. Interestingly enough, Lewis attributes that loss of heart to modern education and especially to modern textbooks. Replacing one of those textbooks with The Abolition of Man might allow youth to recover their chests and find their voice against relativism.
Terrence Moore an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado and the editor of George Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education.