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

Happy Easter – and a look at the second book of Mere Christianity

Happy Easter 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.  For commentary on the first book of Mere Christianity, check out this post.  The below post contains selections from the second book of Mere Christianity.

Book II of Mere Christianity, “What Christians Believe,” explains the points which were persuasive to Lewis as he turned away from atheism and toward Christian devotion.  Lewis reckons with this personal transformation through logic and by seeking to make the abstract and unknowable both concrete and comprehensible where possible while relevant if not fully within the reach of human understanding.

  • Lewis asserts human ideas of morality are based upon points of view and therefore judgments of good and bad must be understood through the corresponding framing that has been applied: We humans call one thing good and another thing bad.  But according to some people that is merely our human point of view.  These people would say that the wiser you become the less you would want to call anything good or bad, and the more dearly you would see that everything is good in one way and bad in another, and that nothing could have been different… We call a cancer bad, they would say, because it kills a man; but you might just as well call a successful surgeon bad because he kills a cancer.  It all depends on the point of view.
  • If there is wrong and bad in the world, then there must be right and good also, in order for humans to distinguish a difference and place a value on either one.  The ability of humans to appreciate these nuances, to have preferences among them, and to understand when justice is served and when it is not, is the Moral Law at work: But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?  If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet.
  • Lewis concludes that atheism is “too simple” and his previous argument against the existence of God cannot stand.  He reaches these conclusions through his attempt to reconcile the virtue of justice with the existence in the world of injustice.  The power of a universal sense of morality gives momentum to a purpose-driven life, defined by values and driven by consciousness of the character ethic: If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.  Dark would be without meaning.
  • Taking this criticism of simplicity further, it is necessary to acknowledge that, in light of conflicts of interest, narrow frameworks, and the many other challenges to abiding by values and establishing an ethical culture, most choices are complex and decisions are difficult: After all, real things are not simple.  They look simple, but they are not.  The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of – all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain – and, of course, you will find that what we call “seeing a table” lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.  A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.  But if you are not – and the modern world usually is not – if you want to go on and ask what is really happening – then you must be prepared for something difficult.  If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that something more is not simple.
  • Ideas of right and wrong in the real world must go beyond overly-limiting ideas about “bad apples” being responsible for all evil, harm, and misconduct: But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad… pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things.  The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong, method, or in the wrong way, or too much.
  • Restorative justice is an important concept both in society and in its institutions and organizations.  Unethical decisions and actions can be more revealing about the true state of morality and the forces upon it than ethical ones.  Considering how to treat “good apples” that engage in wrongdoing is necessary for understanding why things go wrong in the world.  In order to earnestly do this, it’s necessary to analyze the processes and systems that go wrong, and to understand the good in the individual that is impacted by these failures: You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness.  You can do a kind action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong – only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him.  In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness good.  Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.
  • Ethical cultures cannot be forced or imposed.  The intention and the commitment – or the tone and conduct – must both be authentic and in accordance.  Therefore, for a culture of compliance to succeed, the appropriate principles must be solidly in place, with a blend of realistic rules and genuine values to support them:  But anyone who has been in authority knows a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another.  It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night.  You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.”  Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate.  That is against her will.  She would prefer the children to be tidy.  But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy.  The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school.  You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it.  That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.
  • Modeling conduct expectations is an important part of setting those expectations.  In creating speak up and speak out cultures, fundamental to the values of fairness, justice, and progress, tone is not enough to inspire awareness and improvement.  Examples of best practices and standard-bearers for decent behavior must be promoted: The teacher is able to form the letters for the child because the teacher is grown-up and knows how to write.  That, of course, makes it easier for the teacher, and only because it is easier for him can he help the child.  If it rejected him because “it’s easy for grown-ups” and waited to learn writing from another child who could not write itself (and so had no “unfair” advantage), it would not get on very quickly.  If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life.  Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) “No, it’s not fair!  You have an advantage!  You’re keeping one foot on the bank”?  That advantage – call it unfair if you like – is the only reason why he can be of any use to me.  To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?
  • Seek to defeat objections of “we’ve always done it this way” or “this is all we know” in progress toward attaining moral and ethical values: Now, please remember how we acquired the old, ordinary kind of life.  We derived it from others, from our father and mother and all our ancestors, without our consent – and by a very curious process, involving pleasure, pain, and danger.  A process you would never have guessed.  Most of us spend a good many years in childhood trying to guess it: and some children, when they are first told, do not believe it – and I am not sure that I blame them, for it is very odd.
  • The prominence and protection of trust and honesty in society is an important purpose of moral character.  Authority must be credible and reliable.  If those in leadership positions who have power abuse their privilege and do not support truthfulness, then the social map on which everyone depends begins to fall apart: Do not be scared by the word authority.  Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy.  Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority.  I believe there is such a place as New York.  I have not seen it myself.  I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place.  I believe it because reliable people have told me so.

Check back on Ascension Day, May 10, for a study of the third book of Mere Christianity on the same themes as above.

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