Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Happy Good Friday! – and a look at the first book of Mere Christianity

Happy Good Friday from Compliance Culture!

In honor of the holiday, please check out the below extracts from the seminal work of C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, which are especially pertinent to ethics and morality.

Mere Christianity contains insights which are so powerful for people to consider in expressing and understanding their own personal codes of ethics and values (even completely secular ones).  Individual commitments to a well-defined internal moral register form the foundation of any integrity-led organization with an ethical business culture.  This post contains selections from the first book of Mere Christianity. 

Book I of Mere Christianity, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to The Meaning of The Universe,” describes how Lewis views moral law, the sense of right and wrong that does not come from humans and is set apart from other law by a universality which in fact transcends humans.

  • On the implicit common sensibility about standards of “fair play” or “decent behavior,” Lewis opines that agreement on these general moral expectations is what sets humans apart, and succinctly defines what Lewis refers to as the law of human nature: Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong.  And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football. 
  • Though societal norms differ broadly on moral and ethical standards in various cultures and communities, Lewis suggests that intuitive expectations are more similar than they may seem, given the strength of the structural framework they share: I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilizations and different ages have had quite different moralities.  But this is not true.  There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total different… Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.  You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.
  • Lewis powerfully proves a positive by pointing out that the innate desire to distribute risk or re-assign liability for misconduct incontrovertibly shows that there is a universal value placed upon appropriate conduct: The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to  shift the responsibility.  For you notice that is only for our bad behavior that we find all these explanations.  It is only or bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.
  • Lewis addresses the role that instinct plays in moral choices, establishing that personal desires may select the decisions, but morality is ultimately the force that chooses.  That morality is independent of any personal instinct or ethically-indistinct impulse: Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them.  You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard.  The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.
  • This Moral Law is not just an aid in ethical decision-making, but furthermore is the force that reconciles conflicts of interest:  If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win.  But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses… And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it natural is?… The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.
  • This view rejects moral absolutism in resolving conflicts of interest by suggesting that the Moral Law does not distinguish between right and wrong, good or bad, but rather seeks to balance the interests for the most ethical outcomes and consequences: Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses.  Think once again of a piano.  It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the “right” notes and the “wrong” ones.  Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another.  The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.
  • In assessing ethical decision-making, the motivation of the interests created by human desires definitely matter: It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.  You would not a call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.
  • By the same token, intentions also cannot be ignored, and so these must be considered in order to respect justice  and interpret conduct accordingly: A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient.  But I blame the second man and do not blame the first.  I am not angry – except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses – with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed.  Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not.  Sometimes the behavior which I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very opposite.
  • Lewis asserts that efforts towards justice and cultural reform must be both self-critical and persistent: We all want progress.  But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be.  And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.  If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
  • Progress toward what Lewis considers the fundamental values of morality – “fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty, and truthfulness” – should, however, be undeterred, even or perhaps especially through adversity and difficult choices: There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law.  It is as hard as nails.  It tells you do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.

Check back on Easter Monday, April 2, for a study of the second book of Mere Christianity on the same themes as above.

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