NB: All previous chapters can be found here.
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.
As you can see, C.S. Lewis makes a strong statement regarding Natural Law – the Tao – in his book The Abolition of Man. According to Lewis, it is not possible to buy into only a part of it: one must commit to it fully when considering a system of values, or one has nothing to commit to – at all. With it, a system of values is sustainable; without it, any system of values is as good (and bad) as any other.
Lewis uses the Chinese word – the Tao – as opposed to other words better known in western tradition: “…Nature…the Way…the Road.” I suspect he does this because this Chinese word does not come with the baggage that many will associate with these other words – in other words, Lewis wants to avoid being accused of introducing religion – specifically Christianity – as the basis for his argument. He often makes a point just of this:
…though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity.
This concept of Practical Reason can be found in many forms: Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental. What is common to them all cannot be neglected; all offer a doctrine of objective value:
…the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false, to the kind of thing that the universe is and the kind of things we are.
The “kind of things that we are” means human nature and from this we can derive natural law. Each being has a purpose or an end – this is true for rocks just as it is true for non-human animals. Yet are we to believe that it is not true for the most complex being on earth?
Moderns are looking everywhere for a value system other than the only place it can be found. Many look to instinct, but Lewis asks: Why should we obey instinct? Is there a higher source that commands us to do so? Then who, or what, commands this higher source? And which instinct should we indulge; which instinct should we control?
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things; so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. …If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity, we could never learn from them.
Are we able to discover the answers to these questions on our own? Are humans the higher source? Are human knowledge and pure reason sufficient?
…that knowledge cannot be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged; or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.
If our authority is man’s reason, we are left with placing the authority of one man’s reason over another’s. As Daniel Ajamian recently offered, when considering the outcome of man’s pure reason:
To what higher authority can you appeal? There is no authority higher than man’s reason, and the strongman’s reason has bigger guns than does your reason.
In other words, some subset of the judged are to become judges.
Returning to Lewis: if what we have are man’s instincts, and we are left to choose values based on these, we have no grounds by which to make a choice. If left purely to instinct, any and all value choices are acceptable; if we condition the instinct – using words such as “basic,” “fundamental,” “primal,” or “deepest,” we have given the game away.
The truth finally becomes apparent that neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values. None of the principles he requires are to be found there: but they are all to be found somewhere else.
Which brings Lewis back to the Tao, found in Confucius, the Stoics, Jesus, and Locke: all offering various versions of the Golden Rule:
Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions; they are premises. …If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.
This has meaningful ramifications for any philosophy that does not embrace the Tao or Natural Law – including the political philosophy of libertarianism. Many libertarians claim natural law as the basis for libertarianism, yet do not embrace the entirety of Natural Law – they do not ascribe to the fullness of man’s purpose, but only ascribe to purposes which are in conformance with non-aggression. In other words, the philosophy drives the purposes and not the other way around.
There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments of the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole…
To the extent any new ideology holds validity, it owes this validity due to the fragments of the Tao that it has torn from the whole. At the same time, they all rebel:
The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.
Man has conquered many aspects of nature – where nature has been the master, man has turned it into the servant; it is argued by many that one day he will too conquer this one as well – he can create a system of values without leaning on the Tao or Natural Law. In other words, humans will no longer require human nature:
The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.
In this way, there is no standard for “good”; there is no such thing as “good” or “bad.” The Conditioners – Nietzsche’s Übermensch – will create the standard, and whatever they come up with will, by definition and without the entirety of the Tao, be “good.”
‘Good’ and ‘bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived.
We need not wonder about the moral character of these Conditioners; we need not point out any hypocrisies. There can be no moral standard and no hypocritical action when the good is defined by man.
It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all.
You would think that a world such as this – the world, in fact, in which we live today – would leave man unhappy. Not so:
Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of man.
They may not have been unhappy when Lewis wrote these words, but as we see in much of the West today, they are today finding themselves in a life without meaning. Evidence of this meaningless life can be found in increased rates of suicide, opioid use, chronic pain, and perpetual medication by both legal and illegal means.
I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the Conditioned.
Hence, the deplorables of Hillary Clinton.
Either we are a rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into any new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.