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CS Lewis on Morality

Morality is about more than not harming others.

CS Lewis, who is most widely known for his work defending claims of the Christian faith and the Chronicles of Narnia series, offers some important insights about morality. These insights can be helpful for anyone, not just those who share his overall views about religion.

Lewis observes that for many people, morality is "something that interferes, something that stops you from having a good time. In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine" (Mere Christianity, p. 69). This means that when we fall short, morally speaking, it will likely cause trouble to others and ourselves.

Morality is like a fleet of ships

Lewis uses an analogy, asking his readers to imagine that human beings are like a fleet of ships, in formation. A successful voyage requires three things. First, the ships must stay out of each other's way, and they must not collide. Second, the individual ships must be seaworthy, everything working in proper order. Third, the fleet of ships must be on its proper course. If they mean to go to New York, but end up in Calcutta, something has gone terribly wrong.

What does this have to do with morality? For Lewis, morality is like the fleet of ships, insofar as it is concerned with three things. First, morality is social. It is concerned with fairness and harmony between people. Second, morality is individual. It is concerned with harmony within the individual person. And finally, morality has a purpose, connected with the overall purpose of human life.

We need to do more than avoid harming others

There is much to say about all of this, but I want to focus on one point that I think Lewis is exactly right about concerning how we think of morality. His observations of people in his time are apt for today as well:

"You may have noticed that modern people are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two...When a man says about something he wants to do, 'It can't be wrong because it doesn't do anyone else any harm,' he is thinking of only the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship...But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing—the tidying up inside each human being—we are only deceiving ourselves" (MC, pp. 72-73).

The lesson here is not unique to Lewis's thought. You can find it in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions. Nevertheless, it is still too often overlooked. A morality that only considers potential harm to others is sparse.

If we want to be fulfilled, to truly flourish as human beings, we need to do more than avoid harming others. We need to do what we can to cultivate virtues like courage, compassion, humility, and love. And we should work to limit and even eliminate vice, as much as we can, eschewing such traits as greed, cowardice, egoistic pride, and callousness.

When we do this, when we think about inner morality, we end up doing more than avoiding harm to others. We end up contributing to their good and seeing our good as intrinsically connected with theirs.

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