Abolishing the Moral Order

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argued that all the celebratory talk about man’s increasing ability to control nature had a dark side in which some men took control over other men with nature as the instrument. But, so long as the Judeo-Christian understanding of man was dominant, it would be difficult for tyrants to control man by controlling his nature, which was God-given and not under man’s control. However, once the belief that man was created by God, capable of knowing the good, and capable of freely choosing it, or not, was undermined, the abolition of man—as understood in the West—would become possible.

Seventy-five years later, we can see many signs of Lewis’ prophesy becoming reality. All of the sciences of man, animated now by unspoken philosophies of atheism, materialism, and determinism, relentlessly chip away at the foundations of the Judeo-Christian understanding of man under the banner of science, freedom and progress. Such efforts look to show that the choices people make are not really their choices at all, but instead are the result of our genes, brains, culture, or position in society, economy, or history. Any place will do, evidently, so long as the source of who we truly are is not to be found in God, or in man’s free will. The source of who we are must be such that they can be brought under the control of man, so that some men can control other men.

Many of these scientific materialists and social science determinists will balk at the accusation that they are attempting to show free will to be an illusion, or will back away from the logical implications of their investigations should these be pointed out. Nevertheless, the logic is clear: if it can be shown that we are not the authors of our behavior—as all of these efforts are attempting in one way or another to show—then the moral order is abolished. Put another way, if free will is lost, human society is little more than a very noisy ant colony. At that point, it will be reduced to the sort of thing that sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson could understand.

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Here’s how to make human society fodder for the author of Sociobiology. The first step is to assume, as materialists do, that what we call consciousness, or the “mind,” is generated or caused by the brain. The brain, being nothing but matter, however intricately organized or however large or small it may be, is determined (i.e., comes to exist in a particular state) only as a result of other matter and the forces under which matter operates. Matter, after all, cannot act on its own. It must be acted upon by some force, and reacts to that force according to the laws proper to it. And matter certainly cannot intend, consider, imagine, love, desire, or hate. These are not things matter can do. A brain cannot intend to do something any more than can an adding machine, or a computer. My brain does not get up and walk out of the room. Indeed, it is not even my legs that get up and leave the room. It is I who gets up and walks out. And if there is something right or wrong about my having done so, it is I, not my legs or my brain, that will be rightly praised or blamed for having done so.

Neither our brain nor our legs can gain us admittance into the moral order that is the foundation of human society. By moral order we mean the order of justice, the business of praising and blaming ourselves and others for conduct thought worthy of praise or blame. To live in this distinctly human world means holding and being held accountable for what we do, or do not do, against a standard of right and wrong that we alone do not establish and are not free to ignore without consequences. To participate in a human society at all is to participate in such an order.

So, one needs more than a brain or legs to participate in a human society. To do so requires one have the capacity of a moral agent. A moral order is based on free will, and bodies do not make choices. A body can be the object of free will, but it cannot be its source. If it should be determined that a body, and not the person to which it belongs, is the source of action, then the person to which that body is understood to belong is rightfully excused from the moral order. He or she will not be praised or blamed for what his or her body did. It is not my body that chooses to get a tattoo; it is I who choose to get a tattoo, and it is not my body, but I, who is either praised or blamed for having done so.

Neither brains nor bodies in and of themselves are capable of being moral agents within the moral order. Such an order makes no sense without such agents. If Bob throws a rock at me “for no good reason,” e.g. not in self-defense or to warn me of impending danger, it would be right to hold Bob responsible for the injury. Indeed, even if Bob has poor aim and I escape injury I would be right to hold Bob responsible for the attempt to injure me without “good reason.” The sin is in Bob’s heart, if you will, not in Bob’s arm.

But if the modern-day materialists and determinists have their way, then there is no sin, nor injustice, because there is no free will. If Bob is, in the end, nothing but a body, or even a body socialized or conditioned to throw rocks at innocent people, then Bob has no say in the movement of his arm and cannot be held responsible. He cannot intend to hurt me because Bob cannot intend anything. The rock may, or may not, injure me, but in neither case can it be said that someone named Bob was responsible for throwing it. And it would never make sense to have Bob’s arm arrested for assault.

In the human ant colony that would exist in the absence of free will, people do things, but they can never be held responsible for doing them. Indeed, in such a place no one can be held accountable by anyone for anything. This is, I think, what Lewis was trying to warn us against in the Abolition of Man. To abolish free will is to abolish our capacity to sustain the moral order upon which any human society depends. To abolish the moral order is to create not an immoral order, but an inhuman one.

Scientific materialism and socio-political-economic determinism will fail (have already failed, truth be told) as science but they might succeed as ideologies. And those who wish to rule, the tyrants among us, will find such ideologies congenial to establishing their rule. The greatest obstacle to such rule, as the twentieth-century victory over the Soviet Union made clear, are people, such as Polish Catholics, who answered, with their freedom, only to God’s rule. Like them, we should therefore be prepared to resist any and all efforts by some men to rule over other men with nature as their instrument.


  • Clifford Staples

    Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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